The new leaves look as small and fragile as a baby’s fingernail. I smile in wonder as I water the miniature umbrella tree that sits as a quiet reminder to me in my window sill. The bonsai sits soaking up the morning sun doing its slow work. Changes are subtle and take days to notice. It looks like nothing is happening for a long time; then suddenly what appeared dormant emerges.
I am the farthest thing from a gardener. Though I love plants, I can’t keep them alive. Yet, after years of admiring the bonsai garden at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit which I visit several times a year, I finally bought one of the minuscule trees last year. I took great care the first few weeks to make sure it was watered and fertilized. In short order, the leaves drained of their color and started collecting in heaps around the base of the tree.
I read more about the specific type of plant and realized I was over-saturating it. I purchased a humidity tray to keep subtle moisture always nearby. I started watering it only once a week. Yet, I feared it was too late as the branches remained bare for weeks. I kept pouring water into the ceramic, turquoise base every Monday. I didn’t think there was any hope for the weepy branches, but I kept trying.
And then one day as I was watering the apparently dead tree, I saw those tiny leaves beginning to emerge. Something had been happening beneath the dark, moist soil that I couldn’t see. Life had been pulsing inside the branches all along, quietly, imperceptibly.
I started working on a rule of life four years ago sitting under the high arches of the very same abbey church where my little bonsai started its life as a sapling. I sat at the monastery and dreamed of a well-ordered life like the ones the brothers who live there know—one that prioritizes prayer and community, faith and action. One that finally makes sense.
“A rule of life aims to create a framework for being and becoming, rather than checking something off a list. Practical and spiritual goals fit into this framework as prayer and Bible reading can get sidelined into another item on the to-do list.”
I first learned about living by a rule at the monastery but found that followers of Christ have been creating personal rules individually and in community for years. St. Benedict himself, who wrote the most famous rule which orders the life of monastics around the world, summarized the rule as “simply a handbook to make the very radical demands of the gospel a practical reality in daily life.”
I’ve struggled to complete or live by a rule in the years since because it feels rigid in my ever-changing life. I would get a draft together of spiritual practices I wanted to pursue and ways I wanted to fix my life around anchor points that didn’t shift when my circumstances did. A few months into the year, just like with resolutions or goals, I would abandon the attempt, only to try again later.
I keep coming back to the idea though, knowing it has served people well for hundreds of years. This year I read a new paraphrase of St. Benedict’s Rule and Crafting a Rule of Life by Stephen A. Macchia. I kept coming back to false starts and sputtering attempts.
Like all things in life, I want a completed system from day one. I want the perfect rule for my life handed down from God so I can start living it right now. That’s why I keep abandoning the concept when it doesn’t “work” for me right away. I haven’t had the diligence and discipline to keep pruning and cutting back what isn’t serving me, to keep watering the apparently dead branches of my own life.
A rule is often referred to as a trellis or guidepost. It isn’t a set of regulations, as its name would imply. It simply creates a structure around which we determine rhythms that allow for the most growth in our lives. Like my simple pot and humidity tray, my plan of watering once a week and fertilizing my plant once a month—a rule creates intentions that will bring growth if we are faithful to them.
A rule of life is not a quick fix. The brothers at the monastery tell me as much, that they have been practicing the same simple rule for decades. They keep practicing because they need it is much as they ever did. The growth is not linear and it is never finished as long as we are still breathing. We can’t give up watering when the plant appears dormant.
So I pull out my old attempts at a rule. I know there is life there if I will be faithful to keep watering the soil. I am starting again at the beginning without trying to know the end. The foundation comes before the cathedral. The bud before the fruit. I scribble the words at the base which I know I want to be the foundation of all things in my life:
‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.” – Mark 12.30-31, The Message
“Spiritual formation is the process of being formed in the image of Christ for the sake of others” – Robert Mullholland
In writing these words as the foundation of my rule, I realize another reason it hasn’t “worked” for me before. I’ve been looking for how a rule serves me. I want it to make my life fruitful for the sake of others in my life. It’s not about me. It’s about how my own growth flows into the lives of others. It’s about how my love of God becomes my love for my neighbor and works for their good.
I am sitting with only those words on a blank page for a time. Right now, it’s a bare trellis and some dirt. It’s a strong foundation to build upon, a place full of nutrients. The rest will emerge in its time.
If you’re feeling a bit untethered, a bit unfocused—Keep watering. Keep praying. Keep building. Something is happening beneath the dark, moist soil that we can’t see. Life is pulsing inside us, quietly, imperceptibly. For us and for the lives intertwined with our own, spring is coming.
There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears. – Philippians 1.6, The Message
Resources for creating a rule of life:
Sacred Ordinary Days has a comprehensive list of podcasts, articles, and books to go deeper if you are thinking about crafting a personal rule of life.
building on a strong foundation:
If you had to name the foundation on which you are building your life and faith, what would it be? Can you identify a verse or phrase that speaks to you, anchors you, or that you keep coming back to? What practices keep you tethered to the foundation you are building on when growth doesn’t seem apparent?