Hope for an Empty Year

The Church begins her year with Mary, so I believe I’ll do the same. My book club is currently reading a pithy, contemplative book called The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander, which is all about our Blesssed Mother. Houselander, whose insight and perfectly apt analogies place her in the company of Chesterton and Lewis, has found a way to make Mary utterly relatable while, at the same time, diminishing nothing of her unparalleled holiness. In what might best be described a series of essays, she explores the various qualities of Mary and the ways in which these qualities inform us about our own humanity.

In the opening chapter, she focuses on Mary’s virginity. I love how she speaks about virginity as being a thing in and of itself–and a beautiful thing at that–not merely the absence of something (to wit: sex). Of course, not all of us are called to lives of celibacy. In fact, the vast majority of people aren’t. But it isn’t Mary’s virginity that we are called to emulate. It is her emptiness. Virginity, Houselander posits, is a chosen emptiness, a space carved out and offered up for God to fill. She goes on to describe three sorts of empty spaces: the eponymous “reed,” the chalice, and the nest.

A reed grows humbly in the marsh, is cut and carved and hollowed out, and through this hollow, the shepherd may breathe his song. The chalice is made of gold worthy of the sacrifice it offers–gold which must be mined, heated, and hammered to form it into a shape that may be filled with water, with wine, with the Most Precious Blood. Then there is the nest: feathers, twigs, and leaves carefully gathered, humbly bound, the hollow created as the mother bird burrows her nest into the place where she has knit them altogether: a hollow made to harbor the fledgling bird of heaven. Of course, Houselander points out, these are not the only forms our emptiness might take. Each person, each calling, each emptiness will be unique. The point is that we each allow ourselves to be molded by Him into precisely that emptiness He intends for us to uniquely hold him in this world, in this life.

After reading this chapter, I spent a good deal of time reflecting on it. I did not see myself in the reed, nor in the chalice, nor in the nest. I was something else, something quieter, something humbler, something riven. Slowly it came to me in prayer: a broken jar of alabaster, an offering misunderstood, in the house of a leper at Bethany. No coincidence, I think, that the place of this anointing bears my name.

When he was in Bethany reclining at table in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, costly genuine spikenard. She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head. – Mark 14:3

John the Beloved gives a slightly different account:

Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. – John 12:3

Some of those gathered were indignant: the extravagance, the waste–just think of all it could have been used for, all the good it might have done. I feel sometimes that this is my life. My education, my talents, the years of skill I labored over, the art into which I poured so much of myself, so much of my life. I was only nineteen when I heard God speak to me in no uncertain terms: give them all to me. I did not know what he would use them for, but I gave him my fiat. Let it be done.

But I am not Mary, and though I said yes once, I find that I must choose each year, each day, each hour whether my answer will be to yield or to wrest it all back. It is my great temptation to reclaim things, to reclaim the identity I had when I was my own, in the days before I was His. Every time I give in, my world slides sideways. He is merciful in his clarity; he is so patient in leading me back to my center, which is Himself. The world is indignant: You can have it both ways, it tells me. Other women have it both ways: wife and mother and artist and career woman and more. And that is true. But not for me, at least not now. For now, what is best for me is smallness, what is good for me is this sacred mundane and the slow stripping away of self love in the gentlest sanctification of a loving home, a beautiful family, a gift I never went searching for and know I do not deserve.

Am I saying this wrong? I’m sure I am. It is a messy kind of emptiness: a broken, heady muddle. Did I make a mistake? Is this what He really wants, for me spend my treasure in this way? I blush in the face of all this privilege I hold, this alabaster jar of costly oil. I tremble with the temptation of all it could be used for, all the good it might have done, and every hour I decide whether to hoard it safe and whole against my breast or whether to shatter it and every drop upon my King.

I do not know what your emptiness looks like, the private way He’s asked to make you hollow. I do not know the words He whispers to the quiet of your heart. I only know that there is pain in being emptied. Growth is found in the crucible. Sanctification is never easy. I only know the emptiness is a thing in and of itself–and a beautiful thing, at that–not an absence of self, but a filling with Him. There is hope in emptiness; without it there is none. So this year, I make no resolution apart from this: that every day, every hour, I look to Mother Mary and give my fiat. That I look to Mary of Bethany and break the alabaster of my heart. I pray that you too find your emptiness this year, dear one, and that you choose it so He may fill you with all his peace and all his joy and every hope.

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