St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystical priest of the 16th century, drew a map of the soul’s journey, and entitled it The Ascent of Mt. Carmel. The path up the mountain was marked with the words “nada nada nada nada”. His was the “via negativa”, the way of negation that led to direct encounter with God. By embracing nada – nothing – the soul released its attachments to all things so that, unencumbered, it could climb to its divine Source.
This precious nothingness is the key that unlocks the meaning and purpose of everything. Elijah, the biblical prophet, hid in a mountain cave in the desert nadaland, and waited for God (1 Kings 19). There was wind. There was an earthquake. There was fire. Finally there was “a sound of sheer silence”. In this void, he heard the divine voice.
Without the number zero, modern mathematics would be impossible. It is a nothing that makes it possible to count everything. Without this sign of emptiness, numbers gum up and become unmanageable. Try dividing Roman numerals, and the utility of zero becomes obvious. Zero is the critical placeholder for decimal numbers, and the critical juncture between negative and positive numbers. The idea of zero probably originated in India. From there, it was appropriated by Arab mathematicians who called it zifr. From the Arabs, Italian mathematicians picked up on this powerful idea. They thought the word zifr was connected to their word for west wind: zephyr. They shortened it to zero: the emptiness of wind. A vital emptiness that filled the sails of mathematicians and took them places they never imagined before.
Perhaps God and zero have something in common – matheomatically, to coin a term.
Perhaps God is the critical placeholder facilitating the essential human spiritual experiences of humility, awe,wonder, reverence, and selfless love. Without God, we risk becoming self-absorbed, stuck in our egos. Without God, we risk getting carried away with hubris and disdain and carelessness and cynicism. We need God to hold the place in our souls where we can rise above and beyond selfishness, to make room for something and somebody besides our own concerns. But when we try to define or explain God in terms of things we can touch and see and quantify, we chase the wind. God is vital emptiness, sheer silence, a nada we cannot do without.
Perhaps God and zero not only have something in common, but are two ways of expressing the same fundamental reality of the universe. In order to move and to change and to choose, there has to be an all-pervasive emptiness – a precious void – between things and events. Otherwise, the cosmos would be a tight and lifeless lump. On Mt. Horeb, Elijah experienced an intimate relationship with a silent, invisible, indescribable God who held open a space in his soul, making him humbly receptive to wisdom and guidance. God is the emptiness that loosens us from our habits of thinking and doing, so that we can respond to ourselves and others with compassion. In silent prayer and meditation, we gratefully cherish this sacred emptiness, so that we can make conscious choices for the common good.
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California