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"Listen carefully, my son, to the master's instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart."
So begins the Rule of Life—St. Benedict's—that remains the most widely known of monastic rules. The riches of The Rule of St. Benedict have been mined by scholars, monks and nuns, and laypeople for nearly fifteen centuries now, and The Rule of St. Benedict continues to instruct and guide many of us today. But Benedict's rule was written centuries after many other ones, and was derivative of many other rules that existed in Benedict's day. His rule—the guidelines by which people in religious communities live—is only one of a variety of ancient rules, and was not even particularly well-known when it was written. While we gratefully look to the riches of his work today, there are other rules, particularly the ones from the fourth-century Egyptian desert monastics, as well as ones written in today's monasteries, on which we can draw with equal profit. Whether we live inside or outside of religious enclosures, the monastic concept of balancing our lives and ordering them around God offers hope for living a deeper and more fulfilling spiritual life.
Consider this book your invitation to create your own rule of life, one uniquely suited to you. A rule of life (though the word is singular) is actually a collection of rules or guidelines for living. These guidelines cover all aspects of our lives, and they help us to keep our lives in balance. Even more than that, however, a rule of life helps us toput and keep God at the center of everything we do. We do not strive for balance just for its own sake—though that is always pleasant. We create a balanced life so that we have time for our relationship with God. When we are too busy with our jobs, when we ignore the needs of our bodies or souls, we become focused solely on what we need or what is important to us. We lose track of what is important for others, for the world as a whole, and for God. We become disconnected from all that is around us and lose perspective. And, in the end, if we maintain this imbalance, we lose track of our relationship with God.
You may be balking at the world "rule" and perhaps there is good reason to bristle. The word can bring up childhood images of punishment and shame for some people. It can be hard to imagine that a rule might bring you great joy and peace. So while I use the term rule of life here, since it is a term out of the Christian heritage, substitute a more helpful term if you prefer. Perhaps you can think of the rule as a way of life.
One way to understand the importance of a rule is to think of it as you would a friendship in your life. Sometimes when we meet a new friend or a new romantic partner we ignore those who have been friends with us for a long time. We can do that for a little while without too much damage to the older friendships, but we cannot maintain that imbalance for long without risking attachments that are important to us. With our close friends and those who matter most to us, we find ways of relating to each other that work for everyone. Perhaps we call and talk to each other on the phone daily. Or we e-mail one another every week. Maybe we meet for a drink and conversation every Tuesday after work. We establish some sort of relationship—the regularity of it can vary enormously. But we have some mutually understood, even unconscious, way of staying connected. And as a result of the connection we grow and change, and our friend is transformed as well.
So it is with our connection to God. We must give time to the relationship. We must be present at some more or less regular interval. When we ignore it, or give insufficient time to it, God does not go away, but our mutual connection is weakened. When we pay attention, when we make time for God, as we do with friends and loved ones, we are challenged to grow and become more of what God intends for us. We fall in love with God over and over again, and we are richer for the experience.
That desire to be in a relationship with God is at the core of the rule of life. By making a commitment to prayer, to study, to a spiritual community, to our own needs and those of others, we create a balanced life that revolves around our love of God. We come to that commitment as a result of our own romance with God, out of the knowledge that God loves us and wants—desperately—to be in a relationship with us. And as a result of the love we experience we are emboldened and spread that love outward to others.
Before working specifically on developing your rule, it may be helpful to learn a bit about the history of the development of rules, for the struggles you probably face in living a life centered on God—while they may be new to you—are not new to humankind.
A Brief History of Rules
Pachomius and Basil
The struggle to find a way to live that is faithful to God no doubt began when people first began to experience God's presence. We cannot know anything of those earliest moments that occurred long before people began recording history, but the Bible and all the ancient documents from the early Jewish and Christian eras tell us of people's struggle to understand God, and to live somehow as they thought God required. Whole books of the Bible, such as Leviticus, document the human search to live according to what was perceived as divine will.
Our exploration, however, begins at the end of the third century C.E. in Egypt and Palestine, when Christian monasticism made its first appearance. Beginning around this time hermits made their way into the deserts to seek God in solitude. (The word monk comes from a Greek word that means alone.) These hermits or solitaries, both men and women, sought a total withdrawal from all worldly life in the desert. They renounced marriage, family, the normal comforts of life, and all possessions in order to free themselves from anything that distracted them from God. Many desert dwellers became the famous holy people of their times, and their spiritual advice was avidly sought.
