Lent: Emptiness, Fear, and Fullness

Tish Harrison Warren
The Lenten season has been for Tish Harrison Warren a time of deep reflection, which she has shared at The Well in articles like Giving Up and Taking Up and Marked By Ashes. We're highlighting this reflection from 2012 with the invitation to ponder where you are experiencing emptiness this season and how you might know the fullness that God offers.

For Lent this year, I didn’t give anything up. I don’t drink much coffee. I’m breastfeeding, so I can’t give up meat or dairy without being extremely mindful about my nutritional needs. I need the Internet and even Facebook to some extent for my job. And also, as my wise friend Father Kenny said to me last year, “New moms don’t need to give anything up. Your whole life is Lent.” My daughter is a joy, and I know that I have it better than 99% of the planet, so I’m not claiming any undue martyrdom. Still, there is so much transition in the first two years with a new baby, so much autonomy and freedom and sleep that must be surrendered, and so many new demands and responsibilities to carry, that I am usually just worn out. Giving up anything else felt overwhelming. So for last year’s Lent and this one, instead of giving something up, I took on practices that make space for rest and seeking God.

Part of my Lenten practice this year is to spend time each day in solitude and silence. This has proven to be difficult. I avoid it. Sometimes, I even dread it. Though I crave stillness, the howling winds of hollowness — emptiness in time, in the day, in mortality, in me — are frightening.

Usually, I’m busy and overfull. Much of my time is filled up with tasks, ministry, and motherhood. When I do have an empty moment, I fill it up with talk radio (which I am oddly enamored with), Facebook, blog reading, or any number of other diversions. Sitting quietly sounds blissful theoretically, but in reality, when I slow down and invite Jesus in, I am forced to face things that I usually ignore. I am assaulted by the stench of my sin and idolatry and pulled under by riptides of anxiety and fear. My priest recently preached about how Jesus spent forty days being tempted in the wilderness, which he said is an apt picture of Lent: finding yourself alone, confronting the Devil and the wild beasts.

When I slow down, I see who I am and what I fear. I’m naked before my Maker. I sit, for a time, in emptiness.

I have been reading The Jesus Storybook Bible to my daughter before she goes to sleep each night, one page at a time. This last week we read the story of the feeding of the 5,000. In it, the author writes about Jesus filling up emptiness. He filled up empty bellies because that’s what God does. He fills. He filled up the chaos of the empty cosmos with water and earth and zebras and pear trees.

Through that bedtime reading, God reminded me that he’s filling up my emptiness too. Those howling winds are calling out his name. The vulnerable places where I find fear are the very places that Jesus is willing to enter and fill until there is only room for love. The stillness I am seeking leaves space in me to be filled by Jesus. The empty isn’t empty if God enters it. And he is what my soul aches for, like a hungry belly grumbles for dinner right before a miraculous meal of fish and bread. That’s why I want to come into the wilderness — the lonely place — even though it frightens me: because Jesus is there. And where he is, fullness is.

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. After eight years with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries, she now serves as Co-Associate Rector at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She writes regularly for The Well, CT Women (formerly her.meneutics), and Christianity Today. Her work has also appeared in Comment Magazine, Christ and Pop Culture, Art House America, and elsewhere. She is author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (IVP). She and her husband Jonathan have two young daughters.

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