From the Cloister to the Kitchen: a Rule of Life for the rest of us: Why a Rule of Life?
Most of us, at one or more points in our life, look at some aspects of our life and wonder how we could possibly have found ourselves so content and focused or, conversely, so off track. And most of us, much of the time, fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum if we take the time to even ask such a question; and then go the added mile of spending time considering the answer.
As I look at the various parts of my life, the food I eat, the exercise I get, the way I handle money, the way I am in friendship or marriage, the things I do to nurture my inner life – I naturally find myself curious…”how am I doing in these areas and others?” Are they centered and healthy or do they need adjustment …and of adjustment …how much? Do I wait until a mid-life crisis or my deathbed to consider my life or can I find a way to establish how I hope to live and then find a way to be reminded of those hopes in a short enough time period that I can make adjustments and stay on course.
This book on wiring and living by a Rule of Life offers we average Christians (and by the way it works beautifully if you are an atheist! ) – it offers one 2,000-year-old way to establish a hope for your life and live out that hope day-by-day. And the beauty of it is that because YOU write your own hopes, you are m,ore likely to follow them. Monks and nuns might tut tut and say it is only for them, or they might say it is very difficult and should not be tried by average mortals. I disagree. I have been a monk and now I am an average mortal, and A Rule of Life, written by and for you, works as well in either setting, believe me!
This book is intended to offer a technology for your use. It establishes a hope for the spiritual and physical focus of one’s life and then keeps that hope alive and on track. Life is made up of thousands of large and small choices. Some we make with great thought, input from our sages, prayerful consideration and intentionality while others seem to make themselves. But choices never ever make themselves. We make them. We make 5,000 choices each day. Who and what guides them? Even not making a choice is a choice. The choices we make can be life-giving, increasing the abundance of life or, occasionally, our choices can be ego-driven, narcissistic causing us and those around us great harm.
For a few years I tested a vocation as a monk in an Episcopalian monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was while at that monastery that I came to experience a monastic “rule of life.” I had read about the Rule of a monastery in books. My first exposure to the monastic Rule was as a teenager traveling in Europe. While my friends went bar hopping, I found myself going church and cathedral hopping. I was a bit of a nerd. It was my first inkling that I might become a priest or monk one day. I loved the history behind the European cathedrals and I was fascinated by the huge monasteries which founded them and lived in them in the 12th – 15th centuries. These cathedrals were small cities unto themselves and if you visit one of the great English cathedrals today such as Salisbury, Wells, Lincoln, Westminster Abbey or Canterbury, one will find, as part of the architecture of the Cathedral, what is called a “Chapter House.” This is often an octagonal room just off the cathedral’s nave or lady-chapel into which the monks would file for the reading of the “Monastic Rule of Life.” Each order would have their own rule. The Benedictine Rule is the best-known Rule of life today.
In the Chapter Room, each monk had his own chair and usually they sat as they walked – in order of rank and seniority. As a round or octagonal room, the monks could all see each other – like sitting around a camp fire or gathering in a circle to hold hands, it was an intimate event in the daily life of the community, often taking place during Terce –a word which comes from the “third hour” after sunrise – the time of day when the service is sung or said in monasteries. Terce, a morning office (service) which began the active business of the day is rather short and is made up largely of psalms. Terce often ends the “Great Silence” of a monastery in which no speaking has occurred from the evening office of Compline (8:30pm) until the end of Terce (9:00 am). The first thing to be said after Terce – after the Great Silence, is the reading of the Rule of the community. It starts the day off with a reminder of the community’s hope for itself.
Just as a family may gather for breakfast and discuss the day – who does what chores?, who has what meetings?, who needs the car today?, who walks Fido?, who needs a day off?, etc. So, the monks would plan their day together in the “chapter room” beginning with the reading of a “chapter” from the Rule of life they wrote for themselves – a rule with a few dozen chapters. When they got to the end of their chapters, they simply turned back to the first page and began re-reading it beginning again with chapter one and this wen on month and after month and year after year, daily reminders of how they wanted to live. Did they meet the heights of perfection written in their Rule every day? No. Not nearly. But the REMINDER was valuable and it had an effect on that day’s choices. Furthermore, over time, it all sunk into their bones and they carried their hopes around with them.
And this is how the “Chapter” room of our great abbeys and cathedrals got its name. It was called a chapter room because it was where the daily “chapter” of the Rule of the community was read out loud by the senior monk or nun –called an abbot or abbess.
