In The Imi­ta­tion of Christ Thomas à Kem­p­is says, The life of a good man must be mighty in virtues, that he should be inward­ly what he appears out­ward­ly to oth­ers.” We need God’s life and light to trans­form our inner spir­it so that right­eous­ness, peace and joy in the Holy Spir­it begin to per­vade all we are and think. But such puri­ty of heart does not just fall on our heads. We need to go through a process of sow­ing to the Spir­it, through the exer­cise of the clas­si­cal Dis­ci­plines of the spir­i­tu­al life. As Eliz­a­beth O’Connor has said, no per­son or group or move­ment has vig­or and pow­er unless it is dis­ci­plined.” We must take up a con­scious­ly cho­sen course of action which places us before God in such a way that he can work the right­eous­ness of the King­dom into us.

These Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines con­cern both group and indi­vid­ual life. They include both inward and out­ward expe­ri­ences. Through med­i­ta­tion we come to hear God’s voice and obey his word. Prayer is the life of per­pet­u­al com­mu­nion. Fast­ing is one means through which we open our spir­its to the King­dom of God and con­cen­trate upon the work of God. Through the spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence of study the mind takes on the order and rhythm of what­ev­er it con­cen­trates upon. These inward dis­ci­plines are joined by out­ward dis­ci­plines. Sim­plic­i­ty, the life char­ac­ter­ized by sin­gle­ness of pur­pose, sets us free from the tyran­ny of our­selves, the tyran­ny of oth­er peo­ple and the tyran­ny of mate­r­i­al pos­ses­sions. Soli­tude invites us to enter the recre­at­ing silences and let go of our inner com­pul­sions. Through the lib­er­at­ing dis­ci­pline of sub­mis­sion we can lay aside the bur­den of always need­ing to get our own way. In ser­vice we can expe­ri­ence the many lit­tle deaths of going beyond our­selves which in the end bring res­ur­rec­tion and life. Final­ly, dis­ci­plined liv­ing also includes impor­tant cor­po­rate expe­ri­ences. Con­fes­sion is that gra­cious pro­vi­sion of God through which the wounds of sin may be healed. Wor­ship ush­ers us into the Holy of Holies where we can see the Lord high and lift­ed up. Through the cor­po­rate dis­ci­pline of guid­ance we can know in our own expe­ri­ence the cloud by day and the pil­lar of fire by night. Cel­e­bra­tion offers the won­der­ful, hilar­i­ous, exu­ber­ant expe­ri­ence of walk­ing and leap­ing and prais­ing God. 

These Dis­ci­plines of the spir­i­tu­al life can be for us a means of receiv­ing God’s grace. They put us in a place where we can expe­ri­ence inner trans­for­ma­tion as a gift. But there are pit­falls that can hin­der our way. That is why I often speak of the Dis­ci­plines as the dan­ger­ous life of the Spir­it. We must be dili­gent to avoid these pit­falls. Per­haps some advance warn­ing will help. I would like to men­tion sev­en for you, although there are no doubt many more.

I.

The first pit­fall is the temp­ta­tion to make a law of the Dis­ci­plines. There is noth­ing that can choke the heart and soul out of walk­ing with God like legal­ism. The rigid per­son is not the dis­ci­plined per­son. Rigid­i­ty is the most cer­tain sign that the Dis­ci­plines have spoiled. The dis­ci­plined per­son is the per­son who can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. The dis­ci­plined per­son is the per­son who can live appro­pri­ate­ly in life. Jean-Pierre de Caus­sade put it so well: the soul light as a feath­er, flu­id as water, responds to the ini­tia­tive of divine grace like a float­ing balloon.” 

Con­sid­er the sto­ry of Hans the tai­lor. Because of his rep­u­ta­tion, an influ­en­tial entre­pre­neur vis­it­ing the city ordered a tai­lor-made suit. But when he came to pick up this suit, the cus­tomer found that one sleeve twist­ed that way and the oth­er this way; one shoul­der bulged- out and the oth­er caved in. He pulled and strug­gled and final­ly, wrenched and con­tort­ed, he man­aged to make his body fit. As he returned home on the bus, anoth­er pas­sen­ger noticed his odd appear­ance and asked if Hans the tai­lor had made the suit. Receiv­ing an affir­ma­tive reply, the man remarked, Amaz­ing! I knew that Hans was a good tai­lor, but I had no idea he could make a suit fit so per­fect­ly some­one as deformed as you.” Often that is just what we do in the church. We get some idea of what the Chris­t­ian faith should look like: then we push and shove peo­ple into the most grotesque con­fig­u­ra­tions until they fit won­der­ful­ly! That is death. It is a wood­en legal­ism which destroys the soul.

Often my stu­dents who are work­ing on the Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines will keep a jour­nal. When I read those jour­nals I fre­quent­ly must coun­sel the stu­dents to quit try­ing so hard to be reli­gious. Let go a lit­tle bit! The Dis­ci­plines are a grace as well as a Dis­ci­pline. There is an ease, a nat­u­ral­ness that flows as we walk with God. Some peo­ple are not ready for cer­tain Dis­ci­plines, and so should be kept from doing them. We should nev­er encour­age each oth­er to embrace the Dis­ci­plines until there is an inter­nal readiness.

