Saturday, March 01, 2008

On Reading and Discipline

As you can see, I've added a "Currently Reading" list on the sidebar of this blog. There are two reasons for this. The first, and more minor, is that it will provide you, dear readers, with some idea of what I'm thinking about, so if you see something that you would like me to interact with in a blog-post, you can feel free to add a comment somewhere and ask me about it. The second reason is that I'm woefully undisciplined in too many areas of my life, and reading is among them. Though I'm probably above average in how much I read, I have a sorry habit of picking up book after book, all at the same time, so that it can take me months to finish even one. Right now I have rows of books on my shelves, some with ten pages read, some with twenty, some with fifty, and so on. So I've restricted myself to reading no more than six books at a time (and yes, that is a restriction), within certain genre-slots: (1) devotional or spiritual classic, (2) novel/literature, (3) poetry/literature, (4) theology/ministry/Christian living, (5) history/biography, and (6) social or science studies. Within this pattern, I'm forcing myself to read one book to completion before I can pick up another to fill that slot. So, for instance, I have to finish reading Augustine's Confessions before I can move on to another devotional or spiritual classic. I'm hoping that adding this list to my blog will give me a certain passive accountability in the process.
It has been an ongoing battle with me to add some similar discipline to my devotional life. And I'm beginning to think that the best solution might be for me to adopt a similarly flexible-but-disciplined program there. There seems to be a certain spontaneity in my interests and practices, which, if left unbridled, would run in each of a thousand directions if I were given a thousand days to fill. So some discipline is needed, but I've found that if I try to submit to a rigid rule of life, I eventually end up dropping it. If I were living in a community of mutual submission and discipline, I think it would be much easier for me to keep my rule, hence my attraction to the new monastic movement.
For instance, over the past year I've been pushing myself to practice the daily offices, a system in which certain fixed-hour prayers are incorporated into the day. I developed my own pattern and liturgy for the process, and observed offices in the morning, noontime, early evening, and at bedtime. During the weeks when I was consistently practicing the offices, it was a tremendously life-giving discipline for me. Unfortunately, I can't seem to do it for more than three weeks at a time. Part of the reason, I expect, is sloth, and some radical mortification of the flesh would probably do me good. But another reason, I'm beginning to see, is that I'm not really fashioned to live within such a rigid schedule, at least not on my own power. I would need the strength of community to be able to do it well. My highest and most intimate times of prayer come in unplanned moments, when a longing for God overtakes me. It happens most often when I'm alone in some piece of wilderness, or lost in the center of a song, or drinking tea over a half-written poem. So I'm realizing the importance of giving myself those times, of going out for long walks beside the river and taking a few moments to fill our quiet apartment with song.
The other spark in my spiritual life has always been intercessory prayer. If I have a true "calling" toward anything in my life, it's that; and I confess that I've been woefully unfaithful at it lately. But recently God has breathed his gentle reminders into my life, and now I feel like I've stepped back into a holy commission. At times intercession is a powerful, humbling, awesome experience, and at other times, as with any disciplined activity, it's a dreary task that I would rather avoid. But that's the way of all Christian service, I think. And I find that after a period of intercessory prayer, I am more ready to commune with God in an intimate, mystical way than I am at any other time. So I've adjusted my practice of the daily offices to a more flexible schedule, with intercessory prayers given a much more prominent place. Perhaps someday I'll be in a position to benefit from the direct discipline and accountability of an intimate body of faith, but for now I may have to learn to fall in love with discipline through the ways that already draw me into the love of God.
I am still very much a novice at such things, and I welcome your prayers and advice.