I’ve been thinking again about spiritual disciplines and their purpose and effect. The last metaphor that helped me to understand it was a paper clip, bent so as to be useful, much like the posture—physically and spiritually—of humility and availability that is adopted by the one who prays.
A new metaphor that has helped me to understand spiritual disciplines more broadly is that of a plastic bag. I’m thinking of those typical bags I get when I shop at Target or at the grocery. A plastic bag is easily compact but useful when opened up. It can serve to carry more than I could pile into my arms.
But have you ever had trouble getting a bag open or trying to finagle some object into it when the opening is clinging shut? That’s so frustrating. I worked at a grocery store for two years, first bagging groceries. I showed those bags who was in charge.
I think of the soul as being like that bag. It is often shut up on itself, flat and useless, and even getting it open can be a chore. The spiritual disciplines I think of as that practice of opening up and creating space for what will be put in. Yet, practicing these disciplines does not mean that anything is put in, only that we are, like a bag, prepared to receive. Spiritual disciplines are not the contents for the bag, they are the space created for God.
Leaving ourselves open like that can be scary. When we create space, we create our own emptiness and acknowledge our need. It’s vulnerable. It is tempting to be filled with many things that God is not putting in. I think I allow music to shape my thoughts and emotions into a attitude or mood I want to experience instead of waiting for God to act.
But part of the discipline is to bear the need, to endure the emptiness. “More often than not we are left with the painful sense of emptiness and can only experience God as the absent God.” That’s why it’s really scary. To experience the absent God is to know that there is a space that only he can fill. But in its own way, that vacancy is way of knowing God. Experiencing the perpetual absence of God does not necessarily mean that God is absent but we have found new spaces where we need him.
Sometimes, to get a sandwich bag open, I blow into it. Or with a grocery bag, sometimes I whip it up then down to get the air inside to open it up. It makes me think of the Spirit of God (spirit and breath are a single term in Greek), as he might blow through our souls to open us up. And in fact, we talk about practicing the spiritual disciplines as if they are completely our doing, but it is the grace of God that empowers us in the first place to act. It is the hand of God that pulls at the handles and the breath of God that creates space in our souls for himself.
And then there are moments when God fills our bags with himself. Our silence with his sound. Our blank pages with his words. Our weeping with his laughter. And when he puts his Spirit within us, our souls, like those plastic bags, begin to take the form of that which fills it.