“Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.”
–St. Hilary of Portiers, quoted by Kathleen Norris
Here in the the Dakotas, we have nothing if not emptiness.
I didn’t appreciate the abundance of that resource until my family and I moved to Mitchell, SD, four years ago. The few times I’d been through eastern and central South Dakota, I saw it as pass-through country, nothing more than necessary terrain on the road to somewhere else. But when I took a job at Dakota Wesleyan University, the prairie became not just a scenic backdrop, but a destination.
My new hometown is not exactly an outpost. Mitchell is home to two schools of higher education, a world-renown tourist attraction, a Walmart, and a Cabelas. At about 16,000 residents, we are the sixth-largest town in the state. Compared to much of South Dakota, Mitchell is downright urban.
These are all relative, boasts, however. We’re still a small fish in a vast, sparsely populated pond. if I bike three miles in any direction from my house, I can be on backroads that carry only a handful of cars each hour. If I drive west past Chamberlain, across the Missouri River, I can find even greater solitude, miles and miles with nothing but wind and wildlife.
That may sound romantic, and it is–for about fifteen minutes. It’s easy to crave space and silence when you’re living at the break-neck pace of modern American life. It’s natural to think that getting away from everything might be the cure for what ails you.
The reality, however, is that entering into emptiness requires a certain amount of detox. We are all wired to need people, albeit to varying degrees. And with so much connectivity available to us via digital technology, most of us don’t know how to be alone without also being lonely–much less how to be lonely in a spiritually beneficial way.
Surprisingly, even in a land with such abundant emptiness as the Dakotas, I don’t find many people who readily defend its merits. Like just about every other place in America, we tend to fill up our time with one thing or another until we’re frantic with activity. Rather than see the emptiness around us as fertile ground for spiritual renewal–the silence as clear air through which to hear the voice of God–we ignore it, except for agriculture. Emptiness is a condition in which we work, not a vehicle for our salvation.
Kathleen Norris is among those who remind us to see the emptiness of the Dakotas differently. Norris, who left New York City to spend decades at a family ranch in Lemmon, SD, writes of the richness of empty space in her classic Dakota: A Spiritual Geography:
“Maybe the desert wisdom of the Dakotas can teach us to love anyway, to love what is dying, in the face of death, and not pretend that things are other than they are. The irony and wonder of all of this is that it is the desert’s grimness, its stillness and isolation, that brings us back to love.” (p. 121)
Emptiness invites us to open our eyes. To let go of the illusion that our activity makes the world go round. To embrace our smallness and transience, and to find freedom in those things. To embrace a paradox, that a land that seems empty can fill us with a wonder we didn’t know we needed.