Discipline and order

In these articles on the plan of life, the series of Spiritual practices promoted by the saints to help one grow in holiness, we have recently focused on study and work, two habits that are meant to be done not at a particular frequency — daily, weekly, monthly, or annually — but are supposed to foster basic orientations of life each day. 

A third continuous Spiritual exercise necessary to promote the conditions for sanctity would be discipline and order. 

There’s an old monastic adage, “Serva ordinem et ordo servabit te,” “Keep order and order will keep you.” Once we form a certain healthy order in life and begin to live by it, that habit of order will sustain us for the long term. The success of a plan of life depends precisely on keeping one’s life ordered and one’s priorities genuinely prioritized. One cannot be a good disciple without self-discipline.

We’ve all met people whose lives are disordered. Their bedrooms, closets and desks are eligible for federal disaster relief. They struggle to keep to a schedule: they’re regularly late for appointments if they don’t forget them altogether. They may be extremely gifted, even geniuses, but because they don’t live and work in a structured way their great talents, ideas and aspirations often amount to very little. Those who are of modest abilities, on the other hand, are able to accomplish a great deal when they live and work methodically. 

To order is basically to put something in its proper place. It’s to prioritize properly and then act on those priorities. To live in an ordered manner requires us to have a good sense of what’s most important and to arrange our time and energy in such a way as best to obtain those goals. 

This is different than how many today prefer to live. We live in an age in which spontaneity is valued and order, even an order one has freely chosen, is considered a form of slavery. Many are ruled by their whims, thinking that caprice constitutes freedom; capriciousness, rather, is a subtle form of slavery to the ephemeral and to one’s emotions.  

Jesus lived in an ordered way and calls us to follow Him. He patiently prepared Himself in Nazareth and then in the desert for His public ministry. He carefully chose His Apostles and trained them methodically. He prioritized prayer, leaving the crowds in order to have time together with the Father, and charity, working miracles of healing one by one. He had a clear sense of time, not allowing Himself to get drawn into traps by those seeking His demise, but rather waiting until it was His “hour” (Jn 2:4; 8:20). And when He sent out His disciples two-by-two to proclaim the Kingdom, He gave them the instruction, “Greet no one along the way” (Lk 10:4), which wasn’t a green light to be rude to wayfarers on the paths of ancient Palestine, but rather a clear indication not to get distracted from their mission by other things that might arise along the way. 

To live a Christian life is, like Jesus, to live an ordered life. 

In the last week, we have celebrated the feasts of two saints known for not only for their personal order — St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Alphonsus Ligouri — but for their teaching others through their Spiritual writings and through the religious congregations they founded the importance of such Spiritual discipline. St. Ignatius brought a sound structure to the interior life, writing his famous “Spiritual Exercises” to help Jesuits and others order their prayer and their souls. St. Alphonsus used to preach parish missions to help people convert and re-order their existence to God. He also authored various books on moral theology to help them acquire the type of order that allowed them to hear God’s voice in conscience and choose the right despite the contrary appeals of various temptations. 

We see the beauty of order in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Luke says of her that she “kept all [God’s] Words, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19,51). The word St. Jerome used to translate “kept” was “conservare,” which comes from the same root as the verb employed in the aphorism “serva ordinem.” When Mary said to the Angel Gabriel, “Let it be done to me according to Your Word,” she was making a commitment to live according to the order of God’s holy Word — and keeping that order helped to keep her safe from all stain of original sin and ascend to the top of the hierarchy of holiness. 

We’ve been made in the image and likeness of God, and we see how in the beginning of time God ordered all of creation. The more we keep order, not only the more order will keep us but the more we will grow in God’s image. That’s the goal of a plan of life. 

 Anchor columnist Father Landry can be contacted at fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.

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