We all expect things out of the cards we have been dealt in life. We expect to find the right someone and be married for life. Or to land the job that will finally make us happy. Or to live long enough to see our children grow up, go to college, and start families of their own.
We expect things not just as individuals but as societies. In first-world America we expect that trains run on time, that our grocery stores will have food on their shelves, that we won’t die from polio. We expect that the stock market will one day rise again. Or, that our politicians, however corrupt or disconnected they might be, will eventually do what we are demanding they do- or be voted out of office.
At heart expectation is desire. Desire as entitlement: that what I want I deserve to have. Entitlement insofar as “I” or “we,” the source of the desire, presume to be at the center of our universe.
Even our smallest, pettiest expectations can be great to the degree that they fill a void that would otherwise be there in the absence of our desires. While the object of these desires can be good in and of itself, the desire for some future possession of the object can rob us from an experience of God’s grace in the present moment. A moment in which our hearts can be free to desire God and God alone.
Only when we have been emptied of these attachments can grace truly enter in and make a home in our hearts. “Grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void,” Simone Weil writes, in Gravity and Grace.
But if the void is an act of God, making us aware of our need for God and God’s grace, human will can still play a role: “we can fix our will on the void,” Weil writes. In other words, the compulsion to buy that next cute pair of shoes online when my shoe rack rivals Imelda Marcos’? We can choose to look beyond this desire to be well-dressed, impress others or seek escape from something else. We can acknowledge whatever is driving our urge and then look beyond it to the emptiness this compulsion is trying to fill.
In a sense this act of the will is a bit like slaying dragons, because our expectations have taught us to believe in a non-reality. A false mode of existence whereby what we acquire materially is what makes us lovable, worthy or significant. When in fact nothing could be less true.
And when we slay the dragon and face the void, we can choose to sit there. In that emptiness. In the void. And it is there we can wait with open arms to receive the grace of God.
Weil puts it like this: “The extinction of desire (Buddhism)- or detachment- or amor fati– or desire for the absolute good- these all amount to the same: to empty desire, finality of all content, to desire in the void, to desire without any wishes. To detach our desire from all good things and to wait…Always, beyond the particular object whatever it may be, we have to fix our will on the void- to will the void. For the good which we can neither picture nor define is a void for us. But this void is fuller than all fullnesses. If we get as far as this we shall come through all right, for God fills the void…The good seems to us as a nothingness, since there is no thing that is good. But this nothingness is not unreal. Compared with it, everything in existence is unreal.”
These days our nation has been forced to stare in the face of failed expectations here, there and almost everywhere. We as individuals and families, many of us, have watched our variations on the “American Dream” fall apart. Like little children on Christmas morning, we have run downstairs with great expectation to find only coal in our stockings. Maybe now more than ever, we are ready to be “in the void.” Maybe many of us are already in it. If so, God’s grace is finding us, and may it fill us to the brim.