In the monastery in which I lived, there was a very simple, white-washed chapel in the basement of the monastery in which we gathered for the reading of the Rule. It was aesthetically uncomplicated with only one image and had stall seats side by side all the way around three walls. The open end of the “U” of stall-seats faced the fourth wall which held a simple candle and an icon of John, The Beloved Disciple laying his head on Jesus’ chest (right). There was a straw mat carpet in the center of the room on a brick floor and cushions under our seats for periods of extended meditation. It was a chapel which was generally off-limits to the 5,000 guests who came to the monastery each year to make retreats and so it was a very intimate space for the brothers to be “family” together.
We would rise at 5:00 or so, get some coffee and spend some time waking up and getting dressed in our habits (a special series of clothes worn by a monk – in our case, made up of a black cassock, black rope tied three times around the waist and dropping to the floor with a scapular which was basically a panel of black cloth which draped over the head and down one’s front and back. The scapular was originally designed to keep the cassock clean and it still does the job well.) By 5:30 I was bustling around the monastery chapel lighting candles and unlocking doors and by 5:50 brothers were arriving silently to take their place in the chapel for sung Morning Prayer. After Morning Prayer we went to our cells (the monastic term for our small bedrooms) for an hour of meditation and then, most mornings, we would gather for the Eucharist followed by a silent breakfast. At 8:50 a bell in the tower was rung which called the brothers to this subterranean chapel for a short prayer service (often called “Terce” in monasteries) and the reading of a chapter of the monastery’s Rule of Life” after which we would simply discuss the day as any family might a breakfast: who was in, who was out, who needed the car, who was working what jobs, etc. So, after a night of silence and worship and a morning of silence and worship, the “active” day was begun around 9:00 and was begun with the reading of the monastery’s “rule.” Each day the page would turn and a new “chapter” was read on a new subject – a new reminder of how some aspect of life together was hoped to be lived out.
It was in those years, during which I began most days with this reading of the Rule, that I became aware of how valuable a tool it was for the lives of the monks and wondered if the very same technology could be imported and used in the lives of individuals and families and groups outside a monastery.
Each day, the monastery’s Superior would open the SSJE Rule of Life and turn to the next page, to that day’s chapter. When we got to the 49th chapter of the rule (each chapter being one or two pages long) we would turn back to the first chapter and begin the whole book again, turning every day to a new “chapter” in the Rule. Each chapter was read loudly, slowly and clearly by the superior and contained the theology and practicalities of living life as a monk. There are chapters on vows, on worship, on various positions in the hierarchy of leadership, on silence, on food, on living together and even on growing old. The chapters about living together sometimes stung a bit since our hope for community life was not always lived up to. And yet that is exactly what the Rule is for. It does not demand that we be perfect. It simply reminds us what our hope is – a hope discerned from scripture and experience – and then holds out that hope the way a flashlight beam shines down an intended pathway. Some days we follow the path and some days we veer off the pathway. Each chapter had been carefully written after much prayer, study, reflection on life and conversation so that it included the collective wisdom of the members who wrote it. Each chapter reviewed the theology, the goals and the pitfalls of living that particular “chapter” or topic. The Rule was like an instruction manual for how to live life as a monk of this particular community. In the course of a year we would hear each chapter, in rotation about nine times. And each time we heard a chapter on a new subject it would remind us of how we had all agreed to live that particular aspect of life as a monk.
One particularly difficult day, as we all sat in our stalls about to listen to the reading of that day’s chapter, I was in quite a mood. I was exhausted and blamed one of my brothers for piling too much work onto my schedule the previous days. By blaming someone (who happened to be sitting across from me) I was able to remove any possibility of blame from myself. Indeed it had been a hard week for all of us. One brother was sick, another was on retreat at another monastery, another two were out leading a retreat in a parish across the country. The ranks were low -only later would I begin t realize why. There were too few of us left standing to get everything done and so we were all working hard as can happen in any office or any home on any day. I had seen the hard week coming and so I spent half of my Sabbath Day working on a sermon I needed to preach this week (we called a day off a “Sabbath day” – a tradition I still keep as a reminder that a day off is a command and not a part of my benefit package). I figured that by getting the sermon written on my day off when I had peace and quiet, I would get a jump on the week as well as dazzle my brothers with the power of my sermon – a neurosis borne out of insecurity rather than work-ethic.
As I sat there fuming about the busy week and the busy day ahead of me I heard the day’s chapter begin to be read….
