We are afraid of emptiness. Spinoza speaks about our “horror vacui”, our horrendous fear of vacancy … It is very hard to allow emptiness to exist in our lives. Emptiness requires a willingness not to be in control, a willingness to let something new and unexpected happen. It requires trust, surrender, and openness to guidance. God wants to dwell in our emptiness.
(Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen (70))
It is hard not to see my body as broken, dysfunctional. In hospital three years ago I was awarded the dubious honour of having a ‘Functional Neurological Disorder’ (FND). It is hard not to take this label ‘disordered’ to heart, and to let it become an identity.
But I am not my illness. Nor am I just my body in isolation. The wellness of my body does not mean that I will be whole, nor does the opposite. I can only see myself ‘darkly’, patchily.
So I was struck by the parallels between this skewed seeing of myself and my common visual misperception of shadows as flat:
The actual shadow does not reside primarily on the ground; it is a voluminous being of thickness and depth, a mostly unseen presence that dwells in the air between my body and that ground. The dusky shape on the asphalt touches me only at my feet, but that is merely the outermost edge of a thick volume of shade, extending from the pavement and touching every point of my person.
(Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, David Abram)
My eyes cannot experience the whole of what a shadow is. And yet, the potential for whole seeing of the whole shadow-body remains. The sculptor Anthony Gormley has explored the ideas around ‘what makes a body’ for his whole career, using his own body as a recurring reference point. He asks:
How do we treat the body not as a given, not as appearance but as the place that each find ourselves in? … I want to use sculpture to throw us back into the world, to provide this place where the magic, the subtlety, the extraordinary nature of our firsthand experience is celebrated, enhanced, made more present.
(RA (Autumn 2019))
Recently Gormley has explored this idea of presence by showing, in a wide variety of materials and on varying scales, the ‘empty space’ his body might occupy. Once again, the theme returns: if I want to know how I am whole, I need to look at what and where I am not; I need to face the shadow, the vacuum, the emptiness.
Conversely, acknowledging my emptiness, then surrendering it to God, brings me into a place where I might reglimpse the ‘magic’ and celebrate what it is to be human: a child of God.
The ethos of L’Arche communities reflects exactly this. Designed in the 1960’s as a community where those with and without learning disabilities might live together, L’Arche is now a worldwide movement and there is a network of one hundred and fifty-three communities, in thirty-eight countries, across five continents:
Allegedly “disabled” people would teach us that we most encounter wholeness when we recognise our poverty not our capacity … The handicapped, the elderly, the marginalised, and the weak have little sense of competition. These people call the healthy and the robust to a life of sharing, where individuals are valued for themselves in their uniqueness. There is, we learn from them, no need to conform – we are already one in our fragility and in our being toward death.
(from A Blessed Weakness: The Spirit of Jean Vanier and l’Arche, Michael Downey; cited by Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (34))
“we are already one in our fragility”
Abrams, L’Arche, Gormley and seeingdarkly: all are reflecting on the fragility of my mind, body and spirit in different ways. All these point towards what many humans sense: there is such a thing as ‘a whole’; that wholeness is possible: even if it is currently beyond my sight or my understanding or my experience.
Tomorrow when the farm boys find this
freak of nature, they will wrap his body
in newspaper and carry him to the museum.
But tonight he is alive and in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass. And
as he stares into the sky, there are
twice as many stars as usual.
‘The two-headed calf’
valued uniqueness. Canon 7D. f4.5. 1/60. ISO 1250