09 April 2011

More on Writing a Rule of Life: Is it for Religious and Hermits Only?

[[Hi Sister Laurel! You wrote recently that you were editing your Rule. Do you have to do that often? What makes it necessary. . .does your Bishop require it? I am not and don't want to be a hermit because I am married. . . but I wonder if it would help me to write a Rule of Life? Any ideas?]]

Hi there, yourself, and peace! Yes, I am editing my Rule and no, it is not something I need to do very often -- although I do treat my Rule as a document I reflect on, and which I have completely covered with marginalia, etc over the last few years. I have written several versions over the 31 years I have lived as a hermit, but only two were submitted to the diocese. The one I am editing was submitted in 2005 so that is six years ago --- enough time to have grown in the vocation, changed some of my daily and weekly schedule, and come to reflect on and understand better central elements of the Canon governing this life. As a result I am mainly adding or expanding sections I either didn't discuss sufficiently or did not include at all. One of those has to do with stability; a second has to do with the charism or gift quality of the diocesan hermit; a third has to do with stricter separation from the world; and the last one is an expansion of the section on "the silence of solitude". My horarium has also changed enough to require rewriting --- though this is less significant than the other redactions.

What makes these changes necessary? As noted, I may not have written about these sections sufficiently or at all even. I may not have understood them sufficiently, and have only come to this as I have lived the Rule and reflected on either Canon 603 and its central elements or those of monastic life more generally. They may have assumed a place in my life they did not have 6 years ago, or I may only now truly appreciate their importance for my own vocation and the vocation to diocesan eremitism generally. For instance, stability is a significant Benedictine value and vow, but Canon 603 uses the three more typically Franciscan vows (poverty, chastity, obedience) instead. Because of this, I had not consciously lived stability or explored it from the inside out until after I had made final oblature with the Camaldolese, attended a couple of Benedictine experience retreats, and considered how stability fit in with the three perpetual vows I had made in 2007. I think stability is something one needs to live for a while before one presumes to write about it. While it is not explicitly mentioned in Canon 603, it is really central to monastic life and to the life of the diocesan hermit who is vowed within a specific diocese.

The same is true of stricter separation from the world. One needs to learn what "the world" really is in this canon as well as in one's own life, and then too, what fosters one's ability to live out real separation from this. Paradoxically, one must also determine what is necessary to live one's vocation with integrity and in a way which nurtures one's own growth in wholeness and holiness. The things which truly do this are not "the world" in the sense the canon means and must be accommodated without compromising other elements of the life (the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance) for instance. Again, this is something one learns only in the living of the vocation. Otherwise, one is tempted to simply say "the world" is anything not explicitly "spiritual" (for instance) and then reject this global reality without really knowing how elements within it truly affect one's life --- do they lead to growth or the dissipation of one's vocation, for instance? Do they enhance one's spirituality or detract from it? When and to what degree, if any, do they fit the eremitical life, and why and how does the individual hermit decide that?

An example of what I mean here is the movie I went to see recently, Of Gods and Men. I went with friends from the parish and yes, we went during Lent when my own solitude is even stricter than usual. A while back I went to see The King's Speech -- though that time I went alone. In both instances the movies were incredibly well done and incredibly moving. Of Gods and Men reprised the story of the quiet, faithful, and deeply communal nature of the Cistercian life which, especially in its vow of stability leads these monks to martyrdom. That I attended with other Christians also celebrating Lent added to the meaning of the experience, but since I was working on stability in my own Rule, this film served to encapsulate many of the dimensions I had come to know myself and is still informing and inspiring my own work and prayer.

In The King's Speech a man finds his true voice through the hard work of therapy and comes to inspire his entire country thus helping them to win their war with Germany. In this movie I saw clearly the recovery of the true self and the coming to parrhesia (bold speech) which is so important in the New Testament and discipleship. People are called to be speech events and in The King's Speech we see a man redeemed to answer that very call. Both of these themes: stability and speech events are central to my own theology and spirituality. Both films touched dimensions in me, nourished and fed me in ways which were completely consistent with my vocation.

