Absence Makes the Heart Grow: A Reflection by Karen Bell

Several weeks ago, I read a phrase that has haunted me: “the embracing arms of the average.”  Boy, do I love snuggling into the embracing arms of the average! It feels like climbing into a cozy chair with a warm blanket on a cold, rainy day. Let’s face it, the zeal of my youth, when settling for average was never an option, has long since passed. Now, I’m okay with not changing the world. I’m okay with being average and having an average life. That feels like a win most days. But I look at the first reading….didn’t God create us to live in Eden with Him? A place of perfection where we want for nothing? There’s nothing average about that! And there’s Jesus, just one solitary being who single handedly redeemed for heaven every human that has ever drawn breath. Talk about above average!  And we’re supposed to be like Him, right?  So I’ve been thinking, how can Lent entice me out of the warm embrace of the average? Because clearly, that’s not where God wants me to linger for any length of time. Or maybe, I can look for the extraordinary in the average.

Which leads me to this question: Do you know about Studio Ghibli?

My daughter, who is fluent in Japanese, introduced me several years ago to the movies of Studio Ghibli and their famous, award winning Japanese animator and director, Hayao Miyazaki.  Even though I had to watch the films with English subtitles, I couldn’t mistake the power of Miyazaki’s gift. He is a master storyteller who creates magical worlds that appeal equally to children and adults. 

In a 2002 interview between film critic Roger Ebert and Miyazaki, Ebert said that he loved the “gratuitous motion” in Miyazaki’s films, the way characters “ will just sit for a moment, or sigh, or gaze at a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.” To which Miyazaki responded: “We have a word for that in Japanese. It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.” Miyazaki then clapped his hands. “The time in between my clapping is ma,” he told Ebert. “If you just have nonstop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness.”  

In Japanese culture, the ma, the space between two things, is not considered an absence that separates but one that creates a relationship.

I have been thinking about this concept of ma as we begin this year’s Lenten journey, perhaps even as a way to wean myself from the embracing arms of the average.  Recently, I have been trying to carve out time to meditate each day. Not much, just 10 minutes or so. Taking time alone to try to simply become aware and present in the moment. Recently I’ve been trying out a practice called “loving kindness” in which I wish for safety, happiness, good health and to live with a sense of ease for myself, those I care about, and also those I don’t. Sometimes I change the wishes into a prayer: “May you recognize God today; may you know God’s love; may you be God’s love.”  That space between each utterance creates a relationship between the wishes and prayers, and I feel myself move from one state of being into another. In music, we always honor the rests between the notes; they are just as powerful.

So now we look to the Gospel. Jesus carves out space for himself in the desert. I love the juxtaposition of Eden and the desert.  In the desert. the absence of people and activity creates room for a deeper relationship between Jesus and His Father and strengthens him for his encounter with the devil and subsequent ministry in Galilee. Is it a coincidence that following this desert experience Jesus’ first words are  about repentance? He preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Lent is about entering the emptiness of the desert  which leads us to repentance, right? 

The Greek word for repent, metanoia, means to turn around, to change. I used to think of repentance rather narrowly. It meant I should name all my sins and to stop repeating them. If I’m honest, that felt like an impossible task, like Sisyphus endlessing pushing that boulder uphill only to have it roll down once it neared the top. I could never fully complete the process to “sin no more” as promised in the Act of Contrition. Now, I realize, the call to repentance is a call to KEEP changing in NEW ways over time.. It’s not a one and done or just hitting the refresh button. Furthermore,  this spiritual transformation must by its very nature be a slow and evolving process because there’s no way any of us can open up all at once to what God is asking of us. 

Lent requires space, this Japanese ma or emptiness, in order to move us closer to the state of repentance that we need to be in right now, during this particular Lent in 2023.  It’s not about chasing our tails year after year, always coming back to square one. It’s about moving us from where we are right now to the next phase along our continuum of faith. The best way to prepare for the next revelation of God is the last revelation of God; each is new and different.

“Emptiness. It’s there intentionally,” says Miyazaki of his films. The tone my Lent is taking on is one of emptiness pregnant with possibility.  Nothing average about that. And I can’t wait to see what Jesus plans to do with it.

One comment

  1. Wonderful connection to Lent with Ma…very appealing for this time as we prepare. Or just get our craziness to take a break. Sounds like a great Lenten goal! Thanks Karen, very thought provoking!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s