There is a pat­tern to our activ­i­ties. We build struc­ture into our days. We cre­ate fam­i­ly tra­di­tions and rit­u­als. Our church­es use litur­gies,” even if we nev­er write them down — we tend to fol­low the same order of wor­ship week by week. Even though we often rejoice in spon­tane­ity and flex­i­bil­i­ty, the truth is we like rou­tines; we pre­fer order to chaos. 

We live by rhythms. 

Antho­ny and the Angel 

The Say­ings of the Desert Fathers, a col­lec­tion of sto­ries from ear­ly Chris­t­ian Egypt, tells a fas­ci­nat­ing tale about struc­ture and rhythms. Antho­ny of Egypt was a young man who went to live in the harsh desert regions east of the Nile with one sim­ple yet dar­ing goal in mind: to strip away every dis­trac­tion this world had to offer so he could seek God with his whole heart. Antho­ny pur­sued life with God at a lev­el of inten­si­ty most of us find dif­fi­cult to imag­ine — a pur­suit which led to incred­i­ble spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences: visions of Christ, bat­tles with evil spir­its, and divine revelations. 

Antho­ny, though, became deeply dis­cour­aged, uncer­tain that all his efforts were real­ly achiev­ing any­thing. He was still deeply con­scious of his sins, still (at times) felt far from God. He turned his anx­i­ety into prayer: Lord, I want to be made whole by your grace, but this dis­cour­age­ment will not leave me alone. What can I do? How can I be made whole?” 

As he fin­ished pray­ing he opened the door of his cell and caught sight of an angel sit­ting out­side patient­ly weav­ing reed bas­kets. After a while the angel set aside his work, stood up, and stretched out his hands to pray. Then when he had fin­ished, he sat down and began weav­ing again. As Antho­ny watched from his door­way, the angel turned to him, smiled, and said, Antho­ny, just do this — and then you will be made whole.” 

To Antho­ny, the point was imme­di­ate­ly clear. The angel did not bring anoth­er astound­ing expe­ri­ence, anoth­er rev­e­la­tion or vision. Instead, he mod­eled a rhythm of liv­ing. Work and pray. Work and pray. Just do this and do it this way, qui­et­ly and faith­ful­ly — and you will find the whole­ness of life you seek. 

An Inten­tion­al Rhythm 

What Antho­ny had dis­cov­ered was that our incli­na­tion to live by rhythms can be turned to our advan­tage: it can become a cat­a­lyst for pro­found spir­i­tu­al growth. Every day we live is like a minia­ture pic­ture of our whole life: all our pri­or­i­ties are some­how reflect­ed in the way we choose to invest the few hours between each sun­rise and sun­set. Our sur­vival mat­ters to us, so we make time to eat and drink. If we val­ue those we love, or our work, or our com­mu­ni­ty, that deter­mines how we invest our time. As the sum of all our dri­ves, pas­sions, choic­es, and instincts, our dai­ly activ­i­ties reveal our real beliefs and commitments. 

But, of course, the way we struc­ture our days not only reveals our char­ac­ter and pri­or­i­ties, it can also help to shape them. We make some choic­es because of who we are, but oth­ers because of who we wish to become. And so appren­tices of Jesus have long real­ized that we can express our desire to fol­low him not only in par­tic­u­lar activ­i­ties — spir­i­tu­al prac­tices and dis­ci­plines but also in the rou­tines and rit­u­als of life. We may be wired to live by rhythms, but we can inten­tion­al­ly set the beat: we can struc­ture our dai­ly liv­ing as a lov­ing response to the grace of God in Christ. 

Reg­u­la Vitae 

In the Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion, this desire to inten­tion­al­ly struc­ture our lives as Christ fol­low­ers was usu­al­ly expressed through the reg­u­la vitae, the Rule of Life’ (the Latin is pro­nounced ray-goo-lah vee-tay”). In our con­tem­po­rary soci­ety, when we hear the word rule’ many of us imme­di­ate­ly begin think­ing of laws, com­mands, reg­u­la­tions, and direc­tives. The more the­o­log­i­cal­ly-mind­ed might bris­tle: is this an attempt to sub­vert the grace of God in favor of a sys­tem of mer­it and reward: obey the rules and God will love you? Oth­ers, steeped in our cul­ture of fierce indi­vid­u­al­ism and inde­pen­dence, might balk for dif­fer­ent rea­sons: we have become rules-averse.” No one, we say, can tell me how to live my life. I want free­dom and choice, not the con­stric­tion of laws and commands. 

But a reg­u­la vitae, a Rule of Life, is nei­ther an attempt to prove our­selves to God, nor to impose any­thing on oth­er peo­ple. The Latin word reg­u­la orig­i­nal­ly described a wood­en strip with mark­ings which could be used in con­struc­tion or draw­ing. A reg­u­la was not the rule we find on the statute books — it was the rule we used in geom­e­try class­es to help make the sides of our tri­an­gles straight and true. In the same way, a reg­u­la vitae is not a set of instruc­tions telling us how we must live. It is a descrip­tion of how we might live. A Rule of Life out­lines a pat­tern of liv­ing which is immersed in Christ, and invites us to shape our­selves to it — to become straight and true. 

Excerpt­ed from Explo­rations: Rhythms of Life, Series 1, Part 1 by Christo­pher S. Webb (Ren­o­varé Resource).

Pho­to by AfriMod Stu­dio on Unsplash

Originally published January 2010

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