The best way to keep the Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines from becom­ing law is to show forth that inward spir­it of free­dom with­in us. As we mod­el the life of right­eous­ness, joy and peace in the Holy Spir­it, peo­ple will be attract­ed. They will be drawn into the most rig­or­ous expe­ri­ences of spir­i­tu­al exer­cis­es with­out dead­ly legal­ism. Jesus was a man of spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline, but his life did not put peo­ple in bondage. It set them free. The same is true for Paul and Peter and all the Saints. One can­not read The Lit­tle Flow­ers of St. Fran­cis or Hud­son Tay­lor’s Spir­i­tu­al Secret with­out being caught up in their sense of joy and free­dom. We must remem­ber that the Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines are per­cep­tions into life, not reg­u­la­tions for con­trol­ling life. 

II.

The sec­ond pit­fall is the fail­ure to under­stand the social impli­ca­tions of the Dis­ci­plines. The Dis­ci­plines are not a set of pious exer­cis­es for the devout. They are trum­pet call to a freely gath­ered mar­tyr peo­ple who know now the life and pow­ers of the King­dom of God. We are called to holy obe­di­ence in a sin wracked world. The Dis­ci­plines call us to wage peace in a world obsessed with war, to plead for jus­tice in a world plagued by inequity, to stand with the poor and dis­in­her­it­ed in a world where the neigh­bor is for­got­ten. We are to engage in the Lamb’s war against sin in every area. This war is waged on all fronts at once — per­son­al, social, insti­tu­tion­al. Where have we got­ten this fool­ish divi­sion of things spir­i­tu­al and things sec­u­lar? The life of dis­ci­plined obe­di­ence reach­es into every sphere of human exis­tence. We are called to attack evil wher­ev­er it is found, using all of the weapons avail­able to us con­sis­tent with Eph­esians 6. As James Nay­lor put it, Christ puts spir­i­tu­al weapons into our hearts and hands to make war with his ene­mies.” We con­quer, not as the prince of this world … with whips and pris­ons, tor­tures and tor­ments … But with the word of truth … return­ing love for hatred, wrestling with God against the enmi­ty, with prayers and tears night and day, with fast­ing, mourn­ing and lamen­ta­tion, in patience, in faith­ful­ness, in truth, in love unfeigned, in long-suf­fer­ing, and in all of the fruits of the Spir­it, that if by any means we may over­come evil with good.” 

III.

The third pit­fall is to view the Dis­ci­plines as vir­tu­ous in them­selves. In and of them­selves, the Dis­ci­plines have absolute­ly no virtue what­so­ev­er. They will not make us right­eous. They will not give us any brown­ie points with God. They do absolute­ly noth­ing except place us before God. This was the cen­tral truth the Phar­isees failed to see. They thought their dis­ci­plines could some­how make them right­eous. So fast­ing, for instance, could become the key. It is this mis­take that caus­es peo­ple to turn the Dis­ci­plines into a legal­ism. When we embrace a sys­tem, we have a hoop we can hold out for oth­er peo­ple to jump through. But once we see that the Dis­ci­plines do not make us right­eous, then we are free from all such sys­tems. The func­tion of the Dis­ci­plines is sim­ply to place us before God. With that they reach the end of their use­ful­ness. The right­eous­ness of the King­dom of God is then a gift which comes to us. 

IV.

A fourth and sim­i­lar pit­fall is to cen­ter on the Dis­ci­plines rather than on Christ. The Dis­ci­plines are for the pur­pose of real­iz­ing a greater good. One can­not play the game of soc­cer with­out rules, but the rules are not the game. I do not spend all day read­ing the rules of soc­cer and con­sid­er that a won­der­ful expe­ri­ence. The joy comes from play­ing the game. The rules of soc­cer are for the pur­pose of help­ing us real­ize the greater good which is the expe­ri­ence of the game itself. The Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines are for the pur­pose of real­iz­ing the greater good which is the encounter with Christ him­self. We must always focus our atten­tion upon Christ rather than the Dis­ci­plines. It is not wrong to study and exper­i­ment with the Dis­ci­plines as long as we always remem­ber that they are only lead­ing us into the real­i­ty. The Dis­ci­plines are a means of grace to lead us into the grace itself. 

V.

A fifth pit­fall is the ten­den­cy to iso­late or ele­vate one Dis­ci­pline and exclude or neglect the oth­ers. When I received the sam­ple print­ing of the cov­er for Cel­e­bra­tion of Dis­ci­pline, I died inside. 1 learned for the first time that the sub­ti­tle cho­sen by the pub­lish­er was Paths to Spir­i­tu­al Growth.” Imme­di­ate­ly I wrote a detailed let­ter in response, say­ing, essen­tial­ly, you missed the whole point.” It is not paths,” as if each Dis­ci­pline is a sep­a­rate path which we can take with­out going down the oth­ers. It is path.” The Dis­ci­plines are a sin­gle real­i­ty. They are a seam­less robe. It is like the fruit of the Spir­it — not fruits, but fruit. We can­not have love with­out hav­ing joy, peace, patience, kind­ness, good­ness, faith­ful­ness, gen­tle­ness and self-con­trol. These all describe a sin­gle real­i­ty, a sin­gle life. The same is true of the Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines. Some­times peo­ple will get intrigued, for exam­ple, with fast­ing, think­ing this sin­gle Dis­ci­pline will real­ly lead them into God. Or, they will take up sim­plic­i­ty. They will go through all kinds of con­tor­tions to sim­pli­fy their lives, yet for­get that this is only one part of a much larg­er pic­ture. The Dis­ci­plines com­prise an organ­ic whole. For the life that is pleas­ing to God is not a series of reli­gious duties. It is only one thing — to hear God’s voice and to obey his word. The Dis­ci­plines are help­ful only as they work togeth­er to enhance that life.