Rest and Recreation
The hallowing of rest and the keeping of Sabbath is an essential element in our covenant with God. The one who can find no happiness except in ceaseless work is afraid to be still and know that the Lord alone is God. If we find ourselves filling leisure time with tasks, we can be sure that we have begun to imagine that our worth consists in what we accomplish. When we regularly cease from our labor and enjoy rest as a holy gift, we can grow in trust that our worth in God’s sight lies simply in our very being, clothed with Christ…. (SSJE Rule of Life)
This first paragraph of the chapter was a wake-up call. It was like those cartoons of a person shocked by a guy standing behind him with cymbals and a wicked glint in his eye as he crashes them together just inches from the unsuspecting person’s head sending them into a vibrating shock and bringing howls of laughter to all those who see the act transpire.
As I heard the words read ….keeping Sabbath…..covenant with God…afraid to be still …filling leisure time with tasks…our worth….enjoy rest as a Holy gift…I was immediately aware that, regarding my own behavior on my last day off I had left the path and wandered off into the woods. As I stared at my brother across the way, desperately trying to hold onto the blame I had cloaked him in, I was finding that something inside me was shifting. “It was not his fault that I was exhausted – it was my own fault!” On the subject of “Rest and Recreation” I had lost my way these last few weeks. I had wandered off my hope –our hope for a way of life. It was indeed not my brother’s fault that I was tired and cranky. I was the one who had squandered my day off. I was the one who worked in the late afternoon rather than taking a rest or a short nap. I was the one whose deep insecurities were like a slave-driver, moment by moment bringing an imaginary whip down on my own back in a hopeless effort to impress those around me – in a hopeless effort to gain, by hard work, the love of my brother – even my God. I did not hear much of the rest of chapter forty-five on Rest and Recreation that day. I was busy becoming aware of a small path I had taken off the track of my hope for my life and the monastery’s hope for my life as a member of their brotherhood.
As the day progressed, my own self-incrimination turned to God’s loving hand smoothing down the raised hair on the back of my neck. Like a wound of the psyche, God sweetly kissed it better through the kind words of my brothers and the guests in the monastery that day and my own willingness to be the frail but much-loved child of God I am. God forgives us (“gives before”) so quickly and easily. It is our forgiveness of ourselves that takes some time and effort. And three days later we had our next Sabbath Day. I rested deeply on that day by having a hot breakfast at a diner in Harvard Square and taking a long walk into Boston to wander the Public Gardens and take a nap on the grass. I had lunch with a brother in the kitchen and then read at a local coffee house –lesurely and for delight and not for study. It was a lovely day of rest. And the following week was – miraculously or perhaps not so miraculously- a gentle, reasonable week of monastic life – a week with the very same number of brothers missing but my own very different internal attitude to it. It was not the work that was hard. It was not having rested while doing the work which took its toll. I had made the mistake, but hearing the Rule chapter read, reminded me of a different way and as I took it, life went back “on track.”
In another eight or nine weeks I may have gone back to my old ways of not napping, not resting and working while I should be sleeping or playing or making too many pots in the pottery of the monastery tower. But because of the way we lived as brothers, I was sure to have chapter forty-five of the Rule of the Society of St. John The Evangelist on Rest and Recreation read to me again some morning. So if I wandered off the path of my life, I was sure to be reminded, sooner rather than later, that I had established a different hope for my life and that living that hope was a matter of many small choices to do so.
It occurred to me that it was valuable to be reminded regularly of what we had agreed to be and how we had agreed to live and to be reminded of the theology and wisdom of why we had made this choice to live in an eccentric way. And it further occurred to me that this very same “technology” could be used in a kitchen for a family or in a reading chair for an individual or in a library for a church vestry or in a board room for an organization. The Rule of Life and its various “chapters” simply remind the reader of how they had intended to live. The reminder of a chapter in a rule is not a boney finger pointing at your face shooting little sparky lightening bolts of guilt. The reminder is a sign like the red marks on trees of a hiking trail which frequently say “This is the path you are on. Was this the path you wanted to be on?” The paths are not “good” or “bad” as much as they are paths which simply lead to different places. The path of a three hour hike is fine – unless you had intended to be in the same forest but on the path which only took an hour. If you had intended to be on the “green trail” because it leads back to where you parked your car then, as lovely as the “red trail” is, it is not a helpful thing to find yourself at the end of it at dusk and on the opposite side of the mountain from your car! So the Rule of life is intended to be a gentle reminder which is read frequently – reminding one of the hope for aspects of their life monthly- rather than allowing so much time on the wrong trail that you need to make sweeping (and often impossible) New Year’s resolutions on one if not perhaps many issues of life.
