Crafting a Rule of Life 1: “From time to time”

A lot of people believe that crafting and following a Rule of Life is a wise way to approach Christian discipleship, inspired by the Desert Fathers and Mothers, St Benedict, St Augustine, the Franciscans, and others. Indeed, although there is nothing monastic about their rules of life, many evangelicals throughout history have committed their lives to disciplined living and a rule of living, from John Wesley to John Stott.

Rev. Kyle Norman recently published a piece on Ministry Matters, a Canadian Anglican webzine, all about the benefits that come from crafting and following a rule of life. A quick historical quibble: the recommendation to follow a rule of life on p. 555 of the 1962 Canadian BCP is not Cranmer’s. I haven’t tracked down its origin. It is not there in 1662 or the Canadian 1918 revision or the proposed English revision of 1928. It is, perhaps, a minor quibble of a historical matter, but I’m a historian, so these things irk me.

Anyway, here’s what we find on p. 555 of the BCP 1962:

Every Christian man or woman should from time to time frame for himself a RULE OF LIFE in accordance with the precepts of the Gospel and the faith and order of the Church; wherein he may consider the following:
The regularity of his attendance at public worship and especially at the holy Communion.
     The practice of private prayer, Bible-reading, and self-discipline.
Bringing the teaching and example of Christ into his everyday life.
The boldness of his spoken witness to his faith in Christ.
His personal service to the Church and the community.
The offering of money according to his means for the support of the work of the Church at home and overseas.

I’ve been thinking recently about what it would take to both craft and follow a Rule of Life. If you’ve put up with reading this blog long enough, you know this isn’t the first time I’ve tried something like this. The likeliness of my success is dependent, I believe, on the external support I have. So I’m going to do a little spiritual bromance to find someone to encourage me on this journey, don’t worry.

As part of this journey, I’ll write about this statement that comes at the end of the Supplementary Instruction of the Canadian Catechism. First, then:

From time to time

I think this phrase is highly significant and likely to be passed over. Now, when they wrote this, I don’t think the revisers of the Prayer Book had my situation in mind. “From time to time, frame a Rule of Life because you can’t stick to one.” I think, rather, they had the necessary flexibility that all these things should hold, in keeping with the historic Protestant approach to the spiritual disciplines.

Despite some unfortunate turns in more recent history, Protestants have historically practised the spiritual disciplines. Our Reformational forebears prayed, read Scripture, meditated on Scripture, fasted, some even confessed sins to one another, engaged in acts of mercy or social activism, ate and dressed with simplicity, and so forth. If they were unmarried, they practised celibacy. Some have lived in communities that hold everything in common.

The Posting of Luther’s 95 Theses by Julius Hübner, 1878

According to Greg Peters (in both The Story of Monasticism and The Monkhood of All Believers), the main criticism Martin Luther and John Calvin had with monastic practice was the perpetuity of the vows — besides, of course, the spiritual elitism that had arisen in late medieval monasticism. Everything else a monk did, Luther and Calvin were in favour of, and even promoted for the lives of ordinary Christians. But the only lifelong vow a Christian was allowed, according to Scripture, was marriage. Whether you agree with them or not, there is one main takeaway for Protestantism:

Asceticism is not antithetical to Christian living.

What this means for the BCP p. 555 is that if one crafts a rule of life, doing so is not contrary to historic Protestantism, certainly not counter to the magisterial Reformation, of the Lutherans and the Reformed, of which the Church of England is a part. It also means that if you do frame a rule of life, you need to do so with enough discernment that if some aspect of your life changes, your rule of life can change with it.

This means that, even if I had succeeded in maintaining the Rule of Life I drafted myself as a student in Edinburgh in 2014, it would have changed when I was a post-doc in Rome in 2015, and then again back at Edinburgh as a lecturer in 2016, but most drastically, it would have changed — probably would have to have been entirely rewritten — in 2017 when my first son was born. And that’s okay.

The Rule of Life has to be flexible because life on earth isn’t static. We are dynamic beings whose circumstances change. What needs to stay central in a Rule of Life is its focus on helping us love God and love others more and its workability — too rigid a Rule of Life will cause us to abandon it.

So it’s time to consider afresh what a Rule of Life means for me in 2020, father of two, unemployed, living with my in-laws under social distancing recommendations. It’ll change, maybe in a few months or sooner, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.