The monasticism of this time followed two distinct and different paths. The first group, the true hermits, went off into the desert and lived in caves out of sight and earshot of others. They were loosely organized into communities called lauras. At the center of the community of caves were some common buildings where the solitaries met on Sundays for worship and a shared meal. The central buildings also provided housing for guests as needed. But the majority of the hermit's time was spent alone, and each person was his or her own spiritual guide. The spiritual practices for these hermits focused primarily on quelling the body's needs since they believed that the body served only to distract one from God. Fasting, sleep deprivation, and all sorts of bodily mortification were common for the desert dwellers. And though it was not true of all the hermits, in some areas a competitive asceticism developed, with monks trying to deprive their bodies more seriously than the next monk, thus proving that the one who could stand the most punishment was closest to God.
The second group of monks during this time recognized the dangers of the solitary life followed by the hermits and formed monastic communities instead. The originator of these kinds of communities is said to be Pachomius, who was born in Egypt around 292 and died in 346. Pachomius founded the first monastic community alongside the upper Nile in Egypt and his rule for living within that community is the first rule we know of today. His monasteries attracted thousands of Christians, both men and women, who gathered to live in community together. Each monastery featured smaller houses in which dwelled twenty monks under the direction of the housemaster, who was also the group's spiritual guide. A cycle of daily prayer was practiced, and work was strongly encouraged not only as a means to support the monastery, but as a spiritual discipline. Almost every activity outlined in Pachomius's rule is subject to the observation or guidance of the housemaster for each community, in direct opposition to the life of the hermits.
Pachomius's rule and the community life that it fostered strongly influenced another early founder of monastic communities, St. Basil, who over time came to be regarded as the father of Orthodox monasticism. Early in his life, around 357-58, Basil went to Egypt in search of a spiritual director, and came into contact with Pachomius's monasteries. When he returned home, Basil tried to live the solitary life for a few years, but perhaps as a result of his contact with Pachomian monasteries, decided that community life was superior to a totally solitary life. Basil founded a community in Caesarea, and wrote what are called today his Long Rules and Short Rules to guide that community, and the communities that followed it.
Unlike many of the rules that we have from the earliest days, which are detailed instructions on how to set up a community and govern its life, Basil's rules are more like essays about the spiritual life, and many parts of them seem very contemporary today. Basil was particularly disdainful of life lived in solitary because it fostered arrogant behavior—the kinds of competitive spiritual feats of some of the desert monastics-and because it provided no opportunity to learn spiritual practices such as humility and patience. Perhaps most important to Basil, living alone in a desert cave, isolated from others, gave one little opportunity to practice the commandment to love one's neighbor, and provided few if any outlets to practice charity toward others.
Basil's communities, then, practiced a more moderate spirituality, and the monks looked to their superiors for their particular spiritual practices. Harsh and harmful bodily practices were not encouraged, being viewed as extreme acts of willful individualism rather than as pathways to God. Work, on the other hand, was encouraged, just as it was in Pachomius's monasteries. It was seen as a way of supporting the community, perfecting the soul, and providing help for the poor.
Pachomius's and Basil's rules became the formative documents for many of the rules that followed. What is perhaps the most fascinating aspect about them is that these two rules developed in response to a spiritual trend of third-century Christians that bears a remarkable similarity to today's spiritual dilemmas. During the 1970s and 1980s in America many individuals sought to create and direct their own spiritual paths. They fled from institutional religion and tried to direct their own spiritual searches much as the desert hermits did in third- and fourth-century Egypt. These hermits, acting as their own spiritual guides, were easily led to excesses and misdirection. The less spiritually hardy of them found themselves in competition with other monks, trying to outdo others in self-mortification, rather than truly following the pathway to God. Because they lived outside community there was no one to tell them they were on the wrong road, no one to make alternate suggestions for the journey. With only the self to think about, many of them did just that, and mistakenly focused on themselves when they thought they were focusing on God. Many contemporary spiritual seekers, trying to be their own guide, have discovered what the desert hermits found—that it is difficult to seek God alone and without help. The rules of Pachomius and Basil were important correctives in their time, and continue to be so today.
Later Rules: John Cassian, the Celts, and Benedict
The literature of the early monastic movement in the East attracted many spiritual seekers from the West who came and studied, and then brought monasticism back to what is now Europe. In the year 385 John Cassian went to Egypt in search of spiritual enlightenment, and studied at the feet of many of the great spiritual masters there. A theological controversy eventually drove him out of Egypt, and he settled in Gaul (what is now the western European continent, minus Spain) and there recorded the wisdom of the Eastern masters. Cassian's Institutes, which he wrote for a community of monks he helped to form in Provence, was the first rule to be produced in western Europe. Cassian believed that the solitary life was perhaps the highest form of spiritual achievement for a Christian, but like Pachomius and Basil he found it necessary for men and women to prepare themselves for the solitary search for God through spiritual formation with a structured community.
