There is a stereotype or perhaps just a misconception that people come to monasteries to escape the world. However, not only has that never been true but increasingly people are asking how they can replicate the experience of the monastery in their lives in the “world.” People are increasingly coming to monasteries not to join them, nor to escape the world in any way but to take some sense of the monastery with them as they return home to families, jobs, lives that are hectic and where it feels hard to carve out time and space for God.
Perhaps people don’t realize that when they come to the monastery and then want to replicate monastic life at home they are really saying that they want to live by a monastic “rule.” A monastic rule isn’t a book of regulations like the driver’s handbook or a bureaucratic manual for a government department. A rule, from the Latin regula, is a guidebook. It is a guide for people who want to live a life structured around their desire to know God at the depths of their being, a guidebook for a life centered on God.
While there were other monastic rules at the time of Benedict in the 6th century, his became known as a very practical, moderate rule. While some other monastic rules were very short and inspirational they tended to be short on practical details for actually living out such high ideals. Other rules were extremely detailed, covering at great length exactly how a monk was to live. Benedict’s genius was to balance a clear explanation of the values and ideals of a life centered on God with the insights and wisdom of practical experience. Benedict knew that we need to articulate the most important values in our life and at the same time we need to know how we are going to live out those values. This balance of ideals and pragmatism resulted in Benedict’s rule that monastics still live by today.
But people don’t have to live in a monastery to live according to a rule. Most of us have an implicit rule we live by. If family is a key value in our lives then we make sure that we structure our lives in such a way that there are regular family meals, vacations together, regular contact. If there are conflicts that interfere with our family activities we still make family a priority if at all possible rather than letting other activities take precedence. If education is a value then other things will be sacrificed to make sure that this value is put first. Savings may go toward tuition rather than vacations, television may happen only if there is a high enough GPA. These are examples of how a rule of life works: structures are put in place to enable a person to live out their values.
The key value of any monastic rule is the desire to grow closer to God, to be transformed in God’s image. Other key values simply flow out of this. As monastics we value prayer, service, humility, community as ways of expressing our desire to grow in relationship with God. Monastic life then creates structures to make it easier to live out those values. Daily times of prayer, living simply with few possessions, deferring to the needs of the group rather than our own wants are all ways we structure our life to achieve our goals.
No way of life is easy, whether it is celibate life in a monastery, single life, raising children. But we can all use help to become conscious of the deeper purpose of our life. It is easy to simply make choices and take actions without reflection, without looking at the deeper meaning. But if we understand that we can live according to a spiritual “rule” then perhaps life begins to look and feel different. If I can articulate the deepest values of my heart, what is truly most important to me, then I can begin to ask what will help me live out those values. If relationship with God is my deepest desire then how do I structure my life to make that happen? How do I begin with small changes that become habits that become the structures of a life lived for God? In other words how do I become a monastic in the world? Perhaps a monastic rule is something for many people beyond the walls of a physical monastery.