“The most expressive form of art today in connection with religion might be sacred emptiness; an emptiness which does not pretend to have at its disposal symbols which it actually does not have. In all realms of life today we must have some emptiness. … On the basis of a preliminary sacred emptiness, something may develop.”
I believe in the desert. I go there perennially, to remind myself how much I believe. Last weekend, I went out to Joshua Tree, which is a desert National Park about 80 miles east of Los Angeles. It’s a vast, empty, preserved land of rocks, cactus, desert flowers, and lizards. And it’s in my backyard—just an hour away from one of the most hectic, crowded, chaotic cities in the world.
It’s desolate. There’s really not much to see out there. No waterfalls, no amazing mountains, no grand canyons. There is hardly any water anywhere. And it gets hot.
But oh is it beautiful. On a cool spring morning, when the heat is still at bay and the smog hasn’t yet wafted in from L.A., it’s as clear and clean and magnificent as just about anywhere on earth. I can see why U2 named an album after the place.
It’s a place that makes one forget that the world is abuzz just miles down the highway, that there are outlet malls and casinos and Rat Pack mansions down in the valley (Palm Springs). It’s a place that reminds you that flowers can grow in the unfriendliest climates, out of chalky moon dirt that sees rain maybe 8 times a year. Above all, it’s a place that reminds you that there is beauty is the desolate and abundance in emptiness. There is so much inferred in the lack.
In terms of how we live, what we long for, and what we find beautiful—so often the nexus of it is something that is absent. Absence drives our existence more than just about anything. Absence, I suggest, galvanizes us in our protestations against apathy, malaise, and debilitating continence. It gives us a reason to be passionate, to burn brightly and agonize over things like truth and beauty. It gives us hope; and we need hope.
It is no coincidence that so many of our great art works and stories summon the glories and beauty of days gone by, or envisage other worlds, or invoke the images and destinies of what might be (horizons, open roads, the unknown future). All of this is about the beyond: something absent and thereby unbound by our mortal limitations. As Jack Kerouac writes of his restless journey in On the Road, “It was always mañana. For the next week that was all I heard—mañana, a lovely word and one that probably means heaven.” We live for mañana, for tomorrow, for in our minds, tomorrow can be anything.
One of my favorite pieces of art is The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In that book (which I read every April), mañana is embodied in a green light that flashes from the dock of Daisy Buchanan—a light that Gatsby watches from across the bay, pining for something that remains absent in his life, despite his many successes. “It had gone beyond her, beyond everything,” Fitzgerald writes. “He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
For Gatsby, the green light was not really about Daisy, for she was just as mortal and flawed as him. His ambitions, like every human’s, were ultimately pointing toward that which could not be satiated within himself, or within another person, or with anything in this life. The green light is forever absent in this material world. And yet it still flashes, constantly, through the fog and across a vast expanse. It beckons us to look toward it, to look beyond, to see that the land it sits on is absent, but the light shining from it is present in our world, gleaming in our eyes and illuminating the darkness.
As we approach Easter, one of the most beautiful images of absence that I have been meditating on it that of the empty tomb. Like a sunset, this image is simultaneously joyful and tragic—joyful because it symbolizes a resurrected Jesus, tragic because it is a tomb: we see ourselves (and everyone we love) in it someday. When Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus first encountered the angel and the empty tomb, their immediate reaction was confusion and fright. Had someone stolen the body of Jesus? What was going on? But, as with so much in this life that appears stark and hopeless, there was a silver lining. Jesus was alive. There was hope through their tears, a holy reassurance in His absence. As the women fled the scene, they were “afraid yet filled with joy” (Matthew 28:8, TNIV)—and I wonder if this kind of joy isn’t the best kind there is. Joy amid fear, amid uncertainty, amid absence.
Art should not shy away from those things we associate with absence—loss, sadness, depravity, uncertainty. For without absence, there would be no reason for art. Art comes from the heart, and every human heart is like that empty tomb on Easter morning: missing something.