Patrick Coffin is the creator and host of The Patrick Coffin Show at patrickcoffin.media. The former host of Catholic Answers Live is also the author of Sex Au Naturel, Stay Cool When the Argument Heats Up, and Once Saved Not Always Saved.
Discipline is quite the virtue. There are thousands of books devoted to instilling it, working toward it, trying to gain it. A simple search on Amazon yields 446,614 book titles on the topic.
The topic seems universal. There are books on disciple for athletes, for business leaders, for soldiers, for singers, actors, and other performers. Without discipline you can’t:
- diet with any success
- accomplish long-term goals
- get in shape
- write much beyond a hello email
- master a new skill
- decide to forgive someone
- pray with any regularity
The most obvious fact about discipline is its scarcity. No one seems to have any! If we did, there would no super-charged book industry powered by people urgently seeking it.
Our fallen nature’s default setting is switched permanently to lazy. You can see how Original Sin works itself out in your children (and – ahem – older children, too): they don’t need to be taught to be bad; they need to be taught to be good. While the Bible and the Church teach that man is not radically corrupt, neither is he merely deprived as the Jets tried to explain to the absent Officer Krupke, in West Side Story: “We’re depraved on account a’ we’re deprived!”
Great musical number—but not quite, boys.
Sloth, self-seeking, acedia (the thing has many names) all lie at the heart of our “weight” in the sense St. Augustine meant by his phrase Pondus meum amor meus, or my love is my weight. Modern readers might miss the metaphor here. By weight is meant a kind of love, the “weight” (or, gravitas) of what one follows, imitates, and is drawn to. Love gambling and neon lights? You hit Vegas. Love choral music? You listen to Morten Lauridsen CDs. Love God? You hit prayer.
Sometimes our loves themselves need to be purified if not exchanged. Along the way, we find it hard to do the right thing and avoid the bad thing, as that great psychiatrist St. Paul wrote, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:18-19).
Our flesh can’t be negotiated with or “accompanied” into some future victory. If we want growth, we must be willing to pound away on the anvil of our flesh with the hammer of decision. There is no shortcut and no magic wand to be waved.
Forget the devil – we can’t even dialogue with our fallen Adam nature let alone the devil. We must crucify it. Nail it to Christ’s cross so the new Adam nature (thanks to divine grace) can step out of its tomb and exult in the hard-won fruit of self-mastery. Venerable Fulton J. Sheen summarized the dynamics of the paschal mystery, which has applications beyond the Faith. In Life of Christ, he wrote, “Unless there is a Good Friday in our lives, there will never be an Easter Sunday. The cross is the condition of the empty tomb, and the crown of thorns is the preface to the halo of light.”
One of Sheen’s mentors, St. John Paul the Great, returned often in his writing and preaching to the theme of self-mastery as the only way to really give oneself to another. One of my favorite pop ballads is The Rose, written by Amanda McBroom and covered famously by Bette Midler in the eponymous 1979 movie, contains a line that is downright Woytyla-esque: “It’s the one who won’t be taken who cannot seem to give.”
We in the Church have access to an impressive vault of works on discipline, written by successful saints and struggling sinners alike. Which is fitting, since the operative root word of discipline is disciple; further, the word disciple is an Old English-Latin hybrid for “learner.”
The key to the spread of the gospel, and to the renewal of parish life, and to keeping our kids Catholic (and helping them back when they stray) – they key to all missionary efforts is the making of disciples.
So let’s take the last commandment of Jesus seriously to “make disciples” of all nations, as we just heard in the (transferred) Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord last Sunday.
In other words, let’s make fellow slow learners. Like us.