Keeping a Rule of Life

Saint Benedict Delivering His Rule
Image by Edith OSB via Flickr

After more than a decade of monastic life “according to the Rule of Benedict,” I find myself scouring the volumes of journals and books for a basic statement of what it means to have and keep a Rule in one’s life.  This is the topic I chose for our Benedictine oblate meeting in February, never imagining that I would not find much written. Much has been written about particular rules – Benedict’s, yes, but also Basil, Augustine, Pachomius and others.  The spirituality of having a rule, though, doesn’t seem to come up.

I had never thought about the taking of rule of life – separate from the various rules – until a brief chance conversation with Episcopalian priest and theologian A.K.M.Adam (AKMA) on a snowy evening in Princeton NJ well over a decade ago. Up until that moment, I saw Benedict’s Rule – and all the other rules – simply as a necessary aspect of organized religious life.  How could a group know what it was about, collectively, and stay on track, without some common understanding.  In just a few sentences, AKMA spoke about the importance of having a rule, but that – for him – the rule was separate from a connection to a particular order.

After many years in the monastery, it is still easier to describe a Rule gone wrong than it is to define what it means to live according to a Rule.  On the one hand, scrupulous attention to specific details from the 6th century is one way to go wrong. Following the supposed spirit of the Rule (as one sees fit) by creative interpretation is another.  The first begs the question by focusing on accidents of the Rule – the details – while the second avoids the most demanding challenges.  The common element is perceiving the Rule as we would traffic laws or the U.S. Constitution: a set of laws we have to find a way to follow.

Keeping a Rule of life is much more dynamic; it’s interactive.  I don’t read the Rule. Rather, the Rule reads me, puts me face to face with myself, speaks to me with words I’ve sought out and accepted.  The phrases become part of one’s inner vocabulary.  When someone behaves badly (when I behave badly!!) the Rule’s instruction to “bear one another’s infirmities, whether of body or mind, with utmost patience” comes to mind – but sometimes after I have already responded with impatience.  Did I keep the Rule in my behavior? No.  Did I keep the Rule, in the ongoing  journey of conversatio in my life? Yes – the Rule spoke to me another time.

If the Rule is dynamic, if the Rule is interactive, who is the One who is acting in the Rule?  St. Benedict wrote the Rule I follow; he drew on Basil and the other early Rules.  Is it St. Benedict I encounter?  The answer lies in the Rule itself: in passage after passage, St. Benedict strings together passages from scripture.  His Rule is not a piece of creative spiritual writing, discovering something new.  It is the log-book and road map of the journey of a disciple of Christ.

Keeping a Rule of life, then, is a commitment one makes to seek one’s hearts desire – Christ – by following the footsteps of one who went before and described the way. If it is merely a set of disciplines, it is dead and useless.  If it draws one on with glimpses of the Beloved, with encounters whose delight draws one forward, then the Rule is the most valued of guidebooks.

A Rule merely as a ruler, a yardstick, against which one measures oneself and comes up short is dead.  A Rule as a roadsign, as the breadcrumbs that mark the way, as the white line that shows me when I’m leaving the road – always with the destination clearly marked – is a life-giving encounter with the Beloved who calls us forward.

Why is it that so few people write about this?

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