A Net for Catching Days
Making space for God in the busyness of our routines
By Heather Monkmeyer
Two years ago my family and I relocated across the country after decades of wonderfully life-giving work in our beloved community just outside Detroit where I was serving as pastor of community life at Christ Covenant Church.
We uprooted all the familiar and comfortable routines and relationships that had shaped our lives and moved 1,600 miles to Salt Lake City. Now my younger daughter is in her last year of high school, which means we’re knee-deep in the process of planning for college next fall.
All these changes left me feeling a bit lost. I have been disoriented, untethered—and I am asking myself a lot of questions. What will I do now that a huge piece of my work as a parent is done? Who am I without the ministry that was been central to my life for so long? How will I put together something beautiful and solid in this new place and in this next chapter of my life?
Most of us want to live a balanced or healthy life that reflects what we believe to be true about ourselves, the world, and God. But so often day-to-day living, attending to urgent agendas, and just trying to “squeeze it all in” get in the way. We may have the yearning for a deeper relationship with God, but somehow the practice of anything spiritual gets relegated to Sundays. We come to the end of the week depleted and wondering how to gear up for another seven days that promise more of the same.
In her book The Writing Life Annie Dillard offers a short but potent sentence that takes my breath away every time I read it: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
When I ask myself how I want to spend my day, I may be careless and unconcerned. I can easily float through twenty-four hours, filling the time with busyness and bills, shuttling, shopping, attending meetings, managing people and responsibilities, doing the things that swallow days whole. But when I ask myself how I want to spend my life, well, that takes me to a very different level of consideration and desire.
That is where a rule of life comes in.
A rule of life is a tool used by Christians dating back to the third century, a written document that ordered every aspect of life around their relationship and commitment to God and their community. In talking about this ancient practice, it is important to understand that the word rule doesn’t refer to a list of restrictions or life-draining laws. Rather, it comes from the Latin root regula, to make regular or to regulate. A rule of life brings some order and regularity to our days so that our lives, both right now and ultimately, are lived well.
There were earlier examples, but the Rule of St. Benedict was the first rule that took hold and, amazingly, eighteen centuries later, it continues to be followed by people throughout the world. While earlier rules were harsh and rigorous to an extreme, Benedict’s was more humane and accessible to common people. It was a corporate rule created for intentional Christian community and had five overarching components: prayer, work, hospitality, study, and renewal.
The belief was that these five areas together would holistically comprise a vibrant and healthy human existence that would be productive in deep and growing connection with God, others, and self. The basics of the Rule of St. Benedict today look remarkably relevant and inviting for someone who wants to have purpose, to flourish, and to avoid being carried along by the raging current of busyness and thoughtless routine.
In recent years much has been written about the spiritual life and its practice, and individual rules of life have become more common in the lives of ordinary people like you and me. Marjorie Thompson, in her book Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, offers this succinct definition: “A Rule of Life is a pattern of spiritual practices that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness.”
This ancient practice can give me today what it gave women and men centuries before, a framework to allow me to practice what will forward my spiritual life and a focus that will guide me in a dynamic relationship with God. There are two illustrations that help me think about these twin components of a working rule of life—scaffolding and stakes.
One of my favorite places in the world is in the Detroit Institute of Arts. It is the Rivera Court, a massive sunlit space that is home for twenty-seven mural panels painted by Diego Rivera in the 1930s depicting Detroit Industry. The paintings are vibrant and monumental, and whenever I stand in that gallery, my neck craned to take it all in, I am utterly amazed that a human could possibly create such beauty with paint and a tin can full of brushes.
Photos exist that captured Rivera’s creative process. A large, movable scaffolding was erected to allow him to reach spaces that would otherwise be precarious. The photos show the artist painting perilously high above the marble floor, appearing to have nothing on his mind but the realization of his magnificent vision.
Imagine if Rivera had to improvise by standing on tiptoe or with makeshift ladders leaning against the wall, or hanging off the gallery ledges, balancing himself, his palette, and brushes to bring his murals to life. Instead, the simple structure of a scaffold allowed him to do the work he was commissioned to do without the distraction of figuring out how to do it each day.
