CathBlog July 2: Emptiness and grace

‘Vacation’ comes from the Latin, vacare, ‘to empty’, writes Richard White, fresh from a recent vacation. Becoming empty, being emptied, he adds, makes room for other things.

It’s Sunday morning and I’m staring at a blank page again. My wife and I have just returned from a trip to Iceland and Ireland. There should be plenty to write about, insights, ordinary sights, people and places.

But there is, instead, an awful feeling of emptiness. I’m blaming it partly on the time away.

Before we left, there was some order and purpose in my life. I had a routine. Writing, prayer, planning – they were all there, in their place.

Things were going pretty well with the people close to me and I was looking forward to doing some reading and writing while away.

Somewhere, somehow, the bottom fell out. Nothing happened. In fact, I seemed to go backwards.

I remember reading that ‘vacation’ comes from the Latin, vacare, ‘to empty’. Maybe that is what happened. From the time we got on the plane, things began to fall away. It wasn’t obvious at first. There was the excitement and stresses of travelling, the unfamiliar and the new.

Vacare: I don’t like it. It was like there were two levels to this holiday. On the one hand, there was the discovery of a little village, Roissy, on the edge of the Charles de Gaulle aiport in Paris.

We stayed there one night before catching a plane for Iceland. There was a park with tulips, narrow streets and cafes and people speaking French. We loved it.

Landing in Iceland, at Keflavik, about forty minutes from Reykjavik, the capitol, was a stark contrast to the quaint, picture-card beauty of the French village.

The drive to the city was through lava fields, barren, frozen shapes, moonscape and occasional thermal steams. We were in another world, again.

As these worlds shifted and changed, my inner world continued to dismantle, dissolve. The books I had bought with me turned out to be wrong, picked up and packed in distraction of leaving.

The moments of solitude and reflection seemed to ooze away, like lava still flowing, then freeze, immobile and judging. All the while, Iceland was revealing its beauty.

We swam in a thermal pool, warm and soothing with other semi-naked people. Mist clouded the water; there was a faint smell of sulphur. It was not to be forgotten.

Then, on a whim, we went horse riding on the small, round Icelandic ponies. Like holding a yoga contortion, the pain of the bouncing and stretching focussed the mind. I fell off at the end a wiser, more crippled self, I hoped.

At some stage in Iceland I began to let go. The books, the planning, the prayer all slipped away.

It was partly a conscious decision, a giving up, and partly something that was being done to me. It was as if I were stepping from the warmth of the thermal pool into the cool surrounding air and I couldn’t find that enveloping white gown, included in the price of admission.

I still didn’t like what was happening and the journey was taking us to Ireland and heaven knows what would happen there.

Jesse, my stepson, met us at the airport in Dublin, late at night. We arrived at our hotel and we managed a night cap before he left us.

We were to meet up with Roisin, Jesse’s wife, and the two grandchildren the next morning. The next stage had begun.

The same thing happened in Ireland as in Iceland. There were the delightful times with Leon, five, and Amelie, three, a birthday party, feeding the swans on the beach at Bray and conversations with their parents.

The debate on abortion was in full swing in Ireland and I bought the Irish Times each day.

I shared my superficial reading of comments and observations with Jesse and Roisin. They had chosen to send their children to a non-denominational school, a rarity in Ireland. Jesse was reading Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great and Roisin, born and bred in Ireland, professed herself an atheist.

My impression was of a significant anti-clericalism in articles and letters to the press. This couples’ choice of education for their children was a deliberate decision against a religious upbringing.

They were clear about not wanting a ‘baptism of convenience’ that would give access to the Catholic system. They confirmed my impression of what was happening for many people of their acquaintance.

Becoming empty, being emptied, is something that I can understand, I think. There is a scene somewhere in the Gospels, where Jesus looks on the people with compassion, seeing them as ‘sheep without a shepherd.’

Something about the shepherd, the image of someone knowing our emptiness and ‘having compassion’, rings a bell.

In my conversations with Jesse and Roisin, I did not feel ‘compassion’, certainly not any certainty and righteousness. I wanted to have these conversations.

I wanted to speak even a little about what I was seeing and hearing and to know, even a little, about what they were thinking and feeling.

This might be hindsight and my need to make sense of what I experienced of emptiness. But, whatever was emptied out of me, made room for Jesse and Roisin and their little family.

There is something about making room and, this will entail even more emptying.

I am incredibly grateful for what happened to us as a family in Ireland. The emptiness does not feel quite so empty. It feels a little like grace, caught out of the corner of my eye, the way grace usually occurs.

Richard White blogs from Cootamundra in southern NSW.

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