Disciple and Discipline
My beloved in the Lord:
I have always found it interesting that the words “disciple” and “discipline” are related through their connections to being a learner and follower, and to the work of teaching and learning. As I connect the words and apply them to our lives as Orthodox Christians, to be a disciple of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ means that we are committed to the work of learning and being taught first by our Lord Himself, and then by more-experienced disciples. These disciples have named prayer, fasting, philanthropy and study as “the work” that we must follow.
Our Lord included these dimensions in His ministry. We know from Holy Scripture that our Lord prayed and fasted. We know that He was philanthropic; He loves humanity, demonstrating this most profoundly in His Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection, as well as in His many miracles of healing and feeding. We can infer from Holy Scripture that our Lord knew His own Jewish tradition very well, because the crowds marveled at His teachings and He often confounded critics with His wisdom. We see in the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles and the early history of the Church that the first Christians were “devoted” to the disciplines of prayer, fasting, philanthropy and study (see Acts 2:42-46). These practices created the fertile soil for the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of those first Christians, and all Orthodox Christians since, to live the Orthodox Christian life and to grow the Orthodox Christian Church throughout the world.
For Orthodox Christians the spiritual disciplines are essential to our relationship with God, our well-being and our journey of faith throughout our lives. Prayer, fasting, philanthropy and studying the Holy Scriptures as well as the writings of the Church Fathers are practices that help us connect with God. They are guides that nurture our souls in divine wisdom and truth. They renew our strength and fill us with power, assurance and hope. In our daily lives the spiritual disciplines connect us to our Creator, our Source of life and our Redeemer. Through worship we give praise and thanksgiving to God. Through prayer in His presence, we seek His will, confess our sins and receive forgiveness and grace. As we practice and live our spiritual lives, we encounter and are transformed by His abiding love.
In pray, fasting and study, we are offered spiritual guidance. In these disciplines we ask and we seek; and we find the way, the truth and the life in our Resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ. By His example we are led in compassionate service to others, a spiritual discipline that guides us in dedicating our time and resources in showing the grace of God to others. Through the daily, disciplined praxis of these vital elements of our Faith – namely prayer, fasting, philanthropy and study – we are equipped to serve and to share, we are emboldened in the Holy Gospel, and we are filled with assurance and hope in the promises of God.
Some scholars have described their attitude to religion as “whatever-ism.” Whatever you want to do is okay; whatever you believe is okay. This should not be our approach as Orthodox Christians. From the examples of the saints, our role models in Christian living, we see discipline and discipleship as central characteristics of their lives. The saints did not have a “whatever” you want approach. They did not put their Christianity on display for a few hours per week or when a Church leader was present. They were Christians 24/7, as we would say today. They were disciplined in their prayer, fasting, philanthropy and study.
We do not believe you have to “go it alone” in the discipline of Orthodox Christian life. The Holy Church, the community of Faith, is our guide and support in these efforts. It is meant to be a community of people who are dedicated to these disciplines. Many of them are done as a community. We pray together. We follow the same guidelines for fasting as a parish. We can study in classes organized by our parish. We work together to do good works in the world and in our parish.
Praying that the abundant grace and rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ dwell in your hearts and minds, directing your steps to every good deed that is well pleasing to God, I humbly remain,
With love and blessings in the Lord,