Of course, we miss the mark from time to time. We intend to live drinking eight glasses of water a day and eating two fruits, five vegetables, lean protein and whole grains because we know that this is a good diet. We know this scientifically, experientially and anecdotally. We know that when we eat this way, we feel better physically and we may even make a mental note that our body feels better on this diet. But then we hit Thanksgiving and Christmas and out comes the candy and the fried foods and the comforting casseroles and the rich sauces and we find that though the food all tastes wonderful, we are lethargic, achy and find it hard to mentally focus. We remember that we had felt better way back when we were eating better. We remember those New Year’s resolutions made last January to eat more vegetables and grains. And we try to make changes which bring us back to that earlier vision of physical health we remember having had.
The art of leadership is to involve those one leads in the making of the rules. It they “own” the rules they will be more likely to follow the rules. So too with a Rule of life, it works well, in part because I wrote it for my life. I am not slavishly following some arbitrary set of guidelines established by someone else. I have taken to time to consider my life, acknowledge what is working well and what could be improved and then I have written a Rule which is a perfect fit for me. Since I wrote the Rule I am more likely to be willing to subject myself to it even when it reminds me that what I am doing – though perhaps fun – is not something which is in my best interests.
But the Rule of life means that if there are 30 chapters in your rule, you read a chapter you have written on food every thirty or so days. So rather than establishing a hope for my life in January and getting off track in April or September, I am reminded by the chapter, say, on food in my Rule of Life every 30th day as I turn the page of my Rule and there is my chapter entitled “food.” I am reminded of what my hope was for my life regarding my relationship with food. The self-corrective of living my best life was made monthly rather than annually, allowing less time to get so far off track.
It became clear to me that one of the many wonderful aspects of being a monk was this “Rule of Life” technology and so, when I left the monastery to re-enter life outside its walls, I made a mental note that I would write my own “Rule of Life” so as not to lose such a valuable tool for living. And soon, others were asking me about my Rule and asking me about the intentionality with which I was trying (and often failing) to live my life. As I discussed this technology for living, others asked if I could teach them how to write a Rule of their own. Then retreats on the subject were being requested. And soon, I began to think about writing this book – to draw this wonderful way of living out from behind the walls of monasteries and history books and into the kitchens and prayer corners and board rooms of regular, rough-and-tumble life.
By reading the chapters of my Rule – a rule I have written – I am reminded daily of my hope for my best life and it has stopped me from making many choices which seemed delicious at the time but which would have led me off the path I had set for my life in the context of my faith tradition. This technology is not about being a Christian since one of the earliest uses of a Rule was used by a Jewish community. A Jew or a Christian or an atheist could use this technology. It allows for the inclusion of one’s religious faith but does not depend on a certain faith having been chosen.
From time to time I have found I need to change my Rule. I have to adjust paragraphs and sometimes re-write whole chapters with the changes of life and circumstance. When I hit my mid-forties for example, my chapter on food had to be re-written to accommodate a very much changed physiology. My metabolism had slowed down with age and some changes need to be made so that I would not become over-weight. But in general, my Rule has been a map which I check daily to see if I am on the path I have chosen or if I have wandered off my path down an alley from which it would be best to turn back before anyone got lost or hurt or hurting others along its way.
I am writing this book because it is a book I need and want to read for my own conversion of life. I hope that others find it a help along this path of life, however that would be an added blessing. There is a great freedom in writing a book which is written without the need to have it published. I see in my life and the lives of some of those around me that it is easy to wander off track. Rarely do I wander off in search of something that looks horrible or dangerous. The things we choose – especially the things we choose which cause us and others harm – are very, very attractive. Were these dangerous choices not attractive, we would not reach out to grasp them.
As humans descended from our pre-historic ancestors, we are programmed to take what we see for ourselves when and as we see it. For millions of years, we humans have lived off the land as hunters and gatherers. We had to take what was presented to us by that branch or this bush – eating and grazing as we went. Kill a pig and the community gorged on it then and there – not having the luxury of refrigerators and freezers. There was no way of knowing what was down the path – whether we were faced tomorrow with feast or famine. The Amygdale in our brain is designed to give precedence not to our brain which is slow and rational but rather to our gut which is fast and responsive – and often wrong. So we come by fast, wrong-headed choices biologically. Only in the last few decades have we humans in the west had the blessing or the curse of having so many choices. Advertising offers an urban traveler 5,000 choices each day through marketing alone – that on top of the thousands of other more basic choices we must make about taking a step or making a facial muscle movement to communicate a feeling.
