The Rule of Life: What Saint Benedict Is Teaching Me

What makes a good day in your life?

It’s a question we’ve examined on this blog more than once, starting with my mission statement:

To prepare for the hour of my death.

One good day at a time.

And to help others do the same.

Now that I’m enjoying all the benefits of living next to two monastic communities, I’m hoping to absorb the long influence of Benedict of Nursia (480-550), the abbot who wrote one of the most influential books on how to spend one’s time in community: The Rule of Saint Benedict.

Benedict has influenced me since my first fellowship at Valparaiso University. Both for his rule and for this admonition found in the rule:

“Keep death always before your eyes.”

St. Benedict (480-550), author of The Rule of Life. Sculpture by David Paul Lange, O.S. B. and Steven Lemke, St. John's University '08. 2012

St. Benedict (480-550), author of The Rule of Life. Sculpture by David Paul Lange, O.S. B. and Steven Lemke, St. John’s University ’08. 2012

Toward that end, I have constructed my own Personal Rule of Life.

Here’s how my days will be spent beginning tomorrow.

Or at least this is how I imagine them now.

Personal Rule of Life

6-7 a.m. Awaken without alarm. Before getting out of bed, thank God for this day and for my most precious ones. Wash, dress, while thinking about the day ahead. There will be 1440 minutes. A gift. How will I use them?

7 a.m. Prime time. Silence and prayer. Journal the intentions for the day.

7:15 Breakfast

7:30-9 a.m. Reading and Writing toward project goals

Break for ten minutes. Walk around. Do chores. Step outside and say hello to the lake. Note subtle changes as seasons turn.

 

Sunrise.

Sunrise.

 

9:10-10:30 a.m. Reading and Writing

Break for ten minutes. Outside if possible.

10:40-11:40 a.m. Read and write.

Walk to Abbey Church

Afternoon

12 noon Be in Choir stall #2 before the bells begin to chime for Mid-day Prayer with the monks

12:15- 12:45 p.m. Lunch in my office or the student center

1-2:30 p.m. Read and Write

Break. Wander the halls in the Quad. Look for a monk or a colleague. 🙂

2:40-4 p.m. Read and Write

Break. Make a cup of tea or coffee in the lounge.

4:10-5:30 p.m. Read and Write.

5:30-6:30 p.m. Leave office. Walk to gym. Rotate activities. Weights, walking, running. Average distance: 4 miles.

Evening

6:30-7:30 p.m. Dinner/ phone call with family

 

Sunset.

Sunset.

 

7:30-9 p.m. Read and Write. Or attend lectures, etc.

9-10 p.m. Unwind with meditative reading. Conscious review of the day’s intentions. Express gratitude for the gifts of the day.

Author Caroline Webb, in a new book called How to Have a Good Day, has gathered 600 social science research studies into one place. My Personal Rule above attempts to take her advice summarized here. I’ve also drawn from blogger friend Elaine Mansfield’s “Ten Ways to Create Sacred Space Every Day.” 

I’m excited about getting to the place where I know the campus and its monastic rhythms well enough, at least as a visitor and scholar, to create my own structure. It’s a scaffolding on which to build. I know my attention will stray and other invitations and travels will break the pattern.

But then, I’ll ask forgiveness and begin again. Monasteries specialize in redemption. 🙂

Oh, I see it’s almost time for mid-day prayer. Must go!

See you later. Have a GOOD DAY!

How do you feel looking at this Personal Rule? Would it drive you crazy? Do you crave structure? What advice do you have for me? For yourself? How do we make our days the best they can be?

Shirley Showalter

40 Comments

  1. Diana Schramer on September 28, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    This sounds (and looks) like heaven, Shirley. You are so blessed. How I long to do what you are right now. Perhaps one day I will.

