Discipline and Spontaneity


I learned from Whispers in the Loggia that, yesterday, the Trappist community of Mepkin Abbey elected Dom Stanislaus Gomula as the new abbot. Keep him in your prayers. The community’s previous abbot, Dom Francis Kline, passed away in August. I posted a couple times from Francis Kline’s writings after his death – here and here – and perhaps I should do so once more.

In September of 2001, a conference met at Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beach Grove, Indiana, to discuss the recently published Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of St Benedict. Dom Francis Kline delivered a talk on the relationship of discipline and spontaneity, a theme of the book. In our own lives, I think that we tend to oppose discipline and spontaneity. We cling to the sure rigidity of discipline when we find ourselves disturbed by the vagaries of either the circumstances in which we find ourselves or our own subjectivities. Then – perhaps soon after – we grasp for spontaneity against the unbearable constriction of discipline. Francis Kline reminds us that “discipline itself prepares for surprise,” and that we cannot encounter any real spontaneity until we have been prepared for it by discipline. Discipline and spontaneity go together.

Kline noted that the word “spontaneity” was not often used in Western monastic literature. After his talk, Roger Corless, a professor at Duke who was one of the founders of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, noted that one can find a great deal of “spontaneity” in the idiorhythmic tradition of Eastern Christianity. I’m not sure about contemporary application of this tradition (please feel free to enlighten me), but I’ll include an excerpt from Dr Corless after an excerpt from Dom Francis Kline:

Another perspective, and I was very edified to see this in the book, is the experience of spontaneity within discipline. They’re really not opposed, as we all know. It’s unthinkable to have a kind of discipline that gets rigid to the point where we’re not alive to the things that are going on around us, and that’s exactly what Judith says: “We find in our practice a kind of natural discipline.” I’m interested in the definition of the word “natural,” even when she gets to the next page and talks about a “sacred character” to discipline. Because, in the Benedictine and Cistercian perspective, the idea of spontaneity is the liberation, I think, that we find at the end of Chapter 7 on humility: this total transformation experience, that what was a rule, what was counter to what we wanted to do, becomes natural, becomes so much a part of us that the love of virtue, the love of Christ, becomes who we are. Then discipline takes on a new meaning. But the word spontaneity is not used so much, as far as I know, in the Christian West, in monastic circles. I’m sure you can find it in places—but what I think it’s pointing to is the surprise in life, how flexible we can be in the face of situations that are bound to come up all the time. Here art may help us, because you never have a total surprise or something that’s totally spontaneous in true and great art. I mean, you do have it, but the one who is surprised is not the viewer or the listener so much as the one who’s creating the work. The discipline itself prepares for surprise. The Rule itself gives rise to something greater than itself, if we’re being honest and true to the practice.

I point to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite were not able to be spontaneously compassionate. Perhaps they didn’t have the kind of preparation that was necessary to jump cultural boundaries, to be Jews and take care of whoever was injured in the pit. But the Samaritan, who wasn’t supposed to be generous to whoever was in the pit or suffering from the robber’s wounds, was the person who jumped all of these rigid rules and went to help the individual. And not only was he generous, but he was generous to an exaggerated degree—yet his generosity was not inappropriate, it was not unfitting, and I think that’s what I’m trying to say about this view of discipline and spontaneity. No matter how much of a surprise things may be and no matter how spontaneous they are, they’re still prepared for somehow, in the outreach that we may make to them. We come prepared to do this, even in mystery.

Roger Corless: In the remarks we’ve just received from Father Francis, I was struck by his comment that spontaneity is not mentioned that much in the Western tradition. I think he was careful to say the Western tradition. And it struck me that if we were to have monks and nuns of the Eastern Orthodox tradition in this conversation, it would be enriched and different because of the idiorhythmic tradition in the Eastern Orthodox, which seems to have gone out in the West a little bit, though it appears to have been there in St. Benedict’s time. It seems that he lived as an idiorythmic monk, that is one who made up his own schedule rather than receiving it. In what I think is really one of the more amusing stories, he’s off on his own in the wilderness practicing by himself, and a raven comes every day with some bread and that’s all very nice. But one morning, no raven, no bread, and no breakfast. Oh well, that’s the breaks—and then along comes a human with a whole basket of bread, saying, “It’s Easter.” And he didn’t know that, so he wasn’t going to mass, and he wasn’t with the community; he was doing something else on his own. But that tradition seems to have been kept up in Eastern Orthodoxy, where a direct connection with God outside of the sacramental system is still regarded as something worthwhile and often made by people who are not priests—of course, St. Benedict was never a priest. He knew some priests, apparently, and wasn’t too impressed with them [laughter]. So I certainly don’t regret that in the book there is no mention of Eastern Orthodox Christians. The book is rich enough as it is, and it is helpful that it has the focus on the Rule of St. Benedict; it doesn’t get too broad. But I would like to ask that as we continue this conversation we find some way to bring in the brothers and sisters of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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