The Hollow Within

The Hollow Within
Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 14, 2014

Days of light and days of darkness. We approach the solstice and the turning of the year. Soon the nights will grow shorter and the days longer, more light returning to our lives. Our attention is brought to the happiness and frivolity and joy of the season of lights. The rush from Thanksgiving to Christmas is a time many fill with shopping and preparations, visits to family, completion of projects, celebrations and festivities. The reality is that the dark days continue to grow until the solstice, still a week away. The reality is that the days of light and the days of dark are all mixed up together.

Tsunamis and tragedies, community concerns about racism and brutality, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, days that will go down in history, which will be remembered for the losses personal or national or global. Days of darkness come whenever they do without regard for calendars and seasons. Solstice and advent holidays focus on the lesson of how to see the light amid the darkness, how to find your way when the darkness seems unending. Days of light are ours to make whenever we need them, whenever we can. But the way that really works is to learn to walk through the dark carrying our own light. Or, to use the metaphor at the heart of the sermon today, we must step into the emptiness, become familiar with it, before moving out into the fullness of life again.

The phrase I use here as a title “The Hollow Within” comes from a particular translation of Lao Tzu’s eleventh chapter of the Tao Te Ching. “We shape clay to birth a vessel, yet it’s the hollow within that makes it useful.” But really, the conversation took root for me last spring when I was preaching about bamboo. Bamboo is hollow inside. It grows as a tube reaching up. This hollowness is a significant factor in its remarkable growth as well as its tenacious strength. It is reported to be able to grow more than 3 feet in length in a 24 hour period; and the tensile strength of bamboo rivals that of steel. The hollowness allows the reed to bend with flexibility. The hollow inside is the secret to the growth and strength of bamboo

A cursory look through spiritual websites with the word ‘Hollow’ uncovers a common rhetorical pattern lifting up hallow and hollow as opposites. If something is hallowed, it is made sacred or holy. If, on the other hand, something is hollow, it is void and empty. I must admit that my own experience of emptiness is not always a bad thing.

Oh, it certainly can be a bad thing. I might offer a hollow argument. An empty panty is a problem for hungry people. The loss of a loved one can leave a painful gap in our lives. Loneliness and loss can leave us longing for something, anything, to fill the empty place in our hearts, but we know that nothing will.

And yet, Rumi tells us in his poem “Craftsmanship and Emptiness.” “Workers rush toward some hint of emptiness, which they then start to fill. Their hope, though, is for emptiness, so don’t think you must avoid it. It contains what you need!” The emptiness contains what you need. Could it be that, like the bamboo reed, your hollowness within is somehow helpful or even the secret to our growth and tenacity?

Our lives are so filled with noise and traffic and schedules as to leave no empty room for silence. This makes for much stress and anxiety. Instead of welcoming emptiness, we seem in a rush to always fill it. This leaves us ill prepared when circumstance imposes an emptiness on our lives. Instead of growing used to the empty times, we are struck cold by them, left wanting to fill them back up with something so as to not have to spend too much time alone and lost.

Another poem by Rumi begins “Since I was cut from the reedbed, I have made this crying sound.” This is the poem entitled, The Reed Flute’s Song. “Days full of wanting, let them go by without worrying that they do. Stay where you are inside such a pure, hollow note.” But instead, too often we spend the days after being cut from the reedbed, if you will, worrying and wanting.

The empty space within, the hollow inside, is a doorway into deeper connection. And so we circle back to the Tao Te Ching reading and hear about how a room is defined by its walls, but it is the empty space within which makes it useful. The sides and bottom of a bowl provide definition, but it is the space within that makes it useful. Thus it is with bowls and flutes and doorways. Many of the common things in our lives are only possible through their essential empty spaces. As another author put it, “Just as a loaf of bread needs air in order to rise, everything we do needs an empty place in its interior.” (T. Moore, see below.) We need empty spaces in our lives.

Thomas Moore wrote a book called Meditations on the Monk Who Dwells in Daily Life. He talks about how he goes about the business of silence. “I especially enjoy such ordinary retreats from the active life as shaving, showering, reading, doing nothing, walking, listening to the radio, driving the car. All of these activities can turn one’s attention inward toward contemplation. … Anything is material for retreat — cleaning out a closet, giving away some books, taking a walk around the block, clearing your desk, turning off the television set, saying no to an invitation to ANYTHING. At the sight of nothing, the soul rejoices.” (p 4)

It is not enough to just have empty spaces in your life, it is not enough to have silence. Silence is a doorway, and it is not enough to simply stand in the doorway. Step into the emptiness. Welcome it. Learn what it offers. “The space between yin and yang,” Loa Tzu tells us in Chapter 5 of the Tao Te Ching, “is like a bellows – empty, yet infinitely full. The more it yields, the more it fills.” The hollow inside holds the secret to your growth and surprising tenacity.

Yes, there are still the grief and frustrations of yesterday and today, the difficulties of today and tomorrow, but we can still carry a calm assurance that we can get through. Faith is that core you can touch at your center and always find refreshing. It is experiences that pour into you like living water. That is what lives in the emptiness within, constantly awaiting discovery. The more you spend time in the empty, longing space in your heart, the more you foster this calm assurance to carry on.

In a world without end,
May it be so.