    Too much structure drives me crazy, but it helps if I have freedom within that structure to honor my own rhythms. I resonate with your statement, “I’m excited about getting to the place where I know the campus and its monastic rhythms well enough, at least as a visitor and scholar, to create my own structure. It’s a scaffolding on which to build.” In doing so, you are honoring the community’s structure while also having and exercising the freedom to create your own within it. This is what healthy community is about. Again, heaven. Enjoy.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 28, 2016 at 2:42 pm

      Thanks for being the first responder here, Diana. I’ve just returned from lunch with a friend on campus, so the rhythm has altered a little. And tonight we will be saying farewell to a short-term colleague, and the pattern will adjust again. While visiting with my friend, I did my minimum walking, and one of the chores that was on my intentions list for the day. The advantage of knowing the intentions is that the blocks of time can adjust to the external needs of others while I still make progress on what my mind and spirit have decided for the day. It really helps to know what one is trying to do. Sounds obvious, but, for me at least, this kind of flexible structure helps.

      At the top of my intentions list today is “find the caught-up feeling” again. 🙂

  2. Carol Bodensteiner on September 28, 2016 at 4:05 pm

    You outlined the work structure that helped me accomplish my last writing project, Shirley. Now that the manuscript is headed to the editor, I’m at loose ends. And this makes me anxious – as you know. Without the overall project goal, I’m searching for how to structure.

    Your post reminded me that I want to look up St. Benedict’s Personal Rule of Life. Reading is one way I’m productive with my day.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 28, 2016 at 4:16 pm

      Carol, here’s a link to the Rule online for free! http://www.osb.org/rb/text/toc.html

      I hope you find a new pattern soon. It gives me peace when I’m in rhythm and lowgrade depression when I’m not.

      Have you tried with simply setting intentions for each day until a new pattern emerges? It’s so easy to just let life come at us instead of deciding how it fits our purpose.

      I know you will find a new rhythm soon. Would love to know how you do that.

      • Carol Bodensteiner on September 29, 2016 at 10:40 am

        Thanks for the link, Shirley. I’m trying a number of things – journaling, reading, identifying all the household tasks I willing let slide while I wrote the novel. I’m sure something will surface. We’re taking a small vacation in October. I expect that will help. Or at least distract me 😉

  3. Marian Beaman on September 28, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    My feet tell me that I’ve been through the greatest surge of activity in my entire life. Moving and relocating is not for sissies. Neither is adopting a thoroughly contemplative life as you are doing. I should think it would require a huge adjustment though the idea of undisturbed reading, writing, and thinking sound like a luxury to me just now.

    Yes, I crave structure (with flexibility) and imagine I would enjoy the new associations and friendships that evolve in this idyllic environment.

    You asked for a bit of advice: I think one’s cup would have to be emptied before it could be filled. You may be in that uneasy position of transition right now – but maybe not as you’ve experienced a Fellowship before.

    For now, just “go with it” and remember, just as in yoga, when the breathing gets shallow and the thoughts stray, take that little lasso and rein them in. How blessed you are, dear Christian mystic. Looking forward to more here.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 28, 2016 at 5:01 pm

      Marian, thanks for these sweet, loving words. And the same to you.

      My feet are feeling a bit out of whack also. I tried jogging again, and my ankles protested. I probably pushed too hard too fast. Hope your feet feel better soon.

      I’d love to hear more about the empty cup idea. How do you empty yours?

  4. Marian Beaman on September 28, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    I mentioned the empty cup because the lines of an old gospel song floated through my mind as I wrote the comment: “Fill My Cup, Lord” [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPVvugywDWQ&w=560&h=315%5D

    One way I fill my cup is to look at the scripture lines held on tiny easels on my countertops: Jeremiah 29:11 and Psalm 68:19

    How do I empty it? With meditation, at the beginning and end of the day. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 28, 2016 at 8:05 pm

      Those are great verses, Marian. And they remind me that exhaustion and depletion bring with them a few gifts–emptiness! We usually don’t see such gifts, but the image of a cup helps make them real.

      I know what you mean about not always succeeding. Trying counts too. 🙂

  5. Laurie Buchanan on September 28, 2016 at 7:35 pm

    Shirley — I admire the schedule you’ve created for yourself. I thrive within structure as long as it’s of my own creation. For whatever reason, I chafe under the perceived “thumb” of others. Good, bad, or indifferent, this has been true for me as long as I can remember.