I had wanted to remain trim and healthy but the person I see in the mirror has gained 40 pounds of extra weight over the past 20 years – slowly, almost imperceptibly. Or we look at a bank account over-drawn with increasing credit card debt and wonder where that resolution went five years ago when I said I was going to live more simply and pay down my debt while paying up my savings account? Or we look at a marriage or a friendship which is malnourished and in emotional intensive care and wonder how a friendship which is so important to me has been crushed by being too busy to feed and nurture it. It is so easy to get off track in life because the branch of the path we took looked so much like the intended path or was more attractive – in the moment.
Like walking in the woods, we look back along the path and wonder – is this the right path? Why am I on the west side of this mountain when I know my car is waiting for me on the north side? Which turn in the woods was a left when it should have been a right? Was there even a wrong turn or did I simply wander – not aware of having made a wrong turn at all?
I often walk on the hill in a forest near my home in rural New Hampshire. I walk with my dog Kai who is familiar with each stump and each smell along the way. It is an old logging trail and so there are lots of trails off to the left and right which lead who-knows-where. If I am listening to an audio book –especially a mystery or thriller – I can get so engrossed in the plot that my steps just fall one after another without much consideration until I feel a tug on the leash. Kai has stopped and is looking back and forth from me to the other path. He has his head hung low and is looking at me out of the tops of his eyes with a furrowed brow. My dog is telling me that a nearly imperceptible fork just happened in the path and instead of staying on the main road – which curves to the right – I have walked straight ahead – but by doing so I have found myself on a side path which would take me to the wrong place at the foot of the small mountain. The result would be that I have a very long walk to get back to where I had intended to go. Furthermore, the longer I am on that unintended path, the further away from my intended destination I will inevitably be.
I think life can be like that. We live life, hopefully, with some vision of what we want it to be and how we want it to bless us and others and fulfill what we believe may be God’s hope for us. But if we are not frequently checking our position and then checking the map, we could end up in any number of unintended places doing any number of unintended things.
A “Rule of life” sounds like a daunting thing. Indeed, it sounds practically un-American! “Rules” – even the word itself can feel confining and imprisoning. It can so quickly conjure up images of frustrated ancient nuns with rulers ready to wrap your knuckles if you step out of line. Our society highly values open options and places a very low value on commitment. Why work on weight loss when I can just buy bigger clothes? Why work on a marriage when we all know I can easily trade this wife or husband in on a newer, fresher, thinner person? True, sometimes it is not that easy. Sometimes circumstances demand a change. But so often we simply end up in places in life rather than consciously working towards them.
Making choices – determining a way forward in life means grieving the loss of the choices not taken – the paths not chosen. Our society moves on to the next thing so fast that there is no time given to grieving the way not travelled. Some of those un-chosen paths are very attractive – very desirable. It is not that those un-chosen and un-trod paths are “bad” paths or “wrong” paths (though some most definitely will lead to unhappiness and pain for us or others). We are too quick to label things “good” and “bad.” We get that from an old theology which had a fetish for labeling things and which lived out of a suspicion that fun things must in some way be evil. Over the last 1300 years we have moved, or are moving, away from the notion that humans are basically evil and streaked with good; to an awareness that humans are basically good and streaked with evil. But as our theology heals and grows, we need not let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction so that everything is so “good” that everything is chosen. Some things which are good for others and which might be enjoyable, need to be left on the shelf. When we choose one thing – having done the hard work of discerning that such is the right and best thing to do – we must then acknowledge that the many other choices which could have been made will need to be let go of.
When walking in the woods, the hiker who is constantly choosing one path only to dart over through the woods to others will end up exhausted and lost – never having enjoyed the benefits of any one path in a hopeless attempt to try them all. The Franciscan tenet of “Do few things well.” has always been a koan which I keep close to my heart and my day-timer.
Making a choice and living it out well is hard work, is limiting, and is a sign of spiritual and emotional maturity. It is what adults do. It is not what adolescents do well, but it is what we do when we grow up. It is not something we can often expect of a teenager – still hungry to explore and try everything. But at some point we grow up out of adolescence and have to make adult choices. Few things grieve me more than seeing a middle-aged man who refuses to grow up by jumping from job to job or person to person with the narcissistic self-assurance that what they want in the moment is the most important thing. That was true when they were two years old or perhaps even 12, but that is no longer true in adulthood. It is pathetic to watch unfold.
