Read an Excerpt
At HOME in the WORLD
A Rule of Life for the Rest of Us
By MARGARET GUENTHER
Church Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Margaret Guenther
All rights reserved.
Rules, Roots, and Branches
When I was a small child, I knew a song from my grandparents' days: "School days, school days, dear old golden rule days; reading and writing and 'rithmetic taught to the tune of a hickory stick." I liked it and disliked it simultaneously. The tune was lilting, and the severe pedagogic regimen safely in the past, yet the linking of the Golden Rule and that stick was too close for comfort.
In our four-room school desks were clamped to the floor in neat rows, fastened to sturdy metal strips like miniature railroad tracks. Window shades were impeccably aligned—woe to the teacher whose blinds were out of sync. No talking unless you held up your hand, no whispering, no gum-chewing, no getting up from your seat without permission: pencil sharpening was an exciting diversion, and an authorized trip to the basement bathroom a high point in the day. You formed a neat line to go to the playground, where boys played on one side of the squat brick building and girls on the other. I once had to carry a message to the teacher on duty on the boys' side and felt as if I were doing something dangerously illicit. Would I be praised for efficient delivery of the message, or reproached for being in forbidden territory?
This was not a harsh environment. The children were not struck or shouted at. All the rules were in fact reassuring, probably like the rules of a benevolent prison: you knew exactly where you were supposed to be and what you were to be doing at any given moment. But the rules were not freely chosen by the small inmates: they were a given, handed down by remote authorities. Spontaneity had no place, nor did exuberant creativity. Who knows what might have happened if some rampaging free spirit had tried to blossom among us docile children in the 1930s in the neighborhood called Rosedale?
Rules—they structure and punctuate our lives. There is the rule of the road and the rule of law. There are rules of grammar, happily ignored by many. Some rulers are heads of state; some are twelve-inch strips of wood or plastic tucked in the middle desk drawer. There are even three saints named "Rule." My favorite is St. Regula, martyred in 302 and now remembered as one of the patrons of hyper-Protestant Zurich. Beheaded, she carried her severed head to an ancient church on the riverbank, where she deposited it to mark one of the future cornerstones. St. Rule was an obscure fourth-century Scottish saint reputed to have brought relics of St. Andrew to Scotland. He is not to be confused with St. Regulus of Senlis—I haven't managed to find out who he was. Nor have I found any indication of how these saints got their names. Were they sticklers for doing things decently and in order, or did they compose rules for their communities? Or were they stragglers and underachievers who needed the structure of a rule to hold them up?
Not long ago, looking for something else, I found a folder labeled "Rule" in my computer directory. It is not a folder that I had created, but lies buried among those innumerable indecipherable items on the hard drive. It contains seventeen forbidding-looking files that obviously have something to do with the continued healthy functioning of my desktop. Like my three enigmatic saints, I haven't a clue how it got its name, nor can I fathom what its purpose might be. Now that I know it's there, I will continue to keep my distance and treat it with a healthy respect.
* Contemporary Rules
In the freedom-loving twenty-first century I find myself wanting to write a book about rules. Not just those ordinary practical rules that help us get through the day—stand to the right and walk on the left on an escalator, put the trash out Tuesday night, take your laptop out of the case before going through security while juggling your shoes. And not those rules that restrict and oppress us, that compel us to plod when we really want to dance. I am convinced that, even as we celebrate freedom, we yearn for rules. It is frightening and disorienting to be adrift. Any parent of small children knows that structure is essential. Children find it liberating to know when they will eat and when they will sleep, to know clearly which behaviors are acceptable and which are not, to know that they are protected from danger. There are times when life itself may depend on knowing and observing the rules. At the very least, there is freedom and security when our days are shaped and held by a supportive structure. Further, any terrorist—international, domestic, or household—knows that uncertainty is the most powerful weapon.
Even as we might resist rules imposed by others as blighting our promise and hampering our creativity, we seek them out and cling to them like drowning swimmers to a lifeline. In our well-fed society, many of these rules currently constellate around the intake of food. In simpler times counting calories could become an obsession; then in the 1980s came the promise of eating more and weighing less. For fruit and vegetable-lovers this permissive approach was almost too easy, so fat was banished, then "bad" carbohydrates, then seemingly all carbohydrates. Current dietary rules have come to rival the precepts set forth in the book of Leviticus. So now when I share a meal with Atkins diet aficionados, I am reproached by my own lack of self-discipline. As I drop a little balsamic vinegar on my salad, I envy their clarity, their understanding of the acceptable and the forbidden.
