Monastic Practices Self-discipline

“Those who chose the monastic way of life know that they have accepted a lifestyle with considerable built in discipline.  Saying YES to monastic life includes a NO.”

C Cummings

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Perhaps the greatest challenge to any religious commitment is just that, “a religious commitment”. 

As a young seminary student I liked picking and choosing my disciplines and sacrifices.  As a matter of fact, I had a hard time with it.  I failed Biology and Latin and had to take the courses over again. (In High School I was an A student).  I have always loved prayer, I have always been shy on work and physical labor though I like washing and drying dishes and doing floors.  Other chores are laborious for me.  I am not a good person to fast since I love food way too much to not eat it.  I am learning little by little how to eat moderately yet still have many weaknesses and have to reach for the Alka-selzer from time to time.

We live in a time when self-discipline is getting harder and harder.  Most people do, what comes natural to them and say what comes natural to them.  They spend little time thinking about any long term issues that may arise out of their lack of self-discipline. The important word in self-discipline is Discipline.  Coming from the word disciple or student.  The attitude of a Monastic even from the rule of Benedict on is one of a Student.  The Rule begins, “ Listen my child to the precepts of your master (teacher) and incline the ear of your heart, that by the toil of obedience you may return to God who by the sloth of disobedience you have gone astray.” 

My way, or your way?  The ongoing self-discipline of the Monastic way of life is about finding out which way we should walk as disciples and students in the school of sacred living.  We know deep down that resistance to change and seeking personal comfort is ingrained and part of our DNA.  We also know that excesses in life always lead to dangerous places that can even be fatal. 

Fortunately life itself is a “school of hard knocks”.  In other ways, if we are truly attentive to ourselves, our spirits, our bodies and our minds, we will learn to discipline ourselves as ought be.  We normally do not have to “impose” great burdens upon ourselves.  The burdens arrive on their own and we are called to “respond faithfully” to those burdens, by making choices, by saying Yes or No to those choices and living into them.  Our author said it well when he wrote, “the flesh is not to be annihilated, suppressed, stamped out, but instead reordered, transformed, sublimated, divinized.  The body has tremendous energy at it’s disposal, the energy of passion.” 

It would be nice to say that self-discipline in the monastic life comes all by itself with little effort.  In reality, any perfection of any interest takes time, energy, dedication, and perseverance.  As with any vocation, the first question one has to answer is “Am I called to this lifestyle”?  Is God calling me to be a Monastic, and if this is so what does it entail?  When I was dean of the Anglican Seminary in Mexico I always used to say to the students.  “So you want to be a priest, but you hate old people and sick people.  Perhaps you better think twice.”  So we need to ask ourselves What is required of a Monastic?  And do I have the passion and interest to pursue it?  If we begin there we will begin to walk on the right path to success or at least fulfillment. 

I came to Monasticism out of disillusionment with the current status of the Institutional Church.  Everywhere I have looked and observed in the last 15 years perhaps after the tragic events of 9-11, has been a downward turn towards church attendance, towards institutional involvement, and towards Christianity.  This has caused in many of our institutions a kind of knee jerk reaction towards self preservation.  In some circles it has been a “return” to the old ways.  The old liturgies, the old prayer books, the old precepts and laws.  In other circles it has been just the opposite, throw out the baby with the bath water and seek everything that is new, creative, forward thinking, and emotion producing.  This has lead us into all kinds of experimental liturgies, new musical forms, plenty of hand clapping, and just feeling good about religion, or ourselves, or our successes in life.  The down side of course has been being part of an institution that has not been able to grapple with such enormous culture wars and trends up and down and has been divided greatly because of them.   Many people have been pushed out- in the process.  The church has opted in some places towards exclusion instead of inclusion or what Richard Rohr calls “egalitarianism”.  People have come to church to be entertained by their priest or pastor and kept busy with church bazaars and committees and never taught really how to pray and find God.  There have been very prideful and self filled leaders (Bishops, Superintendents, Archdeacons, Canons, Monsignors) and the like who prefer status to service.  At a time when many prefer to bail ship, I in my case , have sought out a smaller vessel ie. (Monasticism). 

