For centuries, Christian monastic and religious communities around the world have built their pursuit of Christ and a life of virtue around a common “rule of life.” These are sets of rules that monks, nuns, and other religious communities submit to that govern their way of life and daily rhythm, including prayer, social lives, recreation, and more. St. Benedict, the founder of Western Monasticism, says this in the prologue to his rule of life:
“In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing in the inexpressible delight of his love” (Prologue, Rule of St. Benedict, 45-50).
For monastics and religious, these are not just arbitrary rules intended to subjugate the community, but they are meant to bring order where there is disorder and freedom where there is a lack of it. They are meant to help the members of the community to recognize vice, root it out, and, in a sense, “grow where they are planted.”
This tradition has a lot to teach all of us, regardless of what vices we are dealing with. In fact, many therapists and counselors recommend a regular and healthy rhythm of life to help break any pattern of addiction or unhealthy compulsion and to form new and healthy patterns. Maybe these monks and nuns were onto something? Maybe we should consider adapting our own personal rule of life?
Our Own Personal Rule of Life
Forming healthy daily habits has been pivotal in my own path to freedom from vice. Throughout my journey of faith and freedom, I’ve been encouraged by living witnesses who are truly free. One thing common to all of these witnesses is that they live a well-ordered life.
We all know that we are affected by our surroundings and that our exterior circumstances affect our interior life. Our desires, our thought patterns, our interior movements, and when and where we fall are all affected by the external world. A personal rule of life is a way of creating an exterior world that informs our interior world in a healthy, life-giving way. It is a way to exercise your will to order your life to God and the pursuit of what is true, good, and beautiful.
When I began committing to a personal rule of life, I realized just how reluctant I was to lose control over my own “autonomy.” I heard the word “rule” and I was automatically on the defensive.
Why would I want to give up my own freedom and submit to a rule? Why would I want to chance “missing out” on all the opportunities my autonomy afforded me?
The irony was, however, that I really had no control. I had no self-possession. Patterns of sin had stripped me of my freedom to choose what was good for me.
The Illusion of Control
The “control” that I had on my life was an illusion, it was simply license to do what I wanted when I wanted without interference. Rather than wanting to hold onto my freedom, I realized that what I was really trying to do was to hold on to disorder.
Disorder was bringing me nowhere. I had to take a hard look at what was out of order in my life and be courageous and bold enough to bring order to those areas. I had to undergo a radical worldview shift, realizing that my freedom was in choosing authentic love, which required a death to self so that I could be free to say yes to what is truly fulfilling. Building and following a personal rule of life was what I needed.
5 Keys to an Achievable Personal Rule of Life
When considering creating a personal rule of life for yourself, there are some things to consider:
A good rule of life needs to be rhythmic. Rhythm is important in breaking unhealthy cycles of thought and behavior. So, your personal rule of life should be consistent and involve times throughout your day, week, and month. It should affect what you do at the very beginning of your day, how you end your day, and some points in between.
We have work, families, commitments, and responsibilities, and all of these should be factored in. In fact, our rule of life should help us to be able to enter into our daily duties with more freedom, not less.
Along these lines, I’ve learned that a simple rule of life is not a bad thing. In fact, in many circumstances, a simpler rule of life is more effective because it is more doable.
Take, for example, daily prayer. You shouldn’t commit to one hour of daily prayer each day if regular daily prayer hasn’t been a part of your life up to this point. You might be able to stay committed for a few days, or even a week or two, but more often than not you’ll get discouraged, find excuses and make compromises, and eventually drop it altogether. Be realistic. It might be better to start with 15 minutes, or 30 minutes of personal prayer per day, especially if this is something you know you can actually do each day and remain committed to it.
Along those lines, it needs to be adaptable. This is the good news…if you commit to a personal rule of life, you will grow and living it will become easier. This is a guarantee. Therefore, your rule of life should be adaptable.
Perhaps you’ve stretched yourself, and your rule of life has become second nature to you. You may want to consider stretching a bit more over time by adding a bit more prayer time, a bit more exercise, and/or more intentional time with your family or spouse. You may also want to consider shifting your rule of life as your circumstances change while maintaining what is essential.
It needs to be holistic. As human beings, we are body/soul composites, which means we need to treat the whole person. Your rule of life should govern your spiritual life, but also to some degree your social, emotional, and bodily life as well.
Committing weekly time to vigorous exercise, fasting, your social life, and your hobbies (the things you enjoy that really bring you fulfillment) is really important. Overcoming vice and embracing virtue and freedom involves ALL of you, not just part of you.
It needs to be a true commitment. This requires that we recognize the temptations to compromise, especially when things get difficult. We prepare ourselves to stay committed. Most importantly, your personal rule of life needs to be something you are committed to fulfilling, even if you find yourself falling into vice. Falling back into sin and vice cannot be an excuse to “quit.”
An Example Rule of Life
If this concept of a personal rule of life is new to you, or you've known about it but haven't put it into practice, it is helpful to have an example of one. Below is a sketch of simple elements of a personal rule of life that you can consider implementing. Take pieces from it and use it as a template to form your own, being honest about where you are and what is possible for you given your life circumstances:
- Morning: Pray a morning offering, the Liturgy of the Hours (Lauds), or brief Scriptural Meditation from a guide of your choosing.
- Afternoon/Evening: Daily Mass (if possible), 15-30 minutes of personal prayer time.
- Night: The Liturgy of the Hours (Compline), or some other way of examining your day. A daily check-in with an accountability partner or mentor.
- Vigorous exercise 3-4 times per week.
- Personal meeting with an accountability partner or mentor.
- Date night with your spouse
- Spend time with family and friends
- Take on a form of fasting one full day per week with the intention of your freedom.
- Go to the sacrament of Reconciliation (at least once per month or whenever needed)
- Enjoy a hobby
- Spiritual direction or counsel from a priest, pastor, or guide.
Lastly, schedule your life around your rule, not your rule around your life. This means that your rule, however simple, needs to hold a primary place in your schedule, especially your commitment to prayer. Making a shift like this isn’t easy at first, but if we say yes to Him by ordering our lives around Him, Christ promises us fulfillment, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matt. 11:29-30).
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