The Rule, the Discipline, and Spiritual Growth

Saint Benedict, author of the mostly widely used rule in western Christianity

Saint Benedict, author of the most widely used rule in western Christianity

I bet if I took a poll, almost everyone who reads my blog would agree with this statement: “I want to grow spiritually.”

Readers of spiritual blogs want to grow in their faith and practice the way that readers of marketing blogs want to expand their business, or the readers of investment blogs want to make more money. It’s part of the nobility of being human: we see areas in our lives where we want improvement, and we try to gain more knowledge, more skill, more discipline in order to reach our goals and make those dreams come true.

We see this dynamic at work in scripture, where people who encounter Jesus say things like “I believe, help my unbelief!” or “Lord, teach us to pray.” We turn to God, hoping for help or a blessing when it comes to, well, turning to God.

So many people find prayer to be challenging. Either we never manage to find the time to do it, or when we do finally open up twenty minutes in our busy schedule, we try to pray only to find our minds besieged by an army of distracting thoughts. Worse yet, we feel so scattered or distracted that even simple practices like praying the Divine Office seem to be meaningless or just a rote exercise.

We all want to pray. And we want to pray better.

But here’s the thing. Prayer is not a contest or a performance review. It’s not like going out on a date where we feel the need to be fun and interesting, or else the person we’re with will not want to go out again. Spirituality is not a test. God’s love is unconditional. There really is no “goal” or “objective” in the spiritual life.

Nevertheless, those of us who read (or write) spirituality blogs often feel some sort of tug for “something more.” If we pray once or twice a week, we yearn to do it daily. If we manage ten minutes for silent contemplation, we realize that we’d love to give twenty. If we succumb to the screeches of the monkey mind, we know that we wish for the monkey to take a nap, so we can taste God’s loving silence more deeply.

Previously I have written about writing and keeping a personal rule of life, which is a great tool for fostering a more disciplined approach to daily spirituality. If you haven’t read that post, please check it out. But today I’d like to focus on the relationship between spirituality and discipline.

Discipline is the practice of orienting (and re-orienting) our life toward what we most truly want. We want to lose weight more than eat lots of candy bars. We want to save for retirement more than going out drinking with friends every night. We want to pray every day more than just watching endless cute cat videos on Youtube.

The point behind fostering a disciplined approach to spirituality — which may include keeping a personal rule of life — is that we acknowledge both where we are and where we would like to be. It is natural that our reach will exceed our grasp. That’s okay. God loves us unconditionally, where we are today, and also loves the “future you” who will have grown to a more regular, more in-depth, more undistracted life of prayer. Discipline means living in the creative tension between accepting where we are today, and nurturing growth toward where we hope to be tomorrow.

Once again, let me repeat myself: we seek to grow in our spiritual practice not because we have a goal to reach or a test to pass. God loves us unconditionally, right here and right now. We seek to grow, to become more disciplined, to lovingly give more of our time and attention to God, simply as a joyful way of responding to God’s unconditional love. It’s the ultimate win-win: We have already won, through Christ’s passion, God’s unconditional love. And God invites us through the Holy Spirit to grow in grace, so that we will “win” tomorrow by responding even more fully to God’s love and God’s invitation into silence.

Disciplined prayer is never perfect. We will have “bad” days or even weeks or months when our discipline seems to be in shambles, our efforts to respond to God either messy or non-existent. That’s okay too — the point behind having a rule, or a discipline, is that when we fall down we allow the Holy Spirit to pick us back up, so we can keep going.

Do you have a particular way in which you would like your spiritual practice to grow? If so, pray about it, asking God to bless you with that deeper, richer, longer, more frequent, or more attentive prayer. If you’d like, leave a comment here or on Facebook, describing the way you hope for your prayer life to grow.

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

A word from Carl: Thank you for posting your constructive comment. The goal of this blog is to encourage people to pray. Therefore, I invite you to pray before you submit a post. Please note, I will delete any comments that are offensive, abusive, off-topic, or spam.

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4 thoughts on “The Rule, the Discipline, and Spiritual Growth

  1. I would like to be able to drop down into that deep silence more easily. I think discipline is
    important, to persevere with the practice, and also not to look for or expect any particular
    experience.
    Occasionally it does occur in church, after communion. A silence which is almost tangible
    settles over. It is a beautiful thing.