“Except that a man be born again,” Jesus tells Nicodemus, “he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (Jn 3:3) And this is so, for to know God one must be born again in the spirit. Kenosis, imagined as holy intimacy, is the fruitful medium in which this rebirth may begin. In response to the gracious invitation of God it provides a hospitable space in order that our truest life may unfold, the life imagined, engineered, and created by divine will, an adventure we are urged to embrace. This true life, by virtue of the fact that it is one and the same with divine will, has as its focus service to ‘the other’, and particularly the poor, the alienated, and the forgotten, those who are God’s primary concern throughout the biblical text. This emptying of the self in kenosis is “by no means the same thing as emptiness or ‘the void.’ On the contrary, it is the necessary prerequisite for becoming the ‘vessel of election,’ for being powerfully filled with grace and love”in order that we may take up the mantle of servant, following in the footsteps of Christ, for God’s love “demands and appropriates all.” In kenosis as holy intimacy, we respond to the gentle voice of God who calls us into his presence, offering us the treasure of our true vocation as humans and the invitation of partnership in the unfolding drama of all heavenly and earthly matters, of which God is the sole director and creator.
Kenosis as holy intimacy is mission work in the truest sense of the word, a journey into the vast wilderness that is our essence as yet revealed. It is a mission initiated by God, who speaks to us in the language of love through the heart of Christ. In order to respond to God we must stand open and unknowing, giving up all claims to our own ambitions, religious traditions, opinions, ideas, and intellectual yearnings. It is, in fact, to give up yearning altogether. It is to give up all forward movement that is self-propelled. It is to wait in poverty, in a stance of quiet contemplation, allowing nothing to interfere with the incoming of the Holy Spirit who leads and directs solely by God’s initiative.
In classical Christology, kenosis refers to the emptying out of Christ’s divinity in order that he might take on human form. (Phil 2: 5 – 11) In both classical and modern Christian spiritual thought and corresponding discipleship in the church, Christ’s kenosis has often been interpreted as the model for our own willingness to empty ourselves of our concerns in order to follow Christ, both figuratively and actually tying the apron around our waists that we might serve humanity, as did our beloved Lord. These understandings are not wrong in and of themselves, merely incomplete, and lacking the breadth of creativity and passion that flows from a kenosis newly defined and reimagined wherein Christ does not give up his divinity, but rather embraces it. Here is a God who is vulnerable, exhibiting his divine power in humble service to humanity, “allowing himself to be pushed out of the world onto the cross.”Here is a God who helps us “not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” And here is a bright new banner under which we might gather in the light of God’s unending love and demand of one another a new spiritual boldness and the forming of an eschatological community willing to face the violent chaos of this post-modern world context grounded in the certitude of the cross’s astonishing claim that God is with us and God is vulnerable, and in his weakness is also his omnipotence. This calling is not for the faint of heart. It demands a steadiness forged in the fires of personal renunciation and maintained by disciplines designed to protect the ongoing conversion to holiness, “an other worldly falling in love (that) is a total and permanent self-surrender without conditions, qualifications or reservations.” This adventure of holiness, with its individual particularity and universal ramifications, is born in the stillness of our inner life, in the holy intimacy that is kenosis, in the waiting upon God.
To wait upon God may sound simple, but it is not easy, nor is it risk free. In fact, it will require of its participants courage and tenacity. Kenotic communities can only exist by virtue of the fact that there are those who wait patiently for the divine murmurings, living their lives out of a place of emptiness, willing to die to all that is not of God. “It is only women and men so surrendered and free, so aware of their own vulnerability to the illusions of the enemy, who can imagine creatively where God is leading his church and who can suffer the consequences of the risks entailed: the risk of being traduced, the risk of refusing any longer to be inoffensive, of falling on one’s face, of getting up again and giving it another try.”And only men and women who have dedicated themselves to the development of their inner Christian life will have the strength and stability to take these risks, for the path of kenosis is not without loneliness and austerity. In order to hear the voice of God, one must learn to quiet the cacophony that is the outside world as well as eliminate the turmoil of our inner landscape.
