Epiphany is a blast of light in the middle of darkness – a star – a way to find home in the darkness. The way towards Easter. And the Rule of Life is also a map of sorts – or better – a GPS reminder – constantly calling us back to the maps we have drawn for our lives. Off course? No problem. You check the course regularly, so you are not very off course at al. Just a little. Cut back and you are on your path again. And so this is how a Rule of Life works. No Rule of Life and you could wander very, very much off course and be in the wilderness, circling, for a long time.
For the past 3.5 million years, humans have wandered the earth making lives. Our species has spent all but the last 160 years living in relative silence, hunting and gathering in small groups. So, if a series of books – say, volumes 1-4 were to be written about our human experience on earth, and the combined volumes were 3,500 pages, then the kind of life we live, full of faxes, blackberries, emails, internet news, cell phones, advertisements, living standards, day-timers, and 24hour weather reports – this over-stimulated life we lead would be discussed in a fragment of the final word of the final sentence of the final 875 page volume of the set.
What does it mean for us to be so over-stimulated and to be navigating life with 10,000 daily choices and 5,000 daily choice inputs (advertising) of which half are fear-based? What does a human do when there are so many choices to be made in a day? And what does a Christian do when those choices are to be held up against a particularly anti-American and anti-cultural set of spiritual, biblical and moral norms? How do we know what to do? How do we “stay on course?”
One way to stay on course is to decide on the course and then keep checking the map.
If you want to hike over a mountain, a good thing to do is to stay on the path which leads you back to your car. There are lots of other pathways – most are wonderful options – a few lead to dangerous places. One could choose one of these other pathways but they would not lead you to where you want to end up. People with enormous credit card balances did not decide they wanted to be notorious debtors. It happened over time with many small choices; the indulgence here, the lack of planning there, the self-delusion here and the shopping therapy there. Over many years with many choices, one has ended up way off the path they had chosen. They look around wondering how they got here and how not to let this kind of thing happen around food or sex or the myriad of other things about which we make choices.
The person who wakes up one day to the awareness that they are having an extra-marital affair or to the awareness that they are over-weight or that a cherished relationship is dead – these paths were taken not by following signs which read ‘affair – this way” or “obesity- that way.” Rather they simply took a series of small choices – of small pathways which led them to the wrong place in life.
In monasteries around the world for more than a thousand years, monks and nuns have developed technologies for living life and living life together. When you gather a group of very different people into one house for their lives, things need to be worked out. There have to be norms of living. 20 or 2,000 monks all taking unhelpful pathways in life at the same time and within the walls of the same monastery is a recipe for disaster. So communities from long before the time of Christ have written a Rule of Life as a guide for how they want to live together.
Each day the monks of a monastery file into the “Chapter Room” for a reading of the “chapter” of their community’s Rule of Life. The monks sit, the abbot takes the book of chapters (each usually just a few paragraphs) and turn the page to today’s chapter. Perhaps today’s chapter is on how we manage money or how we encourage friendship or how we take our rest or how we eat or how we live any number of aspects of life. The abbot reads the chapter rule out loud and the chapter (written by these very monks for their life together) reminds them of what their hope was for that aspect of life. Listening to a chapter is a gentle pre-emptive strike on the day’s choices. Hearing that chapter on “relationships” for example, would affect the choices made that day around relationships – things done and left undone,. The reading would affect perhaps choices made that week and month – many choices made about relationships. Take a different topic every day for, say 30 days, and you have 30 reminders of the hope for a well-lived life. Read those chapters every day and you have reminders on each subject 12 times a year. Each time a chapter is heard, each time a reminder of a hoped-for-life is read, we are less likely to take some of the pathways (delicious as they may seem at first glance) which lead us away from our hopes. This technology would make new-year’s resolutions extinct.