Reflections on a Rule of Life

Ellen Bradshaw Aitken

I lived for a year in the early 1980s in the town of St. Andrews on the east coast of Scotland.  This year was my first serious time of engagement with a rule of life, (although I didn’t think of it in those terms then), including the daily office, regular conversations with a wise friend, times of solitude and retreat, as well as my first forays into disciplined theological study.  It was also a year of living within sight of St. Rule’s Tower, an eleventh-century, immensely tall, stone tower built at the headland of the town overlooking the harbor and the often-stormy North Sea. By legend, St. Rule (or St. Regulus) brought the bones of the apostle Andrew from Greece to this Scottish headland in the fourth century.  St. Rule’s Tower is what remains of the church built to house these relics, and it served as a beacon to travelers and pilgrims—at sea and on land.  It is not known if St. Rule existed or if this name arose out of the foundation of Christian life and practice in that place.  To my mind, the name may well enshrine the monastic rule by which the early communities in that place lived—enshrining the notion of the rule in the memory of the holy person, St. Rule.  It is a “rule” because it holds the apostolic witness, the sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection dwelling there.

One of the primary graces for me in forming a rule of life in conversation with the Rule of SSJE has been the Rule’s emphasis on the indwelling of God (e.g. chapter 21) and on the cruciformity of love (e.g. chapter 2).  The Johannine insight that in Christ God makes a home with us has become a touchstone as I shape a rule of life for myself.  It makes me desire that my way of life be shaped in such a way that I have an ever-greater capacity for God.  I understand my rule of life as shaping a hospitable space and a hospitable life for the dwelling of God.  I understand my rule of life as a way of cooperating with the mystery of resurrection and thus of creating greater capacity to take the needs, sorrows, and desires of others into my life, work, and prayer in order to offer them to God for healing and for life.

A rule, in my experience, turns what I desire for my way of life into practice, practices that are flexible and transformable, but practices nonetheless.  A few examples: At home, our breakfasts and our dinners are eaten unrushed, with candles lit, attention to the food and drink however simple, and a spaciousness for conversation.  These are moments when we gather the thoughts of a busy day and whether there are guests or not it recollects me toward a life lived hospitably toward God.  Or at work at the university, amid innumerable demands, deadlines, emails, the rule helps me to remember that the person in front of me, in conversation with me at that moment, is to have my full attention, the undistracted capacity of my heart and mind.  The rule recalls me to the practices of listening for both sorrow and joy, strength and struggle in my students, my colleagues, and my staff.  The rule helps me, though not without much difficulty, to make decisions about my calendar and time, so that there is the necessary spaciousness and freedom from distraction.

What I recognize as less well seasoned in practice for me are the ways of entering more directly, more intentionally into the capaciousness of God.  These are practices of solitude, the nurturing of creativity and delight, and, for God’s sake, times of doing nothing except abiding in God.  The rule—like a beacon—recalls me to such practices, tells me to wrestle with my schedule and calendar so that I do them, and reminds that these practices too are part of sharing in the mystery of death and resurrection.

Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, seen here in the Monastery Cloister garden with Br. Curtis Almquist on FSJ day 2010.


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