Rule of Life

Many people have a conscious plan to advance in their academic or professional career, to become financially established, to maintain their well-being through exercise and a healthy diet, to develop their family, and the like. However, very few people have a conscious plan for developing their relationships with God, self, and the world.

From the end of the third century to the fifth century, men and women withdrew from society into the deserts of Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Arabia to free themselves of distractions and seek God. They formed communities and organized their daily life around an agreed-upon plan and rhythmic cycle consisting of work, prayer, and study of Scripture. They called this plan a Rule of Life. St. Benedict (480-547) wrote the climactic and most widely known of the monastic rules. It is important to note that the Rule of Life, preceding St. Benedict and succeeding St. Francis of Assisi, consisted of both the inward life of solitude, nurture, and reflection and the outward life of work, mission, and action. The Rule of St. Benedict has not only shaped Western monasticism for the last fifteen hundred years, but continues to guide people around the world today from all church traditions. Many Puritans followed suit and compiled extensive spiritual “agendas” or “guides to godliness.”

“Rule” is from the Greek word for trellis, a tool that enables a grapevine to get off the ground and to grow upward and become more fruitful and productive. A Rule of Life is like a trellis that allows us to get off the ground, grow in Christ, and become spiritually mature. It helps us answer the questions, “Who am I? Where am I going? How am I going to get there?” A Rule of Life is a thoughtful, intentional, conscious, and disciplined plan or pattern to keep God at the center of everything we do. It provides guidelines to help us continually remember God as the source of our lives. It includes a combination of integrated spiritual practices and exercises that provide structure and direction for us to continually pay attention and remember God throughout our days. Having a Rule does not mean that a greater part of our time is taken up with performing religious duties. Rather, the rhythm that a good Rule establishes helps us maintain our spiritual focus. The starting point for any Rule of Life is a desire to be with God, to love him above all things, to be united with Christ, to be transformed into his image, and to be spiritually engaged with his presence in his sacred world.

What is your current Rule of Life, conscious or unconscious? Perhaps it is attending church on Sundays, participating in a Community Group, serving in a ministry, or spending time with God for a few minutes each day. Whatever your Rule, is it enough to help you fight against the currents of our world – crammed schedules, endless to-do lists, demanding jobs and families, constant noise and information bombardment, not to mention the incessant pull toward idolatry? Perhaps you need a better, more well-defined Rule of Life to serve as both anchor and ballast, otherwise you may find yourself spiritually adrift. Is it any wonder that most people live off other people’s spirituality rather than taking the time to develop their own direct and personal relationship with God? Most Christians talk about prayer but don’t pray. Most believe the Bible but have little idea what it says. According to Donald Bloesch in The Crisis of Piety (1988), “If anything characterizes modern Protestantism, it is the absence of spiritual disciplines or spiritual exercises.” Thus, our barometers for life differ little from those who embrace starkly different worldviews. We measure success in life by performance, possessions, and popularity just as our culture does. However, St. Benedict wrote, “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way. The love of Christ must come before all else.”

So how do we go about devising and personalizing a Rule of Life? First, be sure to devise a Rule that is as close as possible to your existing routines and fits with the natural rhythms of your life. Second, be sure to strike a balance between flexibility and perseverance, especially as you are starting out. Do not introduce any major changes for the first 30-40 days. A good Rule bears the marks of the tortoise more than the hare – constancy, regularity, diligence, and proficiency. It systematically plods along at a “slow and steady” pace to accomplish far more spiritually than those who rely on unpredictable sudden spurts of creative insight or inspiration. This pattern of living helps reinforce desirable habits in the long term. Third, make a rule that is simple, easy to remember, and within reasonable reach. According to Martin Thornton in Christian Proficiency (1967), “Rule should be such that it is invariably kept without strain but occasionally makes a definite demand on the will. It should normally be kept with no fault occasionally, a few faults frequently, and if it goes all to pieces very rarely there is little to worry about.” Very often, an effective way of making a decisive start is to publicly announce your Rule and place yourself under some kind of direction or external accountability. Do not ignore the power of the corporate life of the church to shape and reorder your private life. You may want to commit to a Common Rule with a group of people for mutual checking to get stabilized in these habits. Remember that this is a well-trodden but difficult path. One indication of having reached a degree of proficiency is observing the Rule without thinking too much about it. It becomes second nature and fits like a comfortable pair of shoes. A good Rule also functions as a “canon,” measuring rod, or objective norm by which we evaluate our spiritual well-being.

So what should we include in our Rule of Life? Here are some things to consider:

I. GOD
Daily Office
Fasting
Sabbath
Church – Word, Sacraments, Discipline

II. SELF
Vows – Poverty (Money), Chastity (Sex), Obedience (Power)
Study
Simplicity
Emotional Health
Physical Health
Marriage/Family
Recreation
Spiritual Direction
Self-Examination

III. WORLD
Work
Giving
Mercy/Justice
Evangelism
Community
Hospitality

As with anything, beware of rigidity, formalism, lifeless routine, and legalism. For this reason, you will want to review and rework your Rule of Life every year at a minimum. St. Augustine wanted his read once a week! Begin slowly working on one or two elements at a time. Be willing to make mistakes, try again, and learn new things. You may want to try sketching a Rule of Life for a four-week period such as Advent or Lent. St. Benedict writes at the beginning of his Rule of Life: “Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service…Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

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