The Value and Formation of ‘A Rule of Life’

Introduction and background

When I first began spiritual direction I complained to my director that my spiritual life was all over the place.  There seemed to be no focus, little consistency, and I did not really feel as if I was growing as I should.  The first thing he asked me is whether or not I had a “rule of life”.  I was familiar with this idea, but assumed it was something only those in religious life really attended to and abided by, and I further associated with the rather lengthy and rigorous Rule of St. Benedict.  He then offered me some literature to get started and charged me with creating my own rule that we would then examine during our next meeting.  Since that time I have done my best to follow my rule of life, and it has become part of the structure of my life.  More importantly, it has remedied those matters for which it was prescribed by my director: while I am not perfectly consistent or always focused, my rule has served well as a frame around which I structure my life.

A spiritual or religious rule of life is different from, say, a daily routine such as what you may typically do otherwise in the day such as having coffee every morning, reading the paper, checking email and so on.  It has more in common with a self-imposed exercise or dietary regimen in that it is prescribed with goals in mind.  And yet it can often become habitual and so becomes part of a virtuous life.  It also shares with the cultivation of virtue the need for frequent reflection and growth, as will be discussed below.

Common elements

While there is no exhaustive list of the elements contained in a rule of life there are some practices that must obtain for Catholics and some that are simply good to include.  And you may also consider forming your list based upon whatever charism or order you may be drawn to, such as that of the Franciscans, Carmelites, Dominicans, or Jesuits. To do so you want to read about the founder of an order, and find that order’s rule online or in book form.

For the non-Catholic (and a rule of life with the goal of spiritual development is, by my estimation, a very good thing, and one not exclusive to Catholics) this list can easily be amended accordingly.

Since these elements are fairly self-evident I will offer a few lines of explanation only.

  • Mass – Regular attendance at least once a week, but if you really want to boost your spiritual life incorporate a few more during the week with the goal of daily attendance if possible.
  • Prayer – Daily prayer is essential. Try to incorporate prayer several times a day beginning with morning prayer. If you a breviary, great! Use it! Also experiment with different modes of prayer such as lectio divina, meditation, and contemplation.  Don’t forget to offer prayers of gratitude and intention for others!
  • Devotions – Of these Eucharistic Adoration is powerful and effective, as is the Rosary.
  • Reconciliation – Confession not only participates in God’s mercy, but it is also vital for the sanctification of self, moral growth, virtue, and spiritual growth.
  • Fasting and abstinence – These needn’t be practiced only during Lent. Perhaps you might try one Friday a month or every Friday (or any day) fasting from meat for a day, abstaining from alcohol or tobacco for a period, or take a break from whatever habits or practices may be worthwhile denying yourself of for a spell.
  • Reading and intellectual growth – I find this are particularly appealing and useful, and deserving of a bit more discussion.  I find three main categories of reading: scriptural, spiritual, and theological:
    • Scripture reading – Quotes from the saints about reading scripture are legion, but St. Jerome expressed its importance most pithily: “Ignorance of Scripture is Ignorance of Christ.”  While the comedian Jim Gaffigan has a point that we all read the Cliff Notes to scripture during Mass it is good to engage in more sustained readings on one’s own or with a group.  If you’re not a seasoned reader of Scripture (I am not) perhaps you might just start with what piques your interest and move outward.  The Gospels are a great place to start.
    • Spiritual reading – My spiritual director describes spiritual reading as light, exemplary, and motivational, and uses the example of reading about the lives of the saints.  But this mode of reading may also include short and simple treatises or directives on a topic.  Many of Fr. Michael Gaitley’s writings are good examples of this, as are those of Matthew Kelley.  C.S. Lewis comes to mind as well.
    • Theology – This is an expansive category and veers into Scripture reading and spiritual reading.  It is also where we grow in our understanding and knowledge of the faith.  As such it deserves its own discussion, but here are only a few examples: catechetical writings, church history, the life of Christ, the writings of saints, explorations of sacraments, Catholic philosophy, mystical writings, Biblical exegesis, ethics and virtue.
  • Almsgiving and service – We are a religion of faith and works. Are you helping your parish? Do you volunteer? Do you consider the needy?  I don’t find charity or charitable works to be little nicety or add-on; they are vital to spiritual growth and the engagement within the mystical body of Christ.
  • Retreats (and conferences) – These are like spiritual adrenalin injections.  Retreats can be expensive and often difficult to arrange around work and family.  If you can’t do one, try a home retreat: Fr. Michael Gaitley has written several, and I can personally attest to his Consoling the Heart of Jesus, which is inspired by Ignatian retreats.  Also, many diocese have conferences, and some parishes will bring is speakers and do workshops.  Avail yourself of these.
  • Spiritual direction – If you are serious about growing in your spiritual life a spiritual director seems to be a good move.  Most diocese have lists of willing directors.  Do a little research to see if this is right for you.

How I structured my rule

I arranged my rule as practices I would engage in daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly.  Below is a sketch based on my own.

Daily practices: Prayer, including morning prayer, evening prayer, and an Examen prayer.

Weekly practices: Sunday Mass, and at least two other Masses during the week, attending holy days of obligation; at least three Rosary recitations; at least one holy hour with attempts at further visits to my local adoration chapel; at least one weekly lectio divina.

Monthly practices: Reconciliation at least once a month; one session of spiritual direction; at least one work of service to the needy or volunteering in some other capacity.

Yearly practices: At least one retreat, either at home or at a retreat house; at least one pilgrimage to a holy place such as a shrine; special activities during Lent and Christmas such as a reading of the Gospels, beyond what is usually practiced and emphasized during these seasons.

A special note on reading: I am an avid reader so I didn’t feel the need to include reading in my rule.  However, including reading specified by kind, along with goals, is probably a good idea.

This seems fairly modest and, admittedly, it is, but my spiritual director found it best to start modestly and allow room for growth rather than scaling back or otherwise setting the stage for failure.  Remember, the goal is growth, not heroic achievement.  As St. Therese de Lisieux advises for us little souls: small things with great love.

Cautions and suggestions

  • Know thyself. Reflect on where you are in your spiritual life, what you need, what you are capable of, and what are your obligations to work and family, which are also part of your spiritual life.  Your rule as an instrument of growth should not be so burdensome that it becomes a dreaded struggle.  Work it into your life.
  • Incorporate intellectual growth, and set goals accordingly.  In what areas of our faith are you in need of exploring? We have a wonderfully rich religion that should really be explored as fully as possible, so if you need to better understand something, hop to it.
  • Your rule should have rigor, but not too much.  Again, it should strike a balance as between too weak or easy and overly burdensome and impossible to achieve. Challenge yourself, but not at the risk of burning out and giving up. There is always room for growth.
  • Hence, it is an ongoing practice with flexibility. As you grow, your rule should grow. As your life might change, your rule may need to adapt.  If you find yourself with more time on your hands, perhaps add a practice.  If your schedule becomes tighter, adapt your rule accordingly.
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you do not follow it perfectly.  Things may come up through no fault of your own that compromise your daily or weekly practices, and that’s OK. If it’s ongoing, honestly reflect on this.  Were you just being lazy, or does the rule need to be tweaked?
  • It’s ultimately about spiritual growth and cultivating virtue, as well as becoming closer to God.  The rule is instrumental and not just for its own sake.  Reflect on this and what this means.
  • As you grow, so should your rule.  This deserves to be stated again!

Get started!

If this seems like something you want to try, spend some time thinking about your rule.  Write down ideas and reflect on those, pray on those.  Write down your rule.  You may even want to sign it as if it is a contract between you and God.  Then, give it a go!

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