We all agree that “spiritual discipline” is intended to increase our spirituality, particularly that which will inculcate habits or behaviours to make us more like Christ. We know spiritual discipline can mean Bible-reading, meditation, worship, fasting, solitude, fellowship, evangelism, almsgiving, creation care, journaling, vows of celibacy and more, making us “deep” people. Richard J Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, emphasises, “The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.”
However, when it comes to spirituality, we tend to be spontaneous and look for something that requires little to no efforts. Spirituality without discipline is sporadic and dependent on fluctuating feelings and external circumstances. We find ourselves lacking sustained growth and, thus, become prisoners of unbridled spirituality. Another challenge is that of spiritual individualism which takes at least two forms. First, a conviction that spirituality is merely a matter of personal preference, allowing people to pick and choose what they like, mixing them as ingredients of an Indian curry. Second, a conviction that spirituality is essentially a private matter, leading people to concentrate on inner experience and pursue spiritual goals entirely on their own.
One of the premises in which early church operated was that if they were to be attractive, it was not because they were born that way, but because they had been reborn—changed and converted. Irenaeus, one of the church fathers, insisted that the church’s overarching goal was “renewing (people) from their old habits into the newness of Christ.” They emphasised careful spiritual formations and teachings. Their former habits were deeply ingrained in them by people raised in Greco-Roman societies. So if people were to develop Christian reflexes, they needed time, the friendship of mentors and the opportunity to grow in Christ-like ways of living.
Two factors stand out. First, spiritual discipline was not just left to individual development; instead, it was the church’s commitment. This was developed with the help of mentors—Catechists and Catechumens (or catechumenate); the root word comes from the Greek word “to echo” which means to thrive spiritually and pass along the faith effectively. Friendly mentors helped with spiritual practices to convincingly echo Christ.
Second, spiritual discipline is for the transformation of habitus—a reflexive Christ-like bodily behaviour. The church intentionally imparted aspects that ‘made’ Christians. Their mentors knew that people are profoundly formed by the stories they tell; therefore, they made it a priority to present to the mentoree the Bible narrative, which would replace the pagan stories as their primary fund of memory. Further, many mentors saw that instructing the catechumens in “teaching Jesus” was central to their catechesis; for example, Sermon on the Mount/Plain. They encouraged practices like memorising biblical passages to fill the people’s memories (most of them were illiterate) with significant biblical texts. Consciously imitating Christian role models, fostering a culture of peace or learning to engage with mature Christians were also promoted. Many had initially approached the church because of a Christian whose behaviour or attitude had appealed to them. When one joins God’s people, one has a different country (heaven) and a different lawgiver (God). These “deep people” are described by the phrase ‘Wise Doves’ from Didascaliaapostolorum (The Teaching of Apostles, possibly, a 3rd-century Christian writing). This was written to a cluster of communities in Syria, and provides us with a ‘freeze-frame’ of church life that was growing in ‘attraction’. Wise doves are “deep people” whose spiritual disciplines help enrich their own lives and of those around them.