It seems to me that there are three ways in which we often err in following God: 1) We fail to keep our hearts quietly focused on God at all times, 2) We fail to move when He moves, and 3) We move before God asks us to.
1) When our hearts are not focused on God
The most basic and necessary condition for a person to be a disciple is to be a contemplative – i.e., someone whose highest priority is learning to recollect his/her soul in God’s presence. The effective disciple is one who sits by the Teacher’s feet in rapt attention, absorbing every word that falls from the Teacher’s lips, pondering all that it means and passionate about learning to live the Teacher’s teaching.
The distracted disciple whose attention is on the thousand-and-one things that are happening in his life, on pleasant diversions, worldly ambitions, social or familial preoccupations, or even on serving the Lord (remember Martha in Lk 10:41?) will not be able to follow Christ effectively because his attention is not on God. What the distracted disciple often ends up doing is what he thinks he should be doing instead of what Christ is actually asking of him. There is a reason why the Church has consistently taught through the ages that contemplation is the basis and foundation for apostolic action. Without a rich, deeply rooted interior life, we are not connected to the Vine (Jn 15:5) and thus have no chance at being spiritually effective even if we were to spend all our time on spiritual matters.
The contemplative dimension of a disciple’s life is like the heart that must never cease to beat in order that the body continues to be alive. Even in sleep, when the limbs are at rest, the heart is at work. In order to be spiritually alive, we must seek to continually deepen our prayer lives until we learn how to pray unceasingly in the inner room of our hearts.
2) We fail to move when Christ moves
What often happens when we are preoccupied with everything else except paying close attention to Christ is that we miss what He is saying to us. This is an experience that everyone who has been a distracted student before can identify with. Perhaps you had turned to the classmate next to you to ask a question, or perhaps your attention was caught by some commotion going on in the next classroom. When you are suddenly called upon and asked a question by the teacher, you realise that you have no idea what was just asked of you.
This happens in discipleship too. Sometimes we fail to follow when Christ has moved on ahead and called us to follow because we failed to hear him. But sometimes, we hear him, and still do not follow. Sometimes we are afraid. Other times we pretend we didn’t hear because we are not ready to leave our comfort zones or give up the attachments we know we need to let go of when we move on. Christ may be calling us to leave a relationship, a community, a job, or even – like Abraham – everything that is ‘home’ to us and to follow Him into the unknown. But we cling on because we prefer the familiarity of these tangible supports to the risk of having no guarantee except Christ’s invitation to trust him.
3) We move before Christ asks us to
There is another way in which we can fail at being effective disciples. And that is to go ahead of the Lord instead of following him. We see this phenomenon in many well-meaning disciples who by all conscious intent desire to serve God and his people. Many of us are full of ideas and plans for evangelisation and disciple-making, and are industrious and capable even. But we are more absorbed in the works we believe God is asking us to do than in God himself. Without realising it, our attention is no longer on Christ’s face or on the work he is doing in us. The moment this happens, we fail to be effective disciples because we are no longer taking our instructions from our Teacher and Lord. We move at our own pace instead of training ourselves to follow God’s pace. We start relying on natural talent and ability instead of on the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit.
When we move ahead of the Lord, we often enter dangerous waters without knowing. We are so focused outwards that we are blind to our own hidden motivations and shaky interior foundation. We can become so tunnel-visioned about mission and so intent on getting the job done that we fail to notice when Christ is asking something completely different from what we are doing. Perhaps Christ is saying, “Wait.” But instead, we’re plunging headlong into action. Perhaps Christ is saying, “Listen.” But we are only intent on making ourselves heard. Perhaps Christ is saying, “Let go.” But we refuse to let go and insist that it would be irresponsible of us to do so. When we go ahead of the Lord, when we act on our own wisdom instead of waiting, we fail in obedience just as much as when we fail to move when he asks us to.
What can we do?
We must allow ourselves to be discipled by the Lord. Discipleship is not a concept – it is not something that we merely intellectually assent to. Discipleship is a way of living, and the heart of discipleship is PRAYER. There are no two ways about it. The logic is extremely straight-forward:
To be Christian is to live the supernatural life of God – to love as he loves, to forgive as he forgives, and to lead all souls to the highest of all beatitudes – union with God. This alone is what the Kingdom of God is about, and everything else is merely a means to this end. No human being is naturally capable of true Christian witness – it is only through the Spirit of God living in and through us that we can be effective channels of Christ’s life in the world. And there is only ONE WAY in which this can happen – allowing God to heal us and transform us into his likeness – the process that theologians call divinisation. This is what the interior journey is about. This is what discipleship is about. And the only way that we can make this journey is through PRAYER – deep, intimate, passionate, transformative prayer. The kind of prayer life that takes a lifetime to grow.
It is in and through prayer that we adjust our vision to God’s vision from Eternity. It is in prayer that we become familiar with the sound of God’s voice and the fragrance of his love so that we are better able at recognising him. It is in prayer that we receive the graces we need to listen clearly and obey promptly. It is in prayer that we allow ourselves to be filled with God’s love without measure until we become an overflow of God’s love to the world.
Deep prayer is what unleashes the power of God into our lives. It is the window through which actual grace transforms sinners into saints. Perhaps it is time we learned how to pray and start teaching our children how to pray. Perhaps it is time to start mining the spiritual treasury that God has given us through the Church and her saints, for there has never been a saint who has not learned how to pray. We can start even very simply by praying for the grace to desire to pray. Christ stands at the door of our hearts and knocks. Let us not delay in opening it to Him!