What is a Rule of Life?
by Evan B. Howard1
Perhaps we should really ask a different question: “What is life?” When we ask that question we can talk about flourishing, about energy, about sustaining, or even just about heart-beats and brain-waves. But whenever we talk about life, we must talk about some kind of order that characterizes that life. Brain waves are structured in a particular way, or else there is a problem. Photosynthesis in plants, and breathing, digestion, and such in animals are ordered to enable the sustaining of life. When I tell someone that I have been flourishing lately–or that I have been “living it up”–I usually have in mind certain moods, habits, activities, or events that characterize “life.” Life has order. The very orders of life are what make them life. So should we be asking about a rule of life, or about life itself and the order or rules that give life?
What is a Rule of Life, particularly with regard to Christians? Author and spiritual guide, Marjorie Thompson, defines a rule of life as “a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness.”2 Stephen Macchia, also an author and leadership trainer, defines a rule of life as “a holistic description of the Spirit-empowered rhythms and relationships that create, redeem, sustain and transform the life God invites you to humbly fulfill for God’s glory.”3 I like to think of a Rule of Life as a concrete expression of the life-intentions of a Christian community or individual made in order to help maintain or mature relationship with God and the Gospel. Rules of Life have special relevance for people who make special commitments of faith. To understand this better, I think it helps to see the history and structure of Rules of Life.
In the Bible, we see an early reference to something like a Rule of Life in the regulations for the Nazarites outlined in Numbers 6. The Nazarites were individuals who offered themselves in complete consecration to God. As part of their life of consecration, Nazarites abstained from wine, kept their hair long and stayed clear of dead bodies. We also catch a glimpse of an Old Testament clan with similar commitments when we read of the devout nomads, the Rechabites in Jeremiah 35. I suspect that there was also some life-ordering component involved in the development of the “schools of the prophets” (see 1 Samuel 19:18-21; 2 Kings 2:5-7; Isaiah 8:16).
Nearer the time of Jesus, one of the communities of Jews often called “Essenes” outlined their way of life in what has been named the Qumran Rule Scroll. This Rule Scroll gives a description of the ideals of the community, a ceremony of initiation, general wisdom regarding values central to the community, and particular regulations regarding relationships, ministries, property and their life together. Another similar group existing around the same time were the more contemplative “Therapeutae,” mentioned in the writings of Philo and others, and we can glean something of their Rule of Life by reading these ancient writings.
When Jesus sent out his followers to minister in the villages surrounding him, he gave them an outline of their way of life (see Matthew 10; Mark 6:6-13; Luke 9-10). He identified their mission (heal, deliver, proclaim) and gave them instructions regarding possessions, relationships and ministry activities. In the context of Jesus’s own culture, this would have been understood as a Rule of Life, a way of structuring the life-intentions of a given group of people who are (in this case, temporarily) making special commitments to serve God.
Later in the book of Acts we read about the elders who give themselves “to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Similarly, in Acts 13 we heard of the Holy Spirit asking the church at Antioch to “set apart” Paul, Barnabas, and later others for apostolic ministry. And when we read the epistles, we find not a formal Rule, but at least hints of principles regarding work, marriage and such which the apostolic communities used to guide their traveling ministries.
Finally, I think it is also fair to see, in the comments regarding widows who “continues night and day to pray” found in 1 Timothy 5, at least a seed of the order of widows which developed much more formally in succeeding centuries. 4
We have evidence of groups of widows and virgins from the early centuries of the Christian Church. What we call “monasticism” or “religious life” probably developed from these beginnings. Antony of Egypt, one of the pioneers of Christian monasticm, developed his own way of life by the careful observation of his elders.
He observed the graciousness of one, the eagerness for prayers in another; he took careful not of one’s freedom from anger, and the human concern of another. And he paid attention to one while he lived a watchful life, or one who pursued studies, as also he admired one for patience, and another for fastings and sleeping on the ground. . . . And having been filled in this manner, he returned to his own place of discipline, from that time gathering the attributes of each in himself, and striving to manifest in himself what was best from all.5
Use of the term “Rule” to describe a concrete expression of Christian life-intentions developed particularly in the fourth century. The biography of Pachomius, a pioneer in Christian community life, speaks of his care for the community stating “Our father Pachomius was working at the salvation of the brother’s souls as at a vineyard cared for by a good and industrious gardener. . . . For he gave them laws and traditions; some were committed to writing, some others were learned by heart, after the manner of the holy Gospels of Christ.”6 Evagrius, a monk and spiritual theologian, encourages his monastic readers that, Evagrius, Praktikos #40, “One is not always in a position to follow his usual rule of life but one must always be on the alert to seize the opportunities to fulfill all the duties possible to the best of his powers.”7 Followers of Basil the Great collected a list of Frequently Asked Questions regarding the life of the communities he led. This list was published and ultimately became known as the Ascetikon or the Rule of Basil.8 Melania the younger wrote a Rule of Life for her community in Jerusalem.9 I could go on and on from here.
