I recently joined a group of secular creative professionals, mostly writers, in a networking community. At first, I felt like the lone guppy in a sea of majestic clownfish, intimidating sharks, and graceful dolphins. It’s always like this for me, wherever I go — the highly sensitive introvert who sees things that most overlook, the deep thinker amidst lighthearted sanguines.
It occurred to me that each of us goes through seasons of deepening our sense of self. We may revisit old questions, like “Who is God as Mystery?” or “What is my purpose?” These were the questions I brought with me to the networking community. I didn’t want to reveal that I was a Catholic spirituality writer. For some reason, I was ashamed of that branding. But I decided to be myself, to be honest about where I am in life and what I believe.
A particular participant reached out to me about the widow whom the prophet Elijah sought for food and drink after a long journey to Zarephath:
When he arrived at the entrance of the city, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called out to her, “Please bring me a small cupful of water to drink.” She left to get it, and he called out after her, “Please bring along a crust of bread.” She said, “As the Lord, your God, lives, I have nothing baked; there is only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug. Just now I was collecting a few sticks, to go in and prepare something for myself and my son; when we have eaten it, we shall die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid. Go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake and bring it to me. Afterwards you can prepare something for yourself and your son. For the Lord, the God of Israel, says: The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the Lord sends rain upon the earth.” She left and did as Elijah had said. She had enough to eat for a long time—he and she and her household. The jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, according to the word of the Lord spoken through Elijah. – 1 Kings 17: 10-16
She wrote, “Like a never-emptying vessel, you are miraculously filled with love, compassion, and strength. Don’t be discouraged. Something greater than you is taking care of you.” As I read the words, I thought, How can anyone be an agent of healing when they are so very broken themselves? Some of the darkest periods of my life have illuminated the hearts of others, usually perfect strangers.
Could it be that when we allow ourselves to become empty, even to the point of believing we are on the cusp of death (as in, interior death), that is precisely the moment when God fills our lives to overflowing? What could be the miraculous, never-ending vessel that pours out oil year after year?
It can seem impossible to believe that we have anything to offer the world when we are bone-weary and our wells have run dry. We hear the words, “You can’t give what you don’t have.” There are certain trials that test every fiber of our beings; we question. We doubt. We may feel hopeless and helpless. Where is God in the midst of such desert moments?
Our broken vessels allow God’s light to shine through the very crevices of our woundedness and pain. Henri Nouwen believed that each of us is capable of bringing healing to a broken world, calling us “wounded healers.” Giving what we don’t have, like the widow of Zarephath, means that we turn to God and say, “This is yours. My life, my possessions, my gifts, even the last of my food.”
God doesn’t need our permission to do what He wants with our lives. But miraculous things do happen when we willingly, even reluctantly, give Him the very last drop of what we have. It is precisely our emptiness that bears an opportunity for wholeness. God cannot work with one who is too consumed with oneself or a person who hoards and hides his very small talent.
But He can work with our nothingness. Sometimes our open, empty hands are all we have to offer. Truly great things transpire only when we embrace our poverty. Like the widow, you may believe you are on the cusp of death, yet still choose to share what little you have to give. And God, who is faithful, rewards your efforts exponentially.