Self Discipline

Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006).

Male DietMy wife thinks I need to lose weight, and as the good book says, “with such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it.” (Judges 16:16) She sent me for my annual checkup, and the doctor used nasty words like “body mass index” and “lose 15 pounds.” But I refuse to diet because it is unhealthy and is hard work. Happily for my wife the Lenten season is upon us, and while I am incapable of dieting I am quite happy to fast, which sometimes gives similar results. The difference between dieting and fasting is enormous. Dieting is about self-discipline and is an entirely egocentric activity. Fasting is about someone else. It is a social activity, in that you do it together with God.

Sacred RhythmsRuth Haley Barton is very insistent in Sacred Rhythms (2006)  that spiritual disciplines are rooted in “the longing to connect experientially and even viscerally with Someone beyond ourselves.” The book is structured around seven practices – she calls them “rhythms” – that Christians use to draw closer to God. Barton walks us through solitude, lectio divina, prayer, learning to love your body, the Ignatian examen, discerning the presence of God, and keeping the Sabbath. All of these are time-honored practices in the Christian church but Barton manages to breath new life into them as she reminds us of how quickly we let our busy lives crowd out rhythms that should be foundational to everyday Christianity. The beginning and end of these rhythms is desire, Barton argues, but in her enthusiasm she sometimes loses this focus and seems to drift into self-help talk. Barton’s problem is that these rhythms are so good for restoring balance to hectic and disoriented lives that she wants her readers to practice them for their own benefit. In many ways Barton is selling spiritual disciplines much as secular authors promote mindfulness techniques. This book clearly fits within the self-help genre in its writing style and anecdotes, but that is not an excuse not to read it – all of us need a little help now and then.

Lectio divinaBarton is at her best when she writes about spirituality as a relationship. “When we engage the Scriptures for spiritual transformation,” she says, “we engage not only our mind but also our heart, our emotions, our body, our curiosity, our imagination and our will. We open ourselves to a deeper level of understanding and insight that grows out of and leads us deeper into our personal relationship with the One behind the text.” She constantly describes these rhythms as the actions of a lover. We do them because they bring us joy and they should flow naturally from our way of being in the world. As we come to know God better, this in turn opens us up to ourselves as others. Sex is better, Barton argues, when we experience it “as a holy, inalienable generative force” that is deeply rooted in God. When we keep the Sabbath we move more slowly, and become “more available to each other in terms of our time and also in terms of our attention and spirit.” And confessing our faults to other people restores relationships and gives us a new sense of freedom.

But Barton is quite aware that most of us have few if any of these rhythms in our lives and this book is a plea to remedy that. It is impossibly difficult to insert a new spiritual discipline into a life which revolves around work and play. Spiritual disciplines have to be part of the central rhythms of our lives or they will not bear fruit. Barton explains, “many of us try to shove spiritual transformation into the nooks and crannies of a life that is already unmanageable, rather than being willing to arrange our life for what our heart most wants.” She calls  arranging life for spiritual transformation establishing a “rule of life.” This means being deliberate about what we do and when we do it, and disciplining ourselves to make it happen. Not an easy task for those of us who can’t even diet properly, but with God, nothing is impossible.

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