Reflections on the Rule of St. Benedict
Last week I finished my weekly reflections on Chapter 49 of the Rule of St. Benedict – “On the Keeping of Lent.” As a Benedictine Oblate, I pay attention to the Rule of St. Benedict; I try to order my life by its wise counsel, applying its teachings to my particular situation as a Protestant pastor and to my circumstances as a married man, a father and a grandfather who lives his life in the world and not in a monastery. My Lenten reflections over the past month posted here have been an expression of that commitment. But even as I was writing about Chapter 49 of the Rule of St. Benedict, it occurred to me that the very idea of having a Rule in the first place was probably a foreign concept to many of you, and so I thought that I would conclude this series with one last blog on the value of “Rules” themselves.
I find that having a “Rule” is necessary for me because I can be both unconscious and lazy. I once saw these words painted on a wall – “dead fish tumble downstream; it takes a live one to swim upstream” – and it made me think of just how easy it is to be carried along by life unconsciously. Having a “Rule” forces me to be awake and to pay attention. It imposes a discipline of consciousness. It requires me to be aware. I know that I can also be incredibly lazy. I can watch reruns of reruns of “NCIS” and “Burn Notice” all day long. Having a “Rule” nags at such sloth. My commitment to a “Rule” is like having a pebble in a comfortable shoe. It hobbles me, forcing me to stop and attend to that something that’s poking at me. Having a “Rule” is making the deliberate decision to put that pebble in your shoe!
Biblically, the basis for “Rules” can be found in what the Scriptures say about “vows.” There are more than 50 references to them in the Old and New Testaments, the most familiar of which are those that refer to the “Nazirite Vow” (Numbers 6:1-21). Samson was the most famous person in the Bible to have taken a “Nazirite Vow,” although John the Baptist lived his life by one (Luke 1:15), and it appears that Paul took one for at least a season of his life (Acts 18:18; 21:24). I Corinthians 7:5 is not about a “Nazirite Vow” specifically, but it is clear evidence that in the early church people made special commitments that involved the adoption of certain disciplines in the interest of their spiritual growth. And that’s the purpose of having a “Rule.”
Dr. William O. Paulsell, a Disciple of Christ Theologian who actually grew up right here at Northway Christian Church, in his essay on “Ways of Prayer: Designing a Personal Rule” in Weavings (September/October 1987) explained –
It is unlikely that we will deepen our relationship with God in a casual or haphazard manner. There will be a need for some intentional commitment and some reorganization in our own lives. But there is nothing that will enrich our lives more than a deeper and clearer perception of God’s presence in the routine of daily living.
The purpose of a “Rule” is this, to adopt a “structure in which spiritual formation is facilitated,” in order to foster “a deeper and clearer perception of God’s presence in the routine of daily living.” This has been my definition of “spirituality” for years now; it is “the experience of life with God.” As Andrew Marr of the Episcopal Benedictine Community up in Three Rivers, Michigan, puts it, “A spiritual life cannot be a second life we add on to our daily, “regular” life. Rather, a spiritual life is one life led in conformity with the grace of God.” What I really appreciate about Andrew’s observation – beyond its reminder that spirituality cannot be compartmentalized, restricted to a side room in the house of my life, treated as a hobby that I give myself to in my spare time – is the way that he firmly roots the spiritual life in God’s grace. “Rules” make most of us bristle. Legalism and works righteousness are my soul’s unnatural default settings – I don’t need much encouragement to try to earn God’s favor by being “good,” or trying to merit God’s applause by making an effort. “Rules” are in my wheelhouse of instinctive self-righteousness, and so I need Andrew’s reminder that the spiritual life is about a “life led in conformity with God’s grace.”
Sister Laurel M. O’Neal, a hermit according to the Camaldolese Benedictine tradition, describes her “Rule” as “a source (a mediator) of grace.” While freely acknowledging that a “Rule” imposes certain restrictions (“I will not…”) and directs one’s efforts (“I will…), she insists that a “Rule,” properly composed, will be “gospel-based” and will only use the law as a vehicle to deliver us to God’s grace. This was in fact the Apostle Paul’s own understanding of the function of the Law in Galatians 3:23-24. Sister O’Neal writes –
A Rule is certainly regulatory, but it is regulatory only after it is inspirational. Law without Gospel is not a Rule… The idea here is that one needs a handrail for safety when one climbs or descends stairs, but one needs even more than that handrail to inspire the journey… One’s Rule should make it clear that renunciations are undertaken for the sake of a uniquely shaped and graced life which is rich and fulfilling… a graced existence received as a gift and committed to with the whole of one’s heart… Renunciation has its significant place in a Rule, but only as the servant of the grace of God and commitment to that life it creates… What should have priority is always the grace of God… (http://notesfromstillsong.blogspot.com)
Richard Foster in his classic book on the spiritual disciplines – Celebration of Discipline (1978) – talked about the spiritual life as “the way of disciplined grace” (6). He explained –
It is “grace” because it is free; it is “disciplined” because there is something for us to do. In The Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer made it clear that grace is free, but it is not cheap. Once we clearly understand that God’s grace in unearned and unearnable, and if we expect to grow, we must take up a constantly chosen course of action… (6-7)
Having a “Rule” is that “constantly chosen course of action.” My “Rule” is St. Benedict’s, but his is certainly not the only “Rule” there is. For anyone considering adopting a “Rule” I would suggest that you start by taking some time to review a number of the best “Rules” that are out there. This list of “Rules” is not comprehensive, but it is representative. They are some of the “Rules” that deserve a look as you are considering your own –
o The Rule of St. Augustine @ http://www.fordham.edu
o The Rule of St. Benedict @ http://www.osb.org
o The Rule of St. Francis @ http://www.ewtn.com/padrepio/franciscan/rule.htm
o The Rule of St. Romuald @ http://www.hermitagebigsur.com
o The Rule of the Celtic Northumbrian Community @ http://www.northumbriacommunity.org
o The Rule of Charles de Foucauld @ http://www.jesuscaritas.info
o The Rule of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity (Lay) @ http://www.laymc.com
o The Rule of Taize – http://www.taize.fr/en
o The Rule of the Order of the Mustard Seed @ http://www.mustardseedorder.com
o The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist @ http://ssje.org
o William McNamara’s “Rule for Everyone” @ http://trinityprioryinternational
Peter Greig of the Order of the Mustard Seed writes: “If creeds are what we believe, and Christ is why we believe, then a Rule is how we seek to live out that faith, day-to-day as a disciple in the power of the Holy Spirit.” And because living out our faith in Christ “day-to-day as disciples in the power of the Holy Spirit” is something we are all trying to do, having a “Rule” is something that we all ought to at least consider. DBS+