Henri Nouwen puts forth “emptiness” as the first step in the early movement of spiritual formation. Using the memorable story of the empty tea cup, he says that the primary blockage to our formation is the simple fact that we are too full of “our” things.
The things can be anything: our theology, our sense of self, our plans, programs, schedules, and priorities—our “musts”—anything. As long as we are filled with these things, God will not be able to get in a word edgewise.
I confess that this is a “hard saying” for me. For one thing, it cuts against the grain of my personality and the way I have lived so much of my life on the earth. The idea of actually being “empty” is an unknown, and unknowns tend to be frightening.
It’s a hard saying also because I am at the end of a long period of “knowns” and beginning to make the transition into the “unknown”—into retirement. My strong tendency is to keep pouring the tea, to keep moving forward with same dynamics in place. But I know this is to miss the new formative movement God seeks to lead me to embrace.
It is emptying before filling. That’s why Jesus began the Beatitudes with, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
There are a number of valid ways to interpret this statement, but today, this one suffices: “God I am now in a position to see what you want to give me, because I realize (at last) that I have nothing to give—except myself. Well….here I am.”