The Discipline of Discipleship
by Thomas Merton
Discipline is not effective unless it is systematic, for the lack of system usually betrays a lack of purpose. Good habits are only developed by repeated acts, and we cannot discipline ourselves to do the same thing over again with any degree of intelligence unless we go about it systematically.
It is necessary, above all at the beginning of our spiritual life, to do certain things at fixed times: fasting on certain days, prayer and meditation at definite hours of the day, regular examinations of conscience, regularity in frequenting sacraments (i.e., communion), systematic application to our duties of state, particular attention to virtues which are most necessary for us.
To desire a spiritual life is, thus, to desire discipline. Otherwise, our desire is an illusion. It is true that discipline is supposed to bring us, eventually, to spiritual liberty. Therefore our [self-discipline] should make us spiritually flexible, not rigid, for rigidity and liberty never agree. But our discipline must, nevertheless, have a certain element of severity about it. Otherwise, it will never set us free from the passions.
If we are not strict with ourselves, our own flesh will soon deceive us. If we do not command ourselves severely to pray and penance (acts of repentance) at certain definite times and make up our mind to keep our resolutions in spite of notable inconvenience and difficulty, we will quickly be deluded by our own excuses and let ourselves be led away by weakness and [impulse].
It is very helpful to have a spiritual director (or mentor) who will guide our efforts in self-discipline, and although direction is not absolutely necessary, in theory, for a sound spiritual life, there are, nevertheless, in practice many men who will never get anywhere without it. Besides the valuable instruction a good [mentor] can give us, we also need his encouragement and his corrections. It is much easier to persevere in our penance, meditation, and prayer if we have someone to remind us of the resolutions we have begun to forget. Spiritual direction (mentoring) will protect us, in some measure, against our own instability. The function of the [mentor] is to orient our discipline toward spiritual freedom. It takes a good [mentor] to do this, and good [mentors] are rare.
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk in the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. This excerpt taken from No Man Is an Island—1955, pages 111-113. Brackets and parenthesis represent synonyms replacing original words to use more current words for the reading and understanding of the text. What Thomas Merton wrote in his book on discipline strengthens the concept of using and applying a discipleship/mentor system to our spiritual life.