Rule of Life: An Ancient Practice for a Contemporary Life

There is always somewhere to be, someone to talk to, something to read or do, especially with the expansive grip the internet and social media (and politics) have in many people’s lives. The amount of information we consume each day can be overwhelming and stressful. In all of the “busyness” of life it’s very easy to find ourselves (and our calendars) in disorder.

Since reevaluating my priorities last summer (and some significant changes) I’ve been learning a lot about establishing some sense of order in my life. Believe me, there’s too many things we have no control over but it is possible to create new rhythms, or rather, practice ancient rhythms in our contemporary context.

photo: rod long

A ‘rule of life’ is just this. This practice is no stranger to the Christian faith. Saint Benedict crafted a rule for monastic life hoping to instill healthy habits for both individual and communal life. Many of his principles seem radical but his work encourages community, obedience, humility, and contemplation – things we can still benefit from today.

“Rule” sounds legalistic at first. And while you could apply it in this way, a rule of life is simply a tool to help us avoid “living life on accident,” as a professor used to say. We require blueprints to build almost anything of substance, like a house or business. Why not our lives, too?

“From the creative point of view, the monastic rule is an instrument for shaping a particular kind of life for which a person has deep and genuine desire.”

Thomas Moore, Preface of The Rule of Saint Benedict

Write your own eulogy.

To begin creating your very own rule of life, be prepared to brainstorm. There are a few different books on the topic of drafting a rule and they each have different approaches. You can create a list, outline, table, or even something more artistic. A holistic approach is required, no matter how you look at it, how you record it, or what your life consists of. Be prayerful and honest in your exploration. How do you intend to live your life? What legacy would you like to leave?

Draw a map.

You might begin listing your desires and priorities within general categories like head, heart, and hands, or body, mind, spirit. These categories may expand to include areas like, vocation, finances, health, relationships, spirituality, pleasure, etc. Even exploring your personality through the Enneagram may be helpful. Your goal is to evaluate and write down your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual goals within the context of your life.

Use your calendar.

The next step would be to organize your desires, goals, and priorities from each area into measurable steps. This is best done by using a timetable of daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually tasks. You may find you prefer to use bi-weekly or bi-annually as well. This element helps keep you on track with your goals. For fun, you may also incorporate your goals to the liturgical calendar of the church.

Find some examples here.

photo: caleb george

There is no task or goal too simple or too large. For example, you may include brushing your teeth twice a day and scheduling bi-annual visits to the dentist. It may be important to you to write down relational goals, whether weekly meet ups with friends or colleagues, regular date nights, or family activities. You may include things as frequent as meal planning or spiritual disciplines and infrequent as spiritual retreats or vacations. This rule of life is for you, make it thoughtful and meaningful.

The rule exists as a tool. Allow it live alongside of you and assist you, not guilt or discourage you. As life inevitably changes, your rule may also need to adjust. Perhaps you welcomed a new member of the family, a career change, or your goals/needs simply shifted.

Like a trellis, a rule of life supports and guides our growth. It supports our friendships with Christ so that we bear the fruit of his character and are able to offer his nourishing life to others.

Ken Shigematsu, God in my Everything

For the hesitant.

If this ancient practice seems like just another thing you don’t have time for, don’t toss it out the window yet. Everyone has a rule of life. We have habits and patterns that structure our days but also years and decades of our lives. How would your life (or schedule, relationships, vocation, etc.) be different if you prayerfully replaced patterns of disorder with patterns of rest, discipline, and nourishment?

You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Psalm 16:11

Additional resources:

Living an Unhurried Life

What would it look like to live life unhurried?

When I thought of 2019 I had this question come to my mind, especially the last word. I haven’t made New Year’s resolutions in a hot minute but I was willing to consider this.

I wanted my second year of seminary to be different. I wanted to avoid burnout at all costs. Now a couple weeks into January and half way through this second year I’ve already been tempted to jump 3 steps ahead of myself. My graduation date is set and my mind can only think of all the factors involved for a post-grad move, the next apartment, the next job, the next set of bills, and so on. I ended up writing down all the things I wasn’t allowed to worry about on a post-it note and stuck it on the fridge.

If I rush through my classes, or dinner, or my conversation with a friend, then I’m really not allowing myself to enjoy that person or meal in front of me, no matter how simple the interaction seems. I want to be present with those I’m with and in the work I do, otherwise it’s all meaningless. Living unhurried is trusting God’s timing and faithfulness over my own.

Photo: Morgan Sessions

This isn’t to say you won’t find me late and rushing to a meeting or procrastinating from day to day. (My entire life!) My point in this is to say that life is quick. We’re finite creatures. I don’t want to get so busy or overwhelmed that I miss what God put right in front of me.

It takes serious discipline to tame all the worries and focus on the task at hand. And it certainly doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s a muscle you have to continue to strengthen over the course of your life since there will always be new things to do and people to see.

I working on using some of these habits to slow down and savor where I’m at. I’m not perfect at any of them, but I invite you to try them with me.

