Passion, tradition, and discipline: Medieval monks had all the tools necessary for spiritual mastery


girl playing violin_fullWe wonder today why we are spiritually anemic. We (Protestants in particular) acknowledge that the Catholic legacy of spiritual teaching is a strong and useful one (at least, setting aside all that flagellation stuff, anyhow. That’s a joke. See the footnote in this post). In this post from the monasticism chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, I begin to look at where that strength and usefulness came from:

Spiritual mastery requires passion, tradition, and discipline

It may help us to answer the question “Why monasticism?” if we consider ascetic self-denial as one species of a larger phenomenon: the drive to achieve mastery in any human enterprise. How do you master any skill? First, you need to have passionate commitment to the goal of mastery. Second, you need to study and learn practical knowledge handed down in a tradition. Third, you need to practice discipline—both in the sense of dedicating hours and hours to repetitive practice, and in the sense of implementing an often extended list of discrete “disciplines”—the particular repeated actions required by the craft.

Think of the progress of a young girl toward becoming a skilled violinist. First comes the passion: one day she hears a piece of music, and it pierces her heart with pure joy. At the beginning, she just wants to hear it again and again; then, to know how to make those beautiful sounds herself. And so she begins years of lessons and practice, giving herself to those two complementary means to mastery: studying a tradition (here, of musical knowledge) and practicing an askesis—a training or discipline. Daniel Levitin has argued that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field. Let’s say that is so. Then when, as a young adult, the girl finally has poured into her goal those ten thousand hours, she achieves the desired mastery—the fulfillment of that passion that overcame her when she first heard those fateful notes.

The surprising first principle of monasticism: passion

Let’s look for a moment at the first of those three elements, as it illuminates the monastic/ascetic tradition in Christianity. The link between passion and asceticism is illustrated in the life of Francis of Assisi (1181/2 – 1226), who as we have seen (in the “affective devotion” chapter) combined intense joy with an equally intense asceticism.

Passion is simply a necessary part of mastery in any field. The business world calls it a fire in the belly. Jeremiah locates it deeper – he says it’s a “fire shut up in the bones.” The key thing that the “passion dimension” of Christian asceticism reveals is that this asceticism does not equal the hating of the body, nor is it an end in itself—as if we thought there was inherent virtue in fasting (that attitude was in fact one of Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees): We don’t stop with the physical deprivations of celibacy or fasting or voluntary poverty. Rather, it is for something—for union with God, and the amazing experience of that joy and fulfillment.

If we are to proceed to the kind of spiritual discipline that makes us better Christians, we must keep before us the joy that C S Lewis made the central theme of his public theology. Like the mystical notes heard by the girl who decides to play the violin, only the power and bliss of serving God and experiencing his grace can sustain us in that discipline. There will of course be times when we do not feel that bliss – the “dark nights of the soul.” But over the long haul, teeth-gritting willpower is not enough to get us where we need to go.

For us it is finally as Chesterton says it was for Francis: it is a love story, not a theory, that can spur us to heroic action. Why have men and women throughout history worked countless hours in difficult, grinding jobs? To provide for their spouses and children whom they love. It is the same in our spiritual relationships with God and others. Without the prior love, the affective dimension, we will not, we cannot, practice any spiritual discipline that will be effective for us. And we will be in danger of becoming practical atheists, decoupling what we say we believe from how we actually live.

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