Rules: Made to be broken or made for the broken?

"Please keep to the path"

Rules: Made to be broken or made for the broken? A meditation on Ps. 119:164.

There's a guilty pleasure in breaking rules – especially when you get away with it! The old saying “Rules were made to be broken” can be a rallying cry for the bending or smashing of rules that govern our behavior. True, rules are put in place for very good reasons. Safety and order come to mind. But they can also become inconvenient and if the opportunity to break them arises, well....

Bending or breaking a rule can be even more delicious when there's someone to share it with. A co-conspirator adds the ability to recall and relive the experience. The range of rules, the seriousness of them and consequences vary greatly, but the “absolute” quality of a rule is often questioned when it applies to us!

In the monastic tradition the word “Rule” adds to the dimension of structure and governance of the community by the ordering of the prayer cycle. The Psalmist says “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous law...”(Ps. 119: 164) From that verse St. Benedict (480 AD – 543? AD) devised a Rule of prayer and psalm recitation to include seven times during the day and night. For centuries that rule stood in monastic communities around the world. In contemporary times, the number has been reduced, yet the intention the Rule and the priority of prayer still stands.

It's unrealistic for most of us to emulate the monks and nuns too closely in their prayer rule, but having some type of rule (sometimes called a rule of life) can be helpful and perhaps even life saving. As a priest I maintained a casual rule of life for years that included Morning and Evening Prayer. I can't say I was flawless in my observance or that my concentration was without distraction, but I tried my best and it was comfortable, predictable and safe. I had no idea how important it was to become.

Almost twenty years ago, within a relatively short span of two years my world came crashing down. A relationship I was in for years ended suddenly and painfully, finances were upended, housing lost. Then a new relationship ended in death and issues of addiction were finally faced. The pain was physical, emotional, spiritual and excruciating. Uncertainty and insecurity were constant. Still, I had to function in my work as though “all was well” and walk step by agonizing step out of the dark night my soul had entered.

The mechanics of prayer and the rule I had casually set in place became suddenly had a desperate urgency and became the life preserver to which I clung. The balance, order and structure it gave me sustained me at a time when I couldn't do it myself. I often felt paralyzed and didn't know what to do. I felt lost and disoriented. But my rule gave my day a structure and balance that kept me moving. It brought me to prayer and reminded me to reach out to God when pain seemed to eclipse my place with God. Over time I added two more components to my rule: recovery meetings and physical exercise. I called these times of the day my “non-negotiables”. Mental, spiritual and physical recovery depended on these and I clung to them. I was amazed that I was able to find the time and fit yet more into a schedule I thought was already full. As a result, healing took place in it's own time and in God's way. The dark night became dawn and I emerged in a very different place finding a strength and happiness I never thought possible.

My rule has eased up as the need for it is no longer acute. Still, the importance of having a rule is a lasting life lesson. Rules of life take many shapes and depths depending on the person and need. There are many tools and options. Most will include some form of prayer, silence, meditation, exercise, spiritual reading or conversation. Whatever it is, it requires thought, intention and commitment. But it also requires flexibility and humility. We are not perfect and can't enter into any rule flawlessly. How often does one follow “the rule”? Every day? Every other day? Does that include weekends and vacations? My spiritual director offered a gracious norm from his own spiritual journey – more often than not. Simply that, follow a Rule more often than not.

Most of us do not face life crises very often, but when we do, healing can be facilitated by a rule of life that helps us find God's strength and love when we need it most. And in between those times, it gives us a restful, safe place to grow deeper into the soil of God's love. If you have a rule of life, talk about it. If you don't, consider it. Many people have one without being fully conscious of them! They can be called “routines” or even “ruts”! Yes, some rules are made to be broken, but some will actually heal the broken!

“Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous law...” (Ps. 119: 164)

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