Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Designing a Rule of Life

Rules have gotten a bad wrap in the modern world. We have all heard slogans like “Rules were made to be broken,” and many people think of rules only as devices of control used to stifle freedom and drain creativity. In reality, however, we human beings need rules, and the order, discipline, and structure they provide, if we are going to grow in character and knowledge and reach our potential.

This is especially true in the spiritual life. Without some measure of order, discipline, and structure, daily distractions and busyness can easily crowd out prayer, reflection, Scripture reading, and the sacraments. Pressure to conform to the secular world threatens our moral standards, and stress drains the energy we need to fight the ever-present urge to give in and be just like everyone else. God fades into the background of life instead of taking center stage where He belongs.

How can we combat these tendencies? How can we regain our spiritual balance and focus? We can begin by designing a personal rule of life.

What Is a Rule of Life?

A rule of life is essentially a list of spiritual disciplines and goals geared to an individual's particular circumstances and struggles. Let's get more specific. First of all, a rule of life is not
  • an end in itself;
  • another checklist to add to an already packed schedule;
  • set in stone;
  • a set of inaccessible, impractical ideals;
  • all about us!
On the other hand, a rule of life is
  • a tool that helps us grow in our relationships with God and other people;
  • a flexible guideline that helps us order our lives toward God;
  • realistic and practical;
  • the result of self reflection;
  • all about God!
Further, a rule of life is
  • a way to respond to God's call to an intimate, personal relationship;
  • a way to attain some much-needed discipline in our disordered world and busy lives;
  • a way to experience true freedom, which is freedom for God, for love, and for holiness;
  • a way to progress toward God and track our progress;
  • a way to correct bad habits and develop virtue;
  • a way to strengthen prayer life;
  • a way to promote spiritual study;
  • a way to put the sacraments at the forefront of life;
  • a way to learn to interact with other people;
  • a way to allow God to direct our lives!

Writing a Rule of Life

At this point, you might be thinking, “That's all well and good, but let's get practical here. How do I write a rule like that? What kinds of disciplines and goals should I choose? What should I focus on?” The following steps will guide you through the process.
  1. Begin with prayer. Ask God to open your eyes so that you may see yourself clearly and to open your heart and mind so that you may allow Him to enter in and draw you close to Himself.
  2. Thoroughly examine your spiritual condition, carefully considering your strengths, weaknesses, interests, difficulties, delights, and challenges. Ask yourself, “What is working well in my spiritual life? In which areas do I need to grow? What do I need to change?” More importantly, try to answer these questions honestly and completely, jotting down a few notes about your reflections that you can refer back to as you write your rule.
  3. Based on what you've discovered in your self-examination, you can now select the categories for your rule. Possibilities include, but are certainly not limited to, prayer, sacraments, acts of penance, reading and study, virtues, good works, and relationships.
  4. For each category, choose a few specific disciplines or goals that will help us grow spiritually and enter into a deeper relationship with God. These should be directed by your self-examination, addressing weaknesses, playing off strengths, setting challenges, and recognizing interests. Keep in mind the following:
    • Your choices should be geared to your personality and individual needs. You are not doing this to impress or compete with others.
    • Your choices should be specific. Instead of “Pray more,” for example, you could decide to “Pray for fifteen minutes each day.”
    • Your choices should be practical. You should be able to do them, to measure your progress, and to hold yourself accountable.
    • Your choices should not overwhelm you. Be sure to limit your disciplines and goals. They should challenge and stretch you but not make you crazy with a checklist a mile long.
    • Your choices should be focused on God. Allow Him to direct you as you build your rule and continually ask yourself, “How will practicing this discipline help me grow closer to God?”
  5. At this point, you are ready to submit your rule to God. Ask Him to bless you and guide you as you try to live out the disciplines and goals you've set. You can do this in a simple, private prayer, or you can speak to your priest and ask him to accept your rule and bless you after Mass.
  6. Finally, you might consider sharing your rule with someone else, a spouse, a close friend, a parent, or anyone who might be willing to pray for you and ask you periodically how things are going. People tend to honor their commitments better if they know that someone will be checking up on them every now and then.
Sample Elements

