The New Liturgist on Horror Vacui Spirituality


I want to take a sharpie marker to the Sistine Chapel. In particular I am interested in filling in the bothersome gap between the God’s finger and Adam’s in what is famously known as “The Creation of Adam.” With glitter paint, paper mache, spiritual assertions and evidence, I’d like to edify this particular ceiling scene by applying a fill treatment. Has it bothered you too, the chasm between touch which seems to contain the entire cosmos? The mysteries of atrocity, disease, and the hatred I feel in my own small heart suspended between the pointer fingers of the finite and his deity.

Last spring I read a blog post dedicated to the memory of Dallas Willard in which the author, Andrew Le Peau, recounts an exchange between Willard and himself:

Perhaps twenty years ago I was with Dallas as he led a two-day retreat for a dozen or so of us. In particular I remember his talking about practicing the disciplines of solitude and silence, something he tried to do for thirty minutes a day. I asked him what he meant by that. And he told us.

“And do you pray?” I asked.


“Or meditate or read the Scriptures?”


“Then what?”

“Nothing. I just sit. In the presence of Christ.”

Since happening upon Le Peau’s post, I have tried with sporadic success to quiet myself before the Lord for twenty to thirty minutes a day. I’m sorry to report the experience has been terrifying. Sitting in my sun room, expecting to be greeted warmly by the silence, I find instead that the silence is violent–a foreign and emptying enemy. Both for fear of Christ showing up and for fear of him not showing up, I exercise what little control I have over the situation. I reach. And without reaching very far at all, I find my defense: the alerts buzzing in my consciousness, the ringing stimuli of my day, a flood of information that begs my attention and reflection, questions I need answers to, unfulfilled promises I want to bring to God’s attention . . .

I am not always interested in knowing him; I am interested in knowing period.

Am I the only one who is obsessed with having the full account as proof that God is still around? From the looks of it, we are many, the grasping, consuming and busy subjects of a digital economy. The self-assured citizenry of a wiki-democracy, we are taught that information and knowledge are the same, and therefore we can all reach an enlightened state. But is it possible to colonize breath, relationship, omission? We are trying, and some of us will baptize our efforts.

In the visual art world, there is a term for this technique (or condition, depending on how you define it). Horror vacui: “the fear of empty space.” I first encountered the notion of horror vacui in a Cabinet article detailing the schizophrenic descent of the English illustrator Louis Wain. Famous for his illustrations of anthropomorphized cats, Wain had become a household name in the early 1900s. Comics, advertisements, postcards, his work was charming and accessible if not restrained like his proper feline subjects. After suffering from mental breakdown and disease, however, Wain’s cat drawings took on a psychedelic and obsessively busy style. Before and after:



. . . it is for his distorted images that Wain is best remembered. They display a kind of luxuriant ornamentality that was ascribed to schizophrenic art in general by German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhor . . . [who] described such dense edge-to-edge work as motivated by a kind of horror vacui, as if the confrontation with the void was being fought out on paper.


Standing between Wain and Willard, looking up at the Sistine ceiling, I am making this confession:


I have graffiti-ed great works of mystery;

I have supplemented the promises of God with my own expectations;

like Job’s friends, I have spoken in “ministerial anxiety when silence would have been wiser;

I have overstepped the authority of church fathers;

I have turned biblical stories into dogmas;

and I have filled prayerful silence with my own inspiration for fear that the space and the silence of God might consume me whole.



What is your Sistine confession?



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One Comment

  • Tonya A.

    Oct 23, 2013 - Reply

    I can sympathize with your frustration. My ADD brain can be useful in certain circumstances but when it comes quieting my mind, I find that I can come close but have not been completely able to quiet it completely.

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