Why a Rule of Life?

One of a series of short articles on ‘Why’ taken from the printed 2016-17 edition of the Anglican Religious Life Year Book

by Patrick Woodhouse

Each spring, one of my favourite jobs in the garden is putting up the frame of poles to support the climbing French beans that can go on cropping for week after week through the high months of summer. Having manured the ground and planted the seed, eight long poles are carefully selected and bound together into a long A-frame. To simply build it is a promise of what is to come. For weeks, this stark edifice dominates the garden, but then as summer draws on, gradually the stems and leaves of the growing, flowering, and then fruiting beans entirely cover it, until it becomes completely hidden from sight. Still of course it is there, a firm structure, largely hidden, but utterly essential if the rich abundance of life is to continue even into October.

It is perhaps a well-worn analogy, but this image does suggest something of what a Rule of Life is about. The providing of a structure which is essential but hidden in the sense that it can so deeply become part of us that we no longer, as it were, notice it; a structure without which there is little chance of any genuinely spiritual life emerging.

It is extraordinary just how unskilled we human beings can be at handling our own complex lives, how little we can really know ourselves. And how easy it can be to spiral into addictive and destructive behaviour patterns and get trapped in them again and again as old wounds, forgotten hurts, and damaging ingrained ways of behaviour assert their dominance and direct – often disastrously – how we behave. Or sometimes people try to escape the muddle of who they are by losing themselves in something else – in an addiction to work perhaps – and so become driven people, no longer really in charge of their own direction, but driven by some kind of compulsive need, the need to succeed, the need to be recognised, the need to be admired and loved.

There is a well-known Zen story about a man on a horse. The horse is galloping along at a great speed, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere really important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts to him as he gallops by, “where are you going?” and the first man shouts back, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!”

Why a Rule of Life? Because we need so often to be saved from the confusion and muddle and worst tendencies of ourselves. Because we need to get off the horse of our own drivenness, and discover the wonderful surprise of who, created in the image of God, we truly might be.

Or, perhaps, we might say that we need a Rule of Life because we need some shelter, some protection from the stress and ‘multiple overwhelmings’ of our times. We need a framework, a shape for our living, which can – amid the distractions and confusions and noise of our very anxious world – create some space, and enable us to see.

But how to construct a Rule of Life that is appropriate and right? That, in itself, requires skill. And, if it is going to be the right kind of shape that will enable growth, a depth of sensitive self-understanding, which is why it is best crafted with someone else who is skillful in spiritual discernment, and who can give us the space and encouragement to explore what might be the right kind of pattern and balance for us.

In the Christian tradition the best-known Rule was crafted for his monks by St Benedict around the year 530. It has been astonishingly influential down the centuries and it continues to offer a shape for living the Gospel of God into our own times. It is called the Rule of St Benedict, but interestingly, it begins with the simple word ‘Listen’. ‘Listen carefully my son to the master’s instruction’ are Benedict’s opening words, ‘and attend to them with the ear of your heart’.

Though these evocative words were written for monks something like 1500 years ago, they can speak powerfully to lay people today, for they point to the kind of spiritual attitude that needs to be cultivated if we are to construct a Rule of Life that will be genuinely helpful and appropriate.

Each one of us needs to learn to listen to ‘the master’s instruction’ for us, and how best we can attend to that ‘instruction.’ That may require a degree of self-understanding that we may not initially have. People can be very adept at understanding the complexities of the world around them, and be remarkably blind as to who, at a profound level, they really are. That is why a good spiritual guide can be important. Someone who can help us understand the complexities of our own story, can help us comprehend its many ups and downs, can help us make sense of our shifting moods, can help us acknowledge our fears, value our dreams, and help us identify not just what we may superficially want, but what are our deeper needs and longings. Most important of all, it will be someone who can help us begin to really value and love ourselves, created as we are, in the image of God.

All this, and more, is part of beginning to listen to what may be the master’s very particular ‘instruction’ for us and how we can best follow that instruction. Once that kind of attitude of attending with the ear of the heart has begun to be grasped, then the different areas that go to make up a Rule of Life can be fruitfully explored.

Any Rule that is going to embrace all that a person is, and is called to become, is likely to cover, first,the practice of praying. What habits and disciplines need to be cultivated so that a person’s life is anchored ever more deeply, every day, in the mystery of God? Second, what kind of work can best use and develop a person’s gifts, and does that work need clear boundaries? Third, a rule needs to insist on times for rest and holidays. Fourth, there should be some reference to study and reading that stretches the mind and takes the person into new areas of understanding. Fifth, Christian faith is about belonging to others, so a Rule should refer to the communities of faith and life that the person shares in. And then a Rule must refer to the wider world, to working for justice and peace, to engagement in care for the earth, and to the costly giving of resources.

But discerning and building a structure of life covering all these areas, must begin with listening, and continue with deeper listening; and always accompanied by kindness and gentleness towards oneself. If a Rule of Life ever begins to breed guilt and failure, then it would be better to completely re-work it.

In one of her last letters written on the 18th August 1943 to her friend Henny Tideman from the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork before she was taken on the train to Auschwitz, the young Jewish diarist Etty Hillesum wrote:

Things come and go in a deeper rhythm, and people must be taught to listen;it is the most important thing we have to learn in this life.

To listen. To listen and to attend with the ear of the heart. It is only out of such profound attentive listening that any Rule will emerge that is really going to serve and not oppress a person. For, in stark contrast to the frame of poles which is fixed in place before the beans can grow, a Rule does need to emerge out of the needs and longings of the individual as they feel their way towards their ever loving, beckoning God. It cannot be imposed. And so their Rule of Life, shaped in conversation with their soul friend, will, as it were, move just ahead of them on their journey, stretching them, encouraging them, challenging them, that they might find and dwell ever more deeply in the love of God, and so find abundant life.