by Angie Allport.
A rule of life is not a rhythm of life, although the terms are often used interchangeably, but a tool to enable a balanced way of living. It is not a rule in the sense of being something we must do (a law), but rather in the sense of being something against which we can measure ourselves (a tape measure). Indeed, a rule of life is not about rigidity but about change. Living by the spiritual practices set out in a rule opens us up to the transformative work of God; measuring ourselves against a rule enables us to identify unhealthy behaviours and make the necessary adaptations in our living to address those.
Although rules of life tend to draw on the monastic tradition, they are as much about living in the world as withdrawing from it, albeit living it differently. In order to be effective, a rule requires personal responsibility. If living by a rule is merely a tick-box exercise or about the outward appearance of conformity, there is something wrong. Indeed, just as God did not want the sacrifices of those who offered them with unclean hearts, God does not want us to pray because we have to, but wants us to pray of our own free-will, preferring us otherwise not to pray. There will be seasons in our lives when an aspect of the rule which we took for granted as something at which we excelled trips us up. Measuring ourselves against a rule is not figuratively an act of self-flagellation, but rather an opportunity to identify the means of growing in faith and deepening discipleship. It is the human condition to get things wrong, and getting things wrong with a rule is a reminder that it is upon the grace of God we depend.
There are various ways for measuring oneself against a rule of life. One could read through the rule on a regular basis and make a true assessment of how it is going. Another option is to keep a journal and read back through it regularly, noting patterns of behaviour which are consistent with the rule, those which are not, and being particularly mindful of those which do not feature at all – Is that because they are so embedded or is there something to be addressed? Having identified any areas for improvement, come up with some concrete plans for doing things differently but do not set unreasonable expectations, and be open to modify them as the realities of day-to-day living come into play.
As well as personal responsibility, there is also a need for accountability, which might be found through a spiritual director or a prayer partner. It might also be found in a small group. In creating space for accountability, the aim is not to judge but gently encourage honesty and perhaps suggest different approaches. Reviewing oneself against a rule, whether alone or in the company of others, requires truthfulness about how daily life is lived. Being able to discuss how you are getting on with your devotional life helps you review and adapt it if necessary, but also helps to try to keep to a rule.
Because we are all different (extrovert/introvert; creative/logical, etc), a rule should not be about particular methodologies. In requiring the followers of a rule to pray, for example, the type of prayer (daily office, meditation, etc) should be open to the individual. A rule of life should be holistic. It should include aspects of living in the wider world, making time for our relationships, our physical and emotional well-being, as well as spiritual matters like prayer and Bible study. Again, depending on personality type and or household circumstances, the follower of a rule might prefer a set time for reading the Bible each day, for example, and to follow a particular reading pattern, such as the lectionary. For others, the time of day might be floating and Scripture reading might take the form of reading someone else’s reflection on a text for the day. Again, it is about consciously making time for God in a way in which takes account of life’s realities.
The word rule has the disadvantage of not sounding dynamic, which is possibly why the word rhythm tends to be substituted, but just as it is a rule for living, it is also a living rule. We are never ‘done’ with a rule and if we make the mistake of thinking we are, our spiritual lives will shrivel.
Numerous books have been written on the subject but the following are good starting points:
Harold Miller, Finding a Personal Rule of Life. Cambridge: Grove Books Ltd., 2012 (reprint).
Margaret Guenther, At Home in the World: A Rule of Life for the Rest of Us. New York: Church Publishing Incorporated., 2006.
7 thoughts on “Measuring Up: Living by a Rule of Life”
For me living by a rule of life is too much about self and not enough about others. In practice of course we have to live by rules, laws, rationalising and exercise control over our egoistic selves, but I feel that we are primarily social beings motivated to relate to each other ethically, through love. Rules for living implies a rationalising, analytical. controlling mindset that can lead to an individualistic, inward-looking, even egoistic self-obsession. For me the event of relating to an other person invariable brings a demand that I behave ethically. I am unintentionally affected by the presence of the person before me (especially a person in need) and this seems far more important than any rules for behaviour. In fact it brings up my ultimate concern, God, as if God arises in the context of my ethical concern for others. So I would say that living by a rule of life is too much about what I do rather than what God does through us.
If it is of any interest, academic support for this view comes from Levinas and his commentators.
