So you’ve decided your spiritual life could use a bit of structure, and you’re ready to try putting together a rule of life. Where to begin? There are so many models out there, so many possibilities, that it can be a bit daunting. But rules evolve. While it’s good to give your rule a serious try once you’ve put it together, there’s no law that says you’re stuck with it if it isn’t working. My first rule of life, which served me well through years of travel, was pretty simple: “Never pass up a good toilet.” There’s no telling when the next one will turn up.
My rule has expanded a bit since then, largely with the help of wise mentors. While we are sometimes called to lonely places where others can’t follow, mostly discernment goes better when we bring in spiritually mature people whose judgment we trust. You probably know who those people are in your life, and I’ll bet they’d welcome your invitation to get involved in this.
A good way to begin is by looking at your implicit rule, which consists of the things you’re already doing. What are the spiritual practices you do at least somewhat regularly now, the things you miss if you don’t do them? It can help to think in terms of time frames—what do you do daily, weekly, monthly, yearly? Suppose the first pass at your current, implicit rule looks something like this:
- Daily: private prayer
- Weekly: Eucharist
- Monthly: charitable contributions
- Yearly: vacation
If you look at that list and feel satisfied, then congratulations—you have a rule of life. But maybe there are practices you feel drawn to but either haven’t tried at all or haven’t tried doing consistently. Or maybe you don’t have anything in particular in mind, but feel called to greater spiritual depths and don’t know how to get there. It might help to look over lists of the classical spiritual disciplines, such as those that make up the rule of the Franciscan Third Order: Holy Eucharist, penitence, personal prayer, self-denial, retreat, study, simplicity of life, work and obedience. Noodling around online will turn up countless other examples.
You might also want to consider some less traditional disciplines. It could be helpful to keep a journal, but if you’re more visual than verbal it might be better to keep a “prayer sketchbook.” Maybe you feel a special urgency about caring for creation. You could include in your rule anything from educating others about shark finning to fostering abandoned pets. If you, like Francis, have been rather hard on “Brother Ass” (the body), maybe better self-care belongs in your rule. I’m currently working on limiting negative self-talk. If you’re someone like me who works almost entirely with your head, you could incorporate some work with your hands: gardening, cooking, beading, playing music.
The possibilities are endless, which can make it all seem overwhelming again, so let’s look at some ways to organize it. In the Episcopal Church the baptismal covenant, which we all agreed to at baptism or had faithful sponsors agree to on our behalf, and which we renew at every new baptism, consists of five parts. We promise to:
- “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers”
- “persevere in resisting evil, and whenever [we] fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord”
- “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ”
- “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbor as [ourself]” and
- “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”
You could create a fine rule of life by just fleshing out the details of each part of that covenant. After all, you’ve already agreed to it, or something like it if you were baptized elsewhere.
Another approach, which is based on Margaret Guenther’s excellent book At Home in the World: A Rule of Life for the Rest of Us, is to break the components of your rule into those that point up, those that point out, and those that point in. In other words, this kind of rule attends to:
- my relationship with God
- my relationship with others and with Creation, and
- my relationship with myself
In workshops I give people a handout that has them list for each of these: “What I’m doing now,” and “Practices I feel drawn to, or want to learn more about.” You could make it simpler still, and let Mary and Martha be your guides: How do I sit at the feet of Jesus? How do I serve?
Crafting a rule of life is ultimately about discerning our vocation, our “call,” and it’s worth remembering here that the Latin root of “obedience” means “listening.” So as you develop your rule, you’re really listening for God’s call to you. When Jesus let the Spirit call him away from the life he’d been living, all sorts of things got set in motion. Who knows where that same Spirit may lead you?