A rule of life works something like that. Annie Dillard writes, “A schedule [or a rule of life] defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands for sections of time.” The structure is created with patterns of spiritual practices that allow us to be in communion with the God we desire to know and follow. It gives us something familiar and trustworthy to walk out onto each day as we open ourselves to the creative movement of the Holy Spirit and to the working out of our calling in the world. Having the structure of a rule makes it easier to open ourselves to God’s grace and presence. It allows us to focus on the beauty we are called to bring to the world. It catches our days.
My structure includes praying daily, usually with the guidance of a book of common prayer that keeps me connected to Christian community throughout the world, exercise to keep my body healthy, journaling, and reading Scripture. I have built this structure over the years and I can rely on it. It is what I do most days. I don’t have to think about it or plan it. It stands there waiting for me each morning and will support me so I can live the life I have been called to live. I often vary the way I pray, the way I approach Scripture, how I work out, and how and what I write, but I have found that those basic practices are important for me to adhere to if I want to have a healthy and vibrant spirit in connection with Christ.
There are other practices that I integrate on a weekly, monthly, seasonal, or annual basis. Things like partnering with people with diverse backgrounds to work for justice, adding a new prayer practice during the seasons of Advent and Lent, seeing a spiritual director, and finding extended times of silence are also part of the structure that allows me to be who I am called to be and the person I want to be. The structure is essential, but so is the focused direction.
I bought my first tomato plant one gorgeous spring day and put it in the ground on the side of our house. I watered it, then let it grow. The plant grew, flowered, and I was encouraged. Summer travels and busyness took me away for a while and I forgot about it. At the end of the season when I returned, I found a tangled mess sprawling all over the ground. The plant had toppled, and nearly all the tomatoes had been destroyed by worms or animals as they lay unprotected on the dirt. The plant was choked by weeds, and the leaves were chewed and spotted with disease. It was a sad story of neglect.
The following year I consulted with a young farmer at the market who sold me two more tomato plants. He told me I would need to stake or cage my plants to help them grow upward when they got too heavy to support the fruit that would eventually appear. He also instructed me to tear off runners, or the extra limbs that would drain the main fruit-bearing branches of the nutrients needed to grow the sweet red tomatoes for which we longed.
When the plants had grown, I followed the farmer’s advice. I didn’t have good cages, but I found some broken hockey sticks in the garage and some cotton rags that I tore into strips. I pushed the sticks into the ground as close to the tomato plants as I could without disturbing them. Then I carefully looped the strips around the plants to secure them to the hockey sticks. From that moment on the tomato plants were guided to grow in an upward direction toward the sun, away from the pests that would consume them before they were ready to bear fruit. From time to time I added a stick for support or stabilized a heavy section with more ties. At the end of summer, we harvested more than fifty tomatoes!
The lesson I learned was that the wild, untended, unruly mess did not produce much useful fruit. The intentionally tamed plant on the other hand grew into a productive, healthy organism that gave an abundance of ripe tomatoes that were beautiful to behold and exquisitely delicious.
A rule of life points us in the direction of holiness, a life connected to Jesus. As we create a rule and allow it to guide the way we spend our days, we are continually reminded of our identity in Christ, refocused on our calling to be light-bearers to the world, and realigned when we find ourselves off track. All of this directionality creates an environment that is positioned to stay in communion with God, sense God’s nearness, and finally to bear the good fruit of the Christian life.
Pastor and theologian William Paulsell wrote, “It is unlikely that we will deepen our relationship with God in a casual or haphazard manner. There will be a need for some intentional commitment and some reorganization in our own lives. But there is nothing that will enrich our lives more than a deeper and clearer perception of God’s presence in the routine of daily living.”
Like the tomato plants, my life needs some direction. I need to allow some areas to be trimmed off to make space for and to create energy for what I am called to do. Right now, because that is unclear in this season of transition, some of my focus has shifted to asking God to show me how I am being invited to contribute in this new place. The specific work I was called to in my former context does not easily translate. The Covenant Church does not have a presence in Utah, so my work in pastoral ministry is being shaped by new voices and communities with different needs. I am paying attention to what unfolds, trying things as they present themselves. As I sense God inviting me to put more energy in a new ministry, I find ways to support that direction, including the willingness to stop doing something comfortable and familiar.
Soon after we arrived in Salt Lake City, I found myself alone in our house for the first time. My husband was at work, my daughter at school, and there I was in this place where I knew almost no one and no one knew me. I did not have anywhere to go or anyone who needed me. I felt a bit of panic and some grief, but then I realized that in this strange new environment I was being drawn to connect with God.
