Chapter One of a Rule of Life


Anthony of Egypt – the first monastic – Egg tempera on wood, Mount Athos, 2001, LaFond Private Collection

Chapter One – Living Life by a Rule
Life can be so overwhelming.  Why in the world would we make it even more complex by adding a Rule of Life?  It is such a hassle.  All that writing and even before that, all that thinking! And who even likes the word “rule” anyways!  This is not Victorian England! We no longer need to sit down to a Downton Abbey dinner with a million rules of conduct and twenty knives, forks and spoons.  How is a fish knife even helpful and why does bouillon need its own shaped spoon?! Why not just use the soup spoon!?

It’s a new millennium and we need less rules! No bras.  No corsets. No constraints.  No RULES!!!! Live free or die! Hmm…

Maybe the problem is in the word “Rule.” It has a few connotations.  One is the rule of a king or the rule of law. It can be used in its ancient religious sense as a rule for a religious order (Ie: Benedict’s Rule of Life) or it can be a pattern or a model the way we use a ruler of 12 inches to hold things up to and see how long they are.  I see the Rule of Life – this tool about which this book is written, to be mostly about this latter use of the word “Rule.”

The Bible is a ruler of sorts – I can hold my life up to the Bible and see where it falls short; but there are so many laws in the Bible and though we say “Rule of Law” I cannot manage the 613 rules of Mitvot or the 1050 rules in the new testament.  And besides, some of them no longer apply in modern life, like eating shrimp for example.  I love shrimp! Fried. With reumoulade sauce.

So when I visited a monastery, I was intrigued by this technique for living that the monks employed.  They had this thing called a “Rule of Life” and though I winced at the word Rule, I wondered about the technology.  It is so simple:

Step one:  Think about your life.  How do I want to live? Where do I suffer because I make poor choices? Where do I thrive because I make good choices?  Even doing step one is a great life choice! Awareness!

Step two: Make a list of the areas of life in which might I might like a daily little pep talk.

Step three:  Write down my thoughts from step one, in a format from step two so that every day I give myself a little pep talk – a little reminder of how I want to live as I imagine my best self living.

And so I have a Rule of Life.  If Rules are not my thing, perhaps we change the name…to…”daily thoughts for life,” or … “letters of encouragement to myself,” or … “I keep making poor choices because I want to live my own way but I hate the real results of my poor choices so I wish I had a reminder of how I want to live my life on some key topics.”  But that last one seems long.

Monks and nuns are living a very specific life.  They have chosen to live in a monastery for many reasons (not all good ones I might add, in my experience many monks and nuns would do better with therapy than they do with monastery, but who am I to judge!? But the same could be said of many marriages.)  Most of us have not chosen monastic life, and yet we look over their walls and wonder about serenity, intensity and focus.

A “Rule of Life” is just a self-help tool which helps us to

1.    think about our life,
2.    write down our conscious, deliberate findings about how we want to live, and
3.    then read daily letters to ourselves in a 30 day cycle as gentle reminders of what we, ourselves have chosen as a way we want to live.

This technology will not work for everyone.  Some people want just to live free and do what they want.  Some people want the channeling of monastic life.  But for the rest of us non-bohemian and non-monk people, a Rule of Life is one way of gently reminding ourselves of how we want to live our best life.

So, for me, I have written down a few areas (about 30 or so) in which good choice-making is a help and poor choice-making can cause me and others suffering.  And I have written down what I want out of life. And I read one a day so that in a thirty day cycle I am reminded of my best-self’s choices and never get very far off track – well, never much farther than 30 days.

A Rule of Life is just a series of self-authored letters reminding me of my hopes, dreams and weaknesses so that I remember to live well.  Because sin, in my experience, is simply a word we use to describe what happens in life when we forget to live well.

Etymology Online:
rule (n.) Look up rule at
c. 1200, “principle or maxim governing conduct, formula to which conduct must be conformed” from Old French riule, Norman reule “rule, custom, (religious) order” (in Modern French partially re-Latinized as règle), from Vulgar Latin *regula, from Latin regula “straight stick, bar, ruler;” figuratively “a pattern, a model,” related to regere “to rule, straighten, guide” (see regal). Replaced Old English wealdan.

Meaning “regulation governing play of a game, etc.” is from 1690s. Phrase rule of thumb first attested 1690s. Rule of law “supremacy of impartial and well-defined laws to any individual’s power” is from 1883. Meaning “strip used for making straight lines or measuring” is recorded from mid-14c. Typography sense is attested from 1680s.

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