You offer an important critique Robert. Any way of life even a ‘rule’ (i.e. measure, not regulation) of life can be self-centred rather than outward looking (or even about the measure, or worse obeying the regulation). However, if one is aware of the danger, then doesn’t the idea of a rule of life as outlined by Angie actually have a lot to offer. Many find the discipline of a rule of life (both as regulation and as measure) a way of avoiding being self-centred.
Dare I say it, you offer to readers here what I consider to be a rule of life, that of living unconditional love -acknowledging the receipt of it, encouraging recognition of it, offering it particularly to those in need, and calling out abuse, particularly abuse which proclaims itself as love.
Am I right in thinking the main thrust of your argument against a rule of life is against the ‘regulation model’ not the ‘measure model’. Perhaps you think the idea of a ‘measure’ is just a smoke screen for regulations.
Few if any would argue the monastic type ‘rule’ was for all, but I think Angie makes a good case even for that level of rule for some and that all can gain from the idea of a rule of life -particularly if aware of the danger you point out and the similar danger of legalism.
The whole of God’s creation belongs to a natural rhythm. The rise and fall of the sun, the ebb and flow of the tides, the passing of the seasons, the cycle of life, the rhythmic beating of our hearts, a woman’s menstrual cycle (sorry Gents!)
It is well known that children thrive better when there is rhythm to their days, rules for them to live by and order to their lives. The same applies to most adults. Spontaneity and flexibility within the order of things are good and desirable, but rebelliousness, anarchy and chaos are not.
‘Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace,
The beauty of Thy peace.’
Thanks Angie, this will be really helpful in my reflections, and in some initial conversations about how we might incorporate ‘The Methodist Way of Life’ into the life of our church as we emerge post-pandemic. Thank you for all the angles you have explored around a rule of life. Plenty to reflect on, pray about, and discuss.
It’s interesting to look at this in the light of the New Testament discussions (arguments) over justification by law & or by faith. You could write volumes on this!
I read this in ‘Bible Alive’ this morning and it seemed relevant to this post so I’d like to share it:
‘The danger we face is that our faith becomes cool, lukewarm, or worse, cold. Truth on ice, as it were, helps no-one, least of all, us. We all need the grace of God to penetrate the mystery of faith. This grace comes when we pray, read the Scriptures and receive the Eucharist. It can also come out of the blue, spontaneously and without any effort on our part, but such a gift is always rooted in working with God to prepare our minds and hearts. The road of holiness invites us to embrace the renewal of our mind – this isn’t a magical process but integral to the ongoing, lifelong conversion to which we are called.’
Thanks Tim for the thoughtful response and, yes, given that the love of God is unconditional I question the idea of having a rule of life on either the “regulation model” or the “measure model”.
I approach this issue by considering intentionality: Is it the case that we can always act in accordance with our will and intention and thereby regulate our lives, or do we allow that often we are unintentionally affected by events and others? I find that the other person before me invariably brings a demand that I behave ethically that is prior to any exercise of will or intention: I am unintentionally affected. So where does that demand come from? I suggest it is from God. Being unintentionally affected implies an openness to others and to the supreme otherness we call God. Reaching out, openness, can come over as weakness and lead to pain and suffering from aggressive users – life is like that. But this openness to God, or should I say the Grace of God, is where we find the forgiveness, courage and hope to lead an authentic life. I suppose I am stating that rules of life are about will and intention and that we cannot be open to the Grace of God through will and intention.
The implication of this is that rules of life, whether on the “regulation model” or the “measure model”, are closed systems and about intentionality. They preclude the openness and unintentional affectivity we find in life, and then I would say that they are inadequate and can lead to legalism.
Can we equate having a rule of life with what the bible calls righteousness? Can I go further and suggest that the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that the Samaritan was not concerned about righteousness, but deeply moved by the plight of the other and that his actions are about love and nothing to do with having a rule of life.
I further suggest that having a rule of life implies we have a stable, coherent sense of self, whereas the reality is that we are vulnerable, contingent creatures that are always in a process of becoming. Finding forgiveness, courage and hope are about recreating ourselves. In my inner life I think of this as being on a path from self-obsessed hedonism to other-obsessed altruism. For me having a rule of life just does not relate to this process.
Thanks again for the response.