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RULE OF LIFE   

The purpose of the Rule of Life is to strengthen our abiding 
in Christ by bringing rhythm, discipline, and order to our 
discipleship. The Rule helps us offer the whole of ourselves 
to God each day, and keeps us open to God's love and will for us. 
    ―David Vryhof, Society of St. John the Evangelist

 

The idea of having a Rule of Life appears in a number of Christian traditions — evangelical groups, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and others. The Episcopal Church may have made most use of it in relation to its understanding of how laity and clergy share a common life in Christ.

A Rule of Life is the means by which individuals establish an intentional pattern of spiritual discipline. The idea is that a Rule of Life will be robust enough to sustain your spiritual life over time, but flexible enough to be reflected on, revised, and deepened. You should feel some stretch, but not excessive burden. You should be able to follow the Rule in the ordinary circumstances of your life.

A parish church can offer opportunities to reflect on, shape, and revise your Rule.

We might focus our "Rule" in one of two basic ways.

1. A Rule of Life. This might be shaped around something like the Renewal–Apostolate Cycle. This cycle is a way of explaining how we move from attention to Renewal in our baptismal life and purpose (e.g., through worship, study, holy reading) to Apostolate in work, family and friends, civic life, and church (participation in the work of Christ through the people and circumstances of our daily lives). Or we might base a Rule on taking into account all the various aspects of our life, e.g., relationship with God, self, others, and creation. In a Rule of Life we are seeking a balance and rhythm in life that grounds our life in the life of Holy Trinity.

2. A Rule of Prayer. In this case we focus our attention on our discipline and rhythm around the central elements of prayer life, e.g., Eucharist, Daily Office, and Personal Devotions. A Rule of Prayer may, of course, be part of a broader Rule of Life.

Some people find it useful to write out their Rule, while others want to base their Rule on an association with a religious community.

 

Martin Thornton on the Meaning of "Rule." This is based on his Christian Proficiency, 1959.

Rule is the literal translation of the Latin word regula — rule, pattern, model, example — from which we derive "regular" as both noun and adjective. Both words are technical terms of ascetical theology … their meaning is not quite the same as that of common use. Rule, like pattern, model, or system, is an essentially singular word, in some ways directly opposite to a list of "rules," and a "regular" Christian is one who "lives to rule." ….a regular soldier in the regular army — not so much one who keeps a lot of rules or who is strictly disciplined, but an efficient full-time professional. If we may stretch the analogy a little, a regular layman is one who embraces the Christian life as opposed to the keen "draftee" who goes to Church fairly often and tries to say his prayers now and again. It implies status more than quality, efficiency more than keenness or brilliance; volunteers and conscripts might prove to be braver and more zealous than regular soldiers but they are unlikely to be more generally proficient. So it must be admitted that rule is not absolutely essential to creative and progressive Christian life. There is a minority, I think a very small one, of those temperamentally unsuited to embrace rule — but in general to be a regular and to be a proficient comes to much the same thing."

Rule is "embraced" not "promised." It would be Pharisaical, legalistic, and quite unChristian solemnly to promise to "keep" a rule; … A Christian regular is one who chooses to undertake his common obligations and duties, and to develop his personal spirituality, by acknowledging, accepting, or "embracing" some total scheme, system, pattern or "rule" of prayer.

Breach of rule is not sin. …a breach of rule — technically a "fault" — is strictly amoral; thus the cause of a fault might be sinful, negative, or virtuous. If a man misses Church when his rule prescribes it, by plain downright laziness, then he has committed both a fault and a sin, but his sin is not "rule-breaking" — there is no such thing — but sloth.

Rule is, and must always remain, variable. The idea persists that once you have embraced rule you must "stick it out" at all costs forever! Rule may be relaxed, as for example during holidays or in sickness, or it may be modified, if say, work or charitable duties become temporarily overwhelming…. Rule is also variable — necessarily so — according to our progress through life, and as we advance, or as our circumstances change, it will probably need revision every two or three years.

Rule should be, or should soon become, unobtrusive. It should "fit," and the soul should "grow into it," so that by habitual use prayer fully becomes a solidly established part of life and personality — and this is the real meaning of the word regular: a Christian who has no need to worry over much about duty, or about what he ought to do next, because an orderly integrated prayer life has become part of himself.

A good personal Rule should demand creative discipline without burden. …Quite simply rule should be neither too difficult nor too easy; but here temperament should be considered. … In general, therefore, I think 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.

 

From In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today's Christian Life, Michelle Heyne, Ascension Press, 2011. Used with permission.

We are aware that one impediment to a disciplined spiritual life is the soul-deadening tendency some of us have to focus obsessively on the rules and on what we "should" do, as well as our abiding suspicion that the only really valid expressions of the holy involve a lot of boredom, suffering, and priggishness. What a shock we don't jump right in!

A rule-based approach to the spiritual life may tend to perpetuate a sense of false duality, rather than supporting us in engaging the complex polarities to be managed. Many points of conflict around significant life issues will remain sources of tension and are not amendable to a particular "solution" or to otherwise being resolved. The classic example of a polarity is breathing: we take oxygen in when we inhale, and we release carbon dioxide when we exhale. Both are necessary functions and each relies on the other.

Getting stuck in one end of the cycle (e.g., breathing out without then breathing in) means death. No one would ever talk about "needing to resolve the problem of whether to breathe in or out," but we may be perfectly comfortable talking about whether we connect to the tradition or we innovate, whether we engage stability or change, and whether we join the church or hold onto our personal spiritual values.

Just as it is possible to become too rigid and dogmatic about what we're "supposed to do," it is possible to over-react to perceived pressure from the rules or the "shoulds," rejecting out of hand the wisdom of tradition, the authority of community, or the system of spiritual discipline.

Excessive concern about losing our identity may prevent us from consciously committing to anything bigger than ourselves, yet we will, in innumerable ways, spend our whole lives working out the complexities of belonging, of identity, of connection. Who am I? What will this cost me? What is my duty to others? Will they want what I have to offer? What can I expect from them? How much will they accept from me?

The process of spiritual maturation involves openness to exactly those complexities and acceptance that "resolution," if it ever comes, is part of our eternal, not our temporal, inheritance.

 

Other Notions of a Rule of Life

"My rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them." ―Sir Winston Churchill

Helen and Scott Nearing were social activists with a rule of life for using their time — time daily for manual labor yielding the necessities of food, shelter, heat, and clothing; time daily for contemplation and creating something of beauty. "We were not in a hurry, except occasionally when it threatened to shower or when sap buckets were running over … We took our time, every day, every month, every year. We had our work, did it and enjoyed it. We had our leisure, used it, and enjoyed that." ―Scott Nearing,Living the Good Life, Schocken Books, 1954, pp. 50-51, 28.