When I was a child my grandmother would take me shopping. Even then I was a budding artist and so I perceived things visually and loved to touch them. It is not surprising to me that I would become a potter in my adulthood. I like three-dimensional things and find images mush less satisfying. I like to touch things – to feel their surfaces. And having been raised in this society and in this era, I am an avowed materialist. I like things. I like beautiful things. I like to touch them. And when I am feeling insecure or sad, I like the power-rush of buying and owning things. So when my grandmother and I went shopping I would constantly reach out to touch things on the shelves – many of which I would have purchased had I an unlimited source of funds. I would see an attractive thing, reach out and touch it, and look at granny with pleading eyes much the way my black lab looks back and forth between me and a roast beef.
My grandmother never scolded me for desiring the new, momentary object of my fleeting affection. She never scorned my God-given passion for life nor did she judge the tactile way I related to the world around me. She never called me greedy (though I was) nor did she lecture me about the evils of envy (though a sermon on the subject always does me good). She never psycologized the issue by telling me that these things I thought I wanted were stand-ins for what I really needed in life (love and affirmation, etc.). Nor did she recite some Gnostic sermon about the evil of materialism – about things turning to dust – about treasure found in heaven ….blah…blah…blah…. Rather, she would smile down at me with loving affirmation, rub a finger along my cheek and say “Yes my sweet – it’s lovely. Now leave it there and come along.”
So often in life I find that God does the same thing – almost exactly. I am moving along in life and I see something I find attractive. It may be just the thing for me, but often it is not. The grass is indeed often so much greener on the other side of the fence. I will often take the desire into prayer – into the conversation God and I are having about life and the living of it (God being very, very interested in the details of our lives – as any lover would be interested in his or her beloved’s life). I say “Look God! Sam has a loft in the city! …..I want a loft in the city…no ….really I do!” God then kisses my cheek and looks at me with loving understanding and says “Yes my sweet – it’s lovely. Now leave it there and come along.” We then spend some time looking at my dreamy farm and my wonderful Black Labrador and my many good friends and the pottery studio only yards from my front door and we remember- together- what it is I really want out of life, what I have carefully chosen, and we celebrate it together. The longing for “other” is so tempting and sometimes it is a good catalyst for needed change. But so often it is a temptation to our most basic human desire – to be God and to have everything when I want it and as I want it.
A “Rule of Life” is simply one of many tools which has been employed by individuals and groups for thousands of years and which channels our natural human, God-given passions much the way a garden hose nozzle will focus a big, wide, lumbering flow of water into a powerful jet-stream or the way a series of canals will move water from a delta into a powerful stream which turns a water wheel or feeds a village. A rule of life is not meant to deny as much as it is meant to focus naturally limited resources of time, energy, money, emotional investment and passion into a life lived abundantly rather than simply largely.
Limitations we place on ourselves can be cozy and even comforting. Perhaps you have driven over a high bridge or walked over a foot-bridge. The guard rails on the bridge are not your enemy. They are not there to deny you freedom. The guardrails are there to keep you on the road. Guardrails are not scolding as much as they are encouraging of moving forward – of staying on the path and of not flying off into the abyss. As pretty as that valley and river down there may be, if I drive off the road to see it more closely, my decision will harm me and not bring me the desired experience of communing with nature that the momentary impulse of attraction inspired. If fact, I get a sense of comfort knowing that there is a guard rail over there.
Once I drove over a bridge under construction when I lived in Haiti. The bridge was up but the lines had not been painted in the road nor were there guardrails up yet. As I drove onto the bridge, I found myself naturally slowing down and driving in the exact middle of the road – in an effort to get as far away from each open side of the bridge as was physically possible. I longed for the “confinement” (“con” – with, “finis” – an end) of the bridge’s guardrails and had I been driving at night or in the rain, I would have been glad to see the guardrail’s reflective lights. I am often tempted to think I want ultimate freedom – total access to anything I want; but I know that such would not be good for me and I think would not be good for most of us.
A Rule of Life helps me to define what it is I want from my life and what seems to be in line with what seems to be God’s hope or my life and then a Rule of Life helps to remind me what that hope was so that my wanderings do not take me too far off the path before looking up and around and saying “Oops! This is a nice place but not the place in which I had intended to be.”
