Why must we strive to enact spiritual discipline in our personal lives as Christians? Because at the present time, whether we realize it or not, we are in a battle. When we became Christians, we entered into an ancient war, waged from before we can remember. Add to this the reality that we don’t get to fight the way our opponent fights. Ours is not the easier task to destroy. The marching orders are to build up and pass on, not by force, but through loving God and neighbor.
And, if we are not advancing, we are in retreat, for our enemy never rests.
C.S. Lewis said it best in his book, Mere Christianity:
One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. The difference is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.
Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening–in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery. I know someone will ask me, ‘Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil-—hoofs and horns and all?’ Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects my answer is ‘Yes, I do. I do not claim to know anything about his personal appearance. If anybody really wants to know him better I would say to that person. ‘Don’t worry. If you really want to, you will. Whether you’ll like it when you do is another question.’
If you are like me, simply hearing the words “spiritual discipline” is enough to make you feel instantaneously overwhelmed and irretrievably defeated. We feel conquered from before we can remember.
The Rule of St. Benedict was written in the sixth century for Christians seeking to live a life of spiritual discipline so that they could best carry out the task given us to love God and neighbor. It was written in the midst of a decaying and decadent Roman culture where distraction and temptation hounded the faithful at every turn. Sound familiar?
These Christians formed small, semi-insulated communities called monasteries (contrary to modern retellings, these communities were not completely isolated from the world – more on this in a later). I liken their environments to boarding schools because life in them was structured in such a way as to ensure order and education in the Christian virtues. They were designed to limit distraction.
What does such a book offer us today? Two things, at least.
First, it teaches us the benefit of structure – any amount of structure. This is all the more needed today with the numerous distractions that technology hath wrought in our lives. Purposely structuring our day, even in the smallest of ways, enables us to step back from a world that seems to be careening at ever increasing speed down that river of temporal things. St. Augustine wrote of this not long before the time of St. Benedict:
The river of temporal things hurries one along: but like a tree sprung up beside the river is our Lord Jesus Christ. He assumed flesh, died, rose again, ascended into heaven. It was His will to plant Himself, in a manner, beside the river of the things of time. Are you rushing down the stream to the headlong deep? Hold fast the tree. Is love of the world whirling you on? Hold fast Christ. For you He became temporal, that you might become eternal; because He also in such sort became temporal, that He remained still eternal.
It’s a river of temporal things: from the year old iPhone sitting on my desk that is now out-of-date to such an extent that it struggles with the latest electronic update that I feel obligated (and pressured) to download … to the twenty-four-hour news cycle, with the “latest, up-to-date” news, ensuring that I don’t miss out of the most minuscule movement in the machinations of the world. Whew!
G.K Chesterton had this to say in 1935 (before the onslaught of tv advertising, the internet, and globalization, mind you):
At this moment modern men are monstrously over-stimulated and are therefore stale. News and novels and films and fashionable stunts are perpetually playing on their emotions. And where they still have any emotions, they have no emotions remembered in tranquility, which is the definition of poetry because they have no tranquility.
This world is exhaustingly overstimulated. It’s a roaring torrent of an “eternal present” that will carry us along in fury of temporal demands and meaningless pursuits if we let it, leaving little energy left for those activities that are timeless.
If Lewis was right, it’s also battle in which we are either advancing or retreating.
Of course, our lives cannot be packed away into a cloister. Still, the rules can teach us the ways in which we can add a bit more structure – like taking the time out of our schedules in the morning or evening to read Scripture and pray. This adds a bit of eternity into our temporality.
The second thing we can learn from The Rule is the need for accountability.
It should not surprise us that the thought of enacting a spiritual discipline or two feels overwhelming. We are in enemy-occupied territory, after all, and the enemy knows we are here and he will do everything to stop us.
But we are not lone soldiers, trying to survive whilst surrounded by adversaries. At least, we do not have to be. God gave us the church – each other!
The thing that’s most striking about The Rule is its emphasis on accountability. Of course, it gives us a picture of extreme accountability from within a highly structured and self-sufficient environment. This will not do for most of us (and even the monasteries of old recognized this). Most of us are not called to such a life.
Still, just a tiny dose of accountability goes a long way. A small spoonful will help the spiritual discipline go down, in other words.
So, structure and accountability.
My recommendation? Read The Rule and take from it inspiration and wisdom. Even if we may find some of the rules to be extreme and theologically suspect, Benedict offers us keen insight into taming that wildest of natures – ours! Set aside the dismissal and learn from a brother in Christ from before we were born, who was striving to love God and neighbor in this land of rebellion.
Start small and ask God for help in this. We are not alone, after all. He gave us His Spirit, the Comforter, and He gave us each other.
It will not be easy, of course. Just remember – enemy-occupied territory. The spiritual disciplines are not unlike military training. And remember our Lord, from Whom we receive grace upon grace. Nothing can separate us from His love, not even this wild, battlefield (Romans 8:38-39).
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 1:4-10
Dallas Willard on spiritual discipline: Living A Transformed Life Adequate To Our Calling
Rod Dreher on our current situation and The Rule of St. Benedict: The Benedict Option FAQ