Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Order & Rule of Life

*Note* - This post is an introduction to my particular method of keeping discipline in my devotional and study habits. I'm introducing it as a regular feature of this blog under a new sidebar heading, in which I can post updates to my performance in keeping my rule of life, as a form of passive accountability for myself. Keeping this blog, like my rule of life, has been a positive help for me to maintain disciplined habits, so I've long wanted to find a way to combine the two and include my rule of life in the structure of this blog. The explanation below might serve as an inspiration to some readers who'd like to craft their own rule of life, but its appeal may be limited to that.

Carthusian monks, by Vincenzo Carducci, c.1630
Since I was a teenager, the idea of being part of a monastic order appealed to me (in fact, my first series of articles for this blog was about the possible advantages of launching a contemporary neo-monastic movement). But God gave me different vocations--as a husband, father, and pastor--and so I haven't yet managed to find a way to insinuate myself into a monastic order.

However, in lieu of that, I've developed my own order, which has already reached the dizzying heights of a single enrolled member (myself). This is perhaps not a surprise, since it was created largely to give a disciplined structure to my own particular eccentricities, and until now it's been operating in the manner of a secret society. But today I bring it out of the shadows, not in order to open enrollment to all the other diffident introverts out there who are longing for carefully-structured forms of communal identity, but to encourage an ancient and too-often-ignored practice: the following of a rule of life. 

Benedict Presents the Monks with His Rule, by Il Sodoma, c.1505
A rule of life is simply a structured series of habits and resolutions that one puts into practice into one's daily life. In the Christian tradition, it is a tool that recognizes our human weakness--the many ways that we slouch toward vapid pursuits in the absence of an intentional spirit of discipline, put in place to give a firm hand on the reins of our passions. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, this interior struggle--the "arena" of the heart, where we battle against the passions that naturally draw us toward a self-centered existence rather than a God-centered existence--is seen as the first, and perhaps the most important, battlefield in the war of conquest that Christ is waging against the powers of evil. As such, a rule usually prescribes certain spiritual disciplines and devotional practices, in addition to other habits of discipline. The underlying idea is a very simple one--that to be a "disciple" of Christ, one ought to live according to "discipline." It's a good deal easier to follow a rule of life in a communal setting that provides built-in accountability (like a monastery), but it's an advisable course even for individual Christians, and especially if you can make use of a spiritual advisor to encourage you and oversee your progress.

In order to provide some motivation and inspiration in my order and rule of life, I organized it along the basis of a "Cursus Honorum" (an idea borrowed from the Roman Republic)--an ascending ladder of offices within the order, through which the ordinand may advance if he faithfully keeps the rule of life throughout a given year. The ordinand begins by taking the traditional three vows of a monastic vocation--obedience, chastity, and poverty. For a person like myself, though, who has obligations to my family, I can't keep these vows in quite the same way that a monk would. However, they do provide the broad outlines of how I try to live my life: (1) obedience to God and to the authority figures that he sets over me; (2) chastity, in keeping my heart and marriage free of immorality; and (3) poverty, in the sense of trying to pursue a course of simplicity and moderation in the many areas of personal consumption that I have to deal with in my day-to-day life (so, moderation in purchases, food, and using various forms of media). 

Each stage of the order's Cursus Honorum is given a name inspired by offices in the traditions of classical Christendom, developed so that the attaining of a new rank gives the ordinand a sense of identity, confidence, and encouragement. There are twelve stages in the Cursus Honorum, divided into three sections: Monk (of which the stages are Novice, Acolyte, Ostiary, and Lector), Knight (of which the stages are Squire, Cavalier, Paladin, and Master), and Noble (of which the stages are Tribune, Prefect, Praetor, and Consul). If an ordinand has climbed through all these stages, he ascends to the final rank, the Prester. For each of the twelve stages, the ordinand is assigned a theme virtue for the year and chooses a theme verse of Scripture to go along with it. (And additionally, if desired, an exemplar "hero of the faith" from Christian history can be chosen to represent each stage, whose example may serve as an inspiration. Because the voice of church history is particularly important to me, I have both an exemplar for each yearlong stage, and a rotating set of exemplar heroes for every 40-day stretch within a given stage. The 40-day cycle, not outlined here, is an optional overlay to the Cursus Honorum, which enables the intentional practice of focusing on a 40-day rotation of prayer concerns and spiritual disciplines).

Now, to some readers, this inventing of made-up offices with fanciful names might seem a little silly, a trifle puerile; and I suspect that I probably can't help them in that, since I've never suffered the tragic fate of facing life without an imagination. No, in all seriousness, I choose these names and ranks as a way to inspire myself, to make a challenge and a game of my deep desire to advance in virtue and to chasten my passions with careful habits of godly discipline.

I'm not the only one who enjoys complicated schemes of self-discipline.
So, one might ask, how does one advance through these ranks? Well, in lieu of an actual monastic community to provide oversight to my rule of life, I've had to go with a mode of accountability that just about everybody finds compelling: bookkeeping! My rule of life is expressed in a weekly checklist that I carry around with me. (I've experimented with apps that offer habit-checklist tracking, but I find that an old-fashioned paper checklist works better for me.) The checklist doesn't include the daily tasks of pastoral and family duties, which form the vast majority of my quotidian labors and are simply assumed as a prerequisite to most of these other tasks. Thus it's not meant to sum up everything that I do in a week, but simply to encourage me to be intentional in my pursuit of edifying free-time activities which tend toward my spiritual, intellectual, and physical well-being. Thus, it prescribes a certain set of devotional activities (organized around the classic daily devotional hours of the Christian tradition), as well as small chunks of daily reading, language practice, and writing that I want to keep up with, on top of boxes for recording my successes in keeping a program of diet and exercise. The checklist categories may change form occasionally, and various tasks may be weighted differently, depending on which goals require the most motivation, but the overall structure will remain the same. It's organized to allow me to keep score of my discipline in these activities, such that I could score up to 100 in a week if I manage to do everything on the checklist. 

The basic idea is that I keep these weekly checklists throughout each stage of the Cursus Honorum (with each stage lasting a year), and I'm permitted to gain a new rank if a majority of my checklists for the year have a score of 70 or higher. (It's a moderate system rather than a strict one, because my checklists aim for an idealistic high-bar: the inclusion of all possible good habits that I'd like to practice in a perfect week, such that I've never yet scored a full 100, and usually average in the 70s; besides, the monastic tradition has always recognized that it does no one any good to be too hard on oneself.) I'll be posting my score for each weekly checklist in the sidebar, just as a further incentive to keep myself going in the program. The hope is that this article, and the system it describes, might prove an inspiration for some other reader out there to craft a rule of life for themselves. Mine is probably unnecessarily complicated, but it works well for me, encouraging me toward more healthy and productive pursuits in my struggle for virtue and discipline.