Making (and Keeping) a Personal Rule of Life

Living Intentionally

Every January, lots of folks make New Year’s Resolutions. This year I will lose weight, exercise more, improve my diet, pay off my credit cards. Sadly, though, it seems that by Valentine’s Day (if not before) most New Year’s Resolutions are long forgotten.

New Year’s Resolutions point to two basic truths about being human. First, to be alive is to seek to grow, to improve, to make improvements in our health, our relationships, our quality of life. But the second truth is the tough one: we often are not very disciplined when it comes to following through on our desired areas of growth.

For people of faith, in addition to all the typical types of resolutions we might make about our health, weight, or finances, many of us also want to grow in our relationship with God. We want a more disciplined prayer life, a stronger commitment to meditation and contemplation, a clear orientation to compassion and forgiveness. We want not just a New Year’s Resolution, but a “Lifetime Resolution,” to grow in grace not only now but for all eternity. One powerful spiritual tool we can use to foster such spiritual growth, while setting up agreements with ourselves (and, hopefully, others who will keep us accountable) is a brief written statement, outlining our commitment for on-going spiritual growth and discipline. Such a document is called a rule of life.

Most religious communities follow a rule of life.

Written by the community’s founder or some other luminary in their past, these texts govern details of community life from the most mundane, work-related matters, to the most sublime considerations of spirituality and shared devotion to God. Some of the best known of such rules are the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Rule of the Secular Franciscans, the Brief Rule of Saint Romuald, the Rule of Taizé, and the Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.

The idea behind the rule is very simple — in a brief document, members of the community can find guidance for the principles and values which govern every aspect of their lives, physically as well as spiritually.

Even if you’re not a member of a monastic or consecrated community, a rule can still be an important part of your life. All Christians share in the “rule” of the promises we (or our godparents, speaking on our behalf), make when we are baptized. At its most basic, these agreements include rejecting the powers of evil and clinging to faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some churches have developed more detailed baptismal promises — a lovely example being the Baptismal Covenant found in the Book of Common Prayer.

But communal rules are not the only type of rule. Many people find inspiration and spiritual guidance by crafting, and adhering to, a personal rule of life.

This idea has actually become rather trendy in the business world. In their book First Things First, business gurus Stephen Covey, Roger Merrill and Rebecca Merrill popularized the idea of a “personal mission statement.”

Consider the big picture — what you care about, what makes the moments in your life meaningful. The key to this connection lives in the clarity of your vision around such questions as:

  • What’s most important?
  • What gives your life meaning?
  • What do you want to be and to do in your life?

Many people capture their answers to such questions in a written personal creed or mission statement. Such statements capture what you want to be and what you want to do in your life and the principles upon which being and doing are based. Clarity on these issues is critical because it affects everything else — the goals you set, the decisions you make, the paradigm as you have, the way you spend your time. (First Things First, page 79)

Corporations have been formulating mission statements for some time now — at least as long as I’ve been in the workforce — so it only makes sense that business minded “highly effective people” would want to formulate similar statements for their individual lives. Covey and  his associates have create numerous products around this idea of a personal mission statement — there’s even a page on Covey’s website that will walk you through the process of creating your own personal mission statement.

Well, what’s good for business is even better for spirituality. What is our mission — as contemplatives, as aspiring mystics, as followers of Jesus Christ and devotees of the God who is Love? How do we live out a faith-filled life given to prayer, meditation, and service? How do we establish a structured way to grow in our love of God, our love of neighbor, and even our appropriate love of self?

These are the kinds of questions that a Personal Rule of Life addresses. The idea behind a personal rule is that “putting it in writing” is an excellent way to establish our values, principles, objectives, and commitments. A self-help book came out a few years ago with a succinct title: Write it Down, Make it Happen. That’s the principle behind a personal rule of life.

Anything that is important and meaningful can be covered in our personal rule. We can document the agreements we make with God (and ourselves) regarding our prayer life, our church involvement, our efforts to care for ourselves through exercise, proper diet, and study; our commitments to others through charitable or social justice action, and even our intention to devote quality time to our family, friends, personal recreation, and Saturday afternoon naps.

What are the kinds of commitments you include in your personal rule? Here are a few examples.

  • I commit to at least 20 minutes each day in silent prayer, every morning and evening.
  • I commit to exercise three or more times each week.
  • I commit to a technology Sabbath — no computer or electronic devices on Sundays, except for true emergencies.
  • I commit to participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a month, and more frequently if I have something serious to confess.

Like I said, these are examples and the elements of your personal rule may be different.

A rule does not have to be a hundred pages long like the Rule of St. Benedict. In fact, I think a personal rule works best when it is no more than a page or two long. Long enough to detail all that we commit to for our personal and spiritual growth, but not so long that it’s a chore to read or difficult to remember. And a rule should be challenging enough that it “stretches” us to grow, but not so demanding that it feels like a burden. Finally, making and (keeping) a rule, even a personal one, works best when it is shared with another person: a spiritual director or companion, or a prayer partner. When someone else knows about the ways you choose to grow spiritually, it keeps you accountable (and it also gives you support, since you can ask the person to pray for you).

If you’ve never created a personal rule of life, follow this link to download a PDF from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist: Living Intentionally: A Workbook for Creating a Personal Rule of Life. It’s a workbook filled with thought-provoking questions that can help you to reflect on, and then compose, your own personal rule. Don’t expect to complete this in a day or two, though. The questions require some thought (and prayer). Take your time with developing your personal rule, that way it will more likely be a statement that will truly bless you and support you as you grow in your faith.

If Living Intentionally doesn’t resonate with you, here are two other books that can help you create your personal rule: At Home in the World: A Rule of Life for the Rest of Us by Margaret Guenther, and Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way by Stephen Macchia.

Good luck with your personal rule. If you have an interesting story to tell about writing (or living by) a personal rule of life, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear about how this kind of exercise has made a difference in your spiritual journey.


 

I offer a workshop on “Crafting a Personal Rule of Life.” To see about having me come to your church or organization, visit my Booking page.

About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Harmony Kiser

    Thank you so much for your thoughts and the Workbook information, Carl. I will share it! Love, Harmony

  • Edie Krakowiak

    This is so timely! I will share this resource with my EfM class. We are working on our personal Rule of Life as part of the curriculum. Your comments about Covey et al are helpful, too. When they first came to the fore with his books, I was really into mission statements, as was everyone around me. I soon burned out on them because it seemed “everyone was doing it” and became cynical, seeing them as “gimmicky.” While that can still happen, I think now I see them as a way to discover that Big Yes to God that is my desired response out of gratitude and love for God’s great kindness. Thank you.