Since the early days of monasticism large numbers of Christians who follow the more usual paths of discipleship as single or married working people have found challenges and inspiration for their lives by meditating on the rules of religious orders. In the last ten years, for example, a number of books that explore ways in which contemporary lay men and women can discover profound guidance for their lives in the Rule of St. Benedict have become bestsellers. Here we provide some suggestions for ways to use the SSJE Rule as a resource for personal reflection on the Christian life.
If you dip into the Rule here and there you will soon discover that it is a very condensed and rich kind of text that does not lend itself to quick reading. Many insights are distilled into each page and to be assimilated these insights require a special kind of reading that is rather different from the usual method. Monastic rules call for the kind of reading that was given the name lectio divina, divine or holy reading, in the monastic tradition. This kind of reading takes things very slowly, and stops to ponder particular sentences and phrases in a leisurely way. It is reading that calls for gentle rumination on phrases and a patient expectation that hidden depths of meaning will emerge from praying with and around them. After surveying and dipping into the Rule you might want to choose one particular chapter and spend several sessions of meditation on it by reading slowly and dwelling on particular sentences and phrases that attract your attention. If it is your practice to devote regular times to meditation you might find that there is in some chapters material for six or seven sessions.
You may be bringing to your reading basic questions such as, What is prayer and meditation? What are we doing when we worship together? What does it mean to pray for others? If you are looking for insight into prayer and worship some chapters set out a rich fare of teaching and distill a whole tradition of spirituality. See, for example, the chapters “Worship,” “The Eucharist,” “The Mystery of Prayer,” “Prayer and Life,” “Meditative Prayer,” “The Mystery of Intercession,” and “The Practice of Intercession.”
Other chapters offer springboards for reflection on a wide range of topics in Christian discipleship. Because this is the contemporary rule of a community that is actively engaged in the wider community you will discover many chapters whose teaching is applicable to your situation and may help you reflect on your response to the gospel. Chapters such as “Maintaining Our Health and Creativity” or “Rest and Recreation” do not need much translating. We are all alike in our need of encouragement to live creative, sane, and balanced lives responsive to the divine invitation to sabbath. You may wish to make your own notes on such chapters, spelling out the questions they raise for your own life.
The chapters that appear to be devoted to the particular disciplines of monastic life may seem less promising at first as sources of insight for your own life. However, their monastic perspective may prove helpful in casting light on unexplored dimensions of the Christian life. One example would be the chapter “Hospitality.” While this deals with the responsibilities of the ministry of hospitality to which our Society is called, hospitality is a central theme in scriptural teaching about discipleship. The chapter could lead you to reflect on your own call to hospitality, the way you make others welcome in your home, the way you respond to strangers, the possibility that your practices of welcome and acceptance have a powerful spiritual dimension.
Two further examples would be the chapters “The Cell and Solitude” and “Silence.” These chapters might raise questions for you to pursue such as, How much time do I allow myself to be alone to reckon with my own particular uniqueness and personhood? Do I allow myself to be so completely consumed by the claims of others that I lose touch with my own solitude and the axis of relationship with God on which my life really turns? Is my own private living space a place of prayer and meeting with God? Is there a place in my home where I can know what it is to be centered in God and seek his face? Am I allowing the overstimulus and bombardment of modern life to saturate my soul? Do I ever seek silence in which I can recover a sense of who I really am? Am I able to find an inner resource of silence that can help me let go of preoccupations, resentment, and the accumulating wear and tear of everyday pain?
Other examples of chapters which could fruitfully be the springboard for reflection on discipleship include “Mutual Support and Encouragement,” “The Maturing of Our Minds in Christ,” “The Gifts and Challenges of Old Age,” “Guidance and Reconciliation,” and “Holy Death.”
Contemporary spirituality is gradually becoming more faithful to the New Testament teaching that all baptized persons are called to ministry. The chapters “Mission and Service,” “The Spirit of Mission and Service,” and “Ministry in Practice” could be used as the basis for considering your own call to ministry, lay or ordained. They might stimulate a wide-ranging self-examination about the experience of being called to serve others, what your particular gift is, and the spirit in which you fulfill your ministry.