The awareness that a part or parts of my life are “off track” is easier to bear and correct if I do not find myself too far down the wrong path when I look up, look around and ask myself (or am asked by close friends or advisors) “Is this where I really wanted to be?” “Is this truly the direction which is best for me?” We, as a society tend to do something like this around New Year’s celebrations. We make “new year’s resolutions.” We say things like “this year I am going to lose those extra pounds!” or “This year I am going to spend more time resting!” or “This year I am going to have ‘date night’ with my spouse!” We sit up and look around – like a groundhog checking on the status of the seasons by popping his head out of his hole. On December 29th we consider our life and on January 1st we make huge pronouncements of corrective behavior. We buy gym memberships planning to lose weight or we download time-management software planning to manage our time better or we go on a rampage of tossing out candy and chips or cigarettes in an effort to improve our health with vegetables whole grains or fresh air.
And if you are anything like me – it works – for a while. I become the newly converted enthusiast- nearly a terrorist – not only becoming avid in my own reform of life but making sweeping pronouncements to those around me as if I am some life-management prophet bent on evangelizing a fat or time-wasting world. Oh sure, I buy that gym membership and I buy my new gym clothes and my water bottle and I paste the weight-loss chart on the inside of my medicine cabinet and until February I am deeply committed. But in time I find that my new favorite show is on at 10:00 and so I start going to bed at 11:30 instead of 10:00 and I tend to be too tired to get up at 5:00 so I start getting up at 6:00 but by the time I drive near the gym I see that it is almost 7:00 so I swing into MacDonald’s to get a sausage and egg biscuit (I love them!) And then I consider how much needs to get done at the office and before you know it I am pulling into the office parking lot 15 minutes early and the gym bag sits in the back seat as a throbbing reminder of New Year’s Day. So many choices are made without realizing that they are being made.
The television show at 10:00 is not a bad thing. The breakfast biscuit is not evil (well, not very evil). Getting a jump on the day’s work by arriving early and impressing my co-workers with my dedication is not a bad thing. But as I slowly make that a new way of life without stopping to remind myself of my life-long desire to weigh 200 pounds instead of 240 pounds and as my metabolism crashes at 3:00 and my head sags down onto my desk from too little sleep and too few vegetables and too little exercise… I have to ask myself – is this really how I want to live? Is this my best me? Is this a life of amounts or a life of abundance?
I do not want to ask myself those questions annually. I want to ask those questions daily. But there are so many aspects of life that asking questions about finance and relationships and friendships and Sabbath rest and study and exercise and nutrition and sex and planning and payer and …well there are just too many aspects of my life which I hope to live intentionally. So what I find works best is to ask a question about one aspect of my life per day so that over the course of a week or a month I have covered various aspects of how life is going and can make small correctives rather than sweeping reforms.
My first real job was in the corporate office of a metropolitan YMCA. I supervised fund raising, communications and marketing. The marketing department in the corporate office ran a media blitz annually as a membership campaign to increase membership in the YMCA. It was a reality that the budget of a YMCA was based on funds raised and memberships purchased. Since the YMCA is a non-profit, the funds not used to maintain excellence in membership services was able to be siphoned off to provide valuable services to the community and especially to the most financially fragile of the community. So the money one gave through the YMCA annual campaign was going to very worthy community initiatives.
But that was not the only way the YMCA provided care for the financially poor. The organization also acted a bit as a fitness-Robin Hood. By that I mean, many valuable programs which assisted the poor and the marginalized were also funded by membership dues which were paid for but not used. Each year in January, the media campaign, through television and print ads, targeted people who had over-indulged over the previous few weeks. Thanksgiving through the New Year is a window of American overindulgence unlike any other.
Our already over-weight culture tends to indulge in food at thanksgiving. Since there are only a few weeks between thanksgiving and Christmas we (ok, perhaps I!) find it hard to pull back into sensible diets since we know that Christmas will bring its usual parade of much-loved foods in which we will indulge with enthusiasm. So for five weeks we drop our guard on calories. My “guard” on calories is a fat, old, semi-retired guy with a blunt sword and no ammunition for his gun. If my doctor tells me I need to lose weight – I just find a fat doctor! My food guard tends to sleep during the day and drink all night at cards in the local tavern of my psyche. But even the most vigilant people I know tend to over-indulge for the five weeks between mid-December and mid-January when our metabolism has already long-since kicked into low-drive for winter’s months.
