Last week, when we looked at suggested resolutions from thinkers and writers, I mentioned that I often feel ambivalent about the beginning-of-the-year thrust toward disciplines, goals and habits. I tend more toward variety and chaos rather than order and routine. But over the last decade, I’ve found a strange source of inspiration. The lives of monks and nuns have taught me, a non-Catholic mother who sleeps late whenever possible and binges Netflix, how to better live. Because of their example, I’ve adopted a rule of life. A rule of life is an overarching plan governing your daily practices, habits and routines. It is not a resolution, but rather a comprehensive way to take stock of how you spend your time so that you be the person you want to be.
The most famous rule of life is the Rule of St. Benedict, written in the sixth century, which organizes the life of Benedictine monks, specifying everything from what they should wear to when they should pray. My copy of the Rule of St. Benedict clocks in at just under 100 pages. My personal rule of life, by contrast, is three pages long (and ever-evolving).
While Benedict sets out eight times of daily prayer, my rule of life dictates far fewer. Benedict encourages “stability” by requiring monks to stay with the same community and not relocate at will. I seek to impose stability through my rule by limiting travel for work to no more than four times a year. He lays out long hours of daily silence. I have three lovely but loud kids, so I include comparatively shorter times of silence in my rule. His rule prohibits monks from having private ownership and wealth. Mine lays out goals for giving, generosity and budgeting. His rule recommends times of fasting. My rule dictates when I will put away devices and limits my screentime.
John Mark Comer is the founding pastor of Bridgetown Church in Portland, Ore. He now runs a nonprofit and hosts the “Rule of Life Podcast.” As many people think about their goals for the year ahead, I asked John Mark if he’d speak with me about the concept of a rule of life. This interview has been edited and condensed.
What is a rule of life? Where does that language come from?
A rule of life is ancient Christian language for a schedule and a set of practices and relational rhythms that organize your life around what you most deeply value.
It is an English translation of a Latin phrase. The original word was regula, which is where we get words like “regular” or “ruler” because it literally meant a straight piece of wood. A lot of linguists argue that it was the word used for a trellis in a vineyard. If you can imagine a winery in the first, second or third century, the Regula was the trellis underneath the vine.
Early Christians picked up this language because in one of Jesus’ most famous teachings, in John 15, he says, “Abide in the vine and you will bear much fruit.” His disciples are like the branches and God is like the vine. By living in God, we bear what He called fruit, which is this metaphor for what is later qualified in the New Testament as: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.
Early Christians claimed that if we’re going to apprentice under Jesus and bear the maximum amount of “fruit,” then we have to have some kind of life “trellis,” some kind of support to structure our lives around what is most deeply important to us.
If you look at moments in church history when a rule of life was most central to the church, they were moments of war or famine or disease, or the breakdown of the Roman Empire, or the corruption of the institutional church.
We’re living in a very similar moment to that now as Western culture is fracturing at the seams with spikes in anxiety, depression and mental illness, loneliness and alienation, the breakdown of the family and systemic racism. So I think the need of the hour, for Christians and thoughtful people who really want to live well, is to adopt a rule of life.
This is a little bit personal, but can you give some brass-tacks examples of what are some things in your rule of life?
At a personal level, every morning, I get up at such a time that I can spend an hour in prayer, followed by an hour of reading before I let myself look at my phone. At a more family level, we practice Sabbath together. The whole 24-hour period, we put all of our phones away. We gather around the table with close friends. We celebrate a huge meal. We practice gratitude, rest; we sleep, we play. And that is a major part of our rule of life that we kind of anchor our weekly rhythm as a family around.
Most people who have heard of a rule of life often associate it with monks and nuns.
The monastic tradition has preserved something down through the centuries that was originally for all Christians. What myself — and many others — are arguing is that we need to take what they have preserved and figure out how to contextualize and apply it for those of us who aren’t monks and nuns.
Communities have to form around something. In the American context, many communities attempt to form around preferences and pleasure. That’s not bad, but that tends not to create a deep, vulnerable level of relationship. In most American contexts, the moment that the relationship is no longer pleasing, we slip away.
But ancient Christian communities were really trying to go the distance with each other. Part of the goal of a disciple of Jesus is to be formed into a person of love, and formation tends to happen in these interpersonal relationships over a long period of time. You have to stay in difficult relationships to actually be forged into that kind of person.
Do you think nonreligious people or people who are not Christians should have a rule of life?
Well, I would say that all people have a rule of life. You likely have a morning routine, you have a way that you spend your free time, you probably have a job. Hopefully you have a budget.
For a lot of people, the problem in their life is not that they don’t have a rule of life, it’s that they do. The problem is not that it’s not working. It’s that it is working, but it’s poorly designed. It’s giving them outcomes — emotional outcomes, relational outcomes, vocational outcomes — different than the ones they actually desire. An easy example of that would be the way that we’re all addicted to our phones and waste copious amounts of time scrolling on Instagram or reading click bait-y news to scare us. But that micro habit is forming us into a kind of person that is not likely the kind of person we want to be.
So how does one begin? How do you design a rule of life? What should be included?
Well, step one is to clarify in your mind and heart a vision of the kind of person you want to be and the kind of life you want to live — what you most deeply value — and then work backward and very slowly. Don’t try to go hard core.
The next step is a kind of habit audit. You can read a book like “Tiny Habits” by BJ Fogg. Then begin to see if you can connect the dots between all of these habits and relationships and who they are forming you into.
And then the third step is to start with a fresh scrap of paper and begin to design a life habit architecture that is more congruent with your vision and values.
What about folks like me who struggle with discipline and habit?
A couple of pieces of advice would just be start really, really, really small. Don’t start with massive steps. If it’s “I’m going to work out an hour a day,” start with “I’m going to do 10 push-ups a day.”
Second is, start with joyful things that you love and want to do. So maybe rather than starting with meditation for 30 minutes in the morning, start every morning by drinking a cup of tea before you do anything else. When we do a habit and we feel good, it increases the likelihood of us doing it again on a regular basis. Then the more regular it becomes, the more it’s wired into our nervous system and we just start to do it automatically.
The third thing I would say is, do it with other people. A rule of life — from a Christian perspective — is always done with other people. You can personalize a rule, but it’s an attempt to live with other people into a shared vision of human flourishing. Without that, it’s not really a rule of life. It’s more of just a really disciplined habit structure for Western individualists.
The great challenge of a rule of life is also the great joy. The challenge is you can’t live by a rule of life and live at the hurried pace of a modern American person, most of whom are radically over-busy, distracted, overcommitted, under-slept and exhausted all the time.
A rule of life will force you to face your mortality, your limitations, your emotional limitations, and it will force you to say no. The joy is that on the other side of it is a life where you are integrated. You are living at a pace that you can walk until you die and still be deeply joyful and year over year become more loving and kind and peaceful. But there is no way to do that without a willingness to live unlike how most people around you are living.