I view spiritual discipline positively (March 7 blog post: spiritual discipline – a Lenten reflection). Very. I cherish the rewards of deepening knowledge of self, others, and God.
I also see another – not negative, but flip – side. Spiritual discipline is difficult. Two primary reasons. One related to each of the words.
Discipline. Generally, systematic instruction or methodical action intended to instill in the one being taught (the disciple) a way of living. As with anything to be learned, when undertaken there is an unescapable unnaturalness, strangeness. Further, discipline can prove unpleasant. Consider the Epistle to the Hebrews’ (12.5-6) reference to Proverbs 3.11-12: “My child, do not regard lightly the Lord’s discipline, or lose heart when you are punished, for the Lord disciplines those he loves, and chastises every child he accepts” (my emphases).
Spiritual. Traditionally, when paired or contrasted with “natural”, a higher (truer) plane of existence; transcending basic (baser) worldly desires and satisfactions. Though I relish Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s postulation of our ontology (to paraphrase: we are not human beings in quest of spiritual experience, but spiritual beings immersed in human experience), we remain sensate creatures. We perceive and process what we define and describe as “reality” chiefly through our physical senses. Though spiritual our essential nature may be, we, as incarnate, not disembodied creatures, can’t forsake our flesh.
This morning, thinking of Augustine of Hippo, one of Christian history’s most honest strugglers with the tension between human will and God’s way, I reread a passage, truly a prayer in which he highlights his dilemma and, thereby, his difficulties with discipline:
I was certain that it was better for me to commit myself to Your love rather than yield to my temptation; but, although the former course was pleasing and convincing, the latter delighted my body and held it in bondage. For I had now no excuse when You called: “Arise, you who sleep and rise up from the dead and Christ will enlighten you” (Ephesians 5.14). And whereas on all sides You showed me that You spoke truly, I, convinced of the truth, had no answer except for the slow and sleepy words: “Bye and bye, see, I come soon.” But my “bye and bye” had no sure end and my “soon” went on for quite while (Confessions, Book 8.5).
O my blessed brother Augustine, though your words are over 1600 years old, as they resonate within me, I have no response except to say: How true, so true, too true!