The writing of Rules as a means of securing life for communities and individuals developed wherever Christians wanted to make special commitments to God. Some of the most influential Rules in Christiandom have been the Augustinian Rule, the Rule of Benedict, and the Franciscan Rule. Giorgio Agamben reflects on the phrase “rule and life” used by Francis of Assisi stating that Francis, in calling the rule, “not only rule but life, intended to clarify the sense of the rule, which is a right form of life and a life-giving rule that leads to the life of Christ. Such a rule does not consist in a written text, but in the act and in the operation of life and does not dissolve into an obligation and profession of vows.”10
The Protestant Reformation brought radical changes to the institutions of monasticism. On the one hand, some Protestant reformers closed many monasteries. On the other hand Anabaptists, for example, developed “Ordnungen” to give shape to their way of life. Other Protestant communities (such as the Moravian Brethren, Puritans, Methodists) developed “covenants,” “resolutions,” and “instituted means of grace” in order to respond to a similar impulse.11 To make a long story short, there are groups and individuals who follow formal Rules of Life in virtually all branches Christianity today.
Structure: Content and Form
Now that we see how Rules of Life have been used to order–and thus to facilitate–Christian life, we are ready to examine just what a Rule of life is: how it is structured and what the form and contents are like. I have examined the contents and form of a number of Rules and such elsewhere.12 Though the length, style, and particulars of Rules of Life can vary a great deal, most Rules say something about a few key matters.
Rules often begin with some statement of vision. What are we about? (or “What am I about,” if this is a personal rule) Where are we going? The Rule of Benedict begins with a call to courageous commitment, urging the readers to put into action the teachings of the Gospel. “Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service. . . . Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. . . . But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”13 The opening lines of the 1221 Rule of the Franciscans declare that, “The Rule and life of the friars is to live in obedience, in chastity, and without property, following the teaching and the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ.”14 The 1727 “Brotherly Union and Agreement” of the Moravian Brethren, after proclaiming that their existence owes to God’s grace, states that “Herrnhut, and its original old inhabitants must remain in a constant bond of love with all children of God belonging to the different religious persuasions–they must judge none, . . . but rather seek to maintain among themselves the pure evangelical doctrine, simplicity, and grace.”15 A school of Christian obedience, a family of radical Jesus-followers, an Gospel ecumenical welcome center: In each Rule, the basic vision of the community or individual is expressed. We might want to communicate a more general vision: what we sense God’s plan is all about. Or we might want to express a more particular vision: a sense of where God is calling us right here and now. Some Rules don’t start with a vision statement at all. The vision just grows over time in the midst of the practice of life.
Another matter that is often discussed in Rules of Life is rhythm. “What we do with our life” and “what we do with our time” are intimately connected. Consequently Rules frequently give voice to an individual or communities intentions with regard to use of time. Times of prayer, work, study, community, ministry are often specified, in various degrees of detail. The Augustinian Ordo Monasterii, for example, after providing a list of the Psalms and readings to be used at the various times of prayer throughout the day states that the monks “are to work from early morning to the sixth hour and then let them have time for reading from the sixth hour to the ninth.”16
Most Rules treat a number of what I call “ordinary matters.” They discuss how counsel is to be made, terms of leadership, eating and fasting, sleeping arrangements, care of the sick, distribution of possessions, clothing, use of transportation and all kinds of details. But this is no minor matter because, as we all know, life is in the details is it not. It is surprising how petty the matters are that Satan can use can divide us as communities or distract us as individuals. The fifth-century Rule of the Four Fathers, for example, states regarding the monks’ use of common property, that “whatever is used in the monastery, whether in the form of vessels or tools or all other things, is consecrated. If anyone has used something negligently, he should realize that . . . he deserves such a punishment”17
Finally, there are “inner matters” that must be addressed. Arrangements for spiritual guidance, acknowledgment of virtues that are vital to the individual or the community, identification of situations and conditions within which the wiles of the enemy might try to gain ground: all of these and more are touched on in our Rules of Life. Salome Sticken’s “A Way of Life for Sisters” summarizes the inner spirit of their common life by remind her sisters that “to sense and to taste the sweetness of the Lord God is highly delightful, but the foundation of all sanctity lies rather in complete self-denial, mortification of the evil affections in our corrupt natures, and the conversion of our will to the Lord n an effort to conform it totally to his will.”18 The A Rule of Life is a good place to recognize together the work of God (and the enemy) within us and to plan appropriate responses.
Moving form the General to the Specifics of One’s Life
A Rule of Life can be a source of life. It can also become a stifling strait-jacket. There is a wisdom to developing and living a Rule of Life. Part of the wisdom is learning how to shape the broad and general guidelines into the narrow and concrete realities of your life. I offer a few suggestions. First, at the start of your exploration of a Rule, keep track of your time, your life. When you have learned what the honest realities of your life schedule, emotional energies, relationships and such demand, you will be best equipped to shape a Rule of Life that reflects, not merely a pious ideal, but the concrete shape of life as you live it (as a community or as an individual). For example, I moved to Colorado with the hope of establishing something of a rhythm of prayer, work, study, and people-ministry. I tried making particular days set aside for study or work. The problem was, however, that the weather and other factors did not always cooperate. After a season of documenting my activities I learned to order my rhythm, not by a precise schedule, but rather by a tracking of the percentage of my time used for various activities. I was able to maintain the general values of my rhythm, but to live them out within my own changing world of ranching, teaching, writing, and so on.
