The vital importance of discipline

Although I have long been drawn to/inspired by the lives and teachings of such ascetic/spiritual masters as St Francis of Assisi, the Desert Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus, John Cassian, St Benedict of Nursia, St Teresa of Ávila, St John of the Cross, St Thomas a Kempis (and so forth), I do little to actually set out on the road of discipline, that road marked with suffering that follows both the commandments and example of our Lord and His Apostles, a road characterised by fasting, long times of prayer and meditation, solitude, simplicity in possessions, service to all and sundry, and so on and so forth.

However, right now, reading The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard, I am realising that I probably should get on to such living. And, furthermore, such living is part of the liberation and freedom that I intended to explore on this blog — a freedom from the urgency of modern and postmodern thinking, of being set free from fundamentalism or liberalism and rediscovering the morality and teachings of the Great Tradition, and entering into the joy of living in the Lord.

Yet the disciplines and their practice should be a major component of this endeavour, should they not? Look at those men and women to whom I turn for theology (in the order they come to mind):

  • Martin Luther may have liked his beer, but he was still a man disciplined in the Augustinian lifestyle;
  • John Chrysostom may have left the caves of monasticism for the city, but he lived in Antioch as a poor man serving those around him, leading a life of disciplined simplicity;
  • Augustine of Hippo was strongly committed to the disciplined life, and the ‘rule’ he wrote was what Luther lived by before turning Protestant;
  • John Wesley was a regular faster, would pray for hours every day before beginning his tasks, and received Holy Communion as often as possible;
  • St Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican Friar, living his life according to the Dominican discipline, which included St Augustine’s rule;
  • The Cappadocians were also all ascetics — Gregory of Nazianzus preferred that lifestyle to the episcopacy;
  • Athanasius of Alexandria gave us the monastic biography par excellence in publishing about St Antony, great monastic founder;
  • although I am not a strong follower of all of his particulars, John Calvin was also a man of great discipline of lifestyle;
  • Anselm of Canterbury was a monk before he was a bishop, and he never gave this lifestyle up;
  • Bernard of Clairvaux was the great stirrer-up of the Cistercian order;
  • Hugh of St Victor was also a monk;
  • and, amongst the living, Kallistos Ware, Andrew Louth, and John Zizioulas besides, of course, Dallas Willard and Richard Foster, and probably Thomas C Oden.

These men were all giants in the world of theology or exegesis. They were also all practicioners of the path of discipline, the way of prayer and fasting, the trail of tears and suffering, the dying to self daily that Our Lord calls us to.

If we would be inspired by their theology, ought we not to live by their examples?


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