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An Introductory Course in Christian Spirituality

Kenosis/self-emptying

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If one is empty, then one is also open and able to receive what the Lord has to give.

Christian spiritual life means being animated by the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ. The life of holiness to which all believers in Christ are called is one of ever greater resonance to the Spirit of Christ.  That Spirit reminds us that even though "His state was divine, He did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the conditions of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross..." (Phil. 2:6-8).

If God is understood as Father, Son, Spirit toward us, for us, with us, and in us, then our response to this communion must lie in setting aside, standing apart from or above self-absorption, moving beyond self-preoccupation, self-indulgence, self-fixation. Holiness rests in becoming persons conformed to the image of God in us, being toward and for another, for others and for God.[1]

 

Our fundamental desire and motivation is for God and the fullness of love, even if we are not consciously aware of it. Since we do not encounter God directly through our senses and concepts, we are drawn to what we can feel, see and grasp. We expect these things to satisfy us, without realizing that we are drawn to them only because they point to their Creator, the One for whom we truly long. We may even find our attraction to them becoming compulsive and destructive. This destroys our freedom. We allow these attachments to control our lives. Eventually, we discover that some attachments are obstacles to our deepest motivation and desire. We want to love God with all our heart and soul and mind, and love one another as ourselves. Yet, we find our hearts given elsewhere, our souls compelled by something else.[2]

 

Self-emptying is a deliberate attack on our illusions and attachments. It is a turning away from abstraction in favor of what is actually present to us. It is the realization of our human limits. It is immersion in an environment in which our capacities are reduced to nothing and we are at the mercy of God to shape his will in us. An acknowledgement of our humanity before God, that we will always be developing and in process, is the beginning of self-emptying.[3]

 

Rahner describes self-emptying when he speaks of leading our life such that we forget ourselves for God, when we love him, praise him, and thank him. Spiritual life in grace means that we realize the inner divine life in ourselves; it means waiting for eternity in faith, hope, and love, bearing the darkness of human existence; it means not identifying oneself just with this world.[4]

 

Self-emptying finds concrete expression in our response to the experience of loss. This can be the loss of a loved one to death, the loss of a job or the loss of status among one's peers. This can also be experienced as change, such as in the loss of youthful vigor and the signs of advancing age as we approach the middle years of life. [5] Our children grow up and move out on their own. It is painful to let go of them and the parent-child relationship that is important to us. Yet, from the letting go, the loss of the parent-child relationship, there emerges something new. We discover a parent-adult child relationship that allows a greater depth and reciprocity than was ever possible in the more unidirectional parent-child relationship. The self-transcendence that ultimately enriches everyone involved is only possible by accepting the loss of what was. The Resurrection was only possible after the Crucifixion.

A man cannot enter into the deepest center of himself and pass through that center into God, unless he is able to pass entirely out of himself and empty himself and give himself to other people in the purity of a selfless love.[6]

 

"Openness" is the result of self-emptying. If one is empty, then one is also open and able to receive what the Lord has to give. It is acceptance of the transcendent, a willingness to go out beyond the present circumstances. Self-emptying is not fruitful unless it is also open to other possibilities. Self-emptying/openness is generative.



[1] Downey, Altogether Gift: A Trinitarian Spirituality, 106.

[2] May, The Dark Night of the Soul, 58-62.

[3] Kevin M. Cronin, Kenosis: Emptying Self and the Path of Christian Service (New York: Continuum, 1999), 19-20.

[4] Karl Rahner, Spiritual Exercises (New York: Herder and Herder, 1956), 318.

[5]Mary Ann McPherson Oliver, Conjugal Spirituality: The Primacy of Mutual Love in Christian Tradition (Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward, 1994), 37.

[6]Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1949; reprint, New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1960), 41 (page citations are to the reprint edition).

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Some questions for your reflection and discussion:

1. It seems strange to speak of emptying oneself. What is this “self” of which we are trying to be emptied? What is left when we are emptied of self?

2. It is said that the most basic illusion to which we are given is that we are God. Can you think of any examples of this illusion in your life or in the life of someone close to you? Why is this illusion so difficult to recognize?

3. Authors speak of a critical difference between an attitude of wilfulness and willingness. Consider the difference between these two words and what impact that difference has on the spiritual life. What does either term ha ve to do with self-emptying?

4. Rahner speaks of not identifying oneself with the world as a significant component of selfemptying; yet, Downey tells us to be toward and for others. How, do we integrate these seemingly two contradictory elements?

5. We have read a lot of nice words about the need to empty ourselves of illusion and a false self? What is required of us in practice? How does one self-empty?


Kenosis: Emptying Self and the Path of Christian Service
Kevin M. Cronin

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(c)2005. Richard Shewman. All rights reserved. The contents of this website are the intellectual property of the author and may not be reproduced, aside from fair personal use for the purpose of individual study, without the written permission of the author.
 
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