Letter from the Fellowship of Saint John – John Shibley

Why Don’t I Have a Rule of Life?

Why don’t I have a Rule of Life?

I’ve been thinking about this question since November, when the Brothers sent a letter asking all the members of the Fellowship to reflect on creating and living by their Rule of Life.   At first, I asked it of myself as an accusation: “Hey, why don’t YOU have a Rule of Life, huh? All the OTHER members of the Fellowship have one! What’s the matter with YOU!?”   Then, my tone got softer, more an expression of curiosity than anything else: “Hmm… No Rule of Life, huh, John? That’s interesting. What’s that about?”

Finally, I discovered that I was asking the wrong question. I realized that, despite the fact that I don’t have a Rule of Life, there are rules to my life.

I didn’t write these rules on my own. I got them the way a sponge gets water. I unconsciously soaked them up from the world around me, mostly as I was growing up. They direct my behavior, again unconsciously, just as surely as any set of written precepts could – maybe more.  When I work backward from the pattern of my life, I can see these rules, or at least the Table of Contents they suggest. Some of the chapter titles are predictable -“Being a Good Friend,” “The Love of Learning,” “Working Hard is a Good Thing,” “Career and Achievement,” pretty conventional stuff.

But when I consider the chapters about God… well… I get a shock.

What I see is that I live as if my God chapters had titles like “God Will Only Love Me If I Am Good,” and “Getting to God is Awful Rowing I Have to Do Alone.” Somewhere along the way, I soaked up these rules, writing them on my mind and heart, and then forgetting that I was their author, treating them as given truths. A lot of the work of my life with God is seeing these rules, and trying to erase them and replace them with others. “God Will Only Love Me If I Am Good” is fading, but slowly (apparently I wrote it with a Sharpie – what was I thinking?).  In its place is one I call “He Rescued Me Because He Delighted in Me,” a verse from Psalm 18 that usually makes me cry. To replace the Awful Rowing chapter I am thinking about one, still untitled, based on the way that plants turn toward the sun naturally and without extra effort.  I know that’s how God calls me, but I still have the Awful Rowing idea in me.

Someone once said that you don’t write poetry, you rewrite it. I think that’s probably true about rules of life as well.  We re-write them. The paper is not blank. It’s full of the rules we’ve been carrying around without knowing we were dong so.  Before I can write new Rules, I have to erase the old rules, and before I can erase them, I have to face that they are there. And, of course, I do not do any of that work alone – I turn to it, well, the way a plant turns toward the sun, guided in my labor by His light and warmed by His Grace.


  1. Kristin LeMay on April 8, 2011 at 09:38

    Oh, yes, John, I completely resonate with what you’ve said here! In fact, I can take you one step further: I’m not a member of the FSJ *because* I knew that I would never make or keep a Rule of Life. It is that fact alone that has left me reluctant to ask for admission, since keeping a Rule is one of the major components of membership. So I really appreciate your honesty about this reluctance on your part — it’s nice to have companionship, even (or especially) in reluctance.

    Thanks also for your humorous self-assessment about the unstated rules you do keep. You’ve got me pondering what the Chapter titles to my own unwritten Rule are. And the funny thing is that that question has actually (for the first time) got me wanting to jot a Rule down. Like you, I fear that some of my section headings would be rather bleak: “You Don’t Really Think God Cares What You’re Nattering on About Do You” is mostly the title for my chapter on “Prayer.” Your image of the plant turning to the sun is a much needed and warming thought and I, too, turn to it. Thank you!

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