29 March 2009

Rule: Law or Gospel? On Writing A Rule of Life

[[Sister Laurel, how do I write a Rule of Life? I would like to copy from other hermits, but how do I do that? Is there some place one can write to get copies of the Rules of Life written by diocesan hermits? Have you published yours here in your blog? Can you help me?]]

I admit to cringing a bit as I read and copied your question. It touches a sore point (or several) for me because of the way it is worded, namely, it refers to copying from others, so let me answer a somewhat different question: "How is it hermit candidates write their own Rules?" A related question might be, "How can I look at other Rules to see what others do in order to get an idea of what I should write myself?" I suspect this latter question is really what you were meaning with your own question, true? Also, perhaps I can make some comments about Rules in general which will help you until you get access to others --- and even if you cannot get access since writing your own with all of the muddling through that requires is really the best way to go..

Rule of Life as Fruit of Personal Experience

Because I personally believe the writing of a Rule of Life is one of the most significant formative processes or experiences a person can engage in or have, I am emphatic that they should not copy anyone else's. I DO think that it is helpful to read those submitted by and governing the lives of other hermits, not only to see the great variety characterizing eremitical life today and through history, but so one can begin to put one's own "story" into words as one does so. I read several different Rules before and as I wrote my own (actually, my second version), and I found myself saying to myself quite often,"Yes, well said, but I would write it THIS way," or "Not nearly enough here about the CONTENT of the vows," or "I never thought of it that way; what a great insight!" Even so, once I sat down to write my Rule, the idea of copying anyone on anything never occurred to me. This, after all, was MY Rule, and it was based on my own life and the way God had worked and continues to work in it. This Rule was meant to govern my life, be a source (a mediator) of grace and inspiration in the living of my own life, and while I certainly learned from others, what I composed and submitted to my diocese was all my own. (Yes, I cited references both theological and spiritual, inspiring Scriptures, sections of the Rule of St Benedict, etc, but I had internalized these and they served mainly as illustrations of my own story.) I believe the same should be true of your own, and that of any hermit candidate's Rule.

What a Rule is and is Not: Law vs Gospel

One other reason it is important to read others' Rules is simply to learn WHAT a Rule is and is not. I think that one of the most difficult things about approaching the writing of a Rule comes from not being clear in one's mind what a Rule is and how it is meant to function. Most beginners write a Rule which simply says things like: "The hermit will not do x" or "The hermit is allowed to do y only on z occasions," etc. Great attention is placed on the horarium, what hours of the LOH one will and will not say, how much lectio one will do each day, how often one will attend Mass, when visitors are allowed, how often one leaves one's cell and for what reasons, etc. Everything is quantified and specified in terms of "will" and "will not." Overall, such a "Rule" or "Plan of Life" is cast in terms of law, not gospel! I think that besides being the error of a beginner who may not yet be ready to write a livable Rule, these kinds of documents are simply unclear on what a Rule is and how it ought to function in the life of the hermit herself.

Now let me be clear. Some degree of spelling things out in this way is necessary, especially for the hermit who will not have a book of constitutions and/or statutes as communities do, but it is necessary as part of a larger reality, a Rule which is gospel-based and which uses law only to serve that. When I look at my own Rule then, law is not the primary category that comes to mind. Evangelical (that is, an expression of the Gospel) is one category that I think of, and inspirational is another closely related category or term describing the way the Rule reads and functions. Yes, I have stated what hours of the LOH I pray, what my horarium looks like, and other things like this, but generally I was more concerned with what values and realities they SERVED and protected, what goals or characteristics I wished my life to embody and be an expression of, what inspired and empowered me, what practices were lifegiving or challenging in significant ways and why, etc. THAT I think, is what a Rule ought to be, a document which reflects one's own experience in a way that reminds one of who one is in light of God's grace and inspires them to continue in this way until God calls them to something new or different. A Rule is certainly regulatory, but it is regulatory only after it is inspirational. Law without Gospel is not a Rule in the sense a hermit needs a Rule. The idea here is that one needs a handrail for safety while one climbs or descends stairs, but one needs even more than that something to inspire the journey. The word regula or Rule has both senses but I am convinced the second sense is far more important.

