The point of a rule of life, for communities or individuals, is that life should be lived in balance, with God as the focal point.
Back in the third century, the first Christian monks wrote rules covering all aspects of life within their monastery walls. Their goal was to keep God at their individual and collective center. The Rule of St. Benedict is probably the best known today, but there were hundreds, if not thousands, of others. Monastic communities still live by rules ancient or modern. Maybe you should, too...
The point of a rule of life, for communities or individuals, is that life should be lived in balance, with God as the focal point. Perhaps that is what attracted me five years ago to the various rules of life. It is so easy for me to live a life that is out of balance, where work or some other aspect of my life takes over. And it is far too tempting for me to place myself at the center of my own universe. Living a rule of life helps me to keep striving for balance -- to be conscious of what I do and why -- and it reminds me to be open to God in all aspects of my daily life. (Though the Christian rule uses God as its focal point, the key concept is that our rule helps us remember that we are not the center of our own universe, and that we are one piece of something much larger, no matter what name we use.)
Perhaps this sounds a lot like a New Year's resolution to you. It did to me at first, too. New Year's resolutions, however, are largely built on a negative image of ourselves. We decide that we are too heavy, too lazy, too unattractive, and we decide we're going to fix that. We drop the resolutions quickly, for the most part, because they continually remind us that we're just not good enough. A rule of life, however, grows from the positive aspects of our life. We discern it in conversation with God, make God the focus of our rule (rather than our own negative images of ourselves) and we move in the directions in which we feel called. A rule of life is a response to being loved by God in the first place, and feeling moved to become what God calls us to be in this world.
Though there are as many ways to look at rules of life as there are rules, most balanced rules address the same basic categories: seeking God; prayer; work; study; spiritual community and worship; care of our bodies; reaching out to others; and hospitality. Over the last five years I have tried to discern what God calls me to do in these areas. For instance, what kind of prayer does God call me to? How should I care for my body in a way that honors it as a gift from God? How can I be the arms and legs and voice of God for others in this world who need my help? These are the kinds of questions I have sought to answer, in conversation and prayer with God, and with spiritual companions and advisors, over the years.
I have not always found the discernment of the answers to these questions easy, nor have I always found it easy to live with the answers. One thing that I have found invaluable is the advice and counsel of others who know me well. I am forever trying to take on too much, make too big a rule -- something that even the greatest saint could not keep -- when I should be taking baby steps. Instead of discerning the next step in my spiritual life, I decide that starting tomorrow I will take on some huge and time-consuming spiritual discipline and do it everyday from now on. In other words, I begin to treat my rule of life like a New Year's resolution. When I fail to keep such a rule, as I always do, it has been enormously helpful to have spiritual directors or friends to tell me that I've set my goals too high or been too hard on myself. At other times, when I do not try hard enough to keep my rule I need people in my life who are honest about that with me too. Rules were never meant to be discerned or kept in isolation. The support of a close friend, advisor, or a prayer community makes all the difference in living a rule of life.
Over the years I've also struggled with the amount of structure to build into a rule. People I respect deeply have detailed rules with set times for prayer, established types of prayer, and so on. They tell me that if they don't get up at 6:30 each morning and take a half hour of prayer time that they will never get to it during the day. But that doesn't work for me. It makes my spiritual life into something to add to my to-do list, and it becomes a chore and not a blessing. Over the years I have found that my rule for prayer needs to be more open-ended. I am committed to praying daily, but how and when I do that varies from day-to-day. Some days God gets five minutes of my time, and other days we spend an hour together.
That's the thing to remember with rules: We all have our own unique relationship with God and we need to pay attention to that. Think of it as you would your close friendships. One friend you might see or talk with daily. With another perhaps you have drinks every Thursday night after work. What God calls you to do, and how you communicate with God is unique to your own relationship, and it takes some time and experimentation to discern what form your rule should take.
Writing down your rule of life, and learning to live it more intentionally, is, of course, only the beginning of this part of your spiritual journey. Following your rule deepens your relationship with God, and as a result of that, your rule will develop and change as you seek God more fully. In the end it is all a bit circular. We live a rule of life as a response to the God who loves us, and in doing so, we discover, as the Rule for a New Brother so beautifully states, "that you are known and loved in a way surpassing anything one can imagine, loved before anyone had thought or spoken your name." Amen.
Godly Rules In Four Simple Steps
Stand up! Stretch! Smile!!!
Now sit down and write a list of all the things you do that nurture your spirit. Your list may include gardening, walking the dog, making love, talking with close friends, cooking, painting, jumping out of airplanes, or any number of other possibilities. Don't censor yourself. List them all! That list that you create, whether you know it or not, is your unconscious rule of life. By recognizing those things that you do that are already spirit-filled, and by doing them more deliberately, you can make your unconscious rule of life into a conscious one.
Divide your list among the eight categories: seeking God, prayer, work, study, spiritual community and worship, care of your body, reaching out, and hospitality. Your initial list may leave some empty categories. Work, for example, may draw a spiritual blank. But, more often than not, we have blanks because we limit our definition of what is spiritual. For instance, being intentional about listening to the wisdom of others at work and considering their opinions is the practice of finding God's guidance in those who surround us. Recycling paper and practicing stewardship of our materials and time can also be spiritual activities at work.
Practice being intentional about dedicating these activities to God. Make them a conscious part of your rule of life. Take this rule of life to God in prayer and add to it as you feel called to do so. Over time, make an effort to fill in any holes in your rule; doing so will help insure that you are leading a balanced life that focuses equally on God's call to you, your own needs, and the needs of the world that surrounds you. (I am indebted to one of my spiritual directors, Dr. Joseph Driskill, for this exercise. You can read more about it in his book Protestant Spiritual Exercises: Theology, History and Practice Morehouse Publishing, 1999.)
Follow the Ten Rules for Keeping Rules:
1. Listen to your heart's desires when discerning your rule. God often speaks to us through our heart's desires.
2. Make sure your rule includes some joy, play, and fun.
3. Take baby steps. Don't make your rule impossible to follow.
4. Baby steps are good, but give yourself a little bit of challenge, too.
5. Figure out how much structure you need: lots or just a little?
6. Learn to pay attention deeply to your practices, whatever they are. It will help to prevent boredom.
7. Find someone to talk with about your rule; it is easy to fool ourselves about all sorts of things.
8. Figure out how to help yourself be accountable for keeping your rule. See a spiritual director or talk with a spiritual friend about your rule on a regular basis.
9. Read your rule regularly. It is easy to forget the stuff we don't like so much.
10. You're going to have trouble keeping a rule sometimes. Recognize that you're human and try again.
Sample Rules, Old and New
Rule for a New Brother, H. van der Looy (Templegate Publishers, 1976)
The Rule of St. Augustine, Tarsicus J. Van Bravel, O.S.A (commentary and introduction), Translated by Raymond Canning, O.S.A. (Cistercian Publications, 1984)
The Rule of Society of St. John the Evangelist, Anonymous. (Cowley Publications, 1997)
Francis and Clare: The Complete Works, translation and introduction by Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., and lgnatius C. Bradley, O.F.M. (Paulist Press, 1982) (Contains rules of Sts. Francis and Clare)
A Way of Desert Spirituality: The Plan of life of the Hermits of Bethlehem (Hermits of Bethlehem, Alba House, 1998)
Rule of Taize by Brother Roger (The Seabury press, 1968) (Unfortunately this is out of print, but well worth the time to read if you can find it in a library.)