The result is that when the YMCA and other fitness company’s ads hit the airwaves in January, we are sensitive to the tightness of our previously comfortable pants and are aware that we need to drop those new pounds and perhaps some of the old pounds which seem not to have been worked off from previous years of seasonal indulgence. The ads come one after another showing before and after photos of people with far more self-discipline that I consider myself to have. The “before” photos of overweight people always seems to show a frown, pastey skin tones, unsightly blotches of doughnut-induced acne and clothes which stretch over rolls of fat making buttons into potential projectiles which should really be registered as deadly weapons should the threads by which they are attached ever break from the strain to which they have been assigned. The “after” photos of the people who have lost 20 – 30 pounds are miraculously tanned and in clothes which drape fashionably in the latest styles on a body beaming with a cheerful smile in the midst of an unblemished face of perfect skin and an aura of contented self-satisfaction.
As a result of these advertisements, some of which play on our worst fears and most vulnerable self-image tender-spots, people flock to the YMCA and other gyms to purchase memberships in late January. While they are at it they will buy new gym shoes, IPods for music-listening and water bottles as weapons in preparation for the war they plan to wage on the 10 pounds of yellow, gelatinous fat which they now carry around on their waist and thighs like clinging monkeys.
In The first week they will be diligent, making a fetish out of their regular attendance at the gym and finding ways to bring their success and self-discipline up in conversations around the coffee pots at the office. ( I say “they” but I mean “we.”) In the second week we can feel the difference. We have been eating very sensibly and the regular exercise has begun to show signs of success. Paunches seem tighter and bodies less lethargic. And into February we storm like a knight on a steed storming the castle of fat. Having lost 10 of the 30 pounds we had planned to loose, we now fit back into our clothes and so loose the enthusiasm we once had.
Over time, the gym membership we purchased in January with profound determination becomes a tad less attractive. The five days a week at the gym become three and the hour combination of cardio and weights becomes 25 minutes of cardio and 10 minutes of weights. With our firm convictions a distant memory and having lost six pounds or eight pounds – enough that the buttons on pants are not quite so strained, we begin to skip gym visits. The 30 pounds I had wanted to lose to please myself and my doctor seem much less a problem and the eight pounds I have lost is enough to take the pressure off both my buttons and my conscience. My new water bottle gets lost under the car seat. My schedule takes on a new set of morning meetings in place of the gym visits but I keep allowing the monthly fees on my credit card from the gym as a way of keeping the door open to a return to the gym – a return I am just sure I will make very soon – after this busy season – after next month’s deadline – after, after, after.
Soon, I am barely using my membership in the gym or my new exercise equipment in the corner of the TV room. Soon my new-year’s resolution to exercise regularly and lose weight is paying a ransom to the gym and my conscience. Soon I have lost my way in the journey in which I had so much enthusiasm only three months ago. Soon, my YMCA membership fees become more of a donation than a fee for services rendered. The funds will be well used unless the membership is in a for-profit gym in which case we are paying for the gym-owner’s winter cruise to the Bahamas.
When we planned our income and expenses at the YMCA’s corporate office, we planned for the inevitability that a certain (rather large) percentage of well-meaning people would do what they had always done in the past. We planned on the over-indulgence of November, the dissatisfaction with weight gained in December, the effect of expensive ads playing on our physical insecurities in January, a membership purchase or renewal in February, a rise in gym use and staffing in March and a drop in gym use in April. So from May through December – half the year- we could plan on making significant profits based entirely on the anticipation that people find it hard to do what they know is good for them. Of course, a few have the kind of self-discipline to use the gym regularly either for health or vanity or both. And a few others will pay personal trainers to be their conscience. But most of us will drift far away from the path we had set. Most of us will have very fine intentions based both on convictions and data. Most of us will begin with tremendous enthusiasm only to find that without peer support we drift back to our old ways.
The best indicator of what a person will do is what they have done in the past. This truism is as valuable in managing employees and living within friendships as it is in considering our own lives. Areas of regular success in life will generally continue to flourish while areas of personal weakness will, like cracks in the foundation of a building, continue to represent weakness and vulnerability. Some of these vulnerabilities in our convictions will be in small areas such as having a second helping of pie when already fat. Others will be in bigger areas such as having a second love affair when already married. Either way, one has wandered off the path. Either way – in big things and small things- we humans have the tendency to wander from our own vision for our lives and in some cases never even create a vision for our lives.