Maintaining Spiritual Discipline
In the wonderful movie Up, a talking dog is a prominent protagonist. Even though he talks, he's still very much a dog. Like most dogs with whom I have shared habitat, this dog has significant attention-deficit issues. One of the recurring conceits of the film are scenes where the dog is talking to one of the humans and in the midst of speaking, his head pivots quickly one way or the other and he yells "squirrel!" as a squirrel runs by somewhere off screen. He then immediately resumes whatever he was saying.
My guess is that this image resonates with most of us as we seek to deepen our relationship with God. We have our own "squirrel" proclivities when it comes to our spiritual lives and practices. Our practices are hard for us to maintain because there are so many "squirrel" distractions grabbing our attention. It is not that we are necessarily spiritually lazy. The longing for a closer relationship to God really is our desire, but we lack the discipline needed to focus our practices.
As we begin a new year, many people will make resolutions to change something about their lives. Some of those same people will focus the attempted change on their spiritual lives and practices. While this can be a good thing, my hunch is too many people will bite off more than they can chew, set unrealistic and unmanageable commitments, fail to keep those commitments, then give up, and be back where they started, only full of, if not self-hatred, at least a profound personal disappointment that they cannot seem to grow closer to God.
From my own experience, there are five keys to keeping any spiritual practice. First it needs to be specific. We should be able to say clearly what we're going to do or not do. Next, it needs to be realistic. It should be something we can really manage given our lives as they are (and not as we fantasize them to be). Thus, it must be flexible enough to fit our current schedule and experience. Rigidity will only lead us to the spiral down to self-disappointment. Still, the discipline or practice must also be sacrificial. In other words, by engaging in it, it should cost something of our time and energy. And, so we don't go off on wild tangents, the practice should be responsive to the claims of Jesus on his disciples, as the Church has received them.
Above all, our spiritual practice must be something we actively do, regularly and repetitively. In a sense, it is kind of like breathing. Passivity will sabotage us every time. For example, many people believe they will grow closer to God by reading the right books. I know from my own experience that expecting to grow deeper in my relationship with God through reading books about the spiritual life is like expecting to become physically fit by reading books about exercising. Now, reading books on the spiritual life (or reading eCroziers, for that matter) are hopefully edifying, but the Saints of the Church remind us we grow closer to God through actively engaging in concrete spiritual practices like daily prayer, serving others, showing hospitality to strangers, making Eucharist, and tithing (yes, tithing). When we engage in practices like these regularly and over time, we will find ourselves deepening our faith and growing closer to God.