“‘My Father, I desire to depart out of my mediocrity and enter into the way of sanctification: which goal should I start with?’
‘By the choice of a rule of life.’
. . . . (this will) guide all those who desire plenitude and the true life but are not bound within the cloister.”
The above is the synopsis of “Une Règle de Vie” (A Rule of Life), written by “un moine bénédictin” (a benedictine monk) in the late 1900s. This monk is presumably Dom Gerard, the founder of “Les Barroux” abbey in France, one of the few groups to approach Pope John Paul II in 1988 (Ecclessia Dei) to offer the Traditional Mass as their norm (two others: the Fraternity of Saint Vincent Ferrer [France] and the Fraternity of Saint Peter). The book was written in French to a married lay woman who, after being disabled by an accident, desired to live for God and advance in the spiritual life.
The tradition of following a “rule” of life is rooted in the Rule of Saint Benedict. Written by the Saint himself, the rule sets guidelines to follow for the Benedictine life. It is predicated on the idea that we need routine in order to have a rich prayer life and a life of virtue. Indeed, the whole notion of being a “religious” (as in being a part of a religious order) is founded on the notion of having a rule to follow. The virtue of religion then connects the naturally virtuous actions with the supernatural.
Dom Gerard sets out to give guiding principles for a lay individual to make a little rule of life for himself. Speaking from personal experience and study, I can say that a routine of prayer is imperative for anyone seeking holiness. In my opinion, without a structured life, it is impossible to persevere and advance in mental prayer–especially today with so many distractions, comforts, and gratifications. This rule should be adapted to your state of life, and not be too extremely different than what you are used to; while “absolute ascetism” (i.e. we must detach from all things in order that we may have Everything–God) is indeed a spiritual principle (Carmelite spirituality–a universal spirituality–emphasizes this, as our Lord makes it clear), so are the principles of “adaptive ascetism” (i.e. adapt to the individual circumstances) and “progressive ascetism” (i.e. growing by increments rather than all at once) (for more on these principles, see the book I Want to See God by blessed p. Marie-Eugene, O.C.D.).
Due to our fallen nature, we need guidelines to follow that clearly light the way to know and follow God’s will in our life (this actually brings peace!); it is humble recognition of your own tendency to have “good desires” but not turn them into long-standing habits. In today’s Church, many get “retreat highs” and say they want to “give everything to God”; well, here is a concrete way to do so: live a rule of life. For the rest of your life. It takes perseverance, as the feelings die down. But this is the way to best assure a life-long practice of the mental prayer and interior life with God. Everything without God is nothing and nothing with God is everything: giving oneself to God through a commitment to begin striving after a rule is a start to living in truth and for eternity.
If you are a lay individual and have not done so already, I encourage you to develop one for yourself and find someone you are accountable to for 5-7 basic daily resolutions. A few of the most essential: rising time, mental prayer, rosary, spiritual reading, daily Mass if possible, examination of conscience, study of the faith.
Summary of Une Règle de Vie by a benedictine monk
(Some translations may not be exact but the general idea should be made)
“Do not believe those who say they break the rules for the sake of love. Where the rule is broken, love dies. –Gustave Thibon”
“Two words magnificently summarize the monastic spirituality in the 12th century: magnitudo, the greatness of man made in the image of God, and rectitudo, the necessary effort of rectitude after (due to) the fall of original sin.”
“Men are always obliged to assure themselves against themselves. Good will does not suffice, for it will bend quickly when facing the possibility of imminent death, (yet) even more quickly (“good will” bends) when returning to the easy yet boring work which fills the life of a soldier but which are, however, indispensable. —Souvenirs du temps des morts by Captain André Bridoux”
Many will think “if only I had more time to do it all over again and resolve to live out the ‘good desires’ I had!”
“Without personal discipline, there would be no artist, no writer, no engineer; personal talent and holiness are guaranteed to fail. Without a rule, no masterpiece, not contemplative life, no mystical elevation. It would (now) be the time to get rid of slogans of easiness which strew the rotting soil of this end of the century, and to once again find the secret of the ancients in order to become not mishonest tricksters, but wise artisans of our own lives . . . ‘(to be) genius consists of sitting down at the determined hour at one’s work table.'”
