Whenever I give a talk about loving our nothingness, someone always reacts adversely. They take it as an insult, as if nothingness implies they are bad or worthless.
What our nothingness is
To say we are "nothing" is not a moral judgement; it is not a statement about how we are but about who we are. As Saint Paul challenges, What do you possess that you have not received (1 Cor 4:7). Beginning with our very existence. God revealed to Doctor of the Church Saint Catherine of Siena: "Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know there two things you have beatitude in your grasp. You are she who is not; I am he who is."
We are goaded similarly every Ash Wednesday when, with the smudge on our forehead, comes the advice: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Which moves Saint John Vianney to pray: "O Jesus! You descend to my depths; you make divine the dust of my nothingness, and this nothingness becomes divine, brings forth fruits worthy of you."
Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that "being" itself is also "nothingness" inasmuch as it does not exist as such. He explains by way of an example: "Just as one cannot say that running runs, but rather that the runner runs, so one cannot say that existence exists."
So often in the Gospels Jesus refers to himself as the "Son of Man." Saint John Eudes tells us why: "Jesus referred to Himself as 'the Son of Man' to emphasize that he was the son of nothingness and consequently 'nothing.'" He goes on to counsel: "Beg him to give you a share in his divine knowledge, that you may realize your nothingness: to imprint upon your souls a lively perception of your nothingness; and to grant you the grace to think, say, and do nothing for yourself, but all for him."
Jesus proclaims the poor in spirit blessed precisely because they embrace their nothingness as a fact and a grace. "God's true holy servants," observes Saint Catherine of Siena, "recognize that all they have is from God alone, and they are conscious of their own nothingness." The greater we are the more we should humble ourselves and recognize our own nothingness.
The grace of nothingness
To acknowledge our nothingness is not a cause for shame — it is a confirmation of our holiness. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux remains the master of this doctrine:
Perfection seems simple to me — I see it as sufficient to recognize one's nothingness and to abandon oneself as a child into God's arms. Jesus desires that everything belongs to him, so when I feel that I have nothing to offer, I offer him this very nothingness. When he sees we are very much convinced of our nothingness, he extends his hand to us. Love your powerlessness, and your soul will benefit more from it that if, aided by grace, you were to behave with enthusiastic heroism — and fill your soul with self satisfaction. Yes, in order that love be fully satisfied, it is necessary that it lower itself, that it lower itself to nothingness, and transform this nothingness into fire.
Perhaps she learned this from one of her favourite spiritual authors, Father Jean Pierre de Caussade, S.J.:
To surrender ourselves to God by a total abandonment of self, and to lose ourselves in the abyss of nothingness so as to find ourselves again only in God, is to perform the most excellent act of which we are capable. O the richness of nothingness! Why do people not know you? The more a soul reduces itself to nothingness, the more precious it becomes in God's sight. To loose oneself in one's nothingness is the surest means to finding one's self again in God.
What we are to do with our nothingness
God created the world from nothing; he wants to recreate us from our nothingness. We can count on the promise God gave to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque: "Acknowledge that without me you can do nothing, but I will never let you lack help as long as you keep your weakness and nothingness buried in my strength."
The mystery of our nothingness is summed up by Saint John of the Cross: "To come to be what you are not, you must go by a way in which you are not." Therefore let us take our nothingness to God in adoration: "The sense of adoration causes the soul to plunge rapturously into the abyss of its nothingness, and that is the very thing it offers to Love" (A. Sertillanges).
Father Peter John Cameron, O.P. "Loving our nothingness." lead editorial from Magnificat (February, 2018).
Reprinted with permission of Magnificat.
Father Peter John Cameron, O.P. is Editor-in-Chief of Magnificat. He is also a playwright and director, the author of more than a dozen plays and many books including: Mysteries of the Virgin Mary: Living our Lady's Graces, Made for Love, Loved by God, Praying with Saint Paul: Daily Reflections on the Letters of the Apostle Paul, Jesus, Present Before Me: Meditations for Eucharistic Adoration, and Benedictus: Day by Day with Pope Benedict XVI.Copyright © 2018 Magnificat
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