The Monkhood of All Believers by Greg Peters

Disclaimer: Greg Peters is an online acquaintance of mine with whom I share at least one friend IRL, and this book was partly payment for professional translation work undertaken for him.

This book is an investigation into, as its subtitle says, ‘the monastic foundation of Christian spirituality.’ Greg Peters looks at the broad history of monasticism, including its critique by Martin Luther, to ascertain what its essence is, and to relate that essence to the life of all believers. As may be guessed, Peters argues, essentially, that we are called to the true essence of monasticism.

Like his book The Story of Monasticism, then, The Monkhood of All Believers, may be considered part of evangelical ressourcement. Indeed, a good amount of ancient Christianity makes its way into the discussion, something that warms my heart, as do eastern Christians, from St Symeon the New Theologian to Paul Evodokimov, stopping off with Dostoevsky along the way.

The book is divided into three parts:

  1. What is a Monk?
  2. Asceticism: The Monastic Vocation
  3. The Monkhood of All Believers

The first chapter of Part 1 I found particularly invigorating. Here, Peters considered the definition of monachos as used by different ancient authors, as well as the earliest use of the term monasterion, and here we find that it is not what we meet at dictionary.com:

a man who has withdrawn from the world for religious reasons, especially as a member of an order of cenobites living according to a particular rule and under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

If you find the word monk in a book, dictionary.com is the place to go. But if you find the word monachos written on your heart, read Peters. So, what, in essence, is a monachos, a monk? Someone who is monotropes, someone with single, undivided attention to the things of God. As Mark Galli put it in relation to early American evangelicals: a monomaniac for God. This basic understanding of the monk is in Eusebius, Augustine of Hippo, John Cassian, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Basil of Caesarea, et al., whom Greg Peters elucidates, showing the different colouring each author brings to defining the monk.

This discussion accords with John Climacus — earlier today I found a note about Climacus I once wrote that is germane:

John Climacus is concerned not so much with the outward trappings of monasticism as with its vital content. To him the monk is a believer who has undertaken to enter prayerfully into unceasing communion with God, and this in the form of a commitment not only to turn from the self and world but to bring into being in the context of his own person as many of the virtues as possible.

In the second (medieval) chapter, Peters analyses authors who approached the question of the monkhood beyond the cloister and even offered up the idea of marriage as a form of monasticism. Here we get the image of the monastery of the heart (or the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, as the title of one text discussed runs), which leads us directly into the third (modern) chapter, ‘Interiorized Monasticism’, which begins with Elder Zossima and Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov, and then analyses Paul Evdokimov, Raimon Panikkar, and Martin Luther.

To be honest, Panikkar I do not find nearly as compelling as Evdokimov. And I think Luther’s arguments at times go too far — but I know that much Luther wrote was responding to particular abuses in his day.

To move a bit more quickly, I appreciated the idea of ‘natural asceticism’ in the chapter ‘Defining Asceticism,’ which Peters gets from Met. Kallistos ware. Natural asceticism means eating only when you are hungry, or fasting occasionally. Unnatural asceticism means eating only mouldy bread. Natural asceticism means dressing simply. Unnatural asceticism means wearing a chain around your waist that makes your flesh start to rot. That sort of distinction.

Indeed, despite the bad name asceticism has (even with the first edition of Foster, Celebration of Discipline), the disciplined life is basically the ascetic life. It is the regular, measured life. It is the sort of asceticism promoted by Clement of Alexandria and the Rule of St Benedict.

Peters also engages with Fagerberg, On Liturgical Asceticism, and I’ll have to finish Fagerberg’s book as a result. The title alone is alluring.

Ultimately, the arguments about asceticism and the priesthood of all believers and monasticism all coalesce with a certain engagement with Luther’s critiques with the arguments that we need to promote and engage in interiorized monasticism, in natural asceticism, since all Christians are monks, and that we still have room for institutionalised monks as a particular calling within the wider monastery that is all of the church.

Since this is largely a work of monastic theology, Peters doesn’t have a ‘Next Steps’ kind of chapter. But I would say: seek moderation in food and dress, as Clement of Alexandria encourages, and order your day around prayer as St Benedict encourages, and hopefully you will begin a true monk, with single-minded devotion to God.

A monomaniac.