The Offering of Emptiness

As members of the Wisdom community and the Glastonbury Abbey community prepare to meet with Cynthia Bourgeault for a weekend retreat entitled, “Stabilitas: That Forgotten Virtue,” Marcelle Martin shares about prayer and silent retreat. Cynthia and Marcelle will join forces with Paulette Meier for a Quaker meets Wisdom retreat at Pendle Hill in 2019. Marcelle writes:

Perhaps the easiest prayer is the prayer of gratitude. It is often an undercurrent of my life, rising up at moments throughout my daily activities. In the evening, when I take time to review my day, I notice that blessings come as frequently as every breath I take, and I give thanks.

It is nearly as easy to pray for what I want. In childhood I began the habit of silently, inwardly, expressing my needs and desires to God, including my desire for the well-being of my family members. Later in life, as I grew in faith, I began to accompany these kinds of prayers with an acknowledgment that the divine plan is beyond my ability to completely understand and might not include the particular thing or event I desired. “If it be your will” has become an amendment to the prayer of asking.

Gradually it became clear that my truest desire is to live in accordance with the divine purpose, and now the prayer that seems most important involves the offering of emptiness. In this prayer I let go of my hold on a separate will and identity and withdraw my attention from the incessant thinking that perpetuates separateness. This allows me to surrender in empty openness to God, usually for only a brief moment, sometimes for longer. This happens in inward silence. In the Christian tradition this inward silent openness to God and Christ has been called “contemplative prayer.” Quakers learn to practice this corporately in our meetings for worship. Although simple, it is not usually easy. Our thinking minds like to be perpetually busy. More than that, there is something in us which desires control and does not want to open up and give over to the Spirit of God.

This prayer is something I practice on my own every day. On some days, my mind jumps onto one train of thought after another. Each time, when I notice what has happened, I remember my intention–my desire to open to the presence of God–and let go. It can be a big help to do this practice alongside others who intend also to open themselves to the divine Presence. During the hour of meeting for worship with other Friends on a Sunday morning, I sometimes feel that our mutual prayer and worship helps lift me out of myself into openness and a larger sense of Being. My thoughts do not completely cease, but they slow down and I let go of them more easily, allowing me to sense more clearly the divine Presence that is with and among us always and everywhere. Several times a year, on a Saturday, I meet for a whole morning of unprogrammed worship with fellow Friends. In these extended meetings for worship, we sometimes feel deeply gathered in the Spirit. The offering of emptiness then feels easy. In individual and corporate prayer, God has, at times, filled this emptiness with experiences of a greater Life, of Love, of divine energy. My sense of who I am shifts, and I feel my unity with what God is.

This practice, this way of worshiping God–over weeks, years, and decades–has allowed God to bring about a slow but profound transformation in my consciousness, in my relationships, and in my participation in the world. There have been times of great creativity and much outward activity. There have also been times when it has felt imperative to withdraw from outward activity as much as possible to allow a greater opening–or emptiness-for God to fill. When I refuse to make the necessary space for God’s activity within, I become burned-out and sometimes experience ill health. Seeking a better way, I’ve been learning to create times for retreat, including the periodic Saturdays for extended worship with others. Once or twice a year, I have also arranged silent retreats alone for several days, a week, or even longer. And I also participate in mostly-silent retreats in the company of others.

In a recent retreat of a week’s duration at Bethany Retreat Center in Frenchville, PA, I struggled at first, as I usually do, with the fear that taking time apart may be merely self-indulgence, an escape from important work or witness I should be doing instead. As I settled into the silence, however, it became clear that this voice is the same one that wants to draw me into distraction whenever I take time for inward attention, meditation, and prayer. As the silence settled within, my discernment clarified. I saw that some of the activities and thinking patterns in which I engage have been too full of my small self. Some have exhausted me and created a distraction from focusing on what matters most.

The particular retreat I just attended was organized on the model established by Contemplative Outreach. The days involved a rhythm of group silent Centering Prayer (an hour before each of the three daily silent meals), walking in wide green spaces, contemplation of short videotaped teachings by Father Thomas Keating, rest, private prayer, corporate liturgy, a couple of short, helpful conversations with the retreat leaders, and simple openness to life.

On the night of the new moon, I walked outside under a dark sky filled with stars. The wide band of the Milky Way flowed overhead. Awed by the sight of so many stars (most of which are invisible in proximity to cities), I glimpsing more clearly the vastness of Creation and the smallness of myself. In a similar way, during the week of silence I began to better sense how I live within the vastness of eternity and to perceive that God–the Eternal Being, in which I exist–has different priorities, an infinitely larger view, and a greater purpose. I am invited to participate in God’s grand design, though I cannot comprehend the fullness of it.

In future blog posts I hope to describe my experience at some other retreats, and the fruits that have been given when I have dedicated days or longer to the offering of emptiness. I pray that this post may serve as an invitation for you to also take the silence and space needed to be as open as possible to the powerful divine Presence that alone is able to lead humanity to the hopeful future we desire.

  Marcelle Martin, along with Paulette Meier, chant with Cynthia at Pendle Hill in May of 2017 during a retreat exploring the meeting of the Quaker tradition and Cynthia’s Wisdom lineage.

Marcelle Martin, a member of Swarthmore Friends Meeting (PA), is the author of Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey. She leads workshops at retreat centers and Quaker meetings across the country. Currently she’s the core teacher for the 9-month Nurturing Worship, Faith & Faithfulness program at Woolman Hill. She was the resident Quaker Studies teacher at Pendle Hill for four years and has written two Pendle Hill pamphlets, “Invitation to a Deeper Communion” and “Holding One Another in the Light”. This post was reprinted with permission from Quaker Friend Marcelle Martin from her blog “A Whole Heart.”

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2 thoughts on “The Offering of Emptiness

  1. Lovely description of silent retreats! I make a ten day silent retreat every year which brings me home to my Source and strips away the dross.

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