Very often I encounter Catholic men that desire to grow in holiness- whether this is to learn more about their faith, grow in prayer or tackle a serious sin in their life- but very often they are not sure exactly where to start. The challenge can be overwhelming (especially if we have been away from the faith for a while), and what we can see so often is the difficulty and pain of real conversion. So where do we begin?
What I want to propose quite simply is that those that recognize this need should write their own rule of life, a guide for how they live their daily lives. When we look to the history of the Church, so often what brought about the greatest changes and reforms in the culture of the time were those men that lived by a rule of life, that had a measure that they held themselves up against. From the monks of the early Church that followed the rule of Saint Basil or the rule of Saint Benedict on to the various religious orders and movements present today, there has always been a recognition in the Church for the need of a standard. This was so especially in times of great chaos in the world, where everything was permissible and spiritual slavery was the norm.
What is so important to recognize with this, (and what makes it so counter-cultural) that the rule is not meant to be a point of slavery, or an imposition of my life, but actually the point of rescue. How often we can go throughout our days in distraction, filled with sights and sounds empty of content, without really being reminded of who we are, who God is, and what our lives are about. And this constant temptation to distraction can be a difficulty for everyone, even those working for the Church. One of the greatest gifts for my life as a priest has been the obligation to pray the psalms at different times of the day, because in the busiest moments of my day I am reminded of what matters, who God is, and how much I need Him. Rather than being a constant and painful obligation, this promise of prayer has rescued me, from my own selfishness, my distraction, and my pragmatism that can so easily exclude the Lord, the One who has created me, rescued me, and leads me to Himself.
We all live in a variety of circumstances, so it is worth each person praying and thinking about what their particular rule of life should look like and what form it should take. Each man has their own struggles and particular challenges, so their rule should match up with them, constantly guiding them to meet Christ within the framework of their lives, but I want to make a few suggestions of what should be in a good rule of life:
1) Prayer: Make time for daily prayer, within your schedule, preferably around the same time. We need this time every day to be reminded of who Christ is, and who we are called to be. This should include time for gratitude before the Lord, praying for others (especially those Christ has placed in front of you, family, friends, co-workers, etc.), and silent meditation with a text, be it the scriptures or spiritual reading. There are a myriad of great beginner books for this, but what matters is that we do it, that we are praying, daily. This is everything. This also includes a closeness to the sacraments, to reception of holy communion and to confession.
2) Awareness of weaknesses: It is amazing how quickly we forget how prone we are to sin until we fall, like the college student sporting a hangover on a Saturday morning who mutters that he is never going to drink like that again, and repeats the same words the next day. Part of growing closer to Christ is the becoming more and more aware of our fragility, and how much we need His constant presence to rescue us. To depend is not weakness or a betrayal of masculinity, but an imitation of Jesus Christ, the fullness of our humanity, who constantly looked to the Father. So we have to be reminded of our struggles so that we can face them and prepare for them, like a general who places more soldiers at the weakest points of the defense.
3) Relevant to your state of life: Whether you are single, married, discerning, or celibate, the rule has to bring you back to who you are called to be and to meet Christ through it. The mystery of the incarnation is God entering the context of a specific time and place all those years ago and becoming flesh. Christ desires to become flesh within the context of our lives, to be a presence there, so the circumstances of my life are the way I am called to follow Him. For the husband and father, this means to leave space in his rule for how he is going to love his wife and children better, every day, aware of his own shortcomings and temptations. For myself as a priest, my rule calls me to a better life of prayer and fidelity to the people Christ has called me to shepherd. For those still figuring out what they are called to, there needs to be space in the rule for discernment and striving to grow as men, so that whether they are called to marriage or the celibate state, they are able to offer their lives as the men they are called to be.
4) Marian devotion: every man needs this, especially when striving to love chastely. This can take many forms, but there is a reason so many of the saints loved the rosary. It is a true help, especially while stuck in traffic. Take some time every day to turn off the radio and meditate with our Lady.
5) Encouraging growth: very often there are many things we would like to do, but never make time for, like exercising, learning a trade, etc. Schedule it in and put it in the rule.
6) Charitable work/almsgiving: This is not just for the sake of the poor, but because we need this. I have found that the more I stay close to the poor, to the beggars, the more they rescue me from my own selfishness and arrogance. We all need this rescue, the closeness with the poor, and using a part of our money as gift and offering. Very often, without this reminder, we will intend to do it, and never actually do so.
7) Caution towards one’s relationship with technology: very often we don’t realize how addicted we are to technology until we see it profoundly in someone else, like when one sees couples in a restaurant, not talking to each other, with their faces glued to their cell phones. It is so easy to throw away so much of our precious time on Netflix, video games, and just moving from one website to the next without even realizing it. To be cautious and intentional about how much time one is spending in the digital world helps to approach it with greater prudence, and not to waste one’s life.
8) A good examination of conscience: If we took a few minutes every day to stand before the Lord, aware of the ways in which we have fallen away from Him with an amendment to do better, we begin to depend on Him more, and slowly become less attached to our sins. This is crucial.
9) Fraternity: We need brothers, men who give us hope that it is possible to follow Christ in this life, men who challenge and encourage us. It is so easy to settle and swallow the proposals of our culture wholesale without the help of one who challenges assumptions. Find other men who are actively trying to grow in holiness, open to constant conversion, and stay close to them. The history of the Church does not lie; those that truly brought reform in times of corruption and difficulty were the ones that were constantly open to personal reform within their community. The return to Christ is always a return to the community, to communion.
These are just a few notes to keep in mind while making the rule. If it helps, make the rule with a fellow brother so you can hold each other accountable, and using the other person as a sounding board to see if the rule is too strict or too loose and needs to be adjusted. What matters more than anything else is that we are seeking Christ and striving to become the men that he has called us to be, not just for ourselves, but for those that he has called us to love.