The Roots of Discipline

by the Rev. Carol Morehead

From “Spiritual Practices – Living the Gift,” the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Reflections magazine. To read the entire issue, click here.


What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? How can we, so long removed from the actual, historical life of Jesus of Nazareth, be disciples? Early believers wrestled with this question. As time passed and the generation of people who knew Jesus ended, believers passed down wisdom about how to be a disciple. These early pilgrims – desert Christians – sought to grow deep roots. Practices like prayer, silence, solitude, fasting, meditation, study, service, simplicity, and others became the bedrock of living a Christian life – of being a disciple.

Fast-forward to our modern times, when we are habituated by instant gratification and fast food. Our foundations are often weak and our roots perilously shallow, and too often we find ourselves subject to the constant shifts of a culture that encourages us to embrace mood swings, get ahead at the cost of others, and focus only on ourselves. How do we, who seek to be disciples of Christ, actually live into the call of serving others, of keeping the long view of time and space, of growing deep roots in Christ?

One way is by returning to the early Christian wisdom of disciplines which will habituate us in the ways of Jesus. It is in that spirit that Richard Foster wrote Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. Foster notes that the classical spiritual disciplines exist to liberate us “from the stifling slavery of self-interest and fear.”

Foster begins by setting a helpful framework. The ingrained habits of sin are slavery to the believer. Foster writes, “Inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours.” This is important to my understanding of being spiritually formed as a disciple. Without this point, spiritual disciplines too easily become laws which crush us rather than practices which free us. “The disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that God can transform us,” Foster writes.

Foster chooses 12 classical disciplines, dividing them into inward disciplines, outward disciplines, and corporate disciplines. In my experience, we Christians tend to treat the disciplines as a smorgasbord from which we pick and choose the things we like: I’ll take a little prayer with a side of worship and some service for dessert.

What Foster helped me discover was that the whole of these practices work together to form me, inside and outside, body and spirit and heart and mind, into a disciple of Jesus.

The very notion of disciplines isn’t appetizing to me, to be honest. So my own resistance to the concept had to be overcome. As I tried them, I found that these practices became for me the way of life; they form the rhythm of my day, the rhythm of my thinking, the framework for my relationship to creation, to the world, and to the community of faith.

So many things in the book stand out to me: to pray is to change; fasting centers on God; simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle; service not based on feeling but as a lifestyle; to worship is to experience reality; joy transforms misery. As I began to actually move from these practices being words on a page to them being a part of the shape of my life, I found a new sense of gratitude, of openness to God and to the world, of purpose, of vocation.

The truth is, being a disciple is a journey, a life-long process of being transformed into the likeness of Christ. By tapping into the wisdom of the many ages of the faithful, I discovered a richness, a fullness to my life as a disciple.

By placing myself before God through the practices of spiritual disciplines, my understanding of being a disciple has been transformed from a vague, unattainable, ancient word on a page to lived reality. Foster, in his chapter on Study, quotes Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and the wisdom expressed sums up the benefit I have found in the spiritual disciplines: “Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery of things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day.”

I’m drawn to the image of a tree as it grows: an ongoing process of being alive, growth requires things – water, air, nutrients, deep roots, pruning, rich soil. How do I grow that way? Spiritual practices are tools not just for developing a spiritual life, but for the ongoing process of becoming in Christ.

carol morehead for webThe Rev. Carol Morehead is assistant rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, San Antonio. She graduated from Seminary of the Southwest in May 2013. Reach her at


explore more orange for webRichard Foster talks about Celebration of Discipline on youtube.

Dallas Willard talks about taking theology and disciplines into the workplace

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