With arms stretched out towards You
“In the spiritual life”, writes Henri Nouwen, “the word ‘discipline’ means ‘the effort to create some space in which God can act’.” He goes on to say that “Discipline means that somewhere you’re not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied … to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn’t planned or counted on.” The discipline that Nouwen is describing here is certainly at the heart of an authentic spiritual life and precisely because it invites us into that place of the unplanned and the unexpected, where the initiative is God’s, it can be challenging and even avoided. We human beings don’t take kindly to relinquishing control!
In contrast to what Nouwen refers to here, there is a kind of discipline in the spiritual life which is to be avoided and which is more properly ‘drivenness’ or ‘willfulness’, an undertaking of the ego. One of the definitions of drivenness is ‘being under compulsion’. Words such as ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘have to’, even ‘obsessive’ and ‘scrupulous’, come to mind. To speak of someone as being driven can be at first glance a good thing, a virtuous quality. We think of goals and dedication and commitment, a strong work ethic. But as we probe further we begin to find some less positive aspects to it: a fervent thrust towards an iron-clad goal which leaves little, if any, room for flexibility; a dwindling ability to read the signs both within and around us which may point to the need to re-think that goal and that process. With this comes a weakening of wisdom which is replaced by dogged determination and a narrowness of vision. As this happens we can become increasingly willful and self-focussed, even irrational, and the ego begins to take centre stage. All this takes us slowly but surely off the path of authentic spiritual growth. In our spiritual journey drivenness just gets in the way. What is needed is that we cultivate something much less ego-centred and that is what we call drawnness. Goals, dedication, commitment, determination, are all good traits, but they must be lived in the context of drawnness, and be at the service of our willingness.
To grow into spiritual maturity we are asked to surrender rather than hold onto. We are invited into transformation of our self under the influence and moulding of the Spirit. It is a much gentler, more gracious space that we are invited into. It is a more difficult space to get to in many ways, yet one which will bring greater peace and one which will have greater life-giving power in our lives. As Nouwen says, an authentic spiritual path means that somewhere we are not occupied and that we create a space for what we had not planned. Creating this space can be one of the most difficult things human beings are called upon to do, and that is so because it means relinquishing control, letting go and abandonment of self to the Divine initiative. As the Psalmist of ancient Israel says: “I (God) will instruct you and teach you the way you should go” (Psalm 32). But we certainly have strong drives in the other direction.
Ms Kerry McCullough
Spirituality and Liturgy Coordinator