One important distinction is between strict and loose rules. The former bind a man in a more profound obligation, and it is these that he (the author) intends to speak of. Seeing the demand of this now-disabled woman, “Moved . . . knowing how few souls dare to adventure along this path (diving into the depths of the interior life and committing to a rule), I decided to honor her demand. . . . First I posed a question to her: ‘Are you resolute to use all the means (necessary) to enter into the interior life, and do you know that it requires as much courage as it does to enter into religion (i.e. religious life)? If yes, then entrust this holy desire to the Virgin Mary.”
3 Negative Maxims:
- “One must be careful to never limit (“enfermer”) the spiritual life to the exercies which are proper to it. . . . It is necessary to include the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, Who is the light of lights. The golden rule of the spiritual life is not written; every path is unique: essentially, it is about corresponding to grace.”
- “Avoid the eclectic curiosity of a butterfly (le papillonnage éclectique), which would like to read everything, to hang on (se pencher sur) every author (i.e. like they are all gospel), to desire to know everything. There is great wisdom in considering what was the first grace which attracted us to the interior life, and to hold ourselves close to this: by which mysterious shadow was our soul touched? . . . Our interior unity consists less in a mass of successive pieces of knowledge, than by a constant fidelity to the initial grace . . . . The principal rule . . . (is focus) on the essential things.”
- “It is not necessary to expose the secret of your interior life to all people. What is good for you is perhaps not for another. In dogma, it is necessary to believe all, to accept all. On the spiritual plane, however, there is a great liberty: hold as good that which you find success with. A secret instinct with reveal to you that you are on the good way: ‘The spiritual man judges all and is not judged by anything.’ (2 Cor)”
1) Taste for God: This must come before all disciples, giving all the rest their sense. “Saint Benedict, before reading his Rule to the postulant, would ask him if he truly is looking for God.”
2) Reading: “Reading to inform oneself is quite normal; reading to nourish one’s soul is more rare . . . . to read in order to engrave in your spirit something of eternity . . . . to clarify and comfort us in our intimate convictions. ” Consider a notebook (“un livre de raison”, a book of reason) to write down our most important ideas.
3) Meditation: “The Latin word meditari meant, for the ancients, to repeat outloud, to chew, to stir (as in consider) the words of a text without ceasing, in order to nourish oneself and to integrate them (into) oneself (essentially, to be impressed upon by them). Some tell me: ‘My Father, I cannot meditate (as in one does not succeed when trying)’ But the goal of meditation is mental prayer. Some souls immediately enter into mental prayer. Saint Vincent de Paul comes to their defense: ‘once the wick it lit,’ he says, ‘would one still continue to spark the lighter?'”
4) Mental Prayer (l’oraison): “If Jesus is everything for you, absolutely everything, then the question of interior prayer, which is vital, will no longer pose itself as a duty but as a necessity . . . . here below, nothing good is done without discipline, without a rule, I would even say without sorrow . . . . (mental prayer,) for the sick people we are, keeps us in line (se règle), as the nutrition and the path (for our soul) . . . So it is necessary to arrange 20 minutes everyday in order to permit your soul to breath freely in God. Are there methods? Yes, and the more simple ones are the best. Recite slowly a prayer and stop yourself at certain moments . . . . Saint Teresa of Avila loved to look by faith at Christ present in her soul. She said, ‘Mental prayer is a friendly exchange where one converses frequently, one-on-one, with God who we know loves us.’ . . . Finally Bossuet: it is necessary to accustom oneself to nourish the soul with a simple and loving look in God and Jesus Christ our Lord; and, for this effect, it is necessary to gently separate it (the soul) from reasoning, from discourse and a multitude of affections, in order to hold in simplicity, respect and attention, and draw it (the soul) more and more to God, its unique good, its first principle and last end.”
