Thursday, March 14, 2013

Counsels of Perfection: A Rule of Life

 You might be interested in:  

Index of Posts for Counsels of Perfection Book Study
Some Examples of Rules of LIfe
Elizabeth Leseur's Rule of Life

Today we are reading chapters 5 and 6,  The Need of a Rule of Life and Promptness in Rising.  These two chapters are challenging for me to read, let alone discuss, but here goes!

Chapter 5:  The Need of a Rule of Life

I was surprised when I first read this chapter on a Rule of Life.   Before that, I had thought that a Rule was basically the same as an Horarium.   I had the impression it had to be comprehensive, to basically account for every moment of the day.

Msgr Lejeune seems to think of the Rule we make for our lives as more like scaffolding or a frame.   I am going to list a few things he says about it.

A Rule is not just for those who dwell in monasteries.  Every serious Christian should have some sort of rule.

It is advisable, though not necessary, to write it out.
"When written out, it will have much more precision than if it were only in the memory"
It doesn't have to be extensive, especially at first.
"A few simple resolutions, clearly stated, will be entirely sufficient."
It is and should be subject to modification.
"A rule is not immutable; we can always add to it according as divine grace directs us.  Indeed, it is better to add to a rule than to subtract from it."

Advantages to a Rule
  1. Avoids caprice
  2. Avoids the danger of naturalism, of living just like our culture.
  3. Makes our lives more fruitful
  4. Helps us to get done what we need to do.
"Ask any Christian mother who accomplishes an astonishing amount of work, yet never has an air of depression, ask her, I say, the secret of her activity.    She will tell you that she works methodically, because she is guided by a rule."

Suggested Essentials to the Rule:

  1. "Determine the hour of your rising and retiring."  -- he suggests early rising.  More on this in the next chapter.
  2. Say morning and evening prayers kneeling.
  3. Spend a quarter of an hour on spiritual reading.
  4. Receive the sacraments.  He says that this is the part of the Rule most likely to change as one takes one's walk with God more seriously.  One will want to go to the sacraments more and more. 
"I will propose this rule for the distribution of your time.   Give your attention above all to the most important duties.  I mean those of your interior, and station in life.   Then attend to the less important duties; the remainder of your time may be spent on duties of pure decorum -- if any more time remains."

Last but not least,
"Since your rule has been made for God, it is for God that it should be carried out."  
Remember to offer the day to God as often as you think about it.


If you don't have a rule already and don't have an idea where to start, taking one or two of his suggestions might be helpful.     I suppose it might make sense to start with the one you are closest to feeling able to do, or most motivated to try, and go from there. 

For me, the book's advice has been both been refreshingly simple AND rather challenging to follow.    I like the way the essential points are all targeted directly to my interior life.    Since when I am busy, I have trouble remembering the Presence of God, the main area I need help is in remembering that "One Needful Thing".    However, none of the things he suggests are particularly easy for me.  I feel like a toddler first learning to walk and talk; approximations are signs of progress but also inducements to humility.

Chapter 6:  Promptness in Rising

This is a strong chapter!  He does not hesitate to say
"The spiritual life is absolutely impossible for her who is irregular in rising."
He says that the main thing is to set an hour for retiring and for rising, and stick to it.    That allows for those of you who have demands on your time, like work that keeps you up late or a night-owl husband or small children, to adjust your rising time to reality without giving into whim. 

He adds the recommendation that the rising be early, before dawn if possible.    That obviously means going to bed earlier -- he recommends at least 7 hours of sleep, but not more than 8.  

There is more in the chapter.  

Let me add a couple of considerations that occur to me as a mother of several who was either pregnant or nursing over a period of 2 decades. 

The Church generally exempts pregnant and nursing mothers from fasts and I believe the same principle applies by analogy to sleep (especially as there are no official disciplines about sleep per se, only various venerable monastic disciplines, and also quite a few scriptural reminders to be vigilant, rise early and not doze when you should be watching).  

 When I had small children I tried very hard to sleep when my youngest child slept, and that was my regulation for that season.   Obviously I could not sleep as many hours as my newborn could -- I had toddlers to take care of and a life outside the bassinet.  But I felt that adequate rest (and time spend cherishing the little one) was just as important, if not more important, than adequate nourishment.    If I was dealing with prolonged sleep deprivation, I could actually feel myself becoming mentally ill.   When God gave me a sick or wakeful child, I received the graces to handle sleep deprivation, but when I tried to impose an extrinsic discipline on my sleep habits, then I quickly overloaded. 

