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. Continue Reading
A clump of dried Georgia clay crunched under my shoe. I sighed as I turned to grab the broom and sweep the floor again. I looked out the living room window at the mound of orangy-brown earth that had been the source of the mess. My husband took down a hundred trees a few months ago and left a jagged scar running through the yard. It is preparation for building the extension that will house a bedroom and bathroom eventually.
We put the build that will give our kids their own rooms on hold until our income is more reliable though. So a muddy heap of earth is a reminder of living in this in-between space of what is and what is yet to come.
I long for that more expansive home but there are so many steps needed to get there and so much cost associated. It’s going to be a mess for a long time before it is beautiful.
“I don’t feel like you don’t need to add anything else to your daily practice,” my spiritual director said. I wanted to believe her, to take her words as permission to feel like it is enough, like I am enough.
In response to her question of how I see God moving in my life, I mentioned how I am seeking God. I talked about trying to read through the daily office lectionary (a two-year cycle of Scripture for daily reading from the Book of Common Prayer), practice centering prayer, and take breaks throughout my workday in which I stop to pray and send encouraging messages to friends for which I am praying.
She could tell I was asking the question without saying it out loud: “Is this enough? Should I be doing more?” I feel like I’ve been wandering around in the wilderness for so long and I want to finally say I have it all figured out.
Friends who know me well tease me about my orderly way of living. I love to make plans. My house must be clean and organized before I can rest. What I am really after isn’t an orderly house; it is a well-ordered life.
“You make lists just so you can check things off them,” a friend recently said to me. I laughed in response. It was the nervous kind of laughter that says, “yes, this is true; I wish it wasn’t.” We were discussing personality types (How I am an ISFJ and particularly how the J-judging part of my Myers-Briggs type leads me to desire a structure and control).
I slipped into a rule-based faith in my teen years because it fit well into the way I saw the world. I could make lists and check them off. God fit nicely into a box inside my compartmentalized life and all was well...until it wasn’t.
Over the years, the lists kept multiplying. I couldn’t keep up and I felt like I couldn’t earn the love of God anymore with all my list-keeping.
When I first discovered contemplative prayer, I felt like it was the answer to the tyranny of lists that ruled my life. It was a slower, quieter way of encountering God. I was anxious and burned out and never felt any closer to the Presence of the one I wanted to please.
For a few years, I learned about and dabbled in contemplative practices. But instead of finding freedom, I added them to my ever-growing to-do’s. Finally, all the striving and anxiety left my soul in shambles. I couldn’t do any of it anymore. I couldn’t do anything but groan and hope that God understood that I had no more words.
As I tiptoe forward into what I hope are more life-giving rhythms of faith practice and spiritual formation for me in this season, I realize I am living a life under construction. I want to be living in the house already, the one that is inhabited daily by the sweeping winds of the Holy Spirit breathing new life into me. Don’t we all want to feel like that every day? We want to feel like we’ve arrived instead of wandering around in the wastelands.
My life is like the dirt heap I daily force myself to stare at outside my window. I needed to tear down a lot of things that were in my way. I needed to be still for a good while and just sit in the muck until I was ready to move on. And then sit a little while longer.
And that is how we build. First, we have to tear down what is between us and God. Maybe it’s a raging bit of ego in our own way, our own anxieties and expectations. Maybe it’s lies we’ve let ourselves believe. Maybe it’s a relationship that is broken or something we need to let ourselves grieve. An addiction. A sin. But we can’t keep building on a faulty foundation and expect our houses to not come tumbling down.
“The wilderness, by design, disorients,” said Rachel Held Evans. “As any wilderness trekker past or present will tell you, the wilderness has a way of forcing the point, of bringing to the surface whatever fears, questions, and struggles hide within.”
We spend so much of our lives trying to tidy up our filth, to find our way to the Promised Land at last. We miss the vibrant life that can exist right now, not sometime in the future when we have it all figured out.
I yawn as I wrap a blanket around my shoulders and head to the window. The mound of earth is but a shadow under the faint early morning light. I smile in the darkness, remembering it is there. I am growing fond of the grimy reminder that life isn’t perfect (and neither am I).
That is where God finds us, in the middle of all the ways we realize how much we need grace for our messes. I close my eyes and do the last thing I want to but the very thing I need. I thank God for the disorder, for the wandering, for all that has been torn down and is being rebuilt. For today, that is enough.
