Rules of Life: Part 1
Christian religious orders are governed by rules of life which are devoted mostly to practical aspects of regulating our lives that we might better serve God and our local communities. For example, St. Benedict, who’d set out to be a hermit, couldn’t drive away the men who wanted him to be their leader and he was forced to produce a rule of life for the first community of monks in the tradition named after him — the Benedictines. Yes, the liqueur is named after the religious order because they invented it amongst many other foods, drinks, and technological items in pre-modern European history. Despite the prejudices that tell us those Medieval monks were superstitious men, they were actually the ones who safeguarded and enriched and passed on much of the Roman culture during some difficult years of political, economic, and social breakdown.
“The Rule of St. Benedictine” was the key to forming men into monks who were parts of communities that functioned like well-disciplined military units. It wasn’t like the modern age where those who accomplish much can assume fame as a reward — we know few of the names of those who accomplished so much in the various Benedictine institutions. There were other orders which had rules of life to help them carry out their duties to God and man, including many in the Eastern tradition whose rules actually preceded that of St. Benedict. In fact, St. Benedict wouldn’t have claimed either to be shaping the future nor to be original — he borrowed much from the Desert Fathers of the East and put together an eminently practical rule to allow men to live properly ordered lives. And women had started to form communities under the same rule even during St. Benedict’s lifetime.
I emphasize the word ‘practical’. The “Rule of St. Benedict” contained rules for advancing the spiritual life, rules very similar to the 12 rules of modern programs to help alcoholics and other addicts. They’re not the same, but very similar, making us wonder if the path towards holiness might involve the breaking of habits of mind and body as dangerous as those of alcoholism. But St. Benedict wasn’t a teetotaler, even though he wouldn’t have encouraged excessive drink. How do we know he wasn’t a teetotaler? One of the concerns of the “Rule of St. Benedict” is the fair sharing of the wine: brothers who do the physical work should get the greater share rather than the abbot and the cellarer (manager of provisions).
Practical. We all need practical guidelines to become God-centered human beings and we modern human beings are trained to think in ‘spiritual’ terms when it comes to our duties to God and to our fellow-men as children of God. Vague claims of deep love don’t feed our neighbors as we were told in the “Letter of James” and those vague claims don’t discipline our prayer-life or rebuild our ties to family members, neighbors, or friends. Sometimes, raising some aspects of life to a spiritual level is a good strategy for making them irrelevant. This seems to have been the case in recent centuries for those aspects of life which ground the more complete God-centered life.
I’m working out my thoughts as I write but I’m going to publish this right away because I think there are no rules that cover all needs but I think there’s a need for each human being who wishes to be a Christian to pray hard on this question:
How should I be living to better serve God and neighbor?
It seems to me that a Christian life should be balanced between:
- Meeting practical needs;
- Prayer and worship;
- Serving our fellow-men, perhaps mostly our own children especially when they’re young; and
- Enjoying God’s Creation.
All Christian religious orders, which usually have some sort of lay membership, have tried to balance our duties to worship God, our practical needs and those of our dependents, and a proper human desire to enjoy life. Benedictine monks try to develop lives centered around the worship of God but often they’ve done that partly by serving God’s people as teachers or lawyers or engineers or benevolent land-owners. Some monastic orders have harsh ways of life, but that’s a special calling and not one to be undertaken without careful discernment.
We’re finite human beings and we need to learn the wisdom that is part and parcel of the ways of formation and of ongoing life in the stable religious orders, even those which are currently troubled to some extent — sometimes a great extent. Each of us, not just those of us who are Christian, needs to sit down quietly when we come to feel our lives are out of control. We need to think as if we were discerning a call to some form of religious or missionary life. That’s not far from the truth because any sort of Christian life will share some aspects of eremitical life, some aspects of monastic life, and some aspects of active religious life (such as the life of teachers or medical missionaries). I don’t think that Jewish life is much different in this regard, nor Buddhist life, nor the life of a virtuous pagan — of whom there seem to be few in the modern world outside of military organizations.
Originally, I’d intended to give some specific guidelines for rules of life. I decided to hold back mostly because I’m not yet confident I can recommend any guidelines for establishing a rule of life appropriate to anyone — even myself. In some ways, I’ve isolated myself from mainstream life because I don’t have a normal job or a family of my own and yet I’m not a vowed celibate or member of a lay community. There are reasons for my somewhat strange situation and I suspect there to be many men and women in similar situations in this day and age though most are probably forced to hold a conventional job and to live as if they truly feel a part of this Promethean world in which men think they can make laws rather than obeying God’s few directly revealed laws and also that greater body of laws which can be read — with much difficulty — from His world. Somewhere, I believe in a book by Bertrand de Jouvenal, I read that Rousseau once warned that when men come to think they can truly make laws rather than interpreting the laws of God’s nature, then hell will break out on earth.
The only way to return this man-made hell to a truly natural state is to turn to God, open our ears to the sounds of His world, and start to live according to His natural and scriptural revelations, most especially those revelations which came to us in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I would encourage any who read this to think about modest but serious changes to their daily and weekly schedules. Don’t think about your ultimate fate beyond this world. Don’t even get excited about noble ideas or feelings. Think practically. How should we regulate our eating habits, our working habits, our reading habits, our athletic and music habits? Wendell Berry, farmer and Christian thinker and enviromental essayist and poet and novelist, has told us we’d solve our ecological problems more or less automatically if we could find moral ways to make our livings. I think the same could be said of our moral and spiritual problems and I suspect Farmer Berry would agree.
I realize there are various third-orders, laymen’s associations, and local clubs which try to help various men and women and children to live Christian lives in the midst of a world which is increasingly disordered. I don’t think they’re up to the task, but I’m open to good arguments to the contrary and I certainly would encourage anyone to join these various prayer groups and social action groups and others with noble goals. Mostly, I’d like to encourage all of us to start thinking towards the specific goal of organizing our lives to be as Christian as possible given our circumstances. If that’s not good enough, then we start thinking in the terms given us by Farmer Berry: how can we make our livings so that we can live God-centered lives? I suspect we’re going to be driven to that because it is that ‘practical’ question of making our living that will drive our lives. Our moral problems, and ecological problems, seem to indicate we’re not making our livings in moral ways. We can’t just accept jobs and careers offered us by the gods of the marketplaces and then think we can organize our family lives, our worship, and our recreation in moral ways.
In other words, if you feel the need to re-orient your life and the lives of those dependent upon you, don’t think of spiritual goals or ethereal landscapes: think of your day to day lives and how you make your living, how you shop, how you enjoy your leisure time. Reorient your activities that they help you to live moral and humane lives rather than lives that serve the gods of the modern marketplaces, political and commercial.Explore posts in the same categories: Christian spirituality, Christianity, Moral Formation, Moral issues, Peace of Christ