I have decided that in those days, my children were my "monastery bells", and basically the unpredictable, sudden, intense demands of my vocation WERE the essence of my Rule back then.    I often felt like a sentry or EMT tech -- I had to keep myself in a state of vigil, neither too comfortable nor too depleted.   I often thought of Milton's sonnet especially the ending:
 They also serve who only stand and waite.
Or in this case, hold a child's hand in the hospital room, or rock him in the rocking chair in the small hours, or get up in the middle of the night to change a diaper.

 Even after my last child was past toddlerhood, we still had regular (but unpredictable) medical emergencies.   I tended to try to keep a reserve of rest available for those all-nighters in the ER or midnight trips to the transplant hospital 250 miles away.    Plus, I taught myself to doze in the most unlikely places.    I almost always snoozed a bit in the dentist chair, and I could get a decent night's sleep in a chair in the PICU if I had to.... at least enough to survive. 

Now my youngest is ten and everyone is reasonably healthy and so when I read this chapter again I asked myself what was preventing me, these days, from getting up before dawn, and I couldn't come up with an answer.   

So for Lent I tried to set my alarm for 5 am. just to see how it would go.  Lent is a good time to tackle things you aren't sure you can handle, because even failing is winning because of the humility check!    I have seen several benefits from getting up before dawn.   One is that I have some quiet time for devotions.  Another is that I get to see the dawn, which I love.   Another is that I feel closer to my deceased parents who habitually got up at 5 am, and my parents in-law who still get up at 5.    Another is that I can start getting ready to go to sleep shortly after dinner!    That helps me get through the afternoon because it doesn't feel like I have a second shift starting.    Finally, by going to sleep earlier, I avoid the temptation to snack on low-quality carbs after dinner.    I think I felt that temptation because I was getting sleepy. 

Now that I am getting up at 5, the hardest two parts are (1) going to sleep in time to get enough sleep (2) getting up right away.

For going to sleep on time, my best strategy is not to do anything that revs me up after a certain point in the evening.    If I read fiction, or start a project, or exercise vigorously, or drink something caffeinated, I am going to be up late,which is going to mess up my rising.

And in the morning, when it is cold and dark and I want to stay in bed, my best strategy has been St Josemaria Escriva's Serviam!   I guess it is what St Michael said "I will serve" in contrast to Satan's Non Serviam.   For some reason, probably a boost from my guardian angel, the short motto makes my muscles activate enough to pull me out of bed and then I can usually manage to stumble down and start the coffee maker, and then my morning routine kicks into gear. 

So that is my past and present experience with this topic.

I researched online and found that most productivity sites recommend early rising in order to get more done.  (I will admit I still have trouble getting things done even when I do wake up earlier, so I haven't yet seen that benefit)  However, the health benefits aren't as clearcut.   Physiologically, it doesn't really seem to matter so much what time you go to bed or get up.  What makes the biggest different in health across the board is simply getting ENOUGH sleep.     There is a modern epidemic of sleep problems; probably very few adults these days sleep TOO  much; perhaps that was more of an issue back when there wasn't universal electric lighting and indoors temperature control.     

So I think it's important to arrange your life prayerfully to make it most likely to get adequate rest and sleep; then when you are there, take into consideration Msgr's advice about rising early.  I think he accounts for this when he recommends starting with fixed hours of rising and retiring.   But again, I think mothers with small children need to think generously with their sleep requirements, both for their own health and the health and well being of their unborn and small children. 


I would really love to hear your experience with rising at a fixed hour or rising early.  I would like to hear both positive and negative feedback.     Have you made any changes in your habits or are you considering any? 


  1. With many mom-sites and time-management gurus promoting personal and family mission statements, I appreciate the concept of a rule of life. It puts the same concept into a spiritual context instead of modeling your lie on business principles.

    Thank you for the extension of grace on the early rising. When I am adequately rested, I do *like* getting up at 5am. At times like now, when I'm up multiple times a night with the baby, I always struggle with if I should still practice discipline and get up early or if it's ok to go back to bed.

    1. Hi Mystie,

      It's challenging to deal with "baby time"! I always liked getting up early, too, but not at the expense of being exhausted all day. Baby and toddler days require a lot from the mom. Allowing for that, I think, is not giving up on discipline, but letting it take a different form appropriate to that season. You probably are quite aware of when you have become too tired to function properly. If you have no choice about it, you do what you can do, but if you can get a bit of extra rest, I think that takes priority over most other things, because most other things are much harder when you are sleep deprived.

