Sunday, August 2, 2009

Disciplines of Abstinence

These disciplines both require and hone the biblical virtue of Prudence. These are the perfect complement to a life where we have trouble with the vices but we really don’t have any problem mustering the motivation to invest positively in the ‘engaged’ spiritual life. This is for the ‘macro child’ in us. Elaborating on the disciplines of abstinence, the following will help:


Solitude gives us distance from the mad world we live in. It gives us perspective on the things that ordinarily trap, worry and oppress us. The closer we are to the world the further we are from God. Expect resistance from others when we do this, however, as we have an innate ability to reinforce the need for each other.


Silence is hard to achieve and it seemingly underpins good solitude. When we’re silent long enough, we give the ears of our heart and soul the opportunity to receive the echo of eternity: the very personal message of life for us. Switching off outside noise whenever possible is a good discipline to get into. So is the use of ear plugs, especially when sitting alone in a grassy park on a sunny spring morning. Close your eyes. Close off stimulus to the senses every once in a while.


As we desist from eating we feast on God. Thomas รก Kempis said that if we gain control over the deadly sin of gluttony we’re more able to control all temptations of the flesh. Fasting challenges and hones all our fundamental drives, our at-times insatiable desires.


The spiritually wise person knows that frivolous consumption and wanton use of resources removes our dependence on God and harms our relationships with others, inevitably. It is to be frugal on our part, from our own perspective, and not in the light of others i.e. it is a personal discipline (as all these discussed are).


Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “the essence of chastity is not the suppression of lust but the total orientation of one’s life toward a goal.”[1] In this way we actively pursue, and engage with, a positive goal when seeking to be chaste. It is good occasionally to abstain from sex so intimacy in our spousal relationships can blossom (without dependence on sex to deliver it).


“A breast without a secret is an open letter,” said Balthasar Gracian, and “What must be done need not be said, and what must be said need not be done.” Secrecy is possibly the hardest of all disciplines because it hits both our egos and our security need to be recognised. Rightly practiced, secrecy places our public affairs portfolio (e.g. our need to be publically recognised) in God’s hands. It teaches us love and humility.


Sacrificing is more basic than simply frugality, which is simply being thrifty in a surplus world. Sacrifice is about total abandonment to God and the forsaking of our security needs. It’s giving away the last of what we have or need expectant that God will inevitably provide. No short order there!

Try these disciplines out, especially if you’re a ‘macro child’ like me. More in Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishing, 1988).

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (London, England: Fontana, 1953), p. 163. Cited in Willard, Ibid, p. 172.

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