>Follow no rules

>Giustiniani, one of the reformers of the Camaldolese, had a very un-Benedictine approach to the prayer life of the solitary. His basic rule was no-rule. He recommends nothing, he has no formulas. Unlike most writers on spiritual life, and especially on monastic life, and especially writers from that time, there is a disconcerting lack of rules for the solitary.

This is as it should be of course.

Here’s some reasons why we should avoid rules for spiritual life:

1) It can dismiss or block individuality.

The incarnation created an individual. The only truly individual person. In this we should strive towards developing our individuality in healthy ways. C. S. Lewis said about saints that they were truly individual.

So if we set specific times and hours for everything (how, when, and where to recite the Offices; rules for fasting and vigils; regulations for lectio, etc) then what I am doing is mass-producing some sort of spiritual athlete.

When I was growing up I remember the elders around me wailing and complaining about the Soviet Union’s Olympic “factories” with their hyper-steroided athletes, their mechanical training without any room for individuality. Indeed, part fo the Soviet experiment was indeed to reduce the individualism of each citizen for the benefit of the collective.

Of course, capitalism produces its own manufacturing of individuals. Where I work I am considered a “resource”, and I work hard to be elevated to the status of “valuable asset”. No one is an individual in any system where the functioning of the system is more important than those who fuel, propel, maintain and validate it.

2. Unrealistic goals and guilt

C.S. Lewis has an interesting thought on the issue of standards. On one of his essays he talks about the fact that progressives seem to believe that the “old standards” are stagnant or stale. But he counters by asking if the square of the hypotenuse being the sum of the square of the sides is stagnant? His point is: if you do have objective and legitimate and true standards, then it gives you a goal in life, a way to try to improve, to approximate that goal.

In this there is a certain type of uniformity. A Christian should be recognizable as a follower of Christ, as opposed to say, a Buddhist who should be recognized as a follower of Buddha. Even if I know nothing about the Son of God, I should see that a Christian is different (somehow) and that they are similar (again, somehow) to other Christians.

The absolute standard which every Christian should be working towards is Christ, of course. And any form of discipline in your life should be aimed at bringing you closer to that goal. This is an objective, fixed, external goal. This is the same thing that Christ asked of the apostles and that he asked the apostles to teach others – follow me, follow my commands. Immitate me as I immitate Christ, said St. Paul.

Having said this it is important to realize that some people are going to be more Christ-like than others. Even while Jesus was around some of the apostles were able to be more Christ-like than others. Peter, James and John for example. John was the disciple whom Christ loved – this does not mean that Christ had preferential love, it simply means John was a better imitator of Christ. Just as some are more naturally endowed athletes or scientists. Not everyone will be able to equally achieve levels of Christ-likeness.

This should be clear, and I am very very glad of this because it means two important things: one, it tells me that I am treasured as I am; two, God’s love takes up the slack between who I am and the perfection of Christ – he is the prodigal Father who runs to meet me.

But when I formalize this quest for Christ-likeness into a strict set of rules for everyone I will be both neutralizing the awesome hopefulness of God’s prodigality, as well as undermining and eventually destroying my self-worth in God’s eyes through guilt.

3. Rules are a crutch

There is a way whereby contaminate the spiritual life. Rules have an insiduous way of replacing trust, belief, and faith – you know the things that make personal relationships so doggedly difficult and frustrating and tiresome.

With strict rules all you need to do, apparently, is to show up, sit in the cabboose and let the train take you.

An extreme example. A couple who chooses to have no children. They get the benefits of the tax breaks, they might even pool their resources for a nicer backyard or a bigger cars. But in every other way they live apart: they eat at different times and different foods. They go on vacations separately. They have no mutual friends. This is a marriage on paper-only. Some may envy the fact that they never fight or even bicker. Their lives are peaceful and tranquil (within the limits of life).

On the other extreme we can often mistake busyness for belief. Take a couple with many children, all of whom are in some sort of organized sport. They lead a disciplined life – with proper times for everything (otherwise they will be late for this or that practice). While Mum rushes one or more children to one sport, Dad rushes others to music practice. When they go on vacation they get a tour package to places like Disney, and they follow the routines. They are constantly busy, there are many chores. They actually have bad days and fight.

