The Art of Life
My internet here is all kinds of slow. Especially at night. Especially around 9:00pm. Conveniently, toward the end of every term, there’s one night at 9:00pm when I get to register for classes. Last term my internet was not quite efficient enough to get me in any class necessary for my degree before they were full, so I needed to take an elective. The elective that was open: Monasticism(s) Old and New. You know, a class about monks and nuns. Like most people, I’m assuming, I didn’t know too much about this particular topic outside of tourism, movies, and a *possibly* sacrilegious photoshoot.
I definitely learned a lot about intentional community and lives dedicated to the practice of spiritual disciplines, which really opened my eyes to religious life and destroyed a lot of the negative perceptions I’ve had about monastic movements. But what we talked about most was developing a rule of life.
I had heard pretty vaguely about rules of life prior to this class, mostly discussions about rigorous Benedictine lifestyles that called for stringent practices that I viewed as extreme or legalistic. But, as I alluded to in my last post, this past year has really transformed how I view spiritual disciplines, rhythms, and rules of life.
So, what is a rule of life?
A rule of life is essentially a daily/weekly/monthly/yearly schedule for spiritual disciplines that applies specifically to your life and vision. It consists of a general vision – what’s God’s big story? – and a particular vision – what’s your story? What are your roles? What are your gifts? What are your dreams? What does your daily life look like already? How is your story connected to the big story?
It’s more than spiritual New Year’s resolutions. It’s a way of reframing your life in the presence of God.
Orson Welles once said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” Even art, the epitome of freedom, must have limitations. It must have confines if it is to express its freedom, it must have a frame to separate it from reality, it must have a stage on which to tell its story, it must have a certain realm of plausible interpretation if it is to remain art. So it is with the rule of life. In Giorgio Agamben’s The Highest Poverty he says, “It could not be more clearly said that the precepts that the monk must observe are to be assimilated to the rules of an art rather than a legal apparatus.” (32). A monastic rule, generally speaking, seeks not to “obligate one to individual rules, but…lays down a full promise of the rule and life…” (60). The rule is not a drab legalistic structure to which all must conform, but rather a vivid vision of the eschatological community bringing about God’s will on Earth as it is in Heaven. This is what moves the rule from legalism and works-based faith to a transformative way of living in the Spirit.
And this life in the Spirit is demanding. It leads us into ascetic practice so that we may kill our life in submission to schedules, to greed, to pride, to fear of death, and then it resurrects us to new abundant life. This means that we have to immerse ourselves in the Spirit to be able to discern what a rule is going to look like in our lives, one that brings us into the freedom to which Christ calls us, one that enables us to best discover and act upon God’s will, one that reconciles us to God and our community, and one that enables and empowers the gifts God has given us to co-create this art of life with God.
One book that really struck me in this discussion was Joan Chittister’s Wisdom Distilled from the Daily. Chittister brings readers out of the false compartmentalization of spiritual life to say, “Daily life is the stuff of which high sanctity can be made.” (1). It is in the regular moments of regular life that we are to find holiness, because it is the regular moments of regular life that God inhabits. In practicing spiritual rhythms in the midst of daily life, in the midst of the regular, in the midst of the mundane we are revolting against the temptation to let them pass into meaninglessness and declaring our moments of existence to be intrinsically holy.
In doing this we reclaim the purpose of our lives to focus on being rather than doing. We open our eyes to the value of who we are and where we are rather than losing ourselves in a fantasy of where we wish we were. As Thomas Merton, another critical voice for me in this reflection, says in No Man Is An Island, “For God does not demand that every man attain to what is theoretically highest and best. It is better to be a good street sweeper than a bad writer, better to be a good bartender than a bad actor, and the repentant thief who died with Jesus on Calvary was far more perfect than the holy ones who had Him nailed to the cross.” (67). The rhythms we bring into our lives bring our lives into the rhythm of God, affirming our gifts, our roles, and our places as sacred spaces for the divine to dwell and make new.
Merton also points out that “Asceticism is utterly useless if it turns us into freaks.” (112). I would agree. For me, practicing a rule of life has been less about pulling myself out of the world to create spiritual moments and reject perceived worldliness, and more about finding the holiness that already undergirds every moment that we have breath.
And it’s not going to be perfect. We’re not going to pull it all off and find ourselves constantly in this joyous euphoria of divine presence and suddenly the effects of brokenness in the world cease to exist in light of having a rule of life. It’s still life. It’s still hard. And maybe that’s why we need a rule the most. In the midst of chaos, uncertainty, stress, apathy, loneliness, and/or overwhelming doubt, that’s when we need a rule to call us back into the light of God, to refocus our lives on the reality of God’s presence, a strength to keep us going (even if sometimes we’re just going through the motions). A rule of life isn’t a legalism that forsakes the power of faithfulness, but rather a grace that allows us to remain faithful in the face of faithlessness.
I’ve spent a lot of time here creating and recreating a rule of life, one that doesn’t just set aside time for God, but recognizes that I inhabit the time of God and God inhabits all of time. Everyone’s rule is different and will change in different seasons of life, but for me it’s been a lot about slowing down and opening my eyes to the reality of God in all things. It’s looked like waking up earlier, spending more time in silence, praying in a more contemplative rather than petitionary way, allotting more time to be in nature, being more intentional in maintaining and developing new and diverse relationships, being more responsible with my time, practicing gratitude more often, and noting the places in which I see the divine at work in my daily life. It’s been about planning consistent time for fasting, for vigil, for rest, and for celebration so that my regular life keeps pointing me back to the reality of divine presence in life that gives life.
It makes me think of GK Chesterton’s discussion of repetition in nature in Orthodoxy. “It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again!’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again!’ to the moon. It may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.” (116).
Perhaps that is the role of the rule in life. It is not to steal life, but to acknowledge that life in the presence of God, however that may look, never gets old. A life continuously returning to hallowed ground, forever seeing its own work as divine, eternally working to the glory of God is one full of rhythms, full of encores, that draw us ever more into the endless and free life of God.