Thomas Merton writes, “The man who wants to deepen his existential awareness has to make a break with ordinary existence, and this break is costly. It cannot be made without anguish and suffering. It implies loneliness and the disorientation of one who has to recognize that the old signpost don’t show him his way and that, in fact, has to find the way by himself without a map.” The development of personal disciplines, particularly those of solitude and contemplative prayer, are essential, for without them transformation is severely hampered, if not impossible.
Yet in imitation of Christ’s spirituality, the discipline to which we are called is not one of strict boundaries and punishing physicality. Rigorously defined behavior is not found anywhere either in Christ’s life or his teachings. Instead, Christ through his kenotic nature leads us to a discipline that is less precise yet ultimately more demanding. Merton likens this kenotic discipline to that found in the parable of the brides who are asked to keep oil in their lamps for the coming Bridegroom. This kind of discipline, he writes, “implies the cultivation of certain inner conditions of awareness, of openness, of readiness for the new and the unexpected. Specifically, it implies an openness to, a readiness for, what is not normally to be found in an existence where our attention is dissipated and exhausted in other things.”
Like Christ, we are to keep our gaze on our beloved Father/Mother/Parent waiting in self-surrender and ready obedience. The essence of all discipline, and the core of both contemplative prayer and external activity, is loving adoration and complete abandonment to the will of God. Adoration born of thankfulness must be the basis from which all our actions spring, so that our interior and exterior movements reflect the deep peace of oneness with God. “It is above all in this silent and unconscious testimony to the love of God that the contemplative exercises his apostolate. For the saint preaches sermons by the way he walks, the way he stands, the way he sits down and the way he picks things up and holds them in his hand.” We are known as Christ’s disciples by the way we live our lives. And if we are to be true to our Master, we will express his humility in our very persons, taking the form of the servant, and humbling ourselves even to the death of our own natures. It is from the death to our own desires that our eternal life will spring, full of the leaven that lifts others to new heights. All proceeds from humility, as seen in the holy intimacy of kenosis. Merton perfectly articulates the power of our humbling even on to death.
“It is almost impossible to overestimate the value of true humility and its power in the spiritual life. For the beginning of humility is the beginning of blessedness and the consummation of humility is the perfection of all joy. Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the life of the soul. It is the only key to faith, with chief the spiritual life begins: for faith and humility are inseparable. In perfect humility all selfishness disappears and your soul no longer lives for itself or in itself for God: and it is lost and submerged in Him and transformed into Him. At this point of the spiritual life humility meets the highest exaltation of greatness. It is here that every one who humbles himself is exalted because, living no longer for himself or on the human level, the spirit is delivered of all the limitations and vicissitudes of creature hood and of contingency, and swims in the attributes of God, Whose power, magnificence, greatness and eternity have, through love, through humility, become our own.”
Humility is the mark of our faith lived in this world. Holiness is found in the living of our ordinary lives in devotion to God and to one another. It matters not our circumstances. It matters not what mundane task we are given, or to what worldly endeavors we are called. Here is the Christian life distilled into its purest form: prayerful contemplation lived out in action. For if it is true that all things proceed from the Father/Mother, how then will we know how to proceed without theirleading? And further, why would we want to? For to journey with God is to be the brother or sister of Christ, sojourner of grace, dispenser of compassion, island of freedom, source of eternal peace. This journey begins with kenosis as experienced in the holy intimacy born of prayerful contemplation.
All great things are born in smallness, and in the mystery of God.
May grace abide.
 Bernard Haring, The Virtues of an Authentic Life, A Celebration of Spiritual Maturity(Liguori, Missouri: Liguori, 1997), 137
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 22
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, letter July 16, 1944 to Eberhard Bethge, in ed. Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison(New York: Touchstone, 1997), 360
Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology(London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1975), 240
Joseph Veal SJ “Saint Ignatius Asks, “Are you sure you know who I am?” Studies in the Spirituality of the Jesuits, 33/4 September 2001), 30
Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action(Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1998), 108
 Ibid, 101
 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation(New York: New Directions Books, 1972), 193
 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation(New York: New Directions Books, 1972), 181
Rev. Dr. Candice Bist
Offering what I hope will be thoughtful additions to your spiritual journey, from my own musings, and the great array of teachers available to us through other blogs, videos, websites, music and art. May grace surround us all as we make our way forward through the astonishing mystery of life.