As monasticism spread throughout the West many new rules were created. The first half of the sixth century was a rich time for the development of rules, with new ones springing up regularly. Each was derivative of what had already been written by previous writers; such a practice was considered one that gave honor to earlier authors, rather than as plagiarism. In Italy and southern Gaul two rules developed that influenced what is probably the best known rule today, The Rule of St. Benedict. Though there is scholarly disagreement about this, some scholars believe that The Rule of the Master, written by an unknown abbot, was written at the beginning of the sixth century. Borrowing from The Rule of the Master, St. Caesarius of Arles (c. 470-542) wrote two rules, one for men and one for women. St. Benedict (c. 480-550) in turn, drew heavily on both of these sources for his now famous rule. Written in a more organized fashion and a more literary style, and memorialized by Pope Gregory the Great in his Life of St. Benedict, written about 593-4, Benedict's rule become the one that influenced much of what would come after him.
In comparison to many of the other rules of his day, Benedict's is less harsh and autocratic than most. The abbot, in Benedict's rule, is required to consult with the whole community, and the questioning of authority—within certain boundaries—is even allowed. Benedict's rule is not one that asks for excessively harsh treatment of the body either, though none of the early rules encouraged any coddling of bodily needs. But Benedict's rule makes provisions for those who are sick and innately weaker than others, asking each person to perform at the level at which he is reasonably capable, and not to compare himself to others.
Alongside the development of monasteries and rules in the West came the same process in Ireland. Perhaps as early as the fifth century, but certainly in the sixth century, monasticism spread throughout Ireland. Scholars are agreed that Irish monasticism was influenced by what had come before it, but are not sure whether this came from contact with the West or possibly from direct contact with the East. The first Irish rule we know of is that of St. Columbanus. His rule and many of the other Celtic rules that followed show a different side of Celtic life than the one often portrayed in popular books today. Like their counterparts in the Egyptian desert, the Irish rules focused on conquering the body in order to bring the soul to God. It is not unusual to find, in some of these rules, instructions to do something like genuflecting 100 times a day—an activity that would quickly destroy the cartilage in anyone's knees. As another example, the following passage comes from Columbanus' rule: "The chief part of the monk's rule is mortification ... Let the monk ... not do as he wishes, let him eat what is bidden, keep as much as he has received, complete the tale of his work, be subject to him whom he does not like. Let him come wearily as if sleep-walking to bed, and let him be forced to rise while his sleep is not yet finished."
Columbanus' rule, however, spread over to Gaul and was very popular for a period of time. In fact, some monastic houses combined the rules of Columbanus and Benedict, and lived what they called a "mixed rule." Eventually, however, given the harshness of the Celtic rules, Benedict's rule became the preferred model, and was adopted as the sole rule for many monasteries.
Another well-known rule is The Rule of St. Augustine, which became the basic rule of the Dominican Order in the Catholic Church. Briefer than most rules, and much more general in its instruction, it focuses on poverty, simplicity, and obedience. Like the rules of Basil and Pachomius, it stresses the importance of living together in community: "Before all else, live together in harmony [Psalm 67 (68):7], being of one mind and one heart [Acts 4:32] on the way to God. For is it not precisely for this reason that you have come together?"
There is no need to explore the complete history of rules here, nor has that history ended—rules are being written and revised even today. Many of the ancient rules were living documents in their times, repeatedly revised by their authors and the authors' successors. That remains true even today. Monasteries and convents may still use Benedict's rule, but they reinterpret it for today's world. The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, a more contemporary community of monks, was first written in 1866, and was recently revised again. By their nature rules are living documents, and are rewritten and reassessed in light of what the author or succeeding generations learn of God.
Rules for Individuals
So far we have explored the rules that were written for monastic communities, but increasingly in the last few years spiritual directors and seekers are paying attention to the application of rules to the lives of individuals. The wide variety of commentaries on The Rule of St. Benedict in recent years has helped individuals see that rules can provide guidance and help shape their personal religious journey, just as they do for an individual within a community. In fact, most rules would encourage individuals to form some kind of religious community, even if it is only a relationship with one other person, such as a spiritual director. In the last ten years or so a variety of books containing ancient rules have been published, and you will find many of them listed on pages 269-76. At the same time, a small number of spiritual writers have devoted a chapter or two in their books to rules, suggesting that individuals discern a rule of life tailored to their own life and experience of God. "When people come to me for spiritual direction," Margaret Guenther writes, "I always assume that, at some level, they are concerned with formulating a rule of life. They may not use these words ... But they are concerned with the stewardship of their time and energy (as well as their substance) and are looking for help in shaping their days." Guenther, a spiritual director, goes on to point out that we are all living a rule of life, but that for most of us this rule is unconscious.
