God is limitless. But we are not. We are confined by our smallness and our sinfulness, yet the Lord desires to pour Himself, more and more, into our hearts. In His desire that we experience life “to the full”, there are two ways that God creates space for Himself. He empties us, and then He actually enlarges our hearts.
First of all, the soul exerts much energy to clear away the clutter of worldly attachments in the purgative way. Then the Lord takes over during the awful, excruciating suffering of pain and loss in the night of the senses and the spiritual blindness in the night of the spirit, echoing the cry of Mary Magdalen: “They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have put Him.” Both nights serve to empty the soul of all attachments to even the purest and holiest desires: happiness, health, security, understanding, the sense of God’s presence.
In an Avila Institute class earlier this year, Dr. Joseph Hollcraft used the illustration of Michelangelo famously ‘freeing’ the angel within the marble, chiseling away what is unnecessary and external, to describe God’s powerfully creative work in the soul. But in time, as the ties to the world fall away, the carving becomes almost exclusively interior, deeper and deeper each time, until the soul is perhaps surprised a little that there can be anything left. And yet God, so desiring to make a place for the immensity of His love, digs out new crevices and corners, smooths away imperfections and leaves us more and more interiorly free, gaping and open – an emptiness which is not a mere space but a hunger.
Dr. Anthony Lilles describes this necessary work of God in “Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden” where he says, “God is taking out debris from the great caverns of our soul, debris we could never move on our own. While he undertakes this work, we suffer a difficult emptiness. The suffering gets more intense until He comes to fill us with the ocean of His love.”
I am reminded of the time several years ago when I attacked the large rec room in our house in a determined push to clear it out. For two years, since we moved into the house, it had been a catch-all, full of unopened moving boxes and growing clutter. Finally, frustrated, I rolled up my sleeves and spent several days filling trash bags with unwanted stuff, finding lost treasures, and creating a place which could fulfill its purpose – a place to laugh, play, visit, and linger with those we love. It was hard. But it was so very worth it.
St. Teresa of Avila tells us of another way in which God makes room for Himself. She describes this mysterious reality as she tells of a soul entering the fourth mansion, leaving behind the purgative way, quoting Psalm 119: “I have run the way of your commandments when you did enlarge my heart.” How astonishing. Like a divine exhale, the Holy Spirit breathing into an empty place during the prayer of quiet to increase its capacity.
St. Teresa uses one of her favorite descriptors, water, to try to capture this mystery: “What an expansion or dilation of the soul is may be clearly understood from the example of a fount whose water doesn’t overflow into a stream or because the fount itself is constructed of such material that the more water there is flowing into it the larger the trough becomes.”
St. Benedict, in his rule, uses the phrase “enlargement of the heart” to describe how we grow in virtue. “As we progress in our monastic life and faith, our hearts shall be enlarged, and we shall run with unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God’s commandments,” he says, also echoing Psalm 119.
Dr. Hollcraft reminded us that St. Philip Neri was a miraculous example of exactly that. He had a vision of a fiery globe entering into his chest and literally dilating his heart–a phenomenon which was confirmed after he died. Medical examiners discovered that his heart was actually enlarged!
Let us pray that we have to docility to allow God to make the most space for Himself with each stripping and every expansion, growing our hearts exponentially and making them more and more like His own. Psalm 118 says, “When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord; he brought me into a spacious place.” How humbling–and glorious– to think this spacious place we meet Him is the cavernous temple of our own emptied hearts!
This article first appeared on SpiritualDirection.com and is reprinted here with kind permission.