Ordinary Time 06, Year C-2010
- Strong lions suffer want and go hungry but those who seek the Lord lack no blessing (Ps. 34:11)
In chapter 14, “Form Is Emptiness,” of his book (One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi [New York: Kodansha New York, 1999] 73-77), the late Alan Lew recalled that even as a child he had been feeling oppressed by the objects in his environment. He wrote (76-77):
- I remember once lying feverish in my little bed in Brooklyn looking across
- the room at all my toys. They were piled to overflowing in a big basket
- and they filled every shelf. Half of them were broken, half I had never even
- played with once. I could feel the weight of all these toys pressing down on
- my chest. As I lay helpless in my bed, I yearned to clear all these things
- away so that I could breathe.
And Lew was sure he was finally fulfilling his childhood yearning some twenty-five or so years later in a rented room in Berkeley that he turned into “a perfect little Zen space” (62). In it he had, in the way of furniture, a folding table for his portable typewriter and a folding chair. For a sitting mat he used a straw mat. He did not have a bed; he slept right on the floor in a sleeping bag. “My room was completely empty,” he said. “There was nothing in it I didn’t need, and nothing in it that I did” (77).
Without doubt, this spiritual autobiography aims at bringing into a synthesis applicable to everyday life the traditions of Judaism and of Buddhism. Yet I also find “Form Is Emptiness” to be quite helpful in understanding the blessedness of the poor that Jesus proclaimed. “Form Is Emptiness” recognizes “the radical insufficiency of this changeable world” (Nostra Aetate 2). It serves as a warning against the lifestyle driven by “the maxims that overtook us—Greed is Good, It’s All About Me, and I Want it Now—values that wreck economies, cultures, families, and even our souls” (see Jim Wallis, “Rediscovering Values: A Book I Didn’t Plan to Write” at ). It is definitely not unrelated to the Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission, chapter III, “Poverty,” 7.
In order for me, however, to have a better understanding of the blessedness of the poor, it would also be helpful if I get not just the first part, “Form Is Emptiness,” but also the second part, “Emptiness Is Form” (chapter 19 of the Rabbi Alan’s book, 100-103). If I am not to impose on Christian poverty a too subjective and arbitrary meaning, I must see Jesus as the blessed poor, first and foremost, whose blessedness, of course, did not mean he had it easy. He met opposition and, ultimately, death condemnation, betrayed by one of his chosen twelve and abandoned by the others. But Jesus put his trust in God, even when it seemed to him he was abandoned by God, and commended his spirit into the Father’s hands after drinking to the last drop, so terribly thirsty that he was, the bitter cup of suffering.
Christian poverty that is blessed cannot simply be what I like or see it to be. Otherwise I run the risk of being “like a barren bush in the desert.” Genuine Christian poverty is the poverty willed and lived by Jesus, on account of which “God greatly exalted him” (Phil. 2:9) and thus too I am given the grace of not being counted among “the most pitiable people of all.”
In chapter 10, Rabbi Alan Lew noted (49-50):
- In all the major religions today, there are battles being fought between
- the dogmatists, who are old, tired, and dull, encased in their forms,
- and those advocating renewal and seeking to enliven the tradition at all
- costs, even to the point of embracing the latest spiritualist fads and
- leaving tradition in the dust altogether. Both sides lack what the other has.
- Those who reject tradition suffer because they have no standard outside
- themselves, and those who see God’s word as frozen end up worshiping a dead God.
“Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” Christian discipleship requires that I have nothing that I don’t need and nothing that I do. It behooves me, especially this coming Lenten season, to give alms, pray, and fast.