In the fifth book, Harry is introduced to the Order of the Phoenix, a secret order fighting against Voldemort, run by Dumbledore. Voldemort is sneakily rising to power once again. The Ministry of Magic has put its head in the sand and many wizards have no idea that He Who Must Not Be Named has resurfaced. Harry also feels his ever-present mental connection to Voldemort strengthening. He sees Voldemort’s thoughts and dreams and his scar burns when Voldemort is extremely angry or happy.
The connection is not explained to him until chapter twenty-four, when Harry is staying at Sirius’ house over Christmas break., and even then, only partially. Professor Snape comes to Harry and tells him that the second half of the year will contain extra lessons with him, learning to keep Voldemort out of his head.
In the first lesson, Snape explains why it is necessary for Harry to practice Occlumency, a “branch of magic seal[ing] the mind against magical intrusion and influence [Legilimency](p530).” He needs to focus and decide to be disciplined.
Richard J. Foster wrote The Celebration of Discipline over thirty years ago. It is a book on the different methods Christians use to strengthen their relationships with God and to be prepared for spiritual crises. It has sold over a million copies and been edited and re-released several times because his points and his methods still apply to the life of every Christian. But do they apply to Harry Potter?
Richard Foster wrote that “to know the mechanics does not mean that we are practicing the disciplines (p3).” Snape explained the purpose of Occlumency. He explained the practice and importance. Harry knew what he was supposed to do.
Harry asks why he should block a potentially useful aspect of his relationship with Voldemort. Could it not be useful to know the thoughts and plans of the enemy? Snape tells him that Voldemort not only knows about the connection, he is also an expert at Legilimency, the art of knowing another person’s thoughts, intentions and whether that person is lying to him. Usually, a Legilimens needs proximity and eye contact, but as Snape says, “The usual rules do not seem to apply to you, Mr Potter.” Snape knows that the failed attack on baby Harry forged a connection between the two wizards and space is not an obstacle to that connection.
Harry’s assignment is to focus and empty his mind so that there is nothing for Voldemort to access until Harry is able to block his penetration. While Harry knew the mechanics of Occlumency, his attempts at practice never went very well.
Practices with Snape led to Snape seeing all of Harry’s worst memories and some of his most personal, including his first kiss and being tormented by the Dursleys. His own private practices are less than productive. He does not clear his mind of his resentment against the new Ministry intrusion at Hogwarts and his hatred for Snape.
“We find ourselves … so proud of our external righteousness that ‘whitened sepulchres’ is a mild description of our condition (p4).” We like to hide our issues. We seem stronger to ourselves if in the very least no one else knows our weaknesses. Harry is no better than we are. When he fails in his independent study of his discipline, he tells Snape that yes, he was practicing and sure, it seems to be going fine. As a result of his inability to focus and practice his discipline, and his tendency to be independent and proud, he loses a dear friend in the end of the book.
Richard J. Foster makes the point that you need to practice a discipline when it is not necessary so that when it becomes necessary, it is the reflex to implement the discipline. Nearing the end of the year, Harry has a particularly strong and painful vision of Voldemort, torturing an Order member. He decides to mount an offense to save the man, beginning the chain of events that led to his death. Had Harry learned to focus in practice, he might have been able to block the vision.
We never know what it is we are going to come up against, and it is prudent to try to be prepared for what may come. Even though we may not always appreciate the messenger, as Harry reacts to Snape in every book, it is necessary to listen to those in our lives with wisdom and to learn from them, and to master disciplines that will save us in some way or another.