"When people come to me for spiritual direction, I always assume that, at some level, they are concerned with formulating a rule of life. They may not use these words, since the term is traditionally associated with religious or monastic spirituality and has a medieval aura about it. But they are concerned with the stewardship of their time and energy (as well as their substance) and are looking for help in shaping their days. Most commonly, our discussion begins with the question of time: how can they find time for prayer and contemplation in a crowded schedule?
"While most people go through life without thinking of it, we all have a rule of life, a pattern for our days reflecting our deepest beliefs. For fifteen years I lived next door to Wilbur, who was not religiously observant and who had probably never heard of a rule of life. Yet there was something almost monastic about his faithfulness to his unwritten rule: he rose every morning at 6:30, left his house at 7:00, and returned home from work by 3:30. In the summer he then sat on his porch; in the winter he sat in the living room. He drank beer until he was almost unconscious and then somehow put himself to bed. He had held the same job for years and never missed going to work. He was a quiet, affable neighbor; his yard was always neatly kept. Even if he never articulated it to himself, Wilbur had an austere and workable rule of life. Unfortunately, his god lived in a bottle and eventually killed him.
"It is not enough to live by an unconscious rule. For Christians, there are predictable components related to prayer and worship. A typical 'bare bones' rule of life would deal with such questions as, how and when do I pray? What are my rhythms of corporate and solitary prayer? What is the place of the sacraments in my life? How often do I join in the celebration of the eucharist? If it is part of my tradition, how often do I avail myself of the sacrament of reconciliation?
"I think a good rule would go beyond and build upon these bare essentials, for they are essentials. It would include a commitment to the guidance and companionship of spiritual direction or spiritual friendship. Given the complexity and overstimulation of life in the industrialized West, it would encourage the cultivation of simplicity. This is by no means the same as harsh self-denial, but rather an attempt to reduce the spiritual and material clutter that choke off our growth.
"Further, a good rule would be committed to generosity; this would go beyond the simple allocation of money for charitable giving to include gifts of self and service. Baron von Hugel instructed Evelyn Underhill to work in a soup kitchen as a way of grounding her spirituality; we too need our 'soup kitchens' — whatever form they may take — to keep us honest and embodied. I am always uneasy with directees who have cut themselves off from the pain and grittiness of the world around them and who seem to have no impulse even to see the needs of others. For those living in urban centers, the opportunities for service are myriad. For those in gentler places, where need can be masked or denied, the opportunities are still present. Miss Marple would be able to point them out in a flash, even in St. Mary Mead.
"A good rule also includes provision for self-care. Again and again, I talk with people who are very specific about patterns and disciplines for their devotional lives but neglectful of their physical and emotional selves. This part of the rule is concerned with re-creation, and each individual knows best how he or she can be re-created. Does time need to be built in for study? music? solitude? manual labor? fasting? (In her book Fullness of Life, Margaret Miles offers the provocative suggestion of fasting from the media.) The sedentary need to include regular exercise as a holy obligation, and the variously addicted need to look hard at the idols that have crept into their lives. Workaholics must build a Sabbath into their rule, and clergy should remember that the Sabbath can be observed on any day of the week.
"The purpose of the rule is too keep us clear and attentive, to enable us to live contemplatively in the midst of activity. The temptation, of course, is to be overambitious and to set ourselves impossible goals — and then to fail. There is also the danger that the structure will become an end in itself, so that our spirituality becomes joyless, life-denying, and self-centered. Particularly in regard to 'spiritual disciplines,' less is frequently more. A good rule can set us free to be our true and best selves. It is a working document, a kind of spiritual budget, not carved in stone but subject to regular review and revision. It should support us, be never constrict us."