Our very identities seem determined by our dietary regimens. I may not know who is Episcopalian or Presbyterian, Conservative or Reformed, Democrat or Republican, but even short and relatively casual acquaintance can make clear who is Atkins or South Beach, low carb or no carb, organic or conventional, vegan or lacto-ovarian. I cannot resist pondering the roots of such dedicated asceticism. People of faith who are casual in their religious observance and neglectful of the spiritual disciplines can become rigorous to the point of zealotry about their carbs or workouts. Rigid observance of a rule, not imposed but freely chosen, can provide a feeling of safety. I find myself remembering a childhood rule, faithfully observed and passed on by oral tradition: "Don't step on a crack or you'll break your mother's back." Did we avoid the cracks in the sidewalk because we loved our mothers and feared what would happen to us without them? Or did we feel power over the most powerful person in our lives, power that we resisted even as we contemplated it? Or were we just having fun, adding shape to the repetitive work of walking to and from school every day?
The prevailing rule of our time finds its roots in Ohio, where Alcoholics Anonymous, the parent of all the twelve-step programs, was born in 1935. These programs have burgeoned in the decades since: a cursory surfing of the Internet yields dozens of self-help programs based on the principles of AA, revealing the wide range of addictive behaviors in our addicted society. Could we be addicted to addiction? Or might addiction simply be a new way of looking at idolatry, and the deceptively simple twelve steps be a new articulation of ancient spiritual truths?
Is it merely graced coincidence that in his rule for monastic communities Benedict describes the twelve degrees of humility? Twelve is, after all, a significant if not mystical number: there are twelve days of Christmas, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles, and twelve months in a year. Why not twelve steps on the path to wholeness? The steps themselves have a decidedly monastic ring, succinct and deceptively simple: I admit my need of God, I choose to believe that God is able to restore me to sanity, and I turn my life over to God's care. As an ongoing spiritual discipline I make a searching "moral inventory" of my life and confess my wrongdoings, asking for forgiveness and restoration, and making restitution where possible. I seek to know God through prayer and meditation, asking for the power to carry out God's will in every part of my life and making an effort to share my experience of God with others.
I found it an illuminating exercise to read an Alcoholics Anonymous publication from 1952 simultaneously with the Rule of St. Benedict and the even older Rule of St Augustine. The similarities were striking: the twelve steps, a deeply personal confession of sin, repentance, and commitment, are articulated in the first-person plural: it is "we" not "I" who acknowledge powerlessness and the need to change. The hard work of conversion, which is the drastic redirection of one's life, is not to be undertaken alone. Whether in a medieval monastery or a twelve-step group meeting in the church basement, the rule is read and reread constantly in the gathered community. The seeker after God is always on the way; the addict is always recovering, not yet recovered. Even the ideal of monastic poverty is foundational in the twelve-step ethos, where the extraneous has been stripped away in anonymity and admission of powerlessness is the great leveler.
The founders of the twelve-step programs were concerned quite literally with saving lives: only God—the higher Power—could restore them to sanity. We associate this word primarily with mental or emotional health, but its roots are much deeper. Sanity is wholeness, health, salvation, which is the goal of the great monastic rules. Even when attention is given to the most detailed matters, the vision is expansive and life-giving.
* Traditional Rules
The Rule of St. Benedict is a bestseller today. Monasteries offer "Benedictine experiences," retreats in which participants live for a few days according to the rhythm of the Rule. A number of business and management websites promise to present Benedictine principles in "a fresh and original way that is applicable to any manager or organization today"; some promote the Rule as a source of "classic management secrets you can use today." I tried to imagine a fast-food restaurant or a used car dealership run on Benedictine principles. As one monk I know, himself a Benedictine, remarked to me wryly, "We could even sell laundry detergent if we labeled it 'Benedictine.'" Yet Benedict's Rule deserves its popularity, especially among those of us who are trying to find our way in a complex and overstimulated world.
Antedating the Benedict's Rule by two centuries, Augustine's Rule is presumed to have been written shortly after he became bishop of Hippo. When he had to leave the monastery that he had established to assume his episcopal duties, Augustine set down in writing the advice that he could no longer give personally. Like Benedict's, his Rule was written for a group of diverse men living a life of prayer in community. It is very brief, offering precepts to be observed rather than particular rules for specific situations. Indeed, the word "rule" (regula) does not appear in the document. Not so well-known as Benedict's, it too provides insight into monastic life of long ago and offers equally important guidance for the rest of us.
