When I was at university, I found that there were typically two types of students: those who did all their work as soon as possible, and those who did it as late as possible. To my shame, I was consistently a member of the latter! Whether it was writing an essay, preparing a presentation, reading a book for a tutorial or revising for an exam, I was always working dangerously close to the deadline. I never did poorly in any of these assessments so I suppose that I was never ‘out of my depth’, but deep down I always knew that the last-minute rush was neither a sustainable nor an academically healthy approach to my work life.
Self-discipline is important if we are to nurture our gifts and develop a balanced perspective on life. Not only does it enable us to function in social settings, it also helps us to treat resources and time as gifts that need to be utilised wisely. There is much that we can learn about this from the Christian monastic tradition, which has always emphasised the importance of discipline in everyday life.
One of the earliest religious rules, the Rule of St Benedict, presents the idea of a communal life based upon the cycle of prayer and work. Monks and nuns in religious orders follow a framework of worship services called offices at set times throughout the day. They then spend the time between services attending to their work duties, which can range from cooking and cleaning to working in schools and hospitals. This creates a natural rhythm that enables every moment to be cherished as a gift from God.
St Paul’s exhortation to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17) is taken as a blue-print of sorts for living a life of constant communion with the divine. This means that prayer isn’t restricted to official worship but becomes something that we do when we are working, talking and relaxing too. The ‘practice of the presence of God’ encompasses our whole lives and leads us to commit to using each moment fruitfully and with the spirit of compassion.
A keen sense of discipline can ensure that we maintain a good cycle of work and rest. University life can be busy and hectic: attending lectures, meeting friends, joining societies, and so much more. It is very easy to let things fall out of proportion. Some people spend so much time working that they forget to enjoy all the other aspects of being a student. Others enjoy themselves at the expense of their work. Everybody is different, and everybody needs to find their own way of instilling a sense of self-discipline, during their time at university and beyond.
A strong work ethic is deeply important because it develops us intellectually and psychologically, giving us confidence and commitment in our endeavours. However, making time for rest and relaxation is also important, because it gives us time to reflect on our choices and ground ourselves emotionally and physically. Both are essential to the spiritual life, and a disciplined balance between the two will help us to develop as Christians and as people.
The last-minute cramming that occurred so often during my undergraduate degree has encouraged me to seek a more disciplined approach to my life – whether to work, to rest, to prayer, or indeed to anything else. Self-discipline may seem restrictive at first, but it really brings us joy and freedom, as we centre ourselves around what really matters. And whilst St Paul’s ‘pray without ceasing’ is still a long way off, it helps to remind us that the presence of God can be found in every moment and in every situation of our lives.
Written by Alexander Taylor, SCM member and recent graduate from the University of Aberystwyth.