Crafting a disciplined life

In our lives as disciples, it is important that we craft spiritual practices that keep us on track.

By Molly T. Marshall

A recent book by Mason Currey on the daily rituals of artistic people has captured wide attention. He chronicles the patterns — some odd and eccentric — that empower creativity of writers, painters, inventors, musicians and scholars.

There are the coffee-fueled. Ludwig Beethoven insisted on precisely 60 beans in a cup, obsessively hand-counting them to be sure. Soren Kierkegaard, similarly dependent, would ask his assistant what the exact reasoning was behind that day’s choice of cup.

Strange, but regular, habits about clothing are included. Ben Franklin arose each day for an “air bath,” sitting naked in his drafty Philadelphia house. During the late 1940s John Cheever would put on his business suit in the morning and catch the lift downstairs with fellow commuters.

As they got off at the ground floor, he would continue on to the basement, where he would head to a favorite storage room, strip down to his boxers and spend the morning writing. At noon he would put his suit back on and head upstairs for lunch. Afternoons were leisurely and, presumably, clothed.

Then there were those who never left bed to do their work. Truman Capote, Patricia Highsmith and Marcel Proust did their writing cocooned in sheets, food, alcohol and cigarettes. They were amazingly productive, these rituals notwithstanding.

The 2,000 words that Stephen King churns out every morning will elude most of us, but he produces fiction “as a sort of waking dream,” in his words.

Currey records other practices in his Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, but the main point is, “The one true lesson of the book is that there’s no one way to get things done.” Each one, however, had a routinized process that framed his or her pursuit.

“Decide what you want or ought to do with the day,” W.H. Auden advised, “then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.” I might like to tweak his insight — it is passion that spurs us on with our craft.

The renowned American pioneer in psychology, Williams James, saw the necessity of regular patterns. He believed in “the effortless custody of automatism,” so that “our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.”

Busy mothers may not have such luxury, for incessant interruptions are hardly “effortless custody,” yet rituals with children grant them dependable security.

Those with whom I work closely know that they can set the clock by my rituals — early arrival at work, certain meetings on certain days, too many books stacked around to ever complete, a regular writing schedule and delight when an unscheduled and unexpected phone call comes from a former student.

The challenge for us all is how to manage what routines are imposed from the outside and those we can determine for ourselves. Our employer and co-workers, as well as our family circumstances, shape much of our days, but there is still discretion with the “remains of the day.”

In these days when many are searching for employment, think of the privilege it is to have daily expectations. I could not imagine waking up each day with no plans, and retired friends know the importance of constructive planning in their lives.

In our lives as disciples, it is even more important that we craft spiritual practices that keep us on track.

I remember that Page Kelley, beloved professor of Old Testament at Southern Seminary, spent every Saturday morning in his office working on his Hebrew grammar. He once remarked to me that this time was for him refreshment as he scoured the Scriptures for new insight.

Another insight of Currey is that trying to emulate a Franz Kafka or Jane Austen is probably futile. Their rituals of discipline are theirs; finding your own is the challenge.

This is surely the case in the spiritual life. I am reminded of the wise Irish monk Dom Marmion, who counseled: “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” For me, engaging the lectionary readings each morning and then writing prayers is the preferred discipline.

My mind is often like a “tree full of monkeys,” as Merton described his own distractions, and writing keeps me focused. These prayer journals have progressed from little bound volumes to jump drives, but the discipline remains the same. They record struggles, confession, intercession and pleas for guidance, and God has met me through this simple practice.

I admire the discipline, if not all the rituals, of those whom Currey examines, and it prompts me to consider how to craft a more disciplined life. This will only be helpful if I remember that grace sustains effort.

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