5) Ejaculatory prayers: When your soul, for some reason, can no longer ray in the ruled and organized way which was habitual for you, it (the soul) should launch itself toward God in a free and affectionate movement, and these successive bursts will dispose you to this enviable summit which is the prayer of simplicity (l’oraison de simplicité) . . . . But prayer is not a concentration of the spirit. It is a loving look, a rest, an abandon of the soul above agitations. A second nature. ‘The monk,’ says John Cassian, ‘really begins to pray when he no longer perceives himself to be praying.’ It is the continual union to God that the saints make as their ambition, and which mark the entrance into the mystical life.”
6) The Rosary: “Daily recited the five decades of the rosary which compose, the week taken as a whole, the series of the mysteries of the rosary, is a considerable gain (“un appoint”) in the search of the interior life. And this, not so much in virtue of a greater quantity of prayer, than by the grace of the mysteries which accompany you throughout your days.”
7) Confession and communion: “Two sacramental acts accompany you all along your life: confession and communion . . . . (In confession:) if possible, be faithful in confessing yourself to the same priest. Be brief in your accusations and precise in the circumstances which surround them . . . . Do not search to establish a dialogue. (Confess) With the eyes of faith . . . . We recieve communion in the same act as His sacrificial oblation: see what demand this supposes in your daily conduct, in accepting trials that you encounter . . . .”
8) Liturgical prayer: “The most venerable of these monuments of Christian piety is the Latin and Gregorian Mass according to the ancient rite. Have under your eyes a translation which allows you to grasp all its richness . . . . consider the missal as the manual par excellence of the Christian . . . . The sacred texts and rites will teach you, additionally, the profound reverence that the soul should feel in the presence of divine things.”
9) The intercessors: Saints, Sacred Heart, Mary Mediatrix, the Angels. “Do not omit the daily prayer to your guardian angel”.
10) Spiritual Direction: “Two thousand years of experience remark that since God became man, it is by men that men are guided to God . . . This direction should be firm, prudent, and respectful toward the mystery of souls. Saint Teresa of Avila insists that the spiritual father have right judgement, experience, and that he be a man of doctrine. The usefulness of a spiritual father manifests itself is especially at the moment when the progressive, cut off from sensible piety, enters into the night of the senses . . . . The duty of the directee in two words: openness of soul and docility . . . . The dependence on the spiritual father has numerous advantages: it rids the soul of its scruples, pushes aside illusions, and mortifies self-will.” It also dispenses the soul of the analyses and returns to self which greatly darken the soul.
Saint John of the Cross notes three features of the entrance into the Illuminitive way of prayer: “-one does not find taste or consolation in divine things nor in human things; one keeps a lively desire to serve God and the fear of displeasing Him; one has difficulty in discursive meditation and has an attraction for the prayer of simplicity (of a simple look; “l’oraison de simple regard”).
11) Duty of one’s state (of life): The actions of one’s day consist of “the duty of one’s state and charity toward those you are closest with. This double demand is the context in which you place reading and mental prayer . . . . Your spouse and children should always find you available. Find refuge, therefore, in the present moment. Richness of the present moment: the past no longer exists, the future does not yet exist, but the present moment immediately links us to the eternal presence of God.”
12) Examination of conscience
“‘I promise Heaven and a high degree of glory in heaven, to whoever will do a good particular examenation of conscience everyday.’ Teach your children to do likewise ever even before reciting the act of contrition, at the time of family prayer . . . ‘The two great obstacles to the interior life are the unacknowledged defects and the faults with bad reparation'”.
13) The State of Marriage
“Do not be estonished if sometimes you sometimes freel a nostalgia for consacrated virginity: among the states of life, this is the most high state of life to which our Lord invites us to in the Gospel. For all women there is at the same time an attraction for maternity and a secret attraction for the state of virgins. This comes from the mysterious and profound character of woman. Without a dout the state of marriage belongs to the common way, but it should never appear as an easy which dispense of perfection. All is said in Casti connubii of Pius XI. the Church reminds the austere duty; God gives the grace. Here is what Louis Veuiloot says: ‘You will find that the Church is mixes much too many things: we bless it, us others… for She imposes a time of waiting, of reflection, a confessor, prayer: marriage is a holy state, it is necessary to enter with trebling, non as in a time of pleasure, but as in a way of duty, bitter sometimes, always laborious, sweet only like the rest of things in life, by sacrifice.”