Several evenings a week, I arrive home from work before my wife. I get out two wine glasses, set them on the wood countertop in our kitchen, uncork a bottle of Pinot Noir, and wait for my wife’s return. I love the expression on her face when she comes up the stairs to be greeted by those two empty wine glasses. As she sets down her things, I pour the wine, we clink our glasses and raise a toast of gratitude for the goodness of life.

The Tao of the empty chalice. A couple of thousand years ago, an elderly Chinese man, weary with the world, walked through the eastern gates of his town, abandoning human society to live out whatever years remained in the wilderness of solitude. The legend tells us that a young person called out to him, begging the sage to impart a word of wisdom before he departed. The Tao Te Ching, a collection of Chinese wisdom poems written by Lao Tsu was the fruit of that brief encounter at the city gate. According to these poems, the Tao, the source of all life, is described in many ways, including as an empty chalice, a bellows, the hollow center of a wheel, a doorway and a window.

The Tao is an empty vessel; it is used, but never filled.

The space between heaven and earth is like a bellows.

The shape changes but not the form;

The more it moves, the more it yields.

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub; it is the center hole that makes it useful.

Shape clay into a vessel; it is the space within that makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room; it is the holes which make it useful.[i]

The emptiness of the chalice anticipates the filling. Without the empty hollow within the glass, there is no filling. In the mystery of the emptiness is the wonder of fullness. But how are we to discover that empty space within the chalice of our souls? What about all that other material things of this world that fills that empty space? What happens to all that stuff? And what about the filling? When does that happen? The Tao of the empty chalice reveals three great movements of the human soul.

The first movement of the soul is acceptance. Accept the present moment as an empty chalice awaiting your return. Accept the soul truth, as uncomfortable as it may feel, that you’ve filled your chalice with rocks rather than with good wine. Taste the thirsty condition of your soul and tell yourself that you were not put on this planet to drink rocks.

The second movement of the soul is abandonment. Abandon the fears you’ve held, the fears of letting go of your control of selfhood. Abandon the utilitarian approach to life, which demands that everything be useful and practical. Abandon your need to control your future. Try letting go of the gripping anxiety which comes from knowing you have little control over your future. Set down your briefcase, filled with your important functional tools: your laptop, your business calendar, your appointment book, your palm planner, your checkbook, your pager, your cell phone, all the tools of your busy self. Give your busy self away to the moment, the present moment. Empty the chalice of your soul.

Try a simple physical exercise. Tense up your shoulders by raising them as high as you can. At the same time fill your lungs with air. Then, as you slowly release the air from your lungs, slowly drop your shoulders and breathe out a long, audible sigh. Let it all go. Let your body go limp from the waist up, finishing as a rag doll hanging down. Have a little chuckle at the oddity of taking life so seriously. Self-denial. Self-sacrifice. Self-emptying. Self-abandonment. Self-renunciation. These are the words used by the religions of the world to describe the interior spiritual discipline of emptying the chalice of your soul. Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam. The globe is circumscribed with such faith practices of emptying. The Greek word for empty is keno, the name chosen in Oregon for one if its lotteries. While lottery tickets will indeed have an emptying effect upon your wallet, the real soul work of kenosis, of emptying our lives of self-centeredness, lies at the heart of the great faiths around the world.

The third movement of the soul is receptivity. It comes as a sheer gift, the gift of grace. The odd thing about this gift is it can only be given to an empty chalice. Here’s how Thomas a’ Kempis expressed this truth in his spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ:

The sooner you resign yourself with your whole heart to God, and no longer seek anything according to your own will or pleasure, but totally place yourself in His hands, the sooner you will find that you are united to God and are at peace.[ii]

In returning and rest, we allow our chalice to be filled. We open our souls to the gift of indwelling, of soul renewal: the gift of goodness after corruption, of peace after disjointedness, of rest after a stressful day, of quiet after too many words. The pinot noir is uncorked ready to be poured out. Clay is molded into a chalice. Because of the Tao of the empty chalice, the hollow, empty place deep within our soul may be filled with Christ’s gift of new wine.

[i] Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, Translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1972), 4, 5, 11.

[ii] Thomas a’Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, A Translation from the Latin by Joseph N. Tylenda, S.J., (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1998), 209.


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