When one has decided to take their spirituality seriously, they typically come face to face with their own disorganization. One of the biggest hurdles in the religious life is finding the time and energy to implement all the wonderful things we are being called to. It is very easy for us to become so focused on the idea of a spiritual life that we overlook the reality of actually living one. This has been a concern for people of all traditions throughout the centuries. It is a part of the human condition and monks around the world (whether Buddhist, Christian, or otherwise) have learned that you need some kind of system in place to keep the fickle human soul from wandering in circles and never going anywhere meaningful. This system is traditionally referred to as a rule of life.
In general, a rule is something by which we measure everything else. In math class a ruler measures centimeters, in the contemplative life a rule measures virtues. A monastic rule is a way of life which is not typically a list of ordinances in the way you might think. It’s not a rule book. Rather, it is more like an action plan which implements the law of Christ in our individual lives. It is part schedule, part manifesto, and part instructions for the practical elements of a life of prayer.
Many monastic communities have a communal rule which is shared by everyone. However, in many monastic texts we can see that individual people would also have their own personal rule to guide their daily prayers and inner work. In this article, I will be talking about the formation of a personal rule designed to support the contemplative life. If you already follow a communal rule, then be sure your personal rule conforms to it and supports it rather than contradicting it.
Moderation, small incremental steps, and simple goals are all important aspects of a personal rule. It is very easy to want to jump off the deep end and begin your daily practice with intense and overly ambitious expectations. However, the mark of a good rule of life is that it is simple and manageable. Begin by adding one new commitment at a time. Spend a month or so for each one allowing it time to become part of your routine. Your rule should include time for fasting and feasting, solitude and community, taking care of your own needs and the needs of others. This rule should seek to find God in the space between all these opposites. Extremes of fasting can be just as harmful as extremes of feasting. In all things moderation is key to healthy discernment.
Whatever middle path we settle on for each of these aspects of monastic life, the most important part is that a good rule helps to bring your entire being together in its love for God. All of the things we do in the contemplative life are only stepping stones on the path to God. If we allow our fasting or our lack of fasting to become an idol for us then we start to get lost. God is found in the space between extremes. When writing to a novice about how to set up a personal rule of life in The Assessment of Inward Stirrings, the author of The Cloud talked about finding this third way which is not at either end of polar extremes. After describing how the best way to decide between opposites is to lay them both aside and find a third option, the following explanation is given:
“And now you ask what this third thing is. I shall tell you what I understand it to be. It is God. For him you must be silent, if you are to be silent; for him you must speak, if you are to speak; for him you must fast if you are to fast; for him you must eat if you are to eat; for him you must be solitary if you are to be solitary; for him you must be in company if you are to be in company; and so for all the rest, whatever they may be. For silence is not God, nor is speaking God; fasting is not God, nor is eating God; being alone is not God, nor is company God; nor yet any one of every such pair of contraries. He is hid between them; and he cannot be found by any work of your soul, but only the love of your heart.”
God is found in the balance between opposites and so a good rule of life brings a harmonious balance to the life of the monk. It keeps the monk away from excess in any direction and always brings things back to the third thing that gives balance to the opposites, which is God. One of the sets of contraries which we need to be particularly mindful of in the contemplative life is the relationship between reason and love. The author of The Cloud goes on to tell this novice that they have two spiritual eyes by which they can see. One is the eye of reason and the other is the eye of love. While both are good, only the eye of love is able to see God as she is, the eye of reason will never be able to. Therefore, our personal rule should be such that it nurtures the eye of love and directs it towards God.
If our personal rule becomes too caught up in the eye of reason, then we will not be able to grasp God. Reason should always be the servant of love, not the other way around. If we become overly concerned with the details of our rule then we can lose sight of what is important. For this reason, all the aspects of our personal rule should be uncomplicated and designed to revive the love in our hearts. A rule should free us from over analyzing our daily lives, not burden us with more thoughts. A good rule allows us to live in freedom from our vices. It provides the checks and balances we all need so that we do not spend our free time fretting about whether or not we are living in a good way. It is a structure which gives freedom.
Life will provide us with many crosses to bear, our rule need not be such a thing. Reason will be constantly evaluating our lives trying to discern what is good and bad about each little action we take. Our reason can quickly ruin the spiritual life with its incessant need to analyze every step. A rule based on love and freedom does that work for us and frees us to live in the moment without having to constantly assess if we are doing life right. The author of the Cloud described it like this,
“There are two eyes of the soul, reason and love. By reason we may search out how mighty, how wise, and how good God is in his creatures, but not in himself. But whenever reason falls short, then it is love’s pleasure to look alive and to learn to occupy itself. For by love we can find him, experience him, and reach him, as he is in himself… And thus it [love] finds and experiences, hits and pierces the target and the bull’s-eye at which it aims, much sooner than it would if its sight were distracted by looking at many things, as it is when reason ransacks and seeks among all these various things such as silence and speaking, extraordinary fasting and normal diet, living alone and in company, in order to find out which is better.”
And so if we allow our rule to be overly examined by reason it becomes self defeating. A rule is best when it is simple to follow and leaves room for the heart to do its thing. Because reason will never carry us to God, only love has the ability to do that. Reason can teach us many things about God’s beautiful creation, including ourselves. It has a wisdom all its own that is very useful and necessary, but it is secondary in importance to love. Reason is at its best when it is the servant of love. When the heart is lifted up and supported by the head, then we are able to have a way of life which is balanced and wholesome. A good rule of life brings our outer person into a state of recollection where every aspect of our lives is devoted to love and directed towards God. Once the life of the outer person has come into balance and harmony, it becomes much easier for the life of the inner person to follow suit.
As you create your own personal rule the following list may be a helpful guide to make sure you are covering all your bases.
- Fasting: Set healthy boundaries with places of excess in your life
- Feasting: Have a time set aside for celebration and thanksgiving
- Solitude: Find a regular time to be alone
- Spiritual Direction: Have a regular time to meet with a spiritual guide
- Simplicity: Stay focused on what’s important and renounce any excess you do not need
- Peace: make a commitment to non-violence and peaceful resolution
- Silence: Have dedicated times and places where there is no noise
- Prayer: Have a daily time set aside for meditation and prayer
- Study: Be intentional about what you read, when you read it, and why it’s important
With all these things, be sure to find God in the middle way. For God is the third way between extremes. Add practices to your daily routine slowly and one at a time. It is very common for people to bite off more than they can chew and become discouraged when they are not able to keep it up. Let your rule grow and adapt as you do. It does not need to become a static and rigid set of rules which crushes the spirit, rather, it can be a gentle force which supports daily prayer and helps us to measure the quality of the life we live. Be sure that your rule fully utilizes the gifts which reason offers, but do not let reason take the rightful place of love as the goal of all your efforts. If at any time your rule is preventing love or stifling it in any way, then be sure to adjust it back into a state of harmony and balance. Your rule should be an aid in directing the love in your heart towards God in everything that you do. How well our rule does this is the means by which we measure the quality of our rule of life.
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