There’s a story told of a dog placed at the exact center point between two bowls of food. The dog starved to death (okay, this is not a real dog), because it had no basis for making a choice between bowls. I know just how that feels: When my blood sugar drops I get stupid-hungry, and have been known to call my husband and ask what I should do about it. He notes my location and then recommends a nearby source of carbs. He’s way better than Siri, because he has better sense than to give me more than one option.
There’s a spiritual version of this, too. Stupid-hungry, we’re dimly aware that our souls need nourishment but not sure what to do about it. Should I pray? Probably, but how? Pull out the rosary today? Look at an icon? Say the daily office? Maybe I’m not ready to pray. I should read something, do a little lectio divina. The Bible, or something else? Okay, maybe the Bible, but what book? Maybe I should go for a walk and listen to a sermon podcast instead. Come to think of it, I haven’t walked a labyrinth in a while. I used to find that really helpful; maybe I should dig out my journal and remember why…
By the time you’ve considered half the things you could do to feed your stupid-hungry soul, you’ve run out of time and have to get on with the day. Then you’re just another dead dog that couldn’t find its way to a bowl. Only the dog presumably didn’t feel shame, and you probably do.
A rule of life can help prevent this situation, which is way better than trying to fix it once it’s underway. Trying to figure out your spiritual practice when your soul is all wired and cranky is like shopping for groceries when your blood sugar has tanked. Suddenly even Cheetos start to look like food.
More than anything, though, a rule of life is an indication of commitment; it says that you’re taking your relationship with God seriously. We tend to be intentional about the things we care about. An athlete aiming for the Olympics is not going to get up in the morning and decide whether to train. So if we mean business when it comes to our faith, we can’t leave it to chance.
At the same time, a rule of life is not a self-improvement program. It’s not how I am going to get myself to spiritual maturity. It’s also not a straitjacket: just because I’ve decided to practice certain disciplines regularly, it doesn’t mean I can’t experiment as the Spirit moves me. And it’s definitely not a new reason to condemn myself when my execution isn’t perfect. My rule should stretch me a bit, but not be so unrealistic that I spend all my time with God apologizing. I think we both get bored with that pretty quickly.
A rule just helps us focus: I’m going to practice these disciplines regularly, and not those. I’m called to this form of prayer, at least for now, and not another. Seen this way, a rule actually becomes liberating. I don’t have to feel bad that Centering Prayer isn’t part of my practice, because I pray otherwise. I don’t have to volunteer at a soup kitchen, because I serve elsewhere. Even Jesus didn’t do every good thing he might have done. He did some serious discernment and then lived his own call. If Jesus needed focus, I’m pretty sure I do too.
Next up: Where to begin? How do we figure out the components of our rule?