One of the great dangers of the life of the Hermit is disorganization and a lack of structure. Living alone, without any external supervision, allows for the possibility of an entirely self-centred and self-indulgent life. Unlike monks and nuns who live within a structured community, usually according to a formal rule and under the supervision of official superiors, the Hermit can do whatever he or she likes. A Monk or Nun may like to read novels (or watch television) all day while lying in bed, but such behaviour would be noted and (presumably) subject to comment if not correction. Not so in the case of the Hermit or any other religious solitary. Or, indeed, for most Christians living outside a religious community.
Traditionally, however, Hermits lived a structured life, with a discipline and a routine distinguishing that life from, for example, a holiday, a time or personal recreation, or a life of retirement. This was often based on a “Rule of Life”, which may have been formal or informal, written or (in the case of the Desert Mothers and Fathers and the early Hermits) unwritten. The development of a Rule of Life can be a very helpful means of providing structure to the spiritual life of every Christian.
The word “rule” comes from the Greek word κανών (canon), a rod or straight piece of rounded wood to which anything is fastened to keep it straight; a measuring rod, a ruler; a carpenter’s line or measuring tape, This includes a trellis, a structure that enables a grapevine to get off the ground and grow upward, becoming more fruitful and productive. The Rule of Life is intended to provide a framework, a structure of support, to facilitate growth in the spiritual life. It is like a training regime developed by a coach to assist an athlete in the development of his or her abilities.
The busyness of life in the modern world creates a need for – sometimes almost an obsession with – structure, organization, planning, scheduling, timetabling….to fit everything in and to ensure that there is time for everything to be done. This is, of course, almost a necessity for those who work, have families, maintain homes and try to have “outside interests” as well. It is somewhat alarming to see in some models for life planning periods assigned for “free time” or “fun” or even “unplanned activities”! Modern electronic technology – i-phones, i-pads and such like – facilitate planning and structuring.
However, even those who, in all other aspects of their lives, take care to plan and organize, rarely do so regarding the spiritual lives. Perhaps attendance at a church service may be included in the week’s busy schedule. But church attendance, while it may be a valuable part of a Rule of Life, is insufficient.
“A Rule of Life is an intentional pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness. A Rule establishes a rhythm for life in which is helpful for being formed by the Spirit, a rhythm that reflects a love for God and respect for how he has made us. The disciplines which we build into our rhythm of life help us to shed the “old self” and allow our “new self” in Christ to be formed. Spiritual disciplines are means of grace by which God can nourish us. Ultimately a Rule should help you to love God more, so if it becomes a legalistic way of earning points with God or impressing others, it should be scrapped. If the traditional, ancient term “rule” concerns you because it sounds legalistic, think of “rule” as a “rhythm of life” or as a “Curriculum in Christlikeness” (Dallas Willard), or as a “Game Plan for Morphing” (John Ortberg).
In order to be life-giving, a Rule must be realistic! It is not an ideal toward which you are striving to soar. Instead, your initial Rule should be a minimum standard for your life that you do not want to drop below. It’s a realistic level of engaging in the spiritual disciplines for which you can honestly and truly be held accountable.
Rules will vary widely, depending on the character and life situation of a person. Not only will people choose different disciplines but how the disciplines are practiced will also vary. Although every believer should pray, for example, the frequency or length or times or kind of prayer will differ. Thomas à Kempis writes, “All cannot use the same kind of spiritual exercises, but one suits this person, and another that. Different devotions are suited also to the seasons [of life]….””
Some guidelines for the development of a Rule of Life:
1. The Rule should be developed with care and attention, prayer and reflection, perhaps some research and reading. If it is to be a guide for the next (say) five years of life, it should not be, and indeed cannot be, rushed. If other people are to be involved, even indirectly, it should be developed in consultation with them. It can be helpful to seek the guidance of someone who has developed and lives according to a Rule of Life, particularly about potential problems.
2. The Rule is a guide or an ideal model – not set of laws “engraved in stone”. Rigid and obsessive conformity to the Rule is unlikely to be possible, and is certainly not spiritually or psychologically healthy.
3. The personal Rule must be personal. Religious communities usually develop and apply a Rule for the community which individual members will follow. But an individual developing a personal Rule needs to ensure that it meets his or her personal needs. A model or template can be helpful in provided some guidance on what such a rule might, or even should, include, but it must be adapted and developed for the individual. Such personal application will change over time. A Rule that is relevant for the mother of a newborn child will necessary be different to that for the same woman when her children are attending school and she has returned to paid work. Likewise, a Rule for a Hermit, or anyone else living a solitary life, will be different to a Rule for someone living with another (especially in a relationship like marriage) or others.
4. The Rule must be realistic. There are only 24 hours in a day, and sleep is necessary! For many people full-time paid employment is necessary and must be taken into account.
5. The Rule must be balanced. The ancient Rules included work (by which was meant physical labour), prayer, and intellectual activities (like reading) – “hands, and heart, and mind”. The Rules also included time for rest and recreation.
6. The Rule must be practical. In the absence of servants, it must allow for supposedly “non-spiritual” activities – putting out the garbage, cleaning the bathroom, preparing meals, sweeping the yard, paying bills, shopping. Such practical obligations cannot be seen as somehow “unspiritual” or as interruptions to the spiritual life; they must be incorporated into that life.
7. The Rule must not be oppressive. It may include, for example, two hours of prayer each day, but that cannot require that 110 minutes on one day represents either a failure or a “sin”, or that the prescribed period cannot be exceeded. The aim is not a mechanistic “ticking the boxes” approach to the spiritual life. Nor is a Rule likely to endure if it fails to include time for recreation and (although the term is usually, and wrongly, assumed to be “unspiritual”) “fun”.
8. The Rule must be encouraging. An unrealistic Rule, like an unrealistic plan for health and fitness, will usually be followed enthusiastically for a short time, and then abandoned when it becomes too hard. While endeavouring to run 5km every morning may sound good, starting out with a lesser distance and gradually building up to a longer one is less likely to lead to early abandonment of running altogether.
9. The Rule must be flexible. Unexpected and unpredictable things happen. An obsessive-compulsive approach to the Rule will lead to anxiety, even panic, if rigid adherence is interrupted.
10. The Rule must be regularly reviewed and revised.
Some people may wish to seek guidance on, and even a blessing for, a Rule of Life from a Bishop or Priest, or a Spiritual Adviser or Confessor.
For rules of life, see: https://citydesert.wordpress.com/?s=rule+of+life
Stephen A. Macchia “Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way” [IVP Books, 2012]
Margaret Guenther “At Home in the World: A Rule of Life for the Rest of Us” [Seabury Books, 2006]
Fr. Michael Woodgate “A Rule of Life For Daily Christian Living” [Gloria Deo, 2007]
In the past decade, there has been an exciting re-discovery of the spiritual traditions and practices of ancient Christianity in some Protestant churches and communities. This has included the development of new models of Christian community living (sometimes known as “New Monasticism” or “Neo-Monasticism”), and the development of an interest in and explorations of the tradition of a Rule of Life. A number of the current websites on the idea of the Rule of Life comes from within the Protestant tradition – see, for example: http://ruleoflife.com/ , http://methodistdiaconalorder.org.uk/index.php?page=rule-of-life , http://palmvalleychurch.com/blog/newcommunity/developing-a-rule-of-life/