Second, start small. I think it is better to develop slowly, constantly longing for more, than to aim too high and fail, giving up all hope for the future. this is why there is the progression from postulant, to novice, to full member. You can stick your toe into the water before you dive in.
Third, develop your Rule in dialogue with key friends and mentors. If it is a personal Rule, believe me, others who love you will be able to spare you from much harm if you let them speak into your life. If it is a common Rule of Life, take note: often those who are permitted to shape the common life, have the strongest buy-in to that life.
Finally, learn to trust God through experimenting and revising your Rule. Become like a child, and play! Let’s take food for example. What diet is appropriate for you? This depends on your work, your health, your own history of relationship with food and more. So often we just simply follow the diet trends of those around us without ever seriously considering how we relate to food. So why not start by experimenting? Change your diet this way or that way. Listen to the voice of the Spirit (and wise friends) as you “play with your food”. Our eating is basic to our living (duh?). So learn how to give yourself fully to God in this area of life, your eating–and indeed with all areas of life–by prayerful play. And as you do, remember that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
What is a Rule of Life? It is life itself, a concrete expression of a new form of life, inspired by the Spirit of Christ, empowered by the Grace of Christ, in obedience to the Word of Christ. Through our little Rules of life, we learn to follow the Rules of the Scripture and Spirit, which leads us–as best we can–to embody the supreme Rule of Christ and the Gospel.
1I have written this essay as an accompaniment to my videos “Rules of Life: A Brief Introduction” and “EvansRule2“. The is essay is not, however, the script to the videos, but is rather a written compliment to the video presentation. For more old monastic wisdom for new monastic people see under “Resources” at spiritualityshoppe.org.
2 Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Westminster/John Knox, 1995/2005), 146.
3Stephen Macchia, Crafting A Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 14.
4A more complete treatment of religious life in Scripture would need to address Jesus’s encouragements to voluntary simplicity, various discussions of celibacy, other particular disciplines such as fasting and prayer, along with some broader concerns. I am here only offering a few notes related to a few passages.
5Athanasius, Life of Antony #4. This work is found in many editions. I am citing from Robert C. Gregg, translator, Athanasius: the Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 32-33.
6“The Bohairic Life,” The Life of Saint Pachomius and His Disciples translated by Armand Veilleux, Volume 1 (Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1980), p. 145.
7Evagrius, Praktikos (The Practical Life), #40. This work is found in various collections of Evagrius’ writings. I am citing from John Eudes Bamberger, translator, The Praktikos, Chapters on Prayer (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1981), p. 27. See also the various references to “rule” in Benedicta Ward, editor, The Lives of the Desert Fathers: The Historia Monachorum in Aegypto (Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1980), pp. 65, 69, 88. 96.
8See Anna M. Silvas, The Ascetikon of St. Basil the Great (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 2.
9Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2001), 145.
10Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, translated by Adam Kotsko (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), 107. Here Agamben is actually summarizing and reflecting on an early commentary of Francis’s writings by Olivi, who he quotes and summarizes in my citation above.
11For this history, see, for example, Ivan J. Kauffman, Follow Me: A History of Christian Intentionality (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2009); and Greg Peters, Reforming the Monastery: Protestant Theologies of the Religious Life (Cascade Books, 2013).
12See my “A Collection of Tables of Contents from Rules, Covenants, Constitutions and Such”. Pay careful attention to the summary at the end.
13 Rule of Benedict, Prologue 45-49. There are many editions of Benedict’s Rule. I am citing from Timothy Fry, editor, RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict In Latin and English with Notes (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1981), p. 165.
14Francis of Assisi, “Rule of 1221” (also known as the Regula non Bullata) Chapter 1. I am citing from Marion A. Habig, editor, St. Francis of Assisi: Wrtings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis (Chicago, Illinois: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983), p. 31.
15Nicolas Ludwig, Count von Zinzendorf, “Brotherly Union and Agreement at Herrnhut” #2 in Peter C. Erb, editor, Pietists: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), p. 325.
16 “The Ordo Monasterii” #2-3 in Saint Augustine, The Monastic Rules, edited by Boniface Ramsey and translated by Sister Agatha Mary and Gerald Bonner (Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2004), p. 106.
17 The Rule of the Four Fathers, chapter 12, in Carmela Vircillo Franklin, Ivan Havener, and J. Alcuin Francis, translators, Early Monastic Rules: The Rules of the Fathers and the Regula Orientalis (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1982), p. 27.
18 Salome Sticken, “A Way of Life for Sisters” in John van Engen, translator, Devotio Moderna: Basic Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), p. 184.