Still feeling a bit shaky about this whole idea of a rule of life? I wrote my rule for the first time in 2009, and while I have not always been successful at living it out, I have found that its helps me structure my spiritual life and keep on track in my spiritual growth. Below are a few examples from my own rule. Please don't feel like you have to copy these exactly; I'm just providing them to give you a few ideas.
  • Prayer
    • “My prayers should not be merely external and routine; I must strive to focus my entire self on them and truly mean the words I pray.”
    • “I will pray five decades of the Rosary daily.”
  • Sacraments.
    • “I would like to go to Confession once a month.”
    • “I will make a Spiritual Communion daily.”
  • Penance and Mortification
    • “I will do unpleasant tasks without complaining.”
    • “I will fast between meals on Wednesdays and Fridays and abstain from meat on Fridays.
  • Good works
    • “I will begin every task by dedicating it to Jesus and praying for His help.”
    • “I will be on the lookout for volunteer opportunities and choose at least one a month.”
  • Virtues
    • “I will cultivate patience.”
    • “I will embrace humility.”
  • Reading and Study
    • “I will read a portion of the Bible daily, even if it's only a few verses.”
    • “I will study the life of a saint each week.”

A Saint's Rule of Life

Finally, as we develop and live out our rules of life, we should always remember that we are in good company. Many of the saints followed rules of life, either in religious communities or individually.

St. Francis de Sales, for instance, wrote a rule of life for himself when he was a college student. Surrounded by a city full of temptations and unsavory characters, Francis recognized the risks involved in his education. He had already consecrated himself to God through the Blessed Virgin Mary and had decided to become a priest, so he knew that he needed increased discipline to hold fast to his vows. His rule of life was designed to to help him overcome his current challenges, grow in intimacy with God, and progress toward his ultimate goal of the priesthood.

Francis divided his rule into four main sections, each of which contains several specific practices.
  1. Exercises of preparation – These helped Francis begin his day. He committed to invoking God's help, imagining the kinds of challenges he might face, disposing himself to act with virtue, resolving not to offend God, and recommending himself into God's hands.
  2. “Seven articles for the well performance of daily actions” - In this section, Francis promised to thank God when he rose each morning; to assist at daily Mass; to rest in God for a while each day; to pray some each night before going to sleep; to turn to God if he woke up in the night; to pray for light in the darkness; and to trust in God in times of fear.
  3. “Of spiritual repose” - Francis knew that in the midst of his busy schedule, he needed to take time to rest in God. He decided to do the following during those times of rest: recollect the good; reject the vanities of the world; reflect on the horrors of sin and vice; reflect on the excellence of virtue; admire God's gift of reason; ponder God's justice and the horrors of hell; ponder God's attributes (like wisdom, power, and goodness) and the paradise of Heaven; and relish the love of God.
  4. “Rules for Intimacy” - Finally, Francis developed some rules to govern his relationships with other people. He was especially eager to act with modesty, restraint, honor, discretion, and right judgment and to develop true intimacy with only a few virtuous people even while treating everyone with respect. He did not want to fall into bad company or compromise his virtue.
With this rule, Francis was already on the path to sainthood. He recognized his weaknesses, embraced his opportunities, and challenged himself to grow ever closer to God.

Are You Ready?

Are you ready to create your own rule of life? Are you ready take the time to reflect on your current spiritual state and draw up a plan that will help you provide order, discipline, and structure to your spiritual life? Are you ready to enter into a closer relationship with God?
If so, please pray with me.

Lord, I want to grow closer to You. Show me, please, where I am in my spiritual life and what I need to do to grow in virtue and avoid sin. Guide me as I prepare my little rule of life that I may do so according to Your will. May it never become an end in itself but always remain a tool and a means to ever-greater intimacy with You. Amen.

Source: Gallitia, Peter Hyacinth. The Life of Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop and Prince of Geneva. Vol. 1. London: Richardson and Son, 1854. Pages 44-52.

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