The second conversation was actually seven (or so) years earlier. I was sitting at lunch with a dear friend who had just been diagnosed with cancer and told that he had (roughly) three months to live. I remember asking him what it felt like to hear those words, and what went on inside of him as a result. His answer amazed me. He said that he had always imagined that when he heard those words that he would immediately start making a list of all the things he wanted to do and the people he needed to see before his time was up. "But," he said, "that's not the way it was at all. As a matter of fact, what I found out was that I had been living the life I most wanted to live." He had lived a life of depth and quality with his family, with his friends, in his work, and most of all with his God. He had lived a life of majoring on the majors; of being about the things that he (and God) most wanted to be about. There were no regrets, there was no frenzy, no long list...just peace. What an incredibly powerful thing to realize! What an incredibly powerful thing to be able to say! And, needless to say, I was deeply impacted; both challenged and overwhelmed.
How do we go about living the life that we most deeply long to live? That life of depth and quality with our God that leads to a life of depth and quality with our families and our friends and our world? Apparently it doesn't just happen, say the saints and the poets, it takes some reflection, and intention, and desire. “We fool ourselves if we think that such a sacramental way of living is automatic,” wrote Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline. “This kind of living communion does not just fall on our heads. We must desire it and seek it out. We must order our lives in particular ways.” Call it christian practice, call it spiritual disciplines, or call it means of grace, but somehow we have to prayerfully consider how to move in the direction of the life we think God most wants to live in us. The church fathers called that somehow a Rule of Life. St. Benedict's rule would be the most famous example. It involves identifying what we most want our lives to be about--in St. Benedict's case prayer--and then figuring out, as best we can, how we will move in the direction of making this life a possibility...of creating space and time for this life to be able to happen. The happening of it is ultimately up to God, but making the space and the time is our part. It is where we must listen and pray and plan and order our lives in certain ways, so that at the end of our days we don't find ourselves wondering how we've somehow missed it. Therefore, St. Benedict wrote a rule to order his life and his community around the practice of prayer; for in his heart and soul he knew that everything else must revolve around that. That everything else would involve the things that were necessary to make prayer possible: in order to pray we must eat, and in order to eat we must work, and in order to work we must rest, all in order that we might pray...spiritual, physical, vocational, relational. It was the simple rhythm his community lived by.
And if we are serious about living the life that we most deeply long to live, it must be the same for us. It won't just fall on our heads either. We must begin to live our lives purposefully and intentionally. What is the old adage? "If you aim at nothing, you'll hit it every time." We must begin to live by a thoughtful and prayerful Rule as well (in actuality, we all live by a Rule whether we realize it or not). In order to create this Rule of Life--in the words of my good friend Robert, the Rule of Whatever Your Name May Be--we must listen and reflect and dream with God about the life we most deeply long to live (or the life He most deeply longs to live in us). And once we begin to get a vision for what that life really looks like, we must begin to reflect on the life we are currently living and ask, "What am I currently doing that is fruitfully moving me in the direct of the life I long to live in Christ? And what am I currently doing that is not moving me fruitfully in that direction?" In the words of Robert Benson: "Only by taking our life apart from time to time and examining it carefully, and then putting it back together thoughtfully and prayerfully, only then can we have some measure of confidence that we are living the life that we were meant to lead." After recognizing the fruitful and unfruitful parts of our current "practice," then we begin to ask God, and dream about, what things, or practices, or disciplines, or means of grace might actually help make space for the life He longs to live in me. And I begin to consider how to make those things a part of my daily routine? What will I do daily? What will I do weekly? What will I do monthly? And what will I do yearly? All in the name of making space for God to speak, and to move, and to act. And we also must ask questions like: What is the fruit that I seek from this Rule? And who will hold me accountable? And when will I reflect and re-evaluate? And thus, a Rule of Life (and hopefully much, much more) comes into being. Thanks be to God!!!
Here the deeper meaning of any rule in the spiritual life becomes visible. Instead of giving us methods to control and direct and determine our own life, a spiritual rule wants to offer an open and free space within and among us where God can touch us with God’s loving presence. It wants to make it possible for us not so much to find God as to be found by God, not so much to direct our life towards God, as to be directed by God, not so much to love God, as to be loved by God.This might sound quite passive. But the contrary is true. It requires active spiritual work to keep space for God. Why? Our ever-present fears keep trying to fill up every bit of free space with countless thoughts, words and actions that can give us the illusion that after all we are in control. Even though we have learned the hard way how little in control we really are, and even though we continue to suffer from the consequences of a life built on illusion, it remains very difficult to let God be the director and guide of our lives. ~ Henri J. M. Nouwen (from the Foreword to Rule for a New Brother)