Not all the traditional rules are directed at large communities of men. One of my favorite books from the high Middle Ages is the Ancrene Wisse, written in the early decades of the thirteenth century in Middle English, the language of Chaucer and Julian of Norwich. The author, an anonymous priest, wrote it as a guide for three anchorites, women who lived as solitaries in cells attached to parish churches. In some ways they were the spiritual descendants of the holy—if bizarre—fathers of the Egyptian desert, deliberately cutting themselves off from the world and living in great austerity. But there were significant differences: the anchoress lived right in the heart of the town in a little room attached to the parish church, dead to the world yet very much a part of it. The ritual of her entry into the anchorhold was in part a burial liturgy. Once she entered her cell, the door was barred on the outside, and she never returned to "the world"—even though it was only a few feet away.
Her dwelling, more like a modest efficiency apartment than a stark cell, had three windows: one into the church, so that she could observe the celebration of the Eucharist and receive the sacrament; one into her garden—yes, she had a garden and a servant to tend it; and one opening onto the street. This was the vulnerable window, a vital link to others and at the same time a dangerous temptation. Through it she could speak to women who sought her spiritual counsel and to priests who would hear her confession, but she had to be careful to keep her hands inside and not to show her face.
I come back to that odd, fascinating old book again and again because those anchorites have something to teach the rest of us about the discipline of following a rule. They lived their lives of prayer and work without bells to call them to the chapel at the appointed hours, without the support and example of a community, and—this might have been hardest of all—without the benevolent and sometimes ominous oversight of an abbess. Similarly, for most of us most of the time, the inner journey is a solitary one.
The anchorite's rule was twofold: an inner and an outer rule. Not really a rule per se, it was more a set of guidelines. The aim of the anchoritic life, painfully cramped and restricted by our standards, was an expanded inner world. The outer rule dealt with externals: food, clothing, work, hours of prayer, and permissible contact with others. It was flexible, according to circumstances, and existed only to serve the inner rule. As the anonymous author explains, it
is entirely concerned with outward things, and rules the body and bodily actions. This teaches everything about how a person should behave outwardly—how to eat, drink, dress, sing, sleep, keep vigil.... And this rule exists only to serve the other. The other is like the lady, this like her handmaid. For all that a person ever does according to the latter, outwardly, is only to rule the heart within.
The purpose of the inner rule was purity of heart, a single-minded focus on the love of God. For this the author offers no recipe, no easy set of ten rules or twelve steps. It is a powerful reminder of what we are about when we seek solitude as a spiritual practice. The externals are not really important: we might choose a religious house or a solitary cabin in the mountains; we might participate in a structured retreat or go off on our own; we might be helped to move into the silence by carefully chosen music, or we might find music distracting. And on and on—the possibilities are myriad. More broadly, for those of us not called to actual solitude, the Ancrene Wisse has a powerful message: it is the purpose, the intent of our rule that matters, not the externals.
In many ways, it is all a matter of translation—not just moving the words from medieval Latin or Middle English into the English of our day, but also uncovering the verities and commonalities in the lives of faithful people throughout the ages. When I read in Benedicts Rule that the monk who ends his week of service in the kitchen must "wash the towels with which his brethren have wiped their hands and feet," my first thought is that I would rather not eat in the monastic refectory—I could just picture those towels by the end of the week! When I translate this precept from a medieval monastery to the typical parish kitchen, however, it seems very wise and practical indeed. Clean up after yourself! Leave the place tidy! If Benedict were writing now, he might urge cleaning out that parish refrigerator at the end of your tour of duty; it is no place to grow penicillin on old cucumbers. Wipe up spills, and return everything to its proper place. Maybe even wash the towels.
The specifics of the old rules may seem austere and confining. I am quite happy, for example, that I am not, like Augustine's monks, compelled to relinquish my summer wardrobe to the keeper of the clothes when September comes and then to receive my winter garments willy-nilly from the common closet, wondering in advance what shapeless, badly-fitting outfit I will be given in May. I am quite happy that unlike the anchoress I am free to talk to all sorts of men, not just the occasional passing priest, and to lean boldly out the window. Yet once we move past the details, it is clear that the traditional monastic values of poverty, chastity, and obedience are not outmoded concepts, even though they seem out of place in the mall.
Excerpted from At HOME in the WORLD by MARGARET GUENTHER. Copyright © 2006 Margaret Guenther. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.