      I agree that time management and parenting/family systems become much richer when they are turned to that spiritual focus. It seems to me that many saints and eminent Christians had a deep understanding of organization and human psychology so those things aren't wrong or worldly per se, they are just incomplete and misdirected if turned only towards "fulfillment" or "prosperity" or even "development of potential".

      This book's discussion of Naturalism has helped me think over any tendency of mine to compartmentalize, to think of say, organization, as something separate from my spiritual life.

  2. I still get confused about what a rule actually is. Sometimes it sounds like a mission statement to me, and sometimes it sounds more like a schedule. Is it something else entirely? Can you point me to an example? I can't say I don't find it appealing, but my understanding is very dim. :)

    1. I put some examples of Rules here
      I found that most of the examples didn't really give much of a definition. Rule comes from "regula" so means "guide", or a standard by which something may be tested, as you probably already know. One article I read compared a Rule to a trellis that lets the vine grow up and outwards rather than folding into a clump, but doesn't restrict its freedom to grow within that framework.

      ST Benedict's Rule is the classic, and he discusses everything from what Psalms and how many are to be said at one time to the specific duties and changing ceremonies of the table servers. But Those who have commented on Benedict's Rule in modern times generally say that the specifics of his Rule can be modified with attention to the principles. So it seems that the spirit behind the rule is more crucial than the details of the rule itself, but of course if the rule is treated carelessly there may be a problem.

      Thinking of St Benedict's Rule, it incorporates some parts of a mission statement and a schedule, but is somewhat more than either. Mission statements are usually general and visionary, so need working out on a practical level, while schedules are very concrete and don't always apply to different situations. His injunctions on where time is spent seems to assume a schedule or horarium but doesn't add up to the same thing. Most of the specific parts of the rule seem to deal with the community aspects of life. I suppose an individual's rule can be simpler than Benedict's because it doesn't have to treat the whole community, just the individual.

  3. The feel I got from MROL was that a Rule was more than either. As Christians, our "mission" isn't something we have to generate ourselves, though we all do have different callings or situations. So it's definitely more than a simple statement. I found it more like Laura Vanderkamp's idea of listing out our "core competencies" -- the things only we can do -- and making sure they are adequately addressed and managed and growing, not just with a time slot in our day, but with purpose and intention (even if the time slot shifts).

    Boy, I think I've read too many time management books. :) Tell me that's not possible, Willa! I just finished Attack Your Day; I saw when it was free for Kindle. And I still have Power of Full Engagement on hand to read (did I see that one recommended by you?). The concept of managing energy rather than time never seems more applicable than when I'm not getting full nights' sleep. :) And, even more so when the days are gray.

    I suppose even if I am not getting up early, the family still is not irregular in rising. Even if I don't get up before 7, all the children are up by then and starting breakfast and their morning stuff even if I'm a bit late (like 7:30 after getting dressed and feeding the baby) to drag myself into the middle of the fray. :)

    1. Haha,

      If it's possible, I probably have, too. In that case I have probably read too many parenting, pop psychology and homeschooling books as well. On the other hand, I suppose anyone working in a professional field continues their education -- regular classes, conferences, and so on -- so studying in the area you are trying to improve in seems like part of taking your role seriously, in that perspective.

      I wasn't the one who recommended Power of Full Engagement but it sounds interesting and I am planning to zip to Amazon and check it out. I know we both liked GTD.

      I like that idea of core competencies. It fits in nicely with the main message of Litany of Keeping House that I read a few years ago, that your home management is a creative, unique endeavor, not like a factory model at all. I love that idea though I have a hard time making it a reality in my life.

  4. I first encountered the idea of a rule of life shortly after my first was born and my big gripe about A Mother's Rule of Life is that Pierlot does not adequately address the adjustments one needs to make when one has nursing infants and toddlers. I got bogged down in the idea of schedule and ended up wanting to lob the book against a wall.

    I was sure there was some gold to be panned from the mud, but in my constantly sleep deprived state couldn't fathom how to do so. I read it again after baby number two with even more despair as I realized that just as I felt I was getting into a rhythm and getting a hang of the idea of a schedule the children shifted their schedules. And then in the next few years three more babies have kept me on a constant roller coaster.

