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?

Friday’s Failed Fast

Because it’s Lent, and because it’s a good habit I’d like to re-acquire, I fasted last Friday. Until lunch time.

That would be a fast fail.

To ease my body into the world of fasting, I was only going to skip lunch, you see. All went well at the beginning. Every Friday is Bacon Roll Friday, so after I’d finished my bacon roll, I was set to go foodless until supper.

I went to work, and sat down at my desk, where I was reading a book about Leo the Great. After a couple of hours, I got a little hungry. That’s the way I am, but even when not fasting I’ve been making myself either hold out until lunch, anyway, or eat portions of my lunch throughout the day so as not to overeat. Tall, ectomorphic men can be overweight without looking it.

Anyway, this was fine. I was brushing up on my fifth-century history.

But around noonish, the problem went beyond hunger.

I have been a student for most of the past 11 years. I sit hunched over desks and tables for a living. Well, I’m not supposed to hunch. But it is hard not to. Especially if you are hypermobile like me. This means that not only am I really flexible (an asset when I was a dancer), and not only do I hyperextend most of my major joints, it is also really easy for me to slouch, and when I slouch my slouch goes farther than that of the average man.

So I started getting a pain in my left shoulder blade, extending down through my entire arm. This happens. I have exercises that, in the long term, will make it better, but nothing can make it go entirely away in an instant, even if I sit with good posture.

One thing does help, though. Ibuprofen.

But I checked the Internet and the box of the Ibuprofen, and you’re not supposed to take it on an empty stomach, especially if you take it fairly often. It can give you ulcers.

And then I got  headache.

So that was enough of that!

The pain and the hunger were making it impossible for me to focus. So I closed the book about Leo (it’s not an especially good one, anyway), and off I went home to have some lunch, Ibuprofen, and then worked from there for the afternoon.

I tell you this story because very often people like me blog about triumphs. Or we don’t even blog about our own triumphs and struggles, but about the theory or the advice of others. Rather than telling of my own weaknesses in the spiritual life, I make myself appear an authority by providing for you the wisdom of the Desert Fathers or John Cassian or Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica or John Wesley or Leo or Ambrose and so forth.

But I am, as stated in my last post, just a patient in a hospital discussing remedies with fellow patients.

And some of the remedies I haven’t really tried that often. And sometimes, things just don’t work like they do in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. And we need to realise that, chances are, the Desert Fathers faced these same issues, too.

(Actually, they probably didn’t face the issue I face because they spent their time either praying or in manual labour, and I have been informed by physiotherapists and I’ve even seen a book on the subject, that if we use our bodies — without breaking them or abusing them — a lot of the back issues such as mine will go away. It is the indolent, modern westerner who has so many back problems, not the active, ancient Coptic farmer.)