By Rachel Twigg
Early in the pandemic someone quipped, “We’re all hermits now. I wonder what people who were living like this before it was cool have to teach us?”
We haven’t all had the same experience of this pandemic. Some people lost their jobs, or worked from home, but some people continued to head into the office. We haven’t all had the same experience, but we have all been forced to make changes to how we live and based on those experiences many people have begun to re-evaluate their lifestyles. Many churches have also begun to re-evaluate the way they do life together.
The main thing I have learned is that I want to be intentional about how I integrate my pandemic experience going forward, and I want to help other people do the same. The world has changed and I don’t want to coast into a new sort of normal on autopilot.
Here is where Benedictine wisdom can help us if we let it. I happen to be an oblate—a lay member of a Benedictine community. Benedictine communities have been guided for over 1500 years by a document called the Rule of Benedict. While I personally find this rule helpful, you don’t have to; you can make your own. You can create one for yourself or communally with your household or faith community.
But before we can get to the benefits of crafting a personal rule, I understand that many of us bump up against the word “rule” itself. It may be more helpful to substitute a word like “guide” to help remind us that the point isn’t to burden ourselves with a series of rules but rather to remind ourselves of who we are and what we value.
Having a rule can be compared to the Goldilocks method for growing the best tomatoes. Not too loose, not too tight.
Grow healthy tomatoes
I don’t remember the original source of this tomato illustration, but I keep coming back to it. If you want to grow tomatoes, you can just throw some seeds on the ground and ignore them. If you’re lucky, plants will grow and tomatoes will form, but you won’t get a great crop and your tomatoes may be misshapen from sitting on the ground. Some may rot. To avoid these problems, you can stake and stretch the vines as tightly as possible and while you will get some tomatoes, the tight staking will stunt the full potential of the plant.
What you need is something that is not too loose and not too tight, like a tomato cage. This will support the plant’s growth and help it to thrive.
Imagine you are a tomato plant. How do you feel right now? Are you flopping on the ground or stretched too tight? If so, a tomato cage-type rule may be just what you need. If things feel just right, then it could be helpful to take some time to articulate why that is to help avoid gradually drifting into a less healthy way of being.
Begin with delight
What makes you feel fully alive?
What are the people, places, and postures that remind you of who God created you to be?
Start with these things.
A rule is not a list of New Year’s resolutions, it’s a way of articulating how you want to live based on who God created you to be. My rule includes reminders to keep Sabbath time, read books just for fun, go outside and say no to objectively good things that other people want me to do that can overwhelm my schedule and keep me from these practices. As a church leader there are always more good things that need to be done than I can possibly do. My rule helps me know what to say yes and what to say no to.
A personal rule can be as unique as you are. It can be a few bullet points on a post-it or a couple of sentences in your journal. A corporate rule needs to build in enough flexibility to account for our individuality. I am part of a Benedictine community that follows his rule in a particular way and they invite me to do the same “in whatever way makes sense in your personal situation.” It’s one size fits one, not one size fits all.
Plan to do less
The first draft of your rule will likely be inspiring, a reflection of your most cherished hopes and dreams. It will also likely be unrealistic.
When the intentional community I founded first began to meet we drafted our own rule. It was beautiful. It was also about five pages long, extremely idealistic, and nearly impossible to live up to. It also proved to be inhospitable to newcomers whom we expected to be inspired to join us simply by reading our rule. Our community lasted longer than that document in part because we revised our shared expectations to better resemble the loose support of the tomato cage.
Take whatever you wrote and make it simpler, smaller. If you know that yoga brings you joy but you haven’t been to a class in years, commit to try a weekly class for a short period of time instead of buying a yearly membership with the expectation that you’ll attend on a daily basis. Nothing is stopping you from doing more, but it’s better to be successful with a smaller thing than to shoot for a higher goal and fail.
Have someone you trust hold you accountable
As a spiritual director I sometimes ask my directees if coming to see me reminds them of going to the dentist. I typically floss my teeth three days before my appointment and three days after. I get a lot of shy grins when they admit that there is something about knowing they are coming to see me that encourages them to recommit to prayer practices that have gone fallow in between visits. As you craft a rule of life, share it with someone you trust to encourage you to remember why you wrote it down in the first place. Guilt is an incredible waste of time, but accountability is invaluable.
Re-evaluate from time to time
Even Benedict’s rule gets an update from time to time as monastic communities adapt it to reflect their current reality. It’s worth revisiting your own rule to see if it still reflects the person you want to be.
As we gradually begin to emerge from this pandemic, some of us may decide that we want to be modern day hermits, but most of us will not. It’s my hope that whatever we decide we will take time to reflect and learn from these experiences so we can intentionally shape lives that allow us and those around us to truly experience “life and life to the full.” (John 10:10a). We were created for, and deserve, nothing less.
About the Author
Rachel Twigg is a spiritual director, retreat guide and a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada. You can learn more about her, including how to connect with her on social media, at her website www.revracheltwigg.com. When she’s not working she can often be found drinking coffee, walking her dog, or doing both at the same time. She will be facilitating a 4 week online series in October on the Awareness Examen designed to help with creating one’s own “rule” through Wood and Water.