The title question surfaces in the wake of these words from Thomas Merton, “Before we can surrender ourselves we must become ourselves. For no one can give up what he does not possess.”
In truth, this is a terrain that defies definition with words. Still, one can make an attempt by speaking from the murky misty intersection of experience and teaching. According to contemplative wisdom teacher and Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault explains the word “kenosis” is derived from the Greek verb kenosein, which means “to empty oneself.” It’s important to notice that from the start, we’re speaking of an action rather than an object.
On the Christian contemplative path, mensch’s like Rev. Bourgeault, Father Thomas Keating, Father Richard Rohr and others, draw our attention to Saint Paul’s use of this word in describing Jesus (Philippians 2:9-16), “Though his state was that of God, yet he did not deem equality with God something that he should cling to. Rather, he emptied himself and assuming the state of a slave he was born in human likeness.”
Rev. Bourgeault writes, “self-emptying is the touchstone, the core reality underlying every moment of Jesus’ human journey… the full realization of his divine selfhood comes not through the concentration of being, but through a voluntary divestment of it…” and references Logion 21 in the Gospel of Thomas, where Jesus describes his students as small children living in a field not their own. When the landlords return and demand it back, the children return it by “...simply stripping themselves and standing naked before them.” (taken from “The Luminous Gospels” by Bourgeault, Bauman and Bauman). Lest this kenotic “self-emptying” sound a bit too willful, Rev. Bourgeault clarifies that the movement is more of a “letting go” – a small, gentle motion that, for me, might be visualized as the way in which one releases a feather that’s been lightly held between two fingers.
In my experience, this gentle self-emptying process can cost us, as T.S. Eliot states, “no less than everything.” What a gospel truth that, in losing my life, I found a life wholly dependent on God with freedom to love God and neighbour. I found that the kenotic path of the desert is not about running away. It’s about discovering a life that matters. It’s not about condemning the world. It’s simply about letting go of what is false — destructive habits, false selves and false relations. It’s not about exile, but finding freedom to claim our dependence on God. It is about losing a life to gain one, a life alive to God.
The invitation of kenosis, I believe, is to enter the desert of our hearts; that fierce landscape found in silence and solitude we where we are stripped down and laid bare to God’s merciful forgiveness and healing. The desert of the heart is our training ground for ultimate surrender of the self we never really owned; finding our True self more and more, and aligning it with the life of Christ.