To discover elements of your own unconscious rule of life, try the following exercise. Your answers to the exercise will form the groundwork for any rule you create for yourself as you read through the remainder of the book. So, before reading any further, take a few moments and make a list of all the things that you currently do that nurture your spirit. Make the list as complete as possible, coming back to it over the next few days if need be. Write down everything you do that nurtures your spirit, and try to avoid censoring anything you might put on the list.
Now, what do you notice about your list? When people think of activities that are spiritual, they normally only consider things such as prayer, worship, meditation, and other activities associated with spirituality. Some of those may well appear on your list, but in all likelihood it probably included many items outside those parameters, because I asked you what nurtures your spirit, rather than your spiritual life. Are there things on the list that surprise you? For instance, maybe you put a hobby (quilting, gardening, carpentry) on your list and never thought about it before as something spiritually nurturing. Are there people on your list who nurture your soul? How do they do that? For some people, activities such as long, intimate conversations, or making love, appear on their lists. Does what you do for a living appear anywhere? Try to notice what is not on your list as well as what appears there. As you try to think about the things on your list, be sure to add anything else that comes to mind.
Congratulations! You now have a large part of the work done on developing your own rule of life. These are things you are already doing that connect your spiritual life with your daily life, activities in which God is already present. You have a basic rule of life already, even if it has been unconscious up until now, and knowing that will help you to continue practicing your rule consciously. You may, however, have noticed that some parts of your life are missing from the rule. Perhaps nothing in your job feels spiritually nurturing. Maybe you have no time for prayer or quiet. For now, simply notice what is missing and don't worry too much about it. As you continue reading through this book look for suggestions, particularly in the second part of the book, about ways you might fill in the blanks.
The remainder of this book will help you uncover the rule you are already keeping and add to your rule so that it encompasses as many aspects of your life as possible. Chapter 2 provides guidance on how to establish, keep, and regularly evaluate your rule. The eight chapters in the second part of this book look at specific areas I suggest you address in forming your rule of life: seeking God, rules that focus on your prayer life, work, study of God, spiritual companionship and worship community, care of your body, reaching out to care for others, and offering hospitality. Each chapter in part two includes a variety of suggestions for rules in a given area, all of them on the wisdom of ancient or contemporary rules. Like all good rules, the one you ultimately set will benefit from the wisdom of rules that have already been written. In order to be sure that your rule covers all aspects of your life, try to pick at least one of the suggested rules from each chapter, or use something similar that comes to mind while you are reading.
I hope you will discover, in the process of establishing and keeping a rule, that it opens up an ever-deepening conversation with God that enriches your own life, and allows you, in turn, to be the presence of God to everything that exists around you.
|Part I||What is a Rule of Life?|
|2.||Discovering a Rule You Can Live with||16|
|Part II||Living a Rule of Life|
|Bring Everything to God||40|
|Seek the Will of God||48|
|Contemplate God Everywhere||52|
|Set Aside a Place for Prayer||59|
|Pray Without Ceasing||67|
|Pray for Your Enemies||72|
|Pray Many Ways||77|
|Embrace Periods of Dryness in Your Prayer||81|
|Make Time for Retreats||85|
|Be Grateful for the Gift of Work||93|
|Seek Your Vocation||97|
|Pray While Working||101|
|Listen for the Wisdom of the Community||105|
|Practice Careful Stewardship||109|
|Admit Your Limits||113|
|Refrain from Harsh Words and Thoughts||117|
|Measure Success with Humility||121|
|Put Aside Times for Study||131|
|Meditate on God's Word||136|
|Study the Ancient Wisdom||140|
|Learn from Others||143|
|Study All of God's Creation||147|
|Find a Worship Community||156|
|Observe the Seasons As a Spiritual Journey||160|
|Take the Eucharist Regularly||166|
|Use Tension in Community Creatively||171|
|See a Spiritual Director||175|
|8.||Care of Our Body||180|
|Listen to Your Body||183|
|Rest When You Are Ill||198|
|Wear Something to Remind You of Your Rule||202|
|Exercise for the Good of Your Soul||206|
|Simplify Your Needs||218|
|What You Have Belongs to God||222|
|Give According to Your Abilities||226|
|Take Action Against Injustice||230|
|Practice Hospitality to All||238|
|Accept Others As They Are||242|
|Be Awake to the Dangers of Unlimited Hospitality||251|
|Give Others Space||255|
|Accept What Exists||260|
|Accept Hospitality from Others||264|
|Rules Cited and Sources||269|
Posted January 25, 2008
Definitely one of the better books on the subject. It is an easy read and in very down to earth ways shows the reader about the monastic life and teaches you how to make it your own. The author's wisdom and warmth really come across.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.