I found space to begin unpacking my rule of life, my prayer practices that had sustained me before and would sustain me now. The same disciplines that gave me courage to leave the comfort of my community in Michigan could now console me and open me to new possibilities in Utah. Over time, as I eased back into my routines, my heart and my world expanded and I was given eyes to see God at work, opening spaces for ministry and relationships and inviting me to dig into the depths of my own life.
A rule of life acknowledges that we are not the center of the universe, God is. It is a way to be intentional about the way we spend our precious days so that we find ourselves becoming more like Jesus, more in love with God and God’s beloved people, and more attuned and responsive to God’s call.
As I look at my current season of transition, I realize that I was never really lost after all. My rule of life has been a constant and a comfort. It reminds me that no matter where I am, my identity as a child of God remains. As God’s daughter, I remember that my connection to God is more important than unpacking boxes, more important than finding the post office. It is even more important than finding a ministry or a job. When I practice my rule, I open myself to the presence and experience of God, and everything else in life falls into place. Wherever I am, if I am with God, I am home.
So how does one start crafting a rule of life that will be life-giving? Whether you know it or not, you probably already have a rule of life, so you can start there.
Be prayerful. Ask God to guide you through the process. Write down everything that comes to mind. Don’t censor anything. See what emerges.
Ask yourself some questions: What do you already do that draws you to God? What activities nurture your spirit? What do you do simply because you are a follower of Jesus? When do you feel most alive and connected to your truest or deepest self? Your answers to these questions don’t need to look or sound spiritual. If mowing the lawn is the time you feel most closely connected to God, then write that down. It belongs in your rule of life. Let that list steep for a day or two. Add to it if new things come to mind.
Next, in prayer, look at the list and notice what is there. Are there patterns? Does anything surprise you? Are there some obvious holes? Are there things on your list that were once life-giving that are no longer? Is the entirety of your life represented? What is missing? Does this list represent the person you want to be, the life you want to live? Is it at least moving you in that direction?
As you look at the list, notice what you are deeply drawn to. Is there something you sense God has been asking you to do? What is it? Will it fit without removing something else?
One way to organize your rule is to make a grid that is divided into four vertical columns. Divide the columns in half horizontally to create eight boxes. In the top row, label the four boxes: Daily, Weekly, Monthly, and Yearly. In the lower row, label the four boxes: Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn (see illustration above).
Spend some time filling in the blank spaces with practices that are helpful to you in your life with Christ. Maybe you do morning prayer on weekdays. Write that into the daily column. Maybe each week you meet with friends for a Bible study. Put that in the weekly column. And so on.
Also consider how your life shifts with the seasons. What practices might be impossible at certain times of the year, and which practices lend themselves to certain seasons? Once children are out of school, opportunities for quiet may dissipate, so perhaps on summer mornings you gather with them to read Scripture and pray. Maybe you take a contemplative walk in nature during the warmer months, but not in winter. Or maybe you choose to add something to your prayer life during Advent and Lent. Write that in.
Finally, if there is something you sense God calling you to explore but it isn’t yet part of your rule, write it on the bottom so it is there as a reminder to be aware of opportunities as they arise.
Keep playing with your rule. See how it fits you, your family, and your responsibilities. Where might you invite your family or those you live with into your practices? After living with it a while, hold it up to St. Benedict’s five divisions: prayer, work, hospitality, study, and renewal. Are there areas missing? Is your rule of life too rigorous or too easy? Either extreme will lessen the chance that you will stick with it.
Finally, the most important question to ask is this: Are you growing in love for God and others? If the answer is yes, you have a good rule. If the answer is no, then make some changes. Ask someone who is further along in the Christian journey to look at your rule with you and to help you think through it. Spend some time reading about prayer and the innumerable ways to approach it. No two rules will be the same. As God created each of us uniquely, our rules of life will reflect that diversity.
I try to keep a playful spirit as I work and rework this essential piece of my life. I always want my rule of life to be something I long to do, so I add new practices from time to time to keep things fresh and surprising. I want to grow and stretch, but I also need some tried practices that I know keep me connected to God over time.
I am so grateful to our early church mothers and fathers who gave us this tool to help me gather up my days and create a life that reflects what I believe to be true about myself, God, and all of creation. And I hope a rule of life will help you too answer this question of poet Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
About the Author
Heather Monkmeyer is an ordained Covenant minister and spiritual director living in Salt Lake City.