Rule of Life as Handrail

Unless one approaches things from this direction one is apt to take something like the renunciations involved in eremitical life for instance, and make them appear to be the heart or even the whole of the life itself. While it is true that eremitical life is one of renunciation on a number of levels, one's Rule should make it clear that such renunciations are themselves undertaken for the sake of a uniquely shaped and GRACED life which is rich and fulfilling, and further, one which has a tremendously significant POSITIVE witness to offer our world. If the hermit does not convey this, the Rule will not only not serve the hermit herself adequately, but neither will it serve her church or world as it should. Especially, the Rule will not be able to inspire her to persevere in the life, much less to grow in it, nor will it be able to inspire others to adopt dimensions or elements of it themselves.

Renunciations, for instance, are the flip side of the more primary reality, graced existence RECEIVED AS GIFT and committed to with the whole of one's heart, and it is up to the hermit (candidate) to make this clear in her Rule. Just as authentic candidates to the eremitical life will witness to a life which is profoundly graced by God in spite of what (if anything) life has done to break or wound them, so too will a Rule of Life they write and live by reflect this same reality and priorities. Renunciation (for instance) has its significant place, but only as the servant of the grace of God and commitment to that Life it creates. Penance and asceticism have their place, but only in the way pruning, weeding, and cultivating have a place in the growing of a garden. What should have priority is always the grace of God, the beauty, fullness, and diversity of life in the garden. What supports that, though absolutely critical, is really secondary.

Writing a Rule of Life: Suggestions on Beginning

Now as to your questions per se: How do you write a Rule? Begin with (for this is only a suggestion on how to get started) some version of how God is active and effective in your life. Write about solitude, silence, prayer, penance, and their places in this story and how they serve the grace of God. Write about discipleship and how you perceive the vows as examples of discipleship. Write about what you understand eremitical life to be about, and especially how it functions as lifegiving to you. This should get you started, but please be clear, it is your own experience, your own life story, which is the basis for any Rule you write. After this you can begin to look at the praxis which flows from and supports this inspired story; what things keep you alive to the grace of God, how it is you live out your discipleship in concrete ways, what practices are essential to being who you are, etc. The "law" portions of your Rule will reflect these things. They will not be arbitrary practices you impose on yourself because you think a hermit should do them. You are really writing about a vision of the life, its values, significance, and capacity to mediate the grace of God and serve as a light to the world which you yourself have experienced and which God gives the church and world through you. Your living out of your Rule will be a living out of this vision, a continuing exploration of its depths and limits. The concrete praxis which will be a part of your Rule will be there because it serves this exploration and vision, and you will persevere in this praxis only because of the vision it supports.

As for Rules you might look at: there are Rules which have been published (The Hermits of Bethlehem come to mind here, A Way of desert Spirituality, The Rule of Life of the Hermits of Bethlehem), and there are any number of larger Rules available (those of Benedict, Augustine, Francis, etc). Regarding Rules written by individual diocesan hermits, despite the fact that they are accepted with an official "Bishop's Decree of Approval", most of them are not published, and are typically part of the private file of the hermit. One would need to borrow them from the hermit herself, not even from her diocese. Yes, I once published my rule here, but I removed it for a couple of reasons. The more important one here is that I found people were copying parts of it, and I began to think it might be less helpful ultimately than it was harmful. You see, I really believe that a diocese depends in part on the Rule of Life itself to discern the quality and nature of the vocation in front of them. With solitary eremitical life this is simply one of the primary ways a diocese has of discerning this matter; dioceses do not have all the ways available to them in this matter that a community of hermits has, for instance.  If the person herself has not written it and it does not reflect her lived experience, then it is misleading and can become a serious problem for all concerned. The witness value of the Rule, the hermit's life, the discernment process, and perhaps the professions themselves become disedifying at best. Better a vocation take a little longer to mature than that it be a hypocritical or false one!

I don't know how else to assist you right now. I can certainly post what kinds of things my Rule included once again (some posts still available include this), and if you have more specific questions as you get to working on yours I can try to answer them, but for now, this is all I have to offer. Let me know what seems most helpful to you if you can, what further you need, and I will give it a shot.