Reconsidering discipline and discipleship

Let us begin with Henri Nouwen’s careful reflections on the mutual dependency of discipline and discipleship. Discipleship, he writes,

calls for discipline. Indeed, discipleship and discipline share the same linguistic root (from discere, which means “to learn from”), and the two should never be separated. Whereas discipline without discipleship leads to rigid formalism, discipleship without discipline ends in sentimental romanticism. (Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit 18)

Nouwen implies that a discipline is a rigorous practice, and indeed the early roots of the word reveal that just as practice, which may be undertaken in its own terms and thus without recourse to First Principles, is opposed to theory, so discipline was antithetical to doctrine. Furthermore, a discipleship is a tutorship in which a disciple puts himself under the direction of a superior. Thus woven together, discipleship and discipline make possible a style of learning that is intimate, rigorous, adventurous, and well-conceived.

But not without its dangers. Key to Nouwen’s argument is the cautionary note he sounds concerning the temptation to split one off from the other. If one wishes to cultivate a discipline on one’s own and altogether too soon, then one is bound to become ‘rigidly formalistic’ in one’s exercises. The ritual will have been repeated, but the infusion of spirit, the freshness of insight arising when least expected, the ‘energy’ that makes a discipline living rather than dead, unfamiliar and beautiful will have been lost. It is, after all, the superior who sees to the disciple’s progress, surprising him, ensuring that new reflections are introduced and novel questions posed.

Turning in the other direction by adhering to a superior while withdrawing from discipline may also lead one astray. ‘Sentimenal romanticism’ involves following the guide without considering things for oneself, without using one’s reason to good effect. It is the desire to emulate the other (to rise up to meet him) or the story of idealization (to hold him aloft), or it is the first aspiring toward the second. But such a relationship, which is based on sentimental romanticism, would have to be ‘blind,’ not to say lacking in substance or rigor. The disciple’s dependency would be cemented, and the possibility of learning–in the sense of finding out what one does not know–ultimately foreclosed.

It should be underscored that Nouwen’s thoughts are directed specifically toward those seeking to lead a Christian way of life. And yet, as we shall see, they not only have a broader application and admit of a wider scope, but they also flow from a deeper, earlier source: that of Classical Greece. Among Greek philosophers of this period, mathetes referred principally to a learner, ‘a person engaged in learning from someone who already has the desired skill or knowledge’ (Michael J. Wilkens,The Concept of Disciple in Matthew’s Gospel)….