12 April 2015

Questions On Writing a Rule of Life

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I am writing a Rule for myself and I have checked around online for examples and advice. I have read the articles you have written and also found an example of a Rule from another Catholic Hermit which is called "the nine S's". I think hers is a very different way of approaching writing a Rule than you suggest but it sounds easier to do. I am wondering if I could make it work for myself. Not sure I would use S's but I can't think of another letter that would work in the same way. Do you have any suggestions for me in this? You also recently said something about if a hermit's Rule was detailed enough. What did you mean?]]

Thanks for your questions. I appreciate them, but I also need to ask you a couple of questions. Why are you seeking to write a Rule? Is it for yourself as you are currently living because you think it is a good idea, or is it because you are seeking to become a hermit? If it is the latter, are you seeking to become a canonical or consecrated hermit under canon 603 or will you remain a lay hermit? I will address each of these in turn so take them for what they are worth to yourself personally. The question about a Rule being detailed enough is answered implicitly here. If this is not clear, please let me know that and I will add a bit which addresses this explicitly.

Writing A Rule for Yourself:

If you are seeking to write a Rule for yourself alone (and not, say, for your diocese and profession under c 603) then there are many ways to do it. How ever you choose to do this, you will want to make sure you manage to reflect how it is that God works in your own life as well as the practices and principles that support that. The Rule needs to function 1 ) to inspire and 2) to regulate or, in some instances, even to govern your life. For this reason some of the posts you have already read will help you. For instance, one post recommends you start by writing about how God is at work in you and your life. That remains good advice no matter what reason you are desiring to write a Rule.

Also, when you get to the point where you are ready to write an experimental Rule, while you won't want to get bogged down in details you will want to spell things out to some degree. For  example, if your Rule includes prayer, then you will want to indicate the main ways you pray and when (meaning that you will note whether and how you generally pray at dawn or morning or noon, evening, or night, not necessarily that you specify a specific hour). You see, writing "prayer" all by itself will not really be sufficient.  Not only is it "rootless", but neither is it linked to any concrete praxis or goals. After all, we all know that prayer is an important part of the Christian's life. Simply listing "prayer" will not serve in the way a Rule should serve. (More about this below.)

As another example, if you wish to build in silence then you will probably want to look at what ways your own life is too noisy, or is not geared to attentive listening to God and your own heart and begin by correcting those. Then you can consider what kinds of silence you want to build in as well and do the same thing you did with prayer. It will not be enough to simply list "silence" as part of your Rule because, again,  you would not be indicating where or when (much less why) you keep silence.  A Rule is not merely a piece of personal law to which you are committed (though for the publicly professed hermit it is certainly that); it is also meant to serve as a trellis or handrail that helps you know and honor in all of your activities and choices the shape of the journey you are making with God and why. If you (or I for instance) were to say, "Silence is one of the main terms of my Rule" or even "Silence is my Rule," the logical questions anyone would have a right to ask are, what and when do you mean? Do you answer phone calls? Do you talk to friends? Do you use sign language to communicate with clients?! Do you mean you never pray out loud or speak to others? Why are you doing this? Why is silence important and how does it contribute to a really responsive and loving life centered on Christ?

This leads to my next observation, namely, it is true that the "Rule" you referred to is a lot easier to write, but, in my personal opinion, it hardly makes sense as a way to either inspire or regulate the way one lives. Nor does it do justice to the dignity of your own calling which is meant to be an organic whole reflecting an integrated response to God. Let me give you a couple of examples. One of the "9 S's" is serenity, but how does one regulate the practice of serenity? How does one commit to or grow in it? Does it refer to an external appearance or to an inner state? If one is not serene in a time of crisis or great grief then is one transgressing the terms of her Rule?  How does serenity fit in your life and why is it part of your Rule? Why was this chosen as a central element of a "Rule" and how does it relate to other elements?

