One temptation concerning spirituality involves thinking about it primarily in terms of miracles or magic or extraordinary experiences. To enter into a relationship with God, according to this line of thought, means opening up to all sorts of inexplicable events or feelings or visions. Indeed, a "mystic," as popularly understood, is a person who sees visions, levitates, bilocates, and does all sorts of other marvelous things as part of his or her spirituality.
Christian spiritual formation takes a much humbler stance regarding the life of faith. To be in a relationship with God is not necessarily about extraordinary states of consciousness or miraculous events -- although, quite frankly, any person who opens up to the life of the Spirit may expect some interesting or unusual experiences, since spirituality invites us out of our ordinary ways of thinking and perceiving. But the spiritual life is much more likely to transform us in small, undramatic ways over time, than to clobber us with mystical experiences.
Another common misperception of spirituality is to view it as a form of therapy. Spirituality equals mastery, according to this line of thought -- to be spiritual is to move toward having all one's financial, romantic, sexual, and health-related woes vanquished under the power of psychic attainment. Once again, while the spiritual life does promise us the fulfillment of our heart's deepest desire, it does not promise mastery, or attainment, or any other form of self-aggrandizement or self-indulgence.
What does spirituality entail? Quite simply, it entails fostering an on-going relationship with God. Spirituality may never lead you to see a vision of heaven or to practice extraordinary psychic powers, but it does offer you an on-going, deeply loving relationship with the Creator of all things. That, in my opinion, is the better choice!
If spirituality involves relationship, then like any other relationship -- marriage, business partnership, membership in a community -- boundaries and ground rules are necessary to support the relationship's smooth functioning. Every relationship needs to be established on agreements between the parties involved, and spirituality is no exception. In the Bible, God is said to create covenants with God's people. These covenants are the basic agreements that form the foundation of the relationship. By the time of the New Testament, the basic covenant between God and humanity ran basically along these lines:
God created us and loves us unconditionally.
God gives us the freedom to choose.
God does not "rescue" us -- if we choose poorly, we face the consequences. When we realize we have chosen poorly, and are willing to choose better, God lovingly forgives us and helps us in our efforts to grow.
The sign of this covenant, Christ's death and resurrection, expressed that God loves us dearly enough to die for us, and that death, whether literal or metaphorical, carries with it the promise of resurrection and new life.
A covenant exists between God and God's community, but what kind of agreements define a relationship between God and individuals? This is where the rule of life plays an important role. The idea of a rule developed in the monastic communities of Christianity -- and indeed, monasteries and convents today still function under a rule.
The monastic rule still governs the life of a community, but it provides the model for an individual rule. Basically, an individual rule consists of a set of established agreements made by the individual as promises to God regarding spiritual practice. A person can adopt an existing rule (many monastic communities have rules written for individual use by persons living in "the world"), or one can write his or her own rule, especially with the cooperation of a spiritual director.
Since a rule defines one's relationship with God, and since God is interested in every aspect of our lives, a spiritual rule might include promises made regarding any area of one's life. Here are some examples of promises that can be effective in a rule:
A commitment to a set time of prayer each day.
A commitment to give away 10% of one's income for spiritual or charitable purposes.
A commitment to abstain and fast at set days, at set times during the year.
A commitment to honor the Sunday through prayer, spiritual readings, works of mercy, leisure and recreation.
A commitment to be loving and attentive to members of our family.
A commitment to work for peace and social justice.
A commitment to active involvement in a church or other apostolate.
A rule is meant to be a spur to growth. Think of the rule as being similar to a stake used to hold up a tomato plant. By providing structure and support to the plant, it enables the plant to grow quickly and healthily. In a similar way, a rule of life provides structure and support not only to our prayer life, but indeed to every aspect of life, enabling us to grow into the persons God wants us to be. Because of this, a rule works best when it is a moderate challenge to us. A rule that we always keep flawlessly is not effective -- it's like a fifth grader solving third grade problems. On the other hand, a rule that is so demanding that we have difficulty even meeting it's minimum standards is likely to discourage us, and therefore defeats its own purpose. The rule is not a tool to make us feel good or feel bad -- it's a tool to help an individual grow in spiritual maturity.
If you would like to adopt a rule of life to provide structure to your own spiritual journey, a good first step to take is to consider a holy, approved Rule like the Rule of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance of Saint Francis. Remember, the main purpose of a rule is to form a "partnership" with God -- to open our minds and hearts to the inrushing love of the Uncreated Source of life!