    I appreciate that you know there may be interruptions in your schedule’s fabric and that you plan from the get-go that you’ll simply “…begin again.” Yes, indeed!

    • Shirley Showalter on September 28, 2016 at 8:07 pm

      I’m the same way, Laurie. I only created this schedule after much trial and error. But it seems to fit, and I believe it will wear well.

      Thanks for your thoughts. I’m sure you are disciplining your time carefully as you prepare for your book launch. Happy birthday!

  6. Tina Barbour on September 28, 2016 at 8:17 pm

    This sounds like a wonderful way to spend your days. I see it as more of a rhythm of life than a structure, and a rhythm will give more easily to the interruptions of life. I had a rhythm for my mornings, but i have let it go by the wayside a bit. Thank you for inspiring me to keep trying.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 28, 2016 at 8:46 pm

      Yes, Tina, “rhythm” is a better word because it captures motion while “structure” sounds immobile. A good day flows from one activity to the next almost like a dance.

      Do keep trying. It’s amazing how hard it is to create a living, breathing pattern that actually guides the day. But it isn’t impossible — even if you aren’t living next to monks!

  7. Richard Gilbert on September 28, 2016 at 8:21 pm

    Thank you, Shirley. This is a keeper!

    A friend and I were talking about keeping a journal of what went right each day for a week. And then one can see, perhaps, how one might increase the percentage. This comes via Louise DeSalvo who wrote the blockbuster book on Woolf and sexual abuse, teaches at Hunter, writes memoir, has a great blog (http://writingalife.wordpress.com. She thinks a lot about creativity. Anyway, she mentioned being helped by this idea in Martin Seligman’s Flourish. He’s a psychologist who studies wellness instead of illness.

    Trying and being intentional may be key. Keeping up all aspects is for me a struggle. But as you say, as in meditation, you bring your mind,and in this case efforts, back.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 28, 2016 at 9:00 pm

      Thanks so much for including the link to the Louise DeSalvo blog, Richard. Very interesting project reported there of telling people to take walks while looking for beauty and things that bring joy. Yes, intention is a great key. And so is freedom to keep returning to the rhythm even when it breaks.

  8. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on September 28, 2016 at 10:19 pm

    I like structure, and found retirement a bit of a challenge as it felt so unstructured at first. What you are doing sounds heavenly!

    • Shirley Showalter on September 28, 2016 at 10:29 pm

      I think retirement throws a lot of people for a loop in this way, Elfrieda. That’s one reason I’ve always tried to create my own structure, rhythm. How have you managed? What works for you?

      You are right that this setting is heavenly. One of my intentions is to be truly grateful for the gift of time and place.

  9. Joan Z. Rough on September 29, 2016 at 10:50 am

    Though I like structure and have been very disciplined in how I’ve used my time over the last few years as I’ve worked on my memoir, I’m ready for a change.

    My best days have always been those that unfold before me without have tos, shoulds, or I musts. I need some spontaneity right now … getting up out of bed and walking as the sun rises or reading something inspiring to start the day, or suddenly deciding to take a day to visit an art museum in a nearby city. I need time to play, and get my inner clock back in balance. For me, too much of one thing can make me crazy.

    But you are in a perfect place to do what you’re doing and if I were there I’d probably be doing the same thing!!

    • Shirley Hershey Showalter on September 29, 2016 at 11:03 am

      Joan, your comment made me think about two kinds of rhythm: the daily kind I wrote about above and the developmental kind you are describing here. In other words, the short view of a day and the long view of days.

      I applaud your listening to the inward voice that tells you spontaneity is more important than structure right now. The good news is that when we value both, we can have both.

      I hope reading this post will make you kick up your heels and go play! I’m sitting here looking at the lake and asking blessing on your day.

