An Incomplete Rule of Life
In establishing a basic rule of life for our family, we’ve had to confront the shadowy little corners of our time together. And while we haven’t solved anything, we have seen lots of fruit from adopting these simple practices. These are aspirations, not axioms. I sincerely hope they are beneficial to you.
First, a few depressing observations about ourselves and the communities we inhabit. We are ruled by fear. Our fear drives us to avoid suffering and mindlessly consume. We are ruled by shame. Our shame drives us to deceive ourselves and flee from being known. We are ruled by guilt. Our guilt drives us to numb ourselves with busyness and lash out at any perceived offense.
These three — guilt, shame, and fear — are all inward symptoms of stress in our lives. Signs that we’re forgetting who we are and why we are here. So our rule must be toward the inward life, but it must be inherently practical in order to be practiced. And it must confront head-on these three thieves.
The priest and poet John O’Donohue describes our experience of stress as a perverted relationship with time. Because God exists outside of time, it can be a poor medium for understanding him. But in our rule, we attempt to prioritize aspects of creational rhythms for the comprehension of our lives, mostly so we can have a more correct relationship with time and with the God who is outside it. That is, we understand time as a unit of dispensation. Whether or not you receive your daily bread as paltry or plenty has everything to do with your memory of yesterday and your expectation for tomorrow. If our relationship with time is sacred, then we begin to feel an overwhelming sense of enough, and more than enough.
I suppose our simple rule is mostly a way of looking for what is given.
It’s worth mentioning that two years ago, our family tuned out all forms of broadcast media. This includes all current, breaking news and the immediate reactions to them. No more notifications. We still consume a lot, but it takes the form of newspapers, podcasts, magazines, records, books and film. This small shift has done a great deal to reduce our fear and create minds ripe for change. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.
Years oriented around provision and story
The longest unit of life in our rule is one year. Along with our church, we’ve been trying to orient our liturgies and practices in accordance with the traditional Christian calendar. Where we live in Virginia, we experience all four wonderful seasons, which helps us make sense of the synchronization of lived theology with nature.
When the earth is sleeping — dark and cold — we are expectant in Advent. When we are becoming hopeless, it is suddenly Christmas. When the air explodes in fervent fertility and abundant life, we are in Easter. In our culture these are ordinary traditions, but we try to enact them in subtly radical ways. Properly understood, the church calendar becomes a platform for meaningful conversations with those around us who are, after all, subject to the same natural law. For modern people, this often requires some mild asceticism.
When my wife Anna and I speak about our lives, we speak in years. We tell stories about our ancestors, our children, our home, our parents. We recount hard seasons and watch for God’s hand at work. We remember his promises. With each passing year, we expect the dispensation of changed minds, peaceful spirits and healthy bodies. In this way, the kingdom is coming in us.
Rule 1. Submit to the church calendar.
Rule 2. Feast and fast in ways that start conversations.
Months oriented around community and marriage
Modern life is hectic and we realized how easy it is to forget the fundamental call to community and the sacrament of marriage. We believe there is no better metaphor through which to understand God’s plan for the world and Christ’s longing to be with his church. We also believe that in many cases love of neighbor is empowered by time with neighbor.
Many of our richest conversations about provision and faith have been with unmarried friends, but through the lens of marriage. Marital love is a primary way Jesus invites all people to understand his work in the world.
Our rule makes space for recognition of the many ways we’ve ignored our neighbors and failed in our marriage. Inevitably, we’ve taken for granted the people best positioned to form us. As the quiet moon waxes and wanes, we critically consider our own success in reflecting light each month. When the world gets in the way, casting its shadow across our faces, Anna and I re-situate ourselves and our family in Christ — through our shared sacrament and through his people.
Rule 3. Go deep in your marriage and/or with married friends.
Rule 4. Host neighbors and seek to bless them.
Weeks oriented around vocation and friendship
We see a natural alignment between authentic friendships and the work to which we are called. Each week, every member of our household is encouraged to foster and invest in those friendships. Far from being a burden, each week finds its form and substance in these broad times for practice and fellowship with other practitioners.
As an educator and painter, Anna seeks out conversations about pedagogy and aesthetics. She participates in book clubs and figure drawing sessions. As a designer and farmer, I seek out conversations about creativity and cultivation. I enjoy weekly food and drink with those of similar persuasion.
Returning once again to John O’Donohue, the Irishman describes modern people as masters in the art of acquaintance, but paupers when it comes to real friendships. St. Wendell the Berry quite often recounts the country people of his childhood sharing long, uninterrupted hours together. First of work, then of simple companionship. The two mingling into something very much like joy. We seek to work in and toward a recovery of this lost wealth.
Rule 5. Situate work between sabbaths.
Rule 6. Find nourishment and encouragement among faithful fellows.
Days oriented around balance and presence
As parents of young children, we are well acquainted with perpetual distraction. We conceive of our days in thirds: seven hours for vocation, seven hours for recreation and seven hours for rest. The other three hours are grace hours — critical transitions in our shared life. Room for shifting. These times are actually where our rule has been most edifying. The way we move from one third to another has a lot to do with how successful each portion of that day will be. As modern people, our rule pertains mostly to our media machines and our ability to be present.
When we are moving from rest into vocation, we activate our devices and allow the world in. We are inundated by the demands of the day and we support each other through this transition. For our family, this happens each morning, rising for time in the studio or at school or the office.
When we transition into recreation — which we define as all non-vocational activity — we put away our devices for a couple of hours and unwind ourselves from the demands of our work. This allows us to be fully present with one another. For us, this happens in late afternoon when we return from our labor. We care for our animals, go for walks, prepare and eat supper together.
When we transition from recreation into rest, we power down our screens entirely and relocate them to the most distant parts of our home. We prepare ourselves for stillness and silence. This happens in the evenings when we light candles, read books and make eye contact.
Rule 7: Give neither vocation, recreation, nor rest more than its portion.
Rule 8: Gain mastery over access and concern so you can be wholly present.
Sabbath days oriented around focus and light
In the Genesis account, each successive act of creation is increasingly nuanced — increasingly sophisticated. On the seventh day, God returns to what he has made and creates a final expression of himself and his creativity. He creates holy rest — or sabbath. In this present age, I believe this to be the practice we need most urgently. Apart from the prohibitions, the Hebrew commandments direct us toward just three proactive submissions: to worship only God, to honor our parents, and to keep the sabbath.
We spend our Saturday mornings attending to whatever has piled up during the week. The chores, the errands, the needful. These mornings are a buzz of activity. But at midday, we put our tools away and power down our machines. We sit together for a shared meal. We ask God for sabbath. We read and sleep and spend quiet time together. We go outside. We draw and talk. We eat simple, prepared foods. We avoid machines and screens. We avoid shopping. We try to avoid all the ways we are controlled, controlling and distracted.
Once you recover from the initial anxiety of this practice, the overwhelming experience is one of relief.
Anna and I go to bed early and lie in the dark and talk. An afternoon and evening without blue light yields a completely new brain chemistry. This is the best sleep of the week. And this time of year, we are up before the sun. We watch the sky over our farm turn pink. We breathe and wait. The sun emerges from behind the treetops like a bridegroom from his chamber. It rises at one end of the heavens and runs its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth. We go together to corporate worship to sing songs and recite creeds alongside friends and strangers. We take communion. We receive and pass the peace.
And then our sabbath is over, and we begin again. Much the same, and yet entirely different.
Rule 9: Avoid machines and money for twenty-four hours.
Rule 10: Attend corporate worship.