As an undergraduate, I learned two things about being a Christian. First, I cannot be a Christian in a vacuum. Second, to use Br. Kevin Hackett’s phrase, the learning curve never ends. Those two things are both vexation and encouragement as I live into my faith, questioning and wondering. Now, I’ll add a third thing: being a Christian takes practice and discipline – the very things that a rule of life provides.
It’s a blessing to be surrounded by folks who follow rules of life: the Brothers in Cambridge, of course; fellow parishioners, some themselves oblates of various monastic communities; and a new community, the Benedictine Companions of St. Paul, in residence at my parish. Surely, I do not lack for examples!
Nevertheless, I struggle. Every day. A rule of life forces me to give up what I might want for myself in the moment and orients me toward what God wants in the long term. He wants me to pray, to have a relationship with him through prayer, so I am given tools to make it easier: words to say when I have no words and silence to make me attentive to God’s awe-full-ness. It’s a slow thing, and not always given to immediate gratification.
A modern adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict for the laity by John McQuiston, Always We Begin Again, gives me hope, especially in the struggle. Always we begin again. I will fail sometimes, but every day is new. Every day I begin again. A rule of life, in the ancient sense of the phrase, derives from regla, a rule in place not as a prohibition against an action, but as a standard to strive toward. The rule is presented as a helper, a guide. There is room for learning, growing into God’s way of doing things.
From St. Benedict, we get conversatio morum, variously translated “conversion of life” or “conversion of manners.” There’s a strong sense of stability and obedience associated with the phrase. I imagine slowly turning in place 180° or what T.S. Eliot, in “Burnt Norton,” calls “the still point of the turning world.” By staying in one place, following one pattern of life, and learning from those around me, I let myself be conformed to that life in all its joys and difficulties, in all its humanity and divinity. There is the dance, the relationship, the leading, learning, and following.
Following a rule of life is not pretty. It’s day in and day out, long term stuff, sometimes more mere habit than conscious devotion. There is no immediate reward, no pat on the back. There may be “well done, good and faithful servant” at the end, but not this side of heaven. Living with a rule of life is striving, day by day, to live in God’s light, according to his will rather than my own. I take heart in the grace of daily obligation, knowing that I am being formed and changed. Definitely more fully human. Perhaps more fully divine?