  10. susan scott on September 29, 2016 at 11:13 am

    ‘To prepare for the hour of my death. One good day at a time. And to help others do the same’. I wish for that to be my mission statement also. It’s such an important part of living –

    I so enjoyed reading this Shirley thank you; the comments too and yours back to them. Food for thought. I know I will read this again and check out the links, thank you for providing them.

    I like the idea of flexibility within a structure. Your way of constructing it sounds pretty ideal – it needs discipline which you have in spades. It requires effort and making the time to reflect on all that life – and death is. They’re treasures worth seeking. Thank you again!

    • Shirley Showalter on September 29, 2016 at 11:58 am

      Thank you, Susan. I too am inspired by these comments. Inevitably, they deepen my own reflections.

      I am glad that you grasp that this mission statement is not lugubrious but rather life giving. It scares me a little bit, but mostly it draws me forward into the unknown but amazing future, connected to the past, but ultimately taking me to the place where I was created to be.

      Let’s keep seeking the treasures.

  11. Kathleen Pooler on September 29, 2016 at 11:57 am

    Shirley, I’ve been In a “fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants” mode for the past two years due to pressing health issues so I read your schedule with a bit of melancholy but also hope that I will regain some structure again. What an idyllic experience you are having. I am thoroughly enjoying sharing it with you vicariously. In the meantime, I am learning to live in the moment and embrace the lessons of each day. Thanks for sharing.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 29, 2016 at 12:19 pm

      Kathleen, I’m sorry about the melancholy and the need for seat-of-pants navigation. But knowing you, my guess is that you have found ways to breathe deeply in moments and to lean on your faith.

      I think of you in this setting, knowing how much your Roman Catholic faith means to you. I’ll light a candle for you in the Chapel of Saint Perigrine, one of the pilgrimage chapels in the Year of Mercy.

      I’m glad you are able to enjoy vicariously. It seems selfish of me not to try to share my joy here with others.

      • Kathleen Pooler on September 29, 2016 at 2:37 pm

        Thank you for your sweet note, Shirley and for lighting a candle in the chapel. That means a lot to me.

        • Shirley Showalter on September 29, 2016 at 2:42 pm

          🙂

  12. Audrey Denecke on September 29, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    Shirley,
    I enjoyed your story of St. Benedict. My Aunt and Uncle followed the Benedictine prayer schedule over recent decades. It has been part of their post-retirement life structure. I too find creating structure valuable to living fully. I have one structure for non-appointment days, and on work appointment days I keep my core practices in my day (meditation, writing, walking, etc.) and as much of the other balance as possible the time slots may just be much smaller. Normally,I use 90 or 60 minute focus periods with short breaks after each. Life always intervenes. And I look or try to look at, those interruptions or my personal diversions as invitations. Perfection is for the saints.
    And, yes, I enjoy the daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual goal setting and pacing of life. I once was asked to coach a couple who had sold their business and started retirement. They had an amazing monthly (church, theater, volunteering), quarterly structure (visits to see grandchildren), and annual (mission trip) plans. What seemed to be missing was their new “purpose.” They were struggling with a lack of individual and couple purpose. It was making it difficult for them to navigate the daily and connect with each other.
    Shirley, I know you have a very strong purpose which sustains you and you guide others through as well. I see our purpose as what distinguishes activity from meaningful action.
    What a beautiful opportunity to live in sacred space. Blessings.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 29, 2016 at 2:20 pm

      Audrey, thanks for these fascinating stories. As a coach you must be able to observe many places along the spectrum from totally unstructured to totally structured daily patterns. I’m sure you are expert at listening to the hearts of your clients and asking good questions that help them probe their own hearts.

      You add a really important point. Relating the issue of structure to the issue of meaning and purpose. Structure without purpose is a prison. And freedom without purpose can become anarchy.

      You hit the nail on the head, Audrey.