You may turn to the sections that deal with the vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience with the assumption that these are the unique commitments that most clearly distinguish members of religious communities from their fellow Christians. However, those who take these vows would probably tell you that they do not experience these commitments as something exotic and specialized. We experience them as ways of wrestling with fundamental issues in our common human relationship to God. We all have to explore what it means to give ourselves, how we are to live our sexuality, and how we are to be responsive and responsible with others in Christian fellowship. The six chapters in the Rule on the vows may be approached not as windows into a uniquely specialized path of discipleship, but more as sources of reflection on some very fundamental realities of the gospel.
You may want to approach the chapters on poverty as an invitation to raise a whole range of questions about living the new life of the gospel set out in the Beatitudes. Pondering them may lead you to ask questions like these: What does it mean to believe in a self-giving God? What is my relationship with the poor? How do I give myself away? How do I express the sharing that is the hallmark of the new community formed by the Spirit? What value do I place on my own experience of limitation and brokenness?
Those living the single life may find much to apply directly to their lives in some of the reflections in the chapters on celibacy. But others who are living or seeking to live in marriage and partnership may find that these chapters act as a foil for reflection on their own way of sexual intimacy, and provoke some fundamental questions: Do I experience God personally calling and shaping my life in the way I am living out my sexuality? With what kind of respect and reverence do I engage with other people? How is my inner drive toward intimacy and my sexuality related to God’s love for me and desire for union with me? How do I support other people in their intimate relationships? How do I find the courage to face the inner loneliness that is intrinsic to my human identity?
The chapters on obedience and life in community raise issues of power and accountability that all of us are called to reckon with: How do I use my power, my voice? How do I cooperate with others to make community and bring about creative developments of the gifts God has given us? Do I dominate or do I repress myself? To whom am I accountable? Where do I put my allegiance and invest my loyalty? Is individualism my ideal or have I grasped the mystery of living as a member of the Body of Christ, caught up in the interaction and interdependence of God’s way of life? How do I play my part with a full confidence in the gifts God has given me? How do I outgrow the immature need to have things go my way?
Another way of reading the Rule is to bring to it your own questions about God. The way of life that the Rule guides and interprets is a life of seeking and responding to God. You may want to read each chapter with the questions: What is this chapter saying about God? What does it say about Christ and the Holy Spirit? Am I drawn to the God spoken of in these pages?
A spiritual practice with deep roots and a close connection with monastic life is that of creating a personal rule of life. For a community the rule of life is not a rigid law that makes daily life into the working of a machine. Rather, it is a kind of constitution or bill of rights that makes sure that all the different elements of a Spirit-filled life in Christ are valued and given their due place in the whole. A rule recognizes that we are subject to all sorts of pressures that work to make life one-sided, and repress essential aspects of our calling.
Each individual is in some way a miniature community, subject to internal and external pressures to avoid or neglect some aspect of her or his wholeness as a member of Christ. So it is the practice of many serious Christians to make a covenant with themselves, a pattern of practice and discipline to which they commit themselves to live in as full and balanced a way as possible. This personal rule of life is not a rigid law but a constitution that helps hold together the many elements of the whole self.
Studying the SSJE Rule of life might prove to be a valuable stimulus for some readers to enhance or create a personal rule of life by setting out a wide range of issues that call for attention and commitment. One way of using the Rule may be to survey the whole Rule and list the kind of questions of commitment it raises, questions such as: How shall I commit myself to regular prayer and worship? How shall I feed on the scriptures regularly? How often should I go on retreat? How shall I express my commitment to ministry? What kind of discipline should I adopt to make sure that I keep learning and growing as a Christian through reading and study? A personal rule of life can be valuable even in its simplest form. It gives strength to that inner part of ourselves that wants to resist scatteredness and haphazardness in our lives. It can reinforce the dignity that comes with commitment.
Some readers may discover an inner sense of identification and empathy with the monastic way. From the very beginning of this movement in the church there have been many who are not called actually to belong to a religious community but who have a deep sense of sharing in the monastic spirit and values. This is the phenomenon of “interiorized monasticism,” to use a phrase of the Eastern Church. You may discover that you want to use this Rule as a resource in drawing up a substantial personal rule of life that expresses this inner identification. Or regular reading of it may act as a constant encouragement to live monastic values in the context of your everyday life.