Discipline – Pastor’s Reflection
By my count this Fifth Sunday of Easter completes eight weeks of lockdown. I write these lines ten days before you read them so I do not know if we have begun to emerge. At seven weeks in, where I am, it feels like walking across the flat bottom of a trough. The descent challenged us profoundly because the terrain shifted constantly, lots of sudden drops. Difficulty brought thrill though, as we mustered the creativity to be nimble in subsidence.
After the adventures of live-streamed Holy Week we landed on new flat ground at the bottom, and we found ourselves in Covid Valley normal. Spaced, masked, and gloved we walk across its floor toward what must be its other side. We know an ascent lies ahead, but the mileage to it and the contours of it lie shrouded in mist. Is it steep we wonder, or a long gradual grade? Is this rise in the road the beginning of it? All of a sudden we are kids in the back asking our leadership up front, “are we there yet?”
Trekking across the bottom lands I chastise myself with counsel I have given so easily to others, “Stay in this chapter of life until life moves you to the next one.” My 10-year ministry as Novice Master taught me this lesson. I used to have each class of novices for a year, from August to August. Each year during June they would begin to leave me long before leaving me. Their minds started seminary early, for they had tired of the long routine of the Novitiate. Humanly, this is normal: what grass does not look greener on the other side of a transition? As the years went on I learned to say to Novices, “Stay in the Novitiate until you leave it.” Rendering the lesson topographically, I have come to see that a landscape yields hidden riches when I have walked through it for a while, but if boredom has sent my mind on ahead, I will miss them.
In God’s providence these long flats of lockdown will yield insights, if I recognize lockdown as something assigned to me for my good. What then have these unstructured days taught me about me, with regard to conversation and silence, food and drink, work and leisure, laws and loved-ones. I have just made decisions about each of these parts of life (how do I interpret the rules about PPE?). Reviewing such choices becomes important because the lessons of the lockdown may provide the wherewithal for the long climb up out of it. Punditry abounds on the world after Covid-19, (or even just the world after lockdown), but I will affect that world by the resolves I have reached in my room, off of the pundit’s grid.
The time down here has shown me how often the expectations of others organize my life. From my teenage years I have readily showered, shaved, and dressed every morning, but for all those years there has been someone for whom to do it. Now that I have few appearances to make, I discover the satisfaction of doing it for myself. My personal, domestic experience of the quarantine has been the challenging but joyful experience of discipline in general and disciplines in particular. I discover how much it matters to me that I meet my call to prayer even when it is not public, and that it feels right when I eat right, even when I can now eat whatever I want and whenever I want. I realize how much my appearance matters to me even when no one is around to comment on my fashion sense or my adherence to professional standards. So I have tried to build all of these practices into lockdown: I note serenity when I succeed and the lassitude when I fail.
The habits I ponder comprise the regimen of early morning, usually done half asleep and trying to remember what has to be done today. But in quarantine they come into their own and I find that they connect me to my being. It’s all about discovering the life of Walter independent of job, community, and credentials. Delving into this truth does not supplant the public works but offers them a deeper grounding. As the weeks go by I discover that my morning praxis sets a tone for the whole day. It makes me more present to myself and God, and thence to others and to work. Thus, inner order drives the outer rather than vice versa.
Where the inner disciplines obtain the external ones form more easily. If I dress for me and not just for others, the unfortunate mask and gloves go on more serenely, and it is easier to be six feet from others if I am close to myself. Interior discipline supporting external practice makes all the difference when that practice must shift rapidly.
Here in the valley practices have stabilized a bit, we have our plans for food delivery, and we have learned zoom, all too well. But an unmapped ascent means rocks and brambles in the trail and lots of switchback turns. So we will go back into a world of conflicting guidance, 180 degree changes in policy, and rumor everywhere. Disciplines fostered in lockdown though can secure the reservoir of patience and perseverance needed for another season of flux.
If we stand on firm inner ground we will manage the circuitous climb ahead. Then, I think, we will perceive in a new way God’s Lordship of history. He has presided in love over humanity’s golden ages and dark ages. Our human lot demands coping with the age, or ages, to which we have been assigned. We are all hikers trying to discern the trail ahead, while maintaining sure footfalls on the terrain of the present. God makes this effort a way to find where real constancy lies, within us by virtue formed, and from Him by grace given.
Published in our bulletin May 10, 2020