But this too is just a paper marriage. It is mildly better than the other one, because to produce children, at one point, the couple has had to stop and love each other, at least for about 10 minutes including foreplay.

There is so much busyness that the couple has no time to be a couple – they are “children facilitators.”

You pile on the rules and you get busy, which apparently is better than being idle. Giustiniani’s term for the solitary life is “vacare” – from which we get words like vacant and vacation. It is a life of leisure and not-doing.

Because he is no dummy, he is acutely aware that this could be seen as a life of slacking off. So most of his work is apologetic and polemic – trying to show how the “vacant life” is, in fact, more taxing and demanding than the externally regulated life. He has at one point a list of to-dos which goes on for about three pages. All of them are things that can only really be accomplished in solitude and comfort (well relative comfort – at least with the basic needs for food and shelter taken care of).

Are there any goals?

Of course, having no rules is not the same as having no structure and having no goals. The true slacker is one without goals. Solitaries are very goal oriented. They are just not too attached to one way of doing things. If there is attachment it is rather a single-minded focus on the Holy Spirit – who is very difficult to track and keep track of. The solitary then is a Spirit tracker, a Spirit-stalker.

To do this the solitary must employ everything in their lives. There is absolutely no city of refuge – as Jesus said even th ebirds get a nest, but the Son of Man gets no place to rest. This is, of course, an ontological statement – it is an approach to life which demonstrates an existential poverty. Kierkegaard wrote in Fear and Trembling: “To be able to fall down in such a way that the same second it looks as if one were standing and walking, to transform the leap of life into a walk, absolutely to express the sublime in the pedestrian–that only the knight of faith can do – and this is the one and only prodigy.”

Finally, the most intersting goal is to spend time engaging as best I can Jesus. To engage jesus is to simultaneously try to discern His Heart and then discern His purpose for me. Once I know who Jesus is – not was – then I can begin my spiritual life. Until I meet Jesus I may be a good person, but I have no strategic direction to my efforts, or I am simply sitting in the caboose car enjoying the ride. Once I meet him, everything else will change, and will have to change. Then I begin a conversation with Jesus about what he wants from me.

Some complain that they do not know because Jesus hasn’t told them. But God has already spoken multiple times – just go read it!

Here’s where I run the risk of falling into rule-making errors. Everyone prays the Lord’s Prayer. But the Lord’s Prayer is really the Disciple’s Model for Prayerfulness (but that is a cumbersome title). It is a challenge to not only petition God for these things (which one assumes are a sort of sphere of our lives where Jesus believes we should be asking for supernatural intervention – well-being (bread) and health (temptation and evil) as well as social concerns (kingdom come).

But to pray it is to accept the responsibilities of discipleship: to cooperate with God in making it happen. Your Kingdom come – now go open the door so it can come in! The Prayer is a pattern for our lives, and it sets another set of standards for us to mimic.


For me this is a positive term. Animals mimic other animals or their terrain for stealth – thus mimicking provides safety and longevity. It also is the first, and perhaps primary, form of learning. Going back to the child mimicking their parents, and then formalized in the master-apprentice relationship. Spiritually we are asked to be imitators of Christ (1 Cor. 11:1) and to be imitators of Paul, and by extension the other apostles (1 Cor. 4:16). This is not boasting perfection, but rather the more simple appeal to begin to do as the teacher does, and not get caught in over-intellectualizing the work to be done. TO imitate Jesus is not to imitate his miraculous works, obviously no one is walking on water these days, but rather to imitate his attention, his intention and the way he interacts with Creation (people and things). Does he flop down on a sofa, for eg? Does he pray before he eats? What does he say? Does he make eye contact when he talks? Does he tense up when he talks with leaders and Pharisees?

But mimicking can quickly become superficial. After all, parrots can do it. I can parrot prayers all day long, and I can even ape the exact movements of the Eucharist – but I am still only a parrot or a primate.

About spaceloom

An urban monk, and an experienced spiritual director with a Masters in Psychology. Married with two children. Want to know me better? Read my thoughts.
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