The same is partly true of "slowness." What is one committing to here and why? Is it because the person is hyperactive? Careless about things or usually rushed? When is one failing to observe one's Rule? When is one succeeding? If one has to complete a project because of a deadline, can one simply proceed as slowly as possible and forget about the deadline? And how is slowness related to serenity or any of the other "9 S's"? In some way or shape one has to determine the dimensions of Christian spirituality which are defining characteristics of one's own life and commit to these in a way which truly makes one's life Christ like in the way God is calling one to. It is very unlikely a list of disparate words without theological or personal context will do this, much less a list of "spiritual terms" which are more or less arbitrarily chosen because they all start with the same letter of the alphabet. The elements of a Rule need to fit together as recognizable dimensions of a single clearly integrated call while the one writing the Rule is responsible for achieving this insofar as she is able.

I agree that it is true that writing this kind of Rule is not an easy project, but I think especially that it cannot be short-circuited by merely creating a list of relatively impersonal characteristics one would like to live. A vocation is about the person you are and are becoming, not merely about characteristics and, at least the way I understand a Rule, it needs to provide a way to be the person God is calling you to be.

In any case, while lists of characteristics can be helpful, especially if they help call our attention to ways we often fall short in or remind us of the ways God gifts us, unfortunately, such a list is not a Rule or Plan of Life in the sense most Christians or the Church herself understands the term. First of all, it has no demonstrable contact with us as persons or with the shape of our everyday life. Secondly, a Rule like the one you mentioned is not livable because nothing is actually defined --- neither as expectations or as limits. How much silence and when? How much poverty and of what sort? Obedience to whom and with what limitations? When we have limits we may transgress them occasionally, but without them we don't even have a way to begin attempting to live our lives. To specify "prayer" as a piece of our Rule, for instance, without some concrete expectations and goals makes success impossible and failure a foregone conclusion. Thus, if you choose important terms like the "9 S's", make sure they have a clear connection to your own life and reflect the concrete ways God is calling you to live that.

If You are Thinking of Becoming a Lay Hermit:

If you are thinking about becoming a hermit, and here I mean a lay hermit whether with private vows or not (because, after all, you will need to start here before seriously considering, much less actually discerning consecrated eremitical life if that is in your mind or heart at all), you will need to have a clear idea first of all what the central elements of any eremitical life are. Canon 603 lists these (Stricter separation from the world, meaning from that which is resistant to Christ, the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity in celibacy, and obedience, all lived according to a Rule for the praise of God and salvation of the world). This last element is really important since it says to you and everyone else why you are doing this (and in fact, why any authentic hermit embraces a solitary desert existence). Once again, your Rule should not simply list these elements but indicate the shape of the life which embodies them. Moreover, it should indicate the shape of your own life; your own life is a specific and unique embodiment of these elements and the Christian and/or eremitical life they characterize.

If you are Thinking of Becoming a Solitary Consecrated (C 603) Hermit:

Finally, if you are thinking of becoming a canonical hermit, that is a professed and conse-crated solitary hermit who lives the eremitical life in the name of the Church, then you will take all of the above, live the elements listed for some time, and then write a Rule which will serve your own life but also be exemplary for others seeking to live similar lives. I have written a lot about this already and there is no need to say more about it at this point. What is important to reiterate here is that this Rule will not be unlivable. It will not be a simple list of unrelated terms without specifying limitations and expectations. If you do choose to write this kind of "Rule", for whatever reason, please be aware your Diocese is simply unlikely to approve it. More, they are unlikely to view you as someone who is ready to be professed under canon 603.

You see, in my experience, the Rule a hermit produces is an important part of the diocese's discernment of the nature and quality of the vocation in front of them. Writing an adequate Rule of Life is a lot of work, yes, and it will require several drafts over time before it truly is both livable and sufficiently challenging. Even so, it will reflect your formation, persistence in prayer and otherwise, capacity for introspection, discernment, and obedience, and it will witness to the way God has been present in bringing you to this point. I urge you, therefore, to read again the posts having to do with writing a Rule, where to start, etc, and especially those which refer to formation and the different Rules which are apt to mark different stages of personal formation. You might decide to start with a list of words like the "9 S's" you referred to, but within a year or two you should be ready to write something approaching a more livable and organic Rule and in several more years you will have refined that even further into something that is truly your own --- that is, truly a reflection of and way of honoring the vital  and dynamic shape of your journey with God AND an application and continuation of the ancient eremitical tradition in our own time and circumstances.