The Personal Rule of Life

Contemplative awareness should be a part of walking to the mailbox or sweeping the kitchen floor. Everyday life of its nature should have ingredients that lead to contemplative awareness. Ordering the house in a relaxed spirit of joyful service, preparing a garden, introducing children to new bits of goodness, truth and beauty, watching a bird, can all include such awareness.

In Western culture today the ordinary is penetrated with false values and so we need to intervene decisively. Soap operas, so much TV, films, and music, play on our lowest appetites and emotions rather than nurture our intellects and challenge our highest aspirations. Noise plays in the background to keep our senses stimulated with superficial imagery. News blares at us day and night. It gives us just enough data to know about the horrors taking place round the world, and rarely covers the efforts small pockets of individuals or groups are making to make right and salve suffering. Cheap talk and sub-human language violate our true nature. St. Paul says set your minds on all things in life that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and gracious. Today this mandate takes enormous effort of mind, heart and will.

Sketch of an early monastic settlement

A rule of life guards from “The world, the flesh and the devil.” It insures our day of quality time and prevents dissipated and spoiled time. It is an effort to order at least our own world, just as a monastery orders its world into balanced and harmonious living. Contemplation should flow naturally from a rightly lived life, but how can I be sure my life is rightly lived?

What are the ingredients that keep us balanced, tranquil and human, not base nor giddy, not ornery, or uptight – and that free us from inordinately feeding our own base appetites and obsessively pursuing our own self-will? Here are some.

Good work – participating in creation, ordering the universe and making things beautiful, contributing to the common good.

Physical exercise – allowing the body to wake up and feel active and effective.

Fasting – abstaining from all that hinders love, “to renounce and remain empty of any sensory satisfaction that is not purely for the honour and glory of God.” (John of the Cross). The beginner in the contemplative way faces the task of co-operating with God in undergoing a metamorphosis of daily consciousness in which one is set free from the tendency to feed the egocentric self with a continual flow of sensory experiences to which one clings with a possessive heart.

Reading – nurturing the intellect and inspiring the will; entering the realm of faith and expanding its boundaries; heightening and sharpening sensitivity and a taste for the right things; striving to put meaning in all we do by connecting noble thoughts with daily life. Our best reading leads into prayer, sometimes Scripture or writings of the saints, or contemporary spiritual reflections.

Integrating activities – such as knitting, carpentry, creating through art or craft to unify, balance, simplify and co-ordinate existence.

Self-examination – asking how I am alienated, out of harmony with the universe, and asking for forgiveness: did I focus on myself or turn outwards towards helping others? Did I use my time to the best of my ability? Did I waste it on useless chatter? How can I improve the quality of my day? When I am annoyed can I easily make excuses and forgive?

Prayer – remaining in touch with the Vine and drawing on the source of true existence by clinging to the Vine and depending on its nourishment to bear fruit; sinking into the Infinite, being with Being and melting into this Presence; adoring, praising, interceding, thanking.

Celebration and play – exercising the non-utilitarian nature of our beings; rejoicing and being grateful simply for life and for redemption from absurdity and sin.

Discipline and Flexibility

What dominates my day? What are my responsibilities? How can I make those activities more gracious? How can I balance out my day? Perhaps it will mean getting up at five am to take a five-mile and five-minute walk, then read and meditate. Most of us need to get a head start on our day before the pressures of duty descend and while we still have control of our time. What exercise will work for me? Next comes the discipline of forming habits. We all know the only way to form a habit is to repeat acts over and over until they come naturally. If we miss for a good or bad reason we need to either make it up, or start over again tomorrow. When duty or charity interfere, there is no problem since our larger aim is to be God-give in service and love. Can I incorporate trials by using them as a way of countering my own wilfulness, holding and pondering what should not be passed on to another? What we should protect most is our prayer – our lifeline, if only for a few moments. Can I at least sum up my day before sleep as a gift of love and service?

To make an impact on our world, we must first rescue ourselves. One authentic witness to the truth, one self-given lover of the needy, will affect the entire cosmos. The effort required is no small thing, nothing less than heroism.

Friends of Carmel each should draw up a personal rule of life. By incorporating the spirit of Carmel we reach for the heights using the best means possible – the riches of the Carmelite tradition as a way of living the Gospel radically.

Being faithful to your own vocation is primary. And then selecting from the following what best suits you.

Each day should include:

  • meditative leisure (writing, music, art, poetry, walking, or other reflective reading)
  • spiritual reading
  • contemplative prayer
  • interior silence and solitude, with a period of physical solitude, however brief, to be lengthened as time and circumstances permit
  • whenever possible, Lauds at dawn and Vespers at dusk (when the veil between earth and heaven is thinnest) or Office of Readings, Compline
  • examination of conscience; self-knowledge probe; occasional confession
  • physical exercise, preferably outside

One’s over-all lifestyle should include:

  • an effort to live life to the hilt: deliberately, creatively, passionately, and as naturally as possible
  • attend regular quarterly gatherings
  • ongoing formation from the Carmelite tradition and saints writings, especially St. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Therese of Lisieux, Elizabeth of the Trinity
  • Eucharist several times a week if possible; break open the Word daily
  • simplification of lifestyle
  • a spirit of asceticism and fasting with increased efforts at appropriate times (Lent, Advent, Fridays, before major decisions, etc.)
  • a spirit of celebration, especially on the Sabbath and special feast days
  • a regular soul friend conversation for encouragement, to keep you honest and accountable
  • yearly retreat, if possible at Holy Hill
  • thinking globally and acting locally; having an Outreach and taking responsibility for society, at least in some small ways
  • consult and/or contribute to regular website blogs

“Unceasing prayer is the most important aspect of the Rule.” St. Teresa, WP, 4,2

Rule of the Carmelite Community of Apostolic Hermits

A monastic Rule or a Rule in religious life is a time-tested code that many (perhaps over centuries) have followed to pursue their vocation and give themselves to God completely. The Rule of Life recommended for Friends of Carmel is based on The Rule for Carmelite Community of Apostolic Hermits. At some point you might want to consult it for your own inspiration. See what it has to say about transformation in Christ (marked I, 1) or the desert experience (II, 3) or the Sabbath (VI, 6).

You might also be interested in the original Rule of St. Albert that all Carmelites follow. This was composed for the original group of laymen who had gathered on Mt. Carmel to live together as hermits.