Were these "worldly" activities? I don't think so, for worldly events don't feed, nourish, challenge or inspire in this way. Instead I approach these as exercises in Lectio --- where I will listen carefully and over a period of time, reflect on and journal about what I experience, etc. Is God present here? Of course, mediated clearly and eloquently in the films. Is this true with any film? Of course not. Should a hermit be going to movies regularly? No, probably not --- though I could see a hermit legitimately going to a carefully-chosen movie every other month or so if this was the one solitary activity outside the hermitage she allowed herself regularly (and if she could actually find a really good film to see this frequently!). More likely the hermit will see occasional movies once they are out on DVD and remain in the hermitage while she does that. In any case, such things must be discerned carefully, and part of that discernment is a careful assessment of what the effects on the hermit's life are. Six years ago, as I considered the meaning of "Stricter separation from the world" I might not have considered going to any movies on an occasional basis as a piece of genuine lectio, but today experience tells me I can do that --- at least at the present time --- though it is far from stereotypical notions of the hermit life.

Stereotypes of eremitical life work by generalizing without adequate experience or true reflection. If one proceeds in this way one may end up saying simplistic things like: hermits don't need friends, or hermit conversations should avoid anything but the strictly spiritual (what is the strictly spiritual anyway?), or one must never eat or do anything which gives one pleasure since, "One is to take pleasure in God alone" (never mind all the myriad ways God's own wonder and beauty is mediated to us on a daily basis, apparently). It is bad enough to have non-hermits believe stereotypes, but it is tragic and completely disedifying to have would-be hermits representing living instances of them as a pretense of something more authentic. One can read everything there is to read on the values which are central to eremitical life, but until one embraces all the rights and responsibilities associated with the life and makes (or struggles to make) these values one's own in response to God's own Word and will, one is unlikely to understand or be able to write about them sufficiently well for a Rule of Life.

To get back to how all this ties in with your questions, what is generally true is that the changes in a Rule are driven by the hermit herself and her experience of the life. While I suppose it is possible for my Bishop to require me to rewrite it (or to refuse to allow a certain practice), the Rule is the most highly individual element of the Canon. It is here that constant or uniform elements are combined in a unique and, one prays, inspired expression of this life.

Writing Your Own Rule of Life

Regarding writing a Rule of Life for yourself, I would enthusiastically suggest you give it a try, but expect it to be a demanding job, and let it take some time! As I have written in the past I have rarely experienced such a formative process as the writing of my Rule. I suspect it is the same for everyone who tries it. A Rule is a document embodying the values which are central to your life, and the praxis which allows you to live these out with genuine integrity. A Rule tells the story of how it is God works in your life to bring it to wholeness and holiness. It inspires, encourages, challenges, and focuses. In writing such a "Rule" you don't have to use the very same values a hermit or monastic uses. You could (and really should) begin with your own understanding of the Gospel and determine how it is God calls you to live out a commitment to this within the context of lay life. Instead of building parts of the Rule around religious vows, you could reflect on and build things around your marriage vows, for instance. Of course, you might also use monastic values as well, but tailored for lay life. What would stability (for instance) look like in the life of a mom or dad, husband or wife? What values would it serve? What needs in the family or community? Would it be countercultural or prophetic? How about conversion of life? Prayer and Penance? What about issues of economy, ecology, health, etc? All of these could fit well in a Rule of Life and be a source of inspiration for others.

Your Rule would not necessarily ask you to do anything new (though of course it could), but it would focus your life in various ways, and it would require (and give you a vehicle which allowed) you to grapple with the various priorities and tensions you experience everyday in a conscious and reflective way. Hopefully it would serve to articulate how it is that love governs your life --- love of God in Christ, of course, but love of your husband, children, friends, community, Church, world, etc. I would personally love to read the result because all too often Rules are associated with religious life and not with lay vocations. If you could create a Rule over time which allows you to live your marriage/family and community commitments more care-fully it would be wonderful, and something others might learn from or be inspired by.

By the way, a book you might be interested in reading given this last question is Margaret Guenther's, At Home in the World, A Rule of Life for the Rest of Us. Where I use the image of Rule as a rail on a stairway as my primary metaphor for the way a Rule functions, Guenther refers to it as a trellis supporting the growth of a vine. She adds a number of questions for reflection which will help a person determine the place of certain elements in their life --- many you might not otherwise consider. I do recommend it.