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.