Discipline is a bad word, none of us really like it; it conjures up something arduous and painful. To choose a life of discipline is to choose the narrow way. An athlete chooses the way of discipline at least in the physical realm. It is a narrow way of toning muscles and reflexes, of timing and precision. Every worthwhile realm of endeavor has its particular discipline.
Then there is the life of complete freedom of doing what you want, when you want. This has strong appeal to most of us. We like to be unencumbered and able at a moment’s notice to answer a whim.
There are people whom we demand personal discipline, the airline pilot for example. We want him to follow the narrow way of careful adherence to all rules of safety and have detailed knowledge of how to fly the plane. Who among us would let our body be operated on by a surgeon who had graduated from a short, quick and easy correspondence school of surgery? We want someone who went to the best medical school, top of his class. We want someone who has submitted to the discipline of becoming a skilled surgeon. Someone who has taken the narrow path; what does all of this have to do with being a Christian?
Well, Jesus did not invite people to an easy life which seeks only its own satisfaction. He did not preach a gospel of easy religion which makes no demands and gives no responsibilities. Rather, he proposed that life in its fullest demands discipline.
In the gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying that many people find the easy way. But, the pathway to abundant life is through the narrow way of discipline. Let me tell you a story about a man you may have heard of, an Irishman called Matt Talbot. He was born north of Dublin in 1856 to a poor working class family during very hard times. He went to school off and on, and then at the age of twelve he took his first job and his first drink. He was a good worker in a brickyard and earned steady pay which he spent in one of Dublin’s Two Thousand Pubs. One of the problems was that laborers were paid in the pub and so the paycheck seldom left there.
Matt Talbot wasted his pay on drink, money desperately needed at home. Sometimes he sold his boots for a drink. He once shamelessly stole a fiddle from a blind man who earned a living playing on the streets. No one knew then that alcoholism was an illness, a terrible craving arising from a complex disease involving heredity-emotional factors and the makeup of the brain. It was not until 1958 that the American Medical Association finally got around to saying that alcoholism was an illness and not a moral failing. Things went from bad to worse until one day he was face down in the gutter. He got up, went home to his mother and told her he was going to take the pledge and stop drinking.
His mother said, “Go in God’s name, but do not take it unless you intend to keep it.” And keep it he did, from that point on he never took another drink. He went through withdrawal, nausea and all the horrible aftermath that occurs when an addict comes off any drug. But Matt held fast, they did not have AA in those days. But he had God and a devotion to Mary. Up until this point Matt had been a nominal Catholic. After all, alcohol was his God and the bar was his altar. After his conversation he drew close to God, he started going to daily mass. He would kneel on the steps of the church until the door opened. He made the Stations of the Cross, prayed the rosary daily and he followed ancient penitential practices like sleeping on a plank instead of a mattress.
What little money he had to spare, he gave away. For years he was known as the reformed alcoholic and a quiet Saint. Because of his years of drinking, his heart and liver gave out at the age of 65 on Trinity Sunday 1925 on his way to church he fell in the street and died. After his death people got interested in him, stories of his holiness and charity got around. They spread as far as Rome and he was declared “Venerable Matt Talbot” by the church. To be a disciple of Christ takes discipline and commitment, it is a risk. If we risk in committing ourselves to a Christ we cannot see we risk, perhaps, more in committing ourselves to a church we can see.
For this is a pilgrim church, a community on the way not yet there, a body of sinful men and women, at times in startling contradiction to the Lord who heads it. To the spirit who gives it life. Its outward face is often spotted and wrinkled and still it is Christ’s church, His community and here is where He expects us to experience Him. He expects us to not only endure it, but to love it; to take it for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.
Scripture tells us to be a disciple of Christ you have to lose your life in order to find it. I do not know what life it is that Christ is asking you to surrender. What it is that is keeping you from a closer union with Him. I do know there are special moments, critical moments, in every life where to be a Christian you have to choose, commit yourself, risk. What is our reward, what do we get out of it. Well, it is probably best summed up by a splendid Pope Leo the Great. He said in a Christmas sermon, Christians recognize your dignity. God became what you are, a God man died for you, God lives in you that you might live in Him.
If He loves you that much, you must be quite extraordinary, very special. Recognize your dignity, simply be what you are ‘Saints live like Saints, Christ Bearers act like Christ Bearers.’ The church needs everyday Good Friday Christians whose daily dying with Christ is a rising with Him to a new life. Dare to be Saints, as I said a few weeks ago, Saint is just another name for Christian.