Essay / Theology

The Discipline of Discipline

As a scholar of monasticism and a Benedictine oblate one of my favorite parts of the sixth-century Rule of Benedict is Chapter 49 – “On the Observance of Lent.” Benedict writes, “the life of a monk ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance… we therefore urge that during the actual days of Lent the brethren keep their lives most pure… therefore, let us increase somewhat the usual burden of our service.” The great Benedictine theologian and archbishop Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) echoed Benedict in his “Prayer to God” when he prayed, “Give me heart-piercing goodness and humility; discerning abstinence and mortification of the flesh… Always, Lord, let me go on with humility to better things and never grow slack.” And not to be outdone the Benedictine-influenced Thomas à Kempis (d. 1471) insisted that “During holy seasons… we should prepare ourselves with care, and live ever more devoutly, keeping every observance more strictly.” Collectively these texts point us towards a profound truth that is worth noticing during Lent – be disciplined!

Now, many of us likely think of ourselves as disciplined – we exercise regularly, we work hard at our vocations, we love intently and devotedly, we taxi the kids to their games and practices faithfully, we worship regularly, we engage in spiritual exercises, etc. Regarding our spiritual life, most of us likely know that when the season of Lent arrives we are, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, to observe “a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance.” So we journey through the glory of these forty days with a bit more discipline than normal; or at least we should.

Let me suggest, then, that Lent is about discipline, not just disciplines (notice the “s”) but discipline itself. To say it differently, Lent is about the discipline of being disciplined. Biblically speaking, it seems a fair assumption that all disciples of Christ are/should be engaged in doing spiritual disciplines/exercises (1 Tim 4:7-8) but even more so in Lent. Notice those texts quoted above, especially the phrases “at all times the character of a Lenten observance” and “keep their lives most pure” and “never grow slack” and “keeping every observance more strictly.” There is virtue to being disciplined (e.g., a toned body and healthy heart for those disciplined in exercise) but spiritual discipline is its own virtue.

Titus 1:7-8 tells us that “an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.” If this is true for overseers, surely it is true of all Christians, right? Moreover, in 1 Corinthians 9:27 the apostle Paul says that he disciplines his body to keep it under control. Again, if this is the case for the apostle surely it behooves us to do the same, right? In short, we must be disciplined and this discipline is its own end.

The opposite of discipline, it seems, is laxity. I relax and in doing so I grow lax. Before I know it I have only exercised twice this month or I am five minutes late to my daughter’s soccer game or I miss a week or two each month in my church attendance. When this kind of laxity sets into our spiritual lives, our spiritual disciplines/exercises take the hit. I pray less or hurriedly. I read the Scriptures but fail to “chew the cud” to reveal its deep meanings. I allow social media or sporting events or binge watching to push out spiritual reading. The Confessions of Augustine or John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent sit on the table collecting dust while the television remote needs new batteries, again.

In the end, though, it is easier to talk about discipline than it is to… well, be disciplined. Nonetheless, a few guidelines to point us in the right direction. First, establish a rule of life so you know how to structure your discipline. No one decides to run a marathon and then does it the next day. Rather, they spend weeks, probably months disciplining themselves (mentally and physically) to run 26.2 miles. If it did not take discipline then there would be a lot more marathoners! A rule of life does exactly what is says – it rules or governs our life so that we can discipline ourselves toward those ends and exercise dominion within those guidelines. Without boundaries and focus there is no need for discipline.

Second, at the risk of mere pragmatism, do not merely focus on how something was done but that it was done. For many writers books are the result of disciplining themselves to write a number of words each day. They do not focus initially on the quality but they set a goal of quantity. Once there are words on the page then they edit the text for quality and clarity. The discipline of word count will, with enough time, give birth to a book. Discipline in the spiritual life seems to work similarly. My prayer may have lacked sincerity and was a bit harried but I prayed. I discipline myself to pray and in time, with that discipline, prayers gain in their intensity and potency. The same holds for Scripture reading/meditation/memorization. Better to be disciplined to do something, even if done somewhat poorly, than to do nothing at all. Any exercise is better than no exercise.

Lastly, beg God’s Holy Spirit to empower you in your discipline. For we do not strive unaided but in the power of the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus Christ (Acts 10:38) we allow the power of the Holy Spirit to work in us, to discipline us for the purpose of godliness. We invite him to discipline us for discipline’s sake because discipline itself is a worthwhile goal in Lent, and in all holy seasons.


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