  • Going on a walk outside. (Or a few minutes of stretching. Because New England winters.) Fresh air is underrated, especially on cooler days.
  • Setting aside social media for a period of time. I deleted the Instagram app off my phone at the beginning of January. Before that I combed through my followers/following and deleted over 400 accounts that did not “spark joy” as Marie Kondo would say. It felt good. I kept Facebook, which is the next app I’ll work on separating myself from. Maybe for Lent.
  • Practicing a consistent Sabbath. Everything is finished on Saturday or I won’t look at it until Monday. Sundays are now a favorite of mine. I look forward to spending a full day unhurried with Aaron and engaging with our church community.
  • Call a friend on the phone. Yes, the actual telephone! Aaron is much better at this than I am, but I’ll get there. A perfectly good substitution for a phone call is a handwritten note.
  • Carefully crafting my week. My explanation is oversimplified and it takes some tweaking, but I started to visually organize my weeks in a way that allows me to focus on a task at a time and balances the priorities in my life. My mind and body are way more focused and I feel more “productive,” which really means I’m more satisfied with the quality of work I produce, not the amount.
  • Grocery shopping with a purpose. Since the new year our kitchen has been primary Paleo and meal planning has become even more important. It’s been a kick in the pants to plan ahead. (Have you heard the phrase, fail to plan or plan to fail?)
  • Reading book in the evening. Screens are awful. News is not a bedtime story. Get off the phone, Elizabeth. Read a damn book.

…and a (responsible) glass of wine at the end of a long day might not hurt either.

What helps you slow down?

Shalom No. 2

This summer we took a hard look at our life and decided to make some adjustments so we’d have the space to rest and reconnect after Aaron’s long absence. (Read a little more about those adjustments here.) One of our priorities was rest, which involved a change in our spirituality.

Aaron and I have long discussed our own understandings of theology and what that might look like in our home and our community. (One of the most interesting conversations we had happened a few days into married life when we discovered we had opposite views on child dedication vs. baptism. It was not the most inspiring conversation, I’ll tell you that much. At one point I even swore I would never become Anglican.) After a year in seminary and additional conversations in regards to communion, baptism, music, liturgy, doctrine, social justice, ordination — we’ve finally reached some common ground.

An example of how stained glass windows in a church can tell the Story of Christ. 

That being said, we’ve found immense value in the Anglican tradition. Aaron’s been Anglican for a number of years, so the transition was made that much easier. A liturgical tradition (or denomination) is very different than either of us grew up with, but throughout college and further study we grew to love the new elements of worship. There are several types of liturgical traditions and a few different styles of Anglican worship. Our church is associated with Anglican Church in North America. Charismatic or more reserved, conservative or liberal, contemporary or traditional — there’s room for anyone.

One of the most significant themes that drew me to this decision was the emphasis on our small space in a much larger Story. The rhythm of the church calendar, the centrality of the eucharist, the hymns (and contemporary music!), the weekly teachings, and the missional outreach of the tradition invited us into take part in an ancient narrative.

“Participating in the liturgy of the worldwide Christian community, whether on a Sunday morning or at another time, is more than attending a service or a prayer meeting. It is about entering a story. It is about orienting our lives around what God has been doing throughout history. And it is about being sent forth into the world to help write the next chapter of that story.” — Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

I was hesitant to embrace liturgy at first because it appeared to be repetitive and stale. But it made sense as I thought of the daily rhythms we engage in: making meals, greeting each other after a long day, or the way we get dressed in the morning. These things happen every day, but they are life-giving times that vary in expression all the time. They provide needed structure and help us remember the faithfulness of our Provider, to love those around us, and to care for ourselves. These are not stale or powerless activities, but the very life we live and breathe, activities that hold immense meaning. The repetitive nature is very helpful since humans so easily forget the Story they’re apart of.

Speaking the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed, passing the peace, confessing corporate and personal sin, and receiving the eucharist each week is new to me, but it’s beautiful. We’ve most often attended a contemporary Anglican service, but the traditional service that includes a choir, bells, and incense is incredible to be a part of. Each portion of either service invites participation with all senses.

“The incarnation and resurrection of Jesus show us that God takes our physical selves very seriously. We are spiritual beings, but we are also soul and body…In liturgical worship, you have many opportunities to use your body. You’ll get to use your mouth, lungs, and voice…All the senses are involved in worship because God designed us to experience the world in all of these ways.” — Thomas McKenzie, The Anglican Way

We recognize our time and space to worship is important outside the church walls too. Worship takes many forms. Sabbath is one example of this. We’ve consistently kept Sunday as a Sabbath for the past few months, meaning there’s no school work or side jobs on the agenda. The morning is spent at church and our afternoon and evening is open to take a walk, sit in a coffee shop, read a book, watch a movie, sleep, etc. We spend time with each other, often times with friends. We prioritize this time because we have experienced the burnout that comes without rest.

“What is the Sabbath? Spirit in the form of time. With out bodies we belong to space; our spirit, our souls, soar to eternity, aspire to the holy. The Sabbath is an ascent to the summit. It gives us the opportunity to sanctify time, to raise the good to the level of the holy, to behold the holy by abstaining from profanity.” — Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

Heschel taught from a Jewish perspective, but his thoughts on the Sabbath are still relevant to us as Christians. In his book, The Sabbath, he eloquently explains the meaning and purpose of the seventh day. (He articulates it much better than I could do here, so I encourage you to pick up a copy.) Just as our church services seek to connect us to a larger Story through a type of Christian liturgy, the Sabbath is the piece of this story embodied in our physical, emotional, spiritual activity and calendar rhythms.

For this season, Anglicanism suits us well! We have been really encouraged. It’s brought a certain clarity we didn’t quite have before. Our schedules are just as full, but we know our efforts on the first six days are more likely to be sustainable when we choose to consistently engage in the Sabbath (and associated liturgy) with each part of who we are.

Do you keep a day for Sabbath or rest?

Books mentioned in this post (and couple bonus reads!):