Thank God for the Empty Jar!

December 16, 2020

By Sister Elizabeth Anne Allen, O.P., Ed.D.

Note: This is the second installment in a multi-part series on the Teacher as Vessel.  Click here to read the first reflection. 

In The Sound of Beauty, author Michael Kurek identifies three principal qualities possessed by vessels, whether inanimate or human.[1] The first characteristic, the subject of this reflection, is, at first glance, so obvious that it might seem to preclude stating: The vessel must be empty before it can be filled. However, the meaning is rich. There is a simple, yet compelling, story in Second Book of Kings which illustrates this quality (See 2 Kings 4:1-7).

A woman came to the prophet Elisha, telling him that her husband had died and her two sons were about to be taken by his creditors in payment of his debts. When Elisha asked her what she had in the house, she answered that all she had was a jar of oil. Elisha told her to go to her neighbors and borrow “empty vessels, and not a few of them.”

The widow left him and followed his rather strange command. Then she and her sons went home, closed the door and began to fill jars. Her sons brought her jar after jar and she poured from her small jar of oil. When she called for another jar, her sons replied that they were all filled and the flow of oil stopped.

She returned Elisha to report what had happened and he told her to sell enough oil to pay her husband’s debts and to keep the rest to live on. Her children were spared and her livelihood guaranteed. God not only filled her vessel, but he did so in abundance.

Teachers know well when they are beginning to run out of oil or are “running on empty.”  There are, in fact, two kinds of emptiness, and they have very different causes.

Teachers know well when they are beginning to run out of oil or are “running on empty.”  There are, in fact, two kinds of emptiness, and they have very different causes.

The first is what Caryll Houselander in her spiritual classic, The Reed of God terms a “formless emptiness, a void without purpose.”[2] While teachers rarely lack purpose, this state can result also by being too full of the wrong things, leaving no room for the more important ones. This is a common pitfall for teachers!

We can become so focused on professional demands and responsibilities—think policies, procedure, schedules, calendars, standards, rubrics, assessment, reporting, meetings and committees, etc.—that we forget about the main goal underlying those demands: the ultimate flourishing of the students in front of us.

Sometimes we identify all too readily with Saint Paul when he writes to Timothy that he is “being poured out like a libation” (2 Timothy 4:6). This happens when we are giving all we have to give for a greater purpose. We are being emptied because we are trying to be vessels in God’s hands. It is likely that we are doing it imperfectly. Our “jars” may contain frustrations, limitations, inadequacies, human frailties, discouragements, faults, failings, and more. Maybe the top of our jar is so tight-fitting, or our hands are so weak, that we can’t get it open to keep giving. But this is when we can achieve that second, blessed kind of emptiness: that which allows God to fill us!

We hold our jars before the Lord and ask him to open them, to remove what does not belong, to purify the rest and to pour us out for the kingdom. Then we have a clean, empty jar. It is “full” of potential and purpose and God’s own grace. We have the emptiness that is the capacity and readiness to respond to him. In this Advent season, we look to Our Lady, the Vessel of Singular Devotion, who had nothing in her to block God’s will. We ask her to be with us as we, too, try to bring Christ to the world.

[1] Kurek, Michael.  The Sound of Beauty: A Classical Composers on Music in the Spiritual Life. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019, p. 123.
[2] Houselander, Caryll. The Reed of God. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, Inc. 2006, p. 21.

Sister Elizabeth Anne Allen, O.P., Ed.D. is director of the Center for Catholic Education at Aquinas College.

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