One of my favorite quotes from G.K. Chesterton – or from anyone for that matter – accurately distills the distinguishing characteristic of essentially every critique of the Christian paradigm and unapologetically defends that very paradigm in the space of less than twenty words. In fact, my description of the quote is already longer than the quote itself:
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
This phrase has such profound meaning to me that it prominently adorns my facebook and twitter accounts. The cogent simplicity of this quote turns every argument against Christianity on its head by flatly admitting that we Christians have not lived up to our name. But, Chesterton also challenges us to do better. The good news for us is that we can do better, if only we have the discipline to say “yes” to Christ. The bad news is that discipline often requires a difficult “no” to the things of the world.
Think of the last time you had something you really wanted to complete, be it a project at home or work, related to a hobby, personal interest, or some assignment from the boss. Whatever the circumstances, this was something you really wanted (or needed) to do. This goal likely had a deadline of some sort and some parameters under which you had to work. In order to say “yes” to the demands of the project, you were required to say “no” to something else. In economics, we call this opportunity cost. The same can be said of the spiritual life. In order to reach the goal of Heaven (which should always be our number one priority) we must give up some of the pleasures of the world. To the world this will seem like a constant stream of rejection. But it is really a constant stream of affirmation; affirmation of our love of Christ.
Several years ago a soft drink company began pushing the catchphrase “obey your thirst” to sell its product when they might as well have said bluntly “submit to the whims of your bodily passions.” This mentality of “obeying” the passions of the flesh is the epitome of what saying “yes” to the world looks like. It sure is a lot easier in those moments to go with the flow; to go along to get along, especially when something feels (or tastes) good. This is how we end up with Christians who water down the faith for themselves and others, or twist it for their own benefit or aggrandizement. These so-called “Christians” create their own version of a god that always conveniently agrees with them. This is how we end up with prominent self-proclaimed Christian politicians who very publicly contradict the very doctrines of their faith on fundamental moral issues. This is not even Christianity left untried; this is Christianity found difficult, and renounced. “Obey your thirst” is more than a marketing slogan; it is a clarion call for hedonism to which Christians are arguably the most vulnerable. The remedy, fellow Catholic men, is discipline.
The English word “discipline” is a peculiar word with a few related but divergent meanings. It can refer to academic studies or a professional practice in a specific area, a description or form of punishment, or an activity or experience that trains the mind and body. The word itself comes to us from the Latin word “discipulus” meaning “student” and has the same root as the verb “discere” meaning “to learn.” This is where we get the term “disciple.” You may see where this is going.
In scripture we find many instances of Christ speaking about what His disciples must to do gain eternal life. One oft cited example is Luke 14:27: “And whosoever doth not carry his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” The cross is heavy. The cross is difficult. It doesn’t feel good. Our passions try to turn us away from it. Chesterton might as well have said “the cross has been found difficult; and left untried.”
The belabored point and left-unsaid-solution in Chesterton’s quote is simply this: to take up the cross and follow Christ – to be His disciple – requires discipline. And life-long discipline at that, for if “discipline” comes from the same Latin word for “student” then we ought to consider ourselves life-long students of the great and eternal teacher who showed us the way to salvation when he suffered under the weight of the cross and died brutally for our sins. This valley of tears then is really a classroom without borders where we can find lessons in the smallest – and grandest – of things. Every moment of each day is not so much a test to avoid failure, but one moment after another to gain extra credit, for the final exam may come when we least expect it.
You will be mocked for saying “yes” to Christ and the cross. You will be told you are joyless. Nothing could be further from the truth. To quote Chesterton again:
“It is said that Paganism is a religion of joy and Christianity of sorrow; it would be just as easy to prove that Paganism is pure sorrow and Christianity pure joy… the really interesting thing is this, that the pagan was (in the main) happier and happier as he approached the earth, but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens.”
So, let your life be one of joyous discipline. Follow Christ as a student would a teacher. Listen carefully to His words, and, though you may not understand why, do as He asks with love. Follow the Ten Commandments, obey the Precepts of the Church, live the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy, and do it all with joy, as one who says “yes.”
Take to heart those words of St. Alphonsus Ligouri, who wrote in his method for praying the Stations of the Cross, “My most beloved Jesus, I embrace all the tribulations Thou hast destined for me until death. I beseech Thee, by the merits of the pain Thou didst suffer in carrying Thy Cross, to give me the necessary help to carry mine with perfect patience and resignation.”
Catholic men, the time is now! Take up your cross, and follow Him.