VI.

The sixth pit­fall is to think that the twelve Dis­ci­plines which I have men­tioned in this arti­cle and in Cel­e­bra­tion of Dis­ci­pline some­how exhaust the means of God’s grace. This is a dan­ger because it looks so neat­ly pack­aged — four inward Dis­ci­plines, four out­ward Dis­ci­plines, four cor­po­rate Dis­ci­plines. But Christ is greater than any attempt to describe his work­ings with his chil­dren. He can­not be con­fined to any sys­tem, no mat­ter how wor­thy. As far as I know, there is no exhaus­tive list of the Chris­t­ian Disciplines. 

The Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines are ways by which we place our­selves before God. What­ev­er ush­ers us into the Holy of Holies is prop­er and right for us to engage in. In my dis­cus­sions I have tried to con­cen­trate on those Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines which are uni­ver­sal. They are for all Chris­tians at all times. But there are cer­tain­ly oth­er spe­cif­ic expe­ri­ences and ways of com­ing before God that par­tic­u­lar indi­vid­u­als will take up at par­tic­u­lar times. We must let Christ be our ever present Teacher to show us how we can learn bet­ter to walk with him. 

There is a peren­ni­al temp­ta­tion to con­fine Christ as we describe his work­ings with his chil­dren. We will read the Spir­i­tu­al Exer­cis­es of St. Ignatius of Loy­ola or Jere­my Taylor’s Rule and Exer­cise of Holy Liv­ing, and then we will turn them into anoth­er sys­tem which con­fines the work of the Spir­it rather than sets us free. This temp­ta­tion is strong when we enter into a won­der­ful expe­ri­ence of God’s pres­ence through par­tic­u­lar cir­cum­stances: a cer­tain kind of wor­ship ser­vice, per­haps with an alter call or a par­tic­u­lar hymn like Just As I Am,” a cer­tain litur­gy or set­ting, or a spe­cial pos­ture such as kneel­ing. We think that some­how does it all, and in order to retain the expe­ri­ence we repeat the cir­cum­stances. We take what was a liv­ing, vibrant real­i­ty and cal­ci­fy and cement it. We destroy the very expe­ri­ence we seek. 

There is a delight­ful lit­tle cho­rus which goes this way:
In a new and liv­ing way Jesus comes to us today.

The way he comes to us today will prob­a­bly be dif­fer­ent than the way he came to us yes­ter­day; and tomor­row will be dif­fer­ent from today. We must always be sen­si­tive to these move­ments so we do not con­fine the Holy Spir­it. No descrip­tion of the Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines exhausts the way God works. He will prob­a­bly teach us spir­i­tu­al exer­cis­es which nobody has writ­ten anywhere. 

VII.

The sev­enth pit­fall is the most dan­ger­ous. It is the temp­ta­tion to study the Dis­ci­plines with­out expe­ri­enc­ing them. To dis­cuss the Dis­ci­plines in the abstract, to argue and debate their nature and valid­i­ty —this we can do in rel­a­tive safe­ty. But to step out into expe­ri­ence threat­ens us at the core of our being. Nev­er­the­less, there is no oth­er way. We can­not learn the Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines in the West­ern, abstract way. The knowl­edge comes through the expe­ri­ence. Peo­ple will debate with me about med­i­ta­tion, for exam­ple, but there is only so far we can go in the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cus­sion. This is a field which is like sci­ence. We can­not avoid lab exper­i­ments. So I say, Let’s not talk about it. Let’s do it. Then out of that expe­ri­ence we will reflect upon what hap­pened.” We do not debate whether or not it is pos­si­ble to hear God; we try it, and then see what happens. 

Of course, peo­ple will say to me there is a dan­ger of falling off the deep end. And that is a dan­ger, but please remem­ber there is also a dan­ger of falling off the shal­low end. When a per­son falls off the deep end at least there is a chance of swim­ming. If you fall off the shal­low end, you are going to break your neck. 

In the famous book of Cer­vantes, Don Quixote, de la Man­cha says, It is one thing to praise dis­ci­pline, and anoth­er to sub­mit to it.” May God give us the grace to jump in and get our feet wet in this adven­tur­ous life of the Spir­i­tu­al Disciplines. 

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Excerpt­ed from Cel­e­bra­tion of Dis­ci­pline Study Guide pub­lished in 1983 by Harper­Collins.

Originally published February 1983