    Fortunately I encountered many wiser more experienced moms who had been where I was and who assured me that just surviving and doing my best to care for myself and my children and pray when I could was sufficient during this tumultuous time. I'm still waiting to hit that season with older kids which may make it possible t rise at a regular time and to regulate my sleep a little more. People assure me it will happen one of these days.

    But in the meantime writing down expectations in too much detail is for me a recipe for disaster. I'm better off I think going with the flow each day with only a very sketchy outline of things I'd like to happen, understanding that flux is a huge part of this season of life.

    Also, my natural tendency is to be a night owl. Waking up early for prayer and reflection results in my prayer being very muddled no matter how much sleep I've gotten. Late at night I feel much more clear headed. So I know there is a virtue in rising early but I also feel there's perhaps something to be said for recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses and making your primary time for prayer a time when you are more naturally alert. What do you think? Is that just self-justification or a valid insight?

    1. Hi Melanie,

      I agree with you about the unique vocation of a mom with small children and babies. I am sure you have already read it, but Francis de Sales "Letters to Persons in the World" have several parts that concern pregnancy, being a mother, and duties of state in life in that regard. He writes about the pregnant mom being in the process of building a cathedral for God, and that added penances and so on seem superfluous and perhaps distracting from the primary calling. I think it applies by extension to the nursing mom as well, for much the same reasons, though our society does not acknowledge the importance or the demands of nourishing an infant or toddler.

      I first read MROL when I was in the throes of dealing with a medically complicated child and had just become pregnant with another with the same condition. Holly wrote about how she told her husband she couldn't go on in New Year 2000 and from there was inspired to make some changes that led to her writing the book. It just made me laugh because when she was going through that epiphany, I was at the hospital with Aidan and had been basically there for the past 7 months. We were facing Y2K in a huge computer-run city hospital with a child whose health was very much dependent on complex electronic equipment. My epiphany in the same time frame was so different from hers: something like "I HAVE to go on, God give me strength!" and "we are on a rollercoaster where things will be unpredictable minute by minute and will be for some time". In short, her life was so not mine that it both reminded me of the mystery of the communion of saints, how we are interdependent even in separate parts of the world and in very different situations, AND let me off the hook with regard to following her type of Rule. That sort of freed me to take the parts of the book that were helpful to me.

      About being a night owl -- I guess there is medical evidence that some people tend to have nightowl biorhythms and some have the morning lark type cycles. I don't think it is self-justification to acknowledge that you are more of a night person and try to gear your prayer times around your best moments of the day. Though I hope sleepy prayers are basically OK, too, alongside the more alert ones.

    2. Oh yes. I love St Francis de Sales. Maybe it's time for a re-read of that.... He is so good with the practical advice. I rather wish someone would do a re-write of Holly's MROL that takes into account various stages of life, things like St Francis de Sales advice to pregnant mothers, and different personalities and family types. I've known a few women discouraged from the idea of a rule of life because Holly's vision is rather narrow. I suspect a big difference in your approach to the book and mine was that you had several years and several children under your belt where I was still a new mother and the whole thing was rather new to me. I think coming at it now I'd have the ability to only take the parts of the book that were helpful to me. But I'd still like to see something included for new mothers to help them take what works and leave the rest because I don't think you should have to wait until the kids are older to start getting your spiritual life in order. On reflection, of course I have taken quite a bit from her book and I find that every so often I go back to many of the ideas she presents. Even though I've never written a formal rule, I've certainly made a habit of examining my priorities and looking at what I'm doing, thinking about how circumstances have changed and whether I should be adjusting to meet them. My biggest take away from her book was not anything she wrote but the insight that my life as a mother goes through seasons and cycles and that by recognizing where I currently am I have a more realistic idea of where i should be. It helps to be able to recognize: I'm in the first trimester phase or I'm in the newborn phase and therefore it would be unrealistic to try to do x, y, or z.

      I do think sleepy prayers are ok. Didn't St Francis deSales say something about those too?

    3. Melanie,

      About new mothers having their spiritual house in order: I quite miss my baby days. In some ways I have to seek out devotions now, sort of more artificially, whereas a baby seemed so much an organic contemplation for me.

      Your thought about rewriting MROL made me envision a carnival or anthology of different Rules from different mothers... I suppose the danger is that we compare and overwhelm each other, but I can also see how it might give us ideