Whether you’re 18 or in your mid-80s, you’ve probably experienced a loss in your life, whether it’s the end of a friendship, the loss of a parent, or the loss of a community. In the face of such a void, there is no one answer for everyone, but there is an answer that all human beings can make. As creatures, we can create.
The Judeo-Christian religious tradition speaks of a beginning, of a genesis, where there was a “void and darkness without form”. This formless void has been called chaos, disorder and disarray. Faced with this void, we hear that “In the beginning… God created”. God responds to formless chaos with creative activity to give meaning and form to the world. The void is filled by the act of creation.
As creatures of this Creator God, we are meant to embrace a vocation of creation, that is, to create art and beauty in the face of formless voids, even pandemics. It is as if the void calls us to create and give meaning to chaos.
Today, the presence of vacuum comes in many forms. Poet Dorothy Thomas described one this way:
You had a beautiful voice when you were young …
You would whistle like a mockingbird.
The end of life was far from fair for you
And that’s not why the first in life was made …
You called our names, saw others in our place.
You shook the clock to show the time.
We thought you were beyond memory.
And cried your mind, out of its shell.
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This poem may refer to a person struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. The person is always there but not really always there. Their minds are gone and soared like a bird and all that remains is a shell of memories from the past. It is a cruel type of emptiness that many endure.
Another type of void is when a loved one dies but their room remains as it was when it was alive; the feeling of emptiness at home can be very strong. Their photos, trophies, desk, books, special blankets, favorite reading chair and their scent remain, but they are no longer there in their bodies.
How do we respond to voids, to the presence of an absence, like this or others? How do we deal with clutter?
One example I have seen is when there is a fatal car crash and in response someone creates a roadside memorial at the site of the death. These creative memorials can be crosses decorated with multi-colored flowers, notes scribbled on small pieces of paper with expressions of love, poetry from family members, or photographs of good times from the past. Here on campus we have a war veterans memorial outside of Duke Divinity School, where people lay beautiful wreaths. It is creation in the face of emptiness.
I once saw another example in the gift shop of the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. They were selling glass angel ornaments that had been created from shattered glass from shattered bottles during battles between Israelis and Palestinians. Rubble, a sign of redemption. The beauty of breaking up. Creation from so much chaos.
Many more examples are not hard to find: something new is always being created. Every day is a new creation, no matter how bad the day before.
One thing these examples show is that creation takes time; it is a process like the divine creation in the beginning. It cannot be rushed or forced. It can take minutes, hours, days, years, or a lifetime. But like the rhythm of poetry, it makes sense in the face of tragedy, formlessness and chaos. And it is not finished because creation is not a finished product but a perpetual one.
In this continuous process of creation, where is the void that you see? And what will you create in response? What beauty will you fashion from the chaos? It is our vocation of creation as human creatures. It is a vocation that should never go on vacation.
The Reverend Dr. Luke A. Powery is the Dean of Duke Chapel. His column is broadcast every other Monday.