A while back I was reflecting on the rather difficult passage of St Mark’s Gospel (chapter 11) in which Jesus says that if we only have faith in God, we will receive whatever we ask for in prayer, if we have no doubts that we will in fact receive it (He made forgiveness a condition as well). I was also reading from Adrienne von Speyr’s profound book on the Mother of God entitled Handmaid of the Lord.
I needn’t go into my own struggle to understand the passage here. I was just asking the Lord to help me see how He meant for me to receive and apply his words to my own spiritual life. A word suddenly came to me, which took me aback a bit, but I soon realized that it was the first indispensable step not only to pray fruitfully but simply to live the Gospel: “Empty yourself.”
I wasn’t sure if this came from Jesus or possibly his Mother (since what I was reading from von Speyr’s book was all about her total assent to God’s will and her radical availability to Him by holding back nothing of herself). I then wondered if perhaps the whole heavenly court was shouting to me: “For God’s sake, empty yourself, willya?”
Whatever the source, it was certainly a message from On High. It struck me so strongly that not only did I meditate upon it that morning, but I also gave an impromptu homily at the Liturgy about it (I wasn’t even the appointed preacher of the day), so that everyone else could empty themselves, too!
Basically we have to empty ourselves of ourselves. If we find that we are unhappy, discouraged, bitter, angry, etc, it is likely that this is the direct result of being full of ourselves. I read recently that there is a clear connection between self-centeredness and the inability to experience joy. The root of it all is pride (which is the root of almost every evil), but in this case pride bears the rotten fruit of self-centeredness, which then destroys our capacity for joy—probably because it also destroys our capacity for charity.
If we are full of ourselves, we need to make room for the Holy Spirit—this soul ain’t big enough for the both of us! If we’re not crowding out the Holy Spirit by our own selfish concerns or self-pity, then He can begin to grow his precious fruit within us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and all the rest. The Holy Spirit will shape our thoughts and feelings, our reactions and attitudes toward others, if we choose the way of self-emptying. The reason Our Lady is such a transparent “window” to God is that she had nothing but God within her soul. There was no struggle for ascendancy. She was always and only the humble handmaid, so it was easy for God to transform her into the glorious Queen when her earthly service was finished. He always had complete and free rein within her soul and life.
We have to start letting go: of our pet peeves, negative attitudes, uncharitable thoughts and words, so that we aren’t loaded down with all our self-serving ways which do not bring us joy anyway—perhaps only the unsatisfying satisfaction of making ourselves feel superior to others. Whatever room we make for God, He will fill. And He won’t stop trying to fill us until we’ve removed the interior clutter altogether.
So, as often happens, God didn’t really answer my question about faith and receiving what one prays for, because I wasn’t yet in a position to hear the answer. Only if we are emptied of self can the word of God take root in us, bring us understanding and then bear its fruit.
Let us reflect a bit on how von Speyr describes Mary’s total emptiness of self for the sake of her availability to God: “Her fruitfulness is so unlimited only because the renunciation in her assent was also boundless. She sets no conditions, she makes no reservations; she gives herself completely in her answer… Not only does she will what God wills, but she also hands her assent over to God for him to dispose of it, form it, transform it. In saying Yes she has no wish, no preference, no demands which must be taken into consideration. She enters into no contract with God; she wishes only to be accepted in grace, as in grace she had been claimed by God… She knows only that her role is of the handmaid who stands so completely in the position of humility that she always prefers what is offered to her, never tries herself to bring something about, neither prepares nor directs the will and wishes of God… She spreads her word out like a carpet under the feet of God’s word…”
That is what it means to be empty of self, and to that we ought to aspire and struggle. We will never be as perfectly pure and open to the grace and will of God as Mary was, but since we are all called to be faithful disciples of Jesus, growing more and more into his image and likeness, I think we can get a lot emptier of self than we are right now.