Friday, November 24, 2006

The Purpose of Discipline - a birthday meditation...

The purpose of discipline is, however, to make us critically aware of the limitations of the very language of the spiritual life and of ideas about that life. If, on an elementary level, discipline makes us critical of sham values in social life (for example, it makes us realize experientially that happiness is not to be found in the usual rituals of consumption in an affluent society), on a higher level it reveals to us the limitations of formalistic and crude spiritual ideas. Discipline develops our critical insight and shows us the inadequacy of what we had previously accepted as valid in our religious and spiritual lives. It enables us to abandon and to discard as irrelevant certain kinds of experience which, in the past, meant a great deal to us. It makes us see that what previously served as real "inspiration" has now become a worn-out routine and that we must go on to something else. It gives us the courage to face the risk and the anguish of the break with our previous level of experience. It enables us, in the language of St. John of the Cross, to face the Dark Night in full awareness of our need to be stripped of what formerly gratified and helped us.

Thomas Merton. "Renewal and Discipline" in Contemplation in A World of Action
(New York, Doubleday and Company, Inc.): pp 128-129

I love this passage of Merton's. We are always so unwilling to recognise "the inadequacy of what we had previously accepted as valid in our religious and spiritual lives," especially in the broadly "evangelical" areas of the church. There is such (understandable) suspicion of opening ourselves to new things. It could be seen in some of the harsher reactions to the "Toronto Blessing" back in '94, and it can be seen today in some of the reactions to changes God is bringing about in the Anglican Communion. But Merton is talking about the interior life of the individual, and it's not fair to shanghai his thoughts to support my own ecclesiological maunderings!

Of course it's scary, allowing God to change us, and reveal to us the hidden things of the Spirit. We wonder if we are hearing right, or if we are being misled by the enemy. We try to test things against Scripture (1 John 4:1) and yet we still feel unsure that beneath us is solid
ground. It's here that the discipline God helped us put in place will come to help us.

I know myself that all the things that have happened over the extraordinary year since my last birthday, the things God has shown me that I'd spent years trying to avoid looking at, the places I'd run from years ago that God has brought me back to revisit, would have been altogether more than I could have handled had it not been for the discipline God provided through the Franciscan Third Order. The little daily facts of the Office, of regular self-examination and of wise and loving spiritual direction, kept me (relatively) sane, and far more importantly, very close to God, at times when I might otherwise simply have lost it.

The track 'The Canal' on the Eremos site tries to express some of this, where the underlying thread of the music, the tonal centre, holds despite the darkness and uncertainty of form, till
finally the light breaks through. "Just as the sun's rays are sometimes hidden from the earth by thick cloud, so for a while a person may be deprived of spiritual comfort and of grace's brightness... Then, all of a sudden, without that person being aware, it is all given back. Just as the surface of the earth rejoices at the rays of the sun when they break through the clouds, so the words of prayer are able to break through..." (St Isaac of Nineveh, Homilies, 13.)

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