You would think the concrete walls would feel cold on this winter day. Instead, the white stone exudes warmth and peace. Towering overhead, the arches reflect the colors of the stained glass. The warm hues of the filtered light add to the calming atmosphere of the Abbey church as I pause to run my hands along the cool stone underneath a wooden cross. This building always reminds me of the eternal, both in its carefully crafted features meant to direct attention to the God Eternal and in its unchanging strength. It has stood here for nearly 60 years, a testament to the lives of the brothers who enter each day to pray—lives that look much the same as those of the earliest Benedictine monks of the 11th century.
And I have stood under its sheltering pillars on one of the last days of the year for seven years now, sitting in the shadow of the same nativity scene each year. My annual retreat to the Monastery each December marks the passing of one year into the next.Though the scenery is my constant, adding to the feeling of ritual in my year-end reflections—the person kneeling at the altar today looks vastly different than the one who first entering through the heavy wooden doors seven years ago. Than the one who prayed here just a year ago.
Last year I came to the Abbey confident in where I was headed in 2016. God had given me the word "Practice" for 2016 and as my journey with contemplative practices deepened, I sought to craft a Rule of Life in My Year Without Resolutions. I had a busy travel schedule planned for the winter and spring, knew the places I wanted to publish in the coming months, and planned out a second half of the year with plenty of time for reflection and creation. I wanted to grow into new spiritual practices, deepen my writing practice, and out of the overflow of the rich experiences in South Asia, Israel, and connecting with my tribes at The Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing growth would flow.
As is usually the case, my roadmap of the year ahead took a significant detour, only six weeks into the carefully crafted year. My husband and I left South Asia with burning questions in our hearts, ones that would change the entire trajectory of not only the year ahead but our entire lives. We were launched into a world of transition as we followed step by step what God asked of us. As the path to an international move became clear, the margin in my life disappeared. I explored a lot of practices that moved me and sustained me in the year of upheaval but none of those practices grew into habit. I tried to use the fledgling Rule of Life I had established to guide me but I never found sustainable rhythms in the hectic schedule I was keeping. When the motion of life got to be too much (like it did in this recent season of Advent) I abandoned the life-giving practices I had explored and just felt like I was floating through my days, aimless.
I felt the call to contemplative prayer, to silence and stillness, to Holy Listening, to morning rituals to guide my day—but I didn't grow deep in any practice. In all the hustle and trying to force rest, I found none. I couldn't find the line between doing and striving, between a practice and a rhythm, between knowing Christ and abiding in Him.
As I reflected on all the changes (and the inability to change in the midst of them) in the Abbey, I already knew the word I would choose to guide the coming year: rhythms. It had actually come to me early in Advent as I reflected on these thoughts on the shallow growth in my 2016 practices. As I left the church and ventured to the greenhouse nearby where the monks lovingly nurture bonsai saplings into miniatures of deeply-rooted, well-established trees, I thought about the verse I have often reflected on as how I long for my life to look:
But blessed is the man who trusts me, God,
the woman who sticks with God.
They're like trees replanted in Eden, putting down roonts near rivers -
never a worry through the hottest of summers,
never dropping a leaf, serene and calm through droughts,
bearing fruit in every season.
-Jeremiah 17.8, The Message
Many of the fragile baby bonsai were attached to guides. A thin stick and some string don't look like much of a guide, but attached to a growing tree they provide the guidance needed to show the branches how to turn and help the limbs find their space to grow. I ran back to my journal as quickly as I could, drawing a trellis and vine as the framework for all that was churning in my heart and soul. The Rule of Life that had seemed so elusive last year, that never felt like it took shape—it all began to flow out on paper.
The word "Rule" has roots in both Latin and Greek as the word "trellis." I was first drawn to crafting a rule of life as I watched the structure of prayer in the monastery and felt the peace in my heart when I joined in praying the hours with the brothers, when I read Stephan Macchia's words describing it as "the well-ordered way." My hectic life cried out for order, my soul for a framework on which to grow. I quoted Henri Nouwen in my piece in which I first sought to craft a Rule:
A rule offers creative boundaries within which God's loving presence can be recognized and celebrated. It does not prescribe but invite, it does not force but guide, it does not threaten but warn, it does not instill fear but points to love. In this it is a call to freedom, freedom to love.
As the new year dawns, I am clinging to the words of Matthew 11.28-30:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.
My rule of life is taking shape. A pencil sketch gives way to color, to words that make up the trellis on which I want to hang my very being. It took a year of living with a half-formed idea to let it germinate into a promise from God, a hope for living freely and lightly, for "being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others" (Robert Mulholland). The way the trellis guides the vine gently, directs it's path towards the life-giving sun, I am seeking to establish unforced rhythms to guide me to the place where life is found.