Monastic life is NOT an answer to all of our complaints and concerns about the institutional church.  But it is and has always been a “response” to the same.  In it’s best forms, Monasticism has always been somewhat independent, removed, distanced, and forward looking above and beyond the myopia of the Institutional Church. 

At the same time Monasticism has always depended in some ways on the Institutional Church for it’s validation and support.  Thus there is a very delicate dance that is constantly going on between the two.  But the great advantage of Monasticism is to continue the same goal as all of the Christian endeavor while trying hard not to loose its way in the woods.  When it is working, it can see beyond the trees into the Kingdom. 

It is precisely the “self-discipline” of Monasticism that forces it always to go back to its “center” and its “purpose” in order to keep it from being overly distracted by the latest  fad or liturgical circus that comes to town.  In some way it has preserved certain ways of praying, living, socializing, and working that have withstood the test of time.  There are elements or disciplines of the Monastic life that never change (the monastic hours for example and silence). 

We return again to the Rule, “the word discipline from discere, suggests an attitude of discipleship.  I put my whole self into the school of the Lord’s service and become a listener to the voice of the Spirit within me. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

C Cummings

It is this attentive “listening” with ones body, mind, and spirit, that gives Monasticism an edge over the Institutional Church.  I have been working with Priests as a faculty member for CREDO in the Episcopal Church for nearly all of these 15 past years.  Time and time again I have heard priests confess the lack of time they have for prayer, reflection, and deep “listening” because they are too busy trying to keep the doors of the church open and pay the bills,  (or entertain their parishioners). 

New Monasticism, some people call it, it is really pretty old if you ask me, is a movement that is not fed by numbers, attendance, pledge campaigns, or bazaars.  Yes, we all have to eat and earn our keep.  But I would hope that New Monasticism is feed by the deep and honest desire to go deeper into the well of the pool of Living Water.  It is fed by an honest search for God and integrity of life with all of God’s creation.  It is clothed with humility, virtue, seeking the other, and simplicity.  It is not greedy, self fulfilling, power seeking, or pompous.  It is only in self-discipline that the Monastic way of life can shed our over preoccupation with all that which is passing away or fantasy.  Self-discipline removes the masks that so many of our institutions are working so hard to preserve and maintain in place. 

Self-discipline is about hard work and endeavor mixed with passion and desire, but it is not about self imposed aesthetic practices.  Those times are long gone.  Our author has the right perspective.  He writes, “The first form of monastic self-discipline is to accept cheerfully and generously the inevitable harshness of life, and to endure the difficulties that come our way in the course of each day, whether from the observance of the rule or from circumstances.  Only secondarily does monastic self-discipline consist in voluntarily chosen penances or works of supererogation…..even though we speak of self-discipline, our spiritual liberation and transformation is still a gift of grace, and not our achievement. 

I can honestly say in my life that much more has come out of living from my deepest desires and honest motives than from following the latest trends or fads.  My journey so far as a Monastic has allowed me slowly to shed and let go of those things that are not in accord with my true desires and honest motives and I trust that this will be my guiding principle in the days ahead.  I do not need to become something that I am not already.  I do not need to follow the aesthetics and practices that do not suit my personality and interests.  If I learn to face daily failures and humiliations with a grain of salt and less pride and protection then I have a chance to see how my self-disciplines begin to pay off.  Richard Rohr said it to the point, “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day, and then I must watch my reaction to it.”  This is real self-discipline. 

“Each person must every day take up his or her own cross, that is, the cross chosen for us, rather than the cross we choose for ourselves,” says Cummings.   This puts the idea of self-discipline in a new perspective.  We are disciples of the Lord.  We are training and learning in the school of the Lord’s service.  Self-discipline gives us the tools and the means we need each and every day to live with integrity and face trials, and tribulations, and to see and acknowledge along side them, the joys and unexpected blessings. 

Pax Benedictina+

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