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Less Is More

Self-Emptying

Less Is More
Sunday, December 13, 2020
Third Sunday of Advent

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.

Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, 
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5–8)

Kenosis, which means “letting go” or “self-emptying,” is clearly the way of Jesus. My spiritual father Saint Francis of Assisi lived kenosis passionately, and it is key to my own teaching. I believe all great spirituality is about letting go. Yet many associate letting go with Buddhism more than with Christianity.  Sadly, Christianity seems to have become more about “saving your soul” or what some now call “spiritual capitalism.”

Francis of Assisi (11821226) profoundly understood this Gospel reversal. He let go of his life in the upper class and joyfully lived in solidarity with those at the bottom, especially the sick and the poor. But you and I have grown up with a capitalist and individualistic worldview, not a Gospel or Franciscan worldview. That doesn’t make us bad or entirely wrong. But it has severely limited our spiritual understanding—and Christianity’s power to transform culture and history. We tend to think that “more for me” is naturally better. South African Dominican writer Albert Nolan viewed our Western crisis of meaning with clarity:

The cultural ideal of the Western industrialized world is the self-made, self-sufficient, autonomous individual who stands by himself or herself, not needing anyone else . . . and not beholden to anyone for anything. . . . This is the ideal that people live and work for. It is their goal in life, and they will sacrifice anything to achieve it. This is how you “get a life for yourself.” This is how you discover your identity. . . .

There have been plenty of people in the past with inflated egos—kings, conquerors, and other dictators—but in the Western world today the cultivation of the ego is seen as the ideal for everyone. Individualism permeates almost everything we do. It is a basic assumption. It is like a cult. We worship the ego. [1]

In our consumer culture, even religion and spirituality have very often become a matter of addition: earning points with God, attaining enlightenment, producing moral behavior. Yet authentic spirituality is not about getting, attaining, achieving, performing, or succeeding—all of which tend to pander to the ego. It is much more about letting go—letting go of what we don’t need anyway, although we don’t know that ahead of time.

The great Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart (1260‒1328) said, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.” [2] True spiritual wisdom reveals that less is more. Jesus taught this, and the holy ones always discover it in one way or another. Think of the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day, and the generations of nuns, friars, and monks who intentionally took a “vow of poverty.” I did so myself in 1965.

Sadly, like so many things that we call Christianity, we find that if we scratch right beneath the surface, it isn’t very much of Christianity; it’s just our local religious culture. Thankfully, there is a real longing today to clarify what is of Christ, what is essential Gospel, and what is historical or denominational accident.

References:
[1] Albert Nolan, Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom (Orbis Books: 2006), 15, 16.

[2] Meister Eckhart, Existimo quod non sunt condignae (Sermon on Romans 8:18). Original text is “Nihil apponendo, sed subtrahendo in anima invenitur deus.”

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis, discs 1 and 2 (Sounds True: 2010), CD; and

Letting Go: A Spirituality of Subtraction, disc 1 (Franciscan Media: 1987, 2005), downloadable audiobook.

Image credit: Ajanta Caves (detail mural of the Buddha), Aurangabad, Maharashtra State, India.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: When we meditate consistently, a sense of our autonomy and private self-importance—what we think of as our “self”—falls away. Little by little, it becomes unnecessary, unimportant, and even unhelpful. The imperial “I,” the self that we likely think of as our only self, reveals itself as largely a creation of our mind. —Richard Rohr
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