“Every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.” Jesus, Matthew 13:52
Christians, perhaps especially contemplatives, seem to have a special knack for discovering the ancient. Sectors of the church that had long forgotten them have “discovered” labyrinths, icons, chanting and contemplative prayer itself. These “discoveries” sometimes have the feel of religious fads, but as Jesus’ comment above suggests, sometimes we just need to root around in the treasure chest that is our heritage, until we find what’s useful for our time.
In the last few decades, one of the most useful recoveries has been the monastic tradition of living by a rule of life. This is a collection of spiritual disciplines that provide structure to our spiritual lives. My own Franciscan community lives by a rule consisting of nine components: Holy Eucharist, penitence, personal prayer, self-denial, retreat, study, simplicity of life, work and obedience. For some of these there are community-wide expectations (sacramental confession at least once a year, though we can always choose to do more), but most are left to us to sort out (what does “simplicity” mean in my context?). I’ve been living with this rule for nearly fifteen years, and it’s become the skeleton on which my spiritual life hangs. Without it, my soul would look a lot like one of Gary Larson’s boneless cats.
So I’d like to spend a little time with this over the next few weeks, exploring the idea of living with a rule, and it seems like the best place to start is with a question:
Does any of us need more rules in our life?
There are so many rules already: File your taxes by the due date (let’s admit up front that rules are made to be broken), get your workout in, pay your bills, pay your ex, watch your cholesterol, save for retirement. Don’t eat this, don’t drink that, walk the dog, teach your children well. Does any of us really want to add to this list? Don’t we feel overburdened already?
Feeling overburdened is a way of life for me, and for most of the people I know. Paradoxically, this is precisely why a rule of life can be so helpful. It creates a regular rhythm in a life that can seem to fluctuate between overscheduling and aimlessness. (Regular, incidentally, comes from the Latin word for “rule.”) Let’s take a moment to review what real life looks like, and see how a rule might bring a little order to the chaos.
There are days when you bounce out of bed and can’t wait to find a quiet place and spend an hour or two in prayer. Then make a cup of coffee and spend a little time with a book on the spiritual life. Then listen to some soul-stirring music, write a letter to someone in prison, and see Christ in every single person you meet. In short, there are days that are saturated with the presence of God.
But not that many.
On days like that, you can do it all free-style. But then there are the other days, when I wake up and all I want to do is make some coffee, read the comics and do the crossword puzzle. Then get through the day’s tasks as painlessly as possible, maybe grab a nap, and zone out to TV in the evening. On those days, I need some structure.
Then there are the really dark days, when I know I’m a Christian but I can’t remember why.
The first type of day you probably don’t need any rules; lovers don’t need to be told to kiss. It’s the second and third types of days where it becomes important to have some kind of structure, a bridge that will carry you over the valley of shadows. In the times when I either don’t know or don’t care what happens next, I need to be told. And it’s best if I can be guided by a rule that I’ve worked out in better times.
In this little series, we’ll be looking at how to build and test drive a rule of life. If you’re a practicing Christian (or a practicing anything, really), you probably already have at least an implicit rule. It might be as simple as “Go to church at least once a month, and try not to be a jerk the rest of the time.” But it helps to be intentional about these things, and experimenting can be fun. As we go, I’d love to hear what practices are included in your rule, whether implicit or explicit. In crafting a rule of life, there is no such thing as plagiarism. So I will steal anything that looks good, and you should too.