  13. Marylin Warner on September 29, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    The Rule of St. Benedict was one of the studies in a college philosophy class, woven with both religion and sociology. Reading your post offered more clear application than that course did, or at least as I remember it, but it was in 1969. Thanks for sharing this lovely post.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 29, 2016 at 2:23 pm

      Marylin, did you attend a Catholic university? I’m curious to know how young people react to these ancient practices and ancient words. I doubt very much if I would have understood a book like this one then, since I’m not sure I understand it now. 🙂

      I do remember really resonating with the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixy-Four,” however. 🙂

  14. Carrie Ann Lahain on September 29, 2016 at 5:56 pm

    Thanks for inspiring me. I just ordered a copy of THE RULE OF SAINT BENEDICT. Right now I’m working through Thomas A Kempis’ THE IMITATION of CHRIST. A bit grim at first glance, but get past the era and the particular audience he was writing to and there’s a lot to think about.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 30, 2016 at 12:47 pm

      Carrie Ann, your reading interests are honored well on the St. John’s University campus. Thomas Aquinas Hall is just a few buildings from the statue of St. Benedict! I hope you are inspired to create a personal rule of life that’s right for YOU now.

  15. Merril Smith on September 30, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    From what I know of you, this structure/schedule seems perfect–especially that little bit of wiggle room you give yourself. I can tell you are settling in there, and it seems you are having a wonderful experience.

    I have some structure–gym classes at particular times, deadlines for projects, etc., but I think having a fixed daily schedule like that would not be something I’d want to do for more than a week or two.

  16. Shirley Showalter on September 30, 2016 at 12:51 pm

    Ah wiggle room! You found my salvation, Merril! It remains to be seen whether it will carry me for more than a few weeks! I’ll report in a month or so. Have fun at the gym!

  17. Elaine Mansfield on October 1, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    I love it: “Monasteries specialize in redemption.” That’s quite a schedule, Shirley. I have to read back through comments to see how it went. I like to schedule myself and have goals, but I easily make myself anxious. I’m practicing letting each day unfold with more modest goals and time to pay attention to the sacred all around and within me. (Thank you for including a link to my blog and tipping your hat my way.)

    Before our meditation group had its own retreat center, I took retreats at Mount Savior, the Benedictine Monastery in Elmira, NY. That was the early 1970s and that’s where I was first introduced to the wisdom of Br. David Stendl-Rast. Because of Brother David, the crypt of Mt. Saviour’s sanctuary was well supplied with Zen meditation cushions. In later years, I watched an ecumenical religious service where Br. David sat next to the Dalai Lama in the balcony, in clear view of my seat. They whispered to each other and exchanged prayer beads, so Br. David moved a Buddhist mala through his fingers and the Dalai Lama used a rosary. What a teaching in that simple sharing.

  18. Shirley Showalter on October 1, 2016 at 10:18 pm

    Elaine, I’m so glad you found the link to your beautiful blog here. In your honor I created a simple alter with dried grass in a handmade pottery vase, my icon of Julian of Norwich, and a candle made by the monks of Collegeville.

    I too have had the pleasure of sitting in the presence of both Brother David and His Holiness, but not at the same time. My work at the Fetzer Institute brought many gifts of presence among spiritual leaders. I cherish those memories.

  19. Tracy Lee Karner on October 2, 2016 at 10:02 am

    Hello Shirley and friends,
    Are you familiar with Joan Chittister’s “The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century?” I find it practical and illuminating.

    • Shirley Showalter on October 2, 2016 at 12:29 pm

      I don’t know this book, Tracy. But now it’s on my list! Thank you. I heard Sister Joan speak once, and I know in advance I’ll like this book too.

  20. June on October 3, 2016 at 11:16 pm

    Dear Shirley,
    ‘I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.’ Walden – Henry David Thoreau
    I think it is wise to have a personal rule, you can deal with the ebb and flow of the day with a personal rule, or two in place. It is good to have structure.
    I can get a little frazzled when life gets to busy, which makes me crazy. But it is good to be ready for the unexpected. And to go along with the ebb and flow of daily life.

    • Shirley on October 4, 2016 at 12:49 am

      June, you quoted one of my favorite passages from Walden. This semester reminds me a little of his experiment. I too live alone by a “pond.” But I have the benefit of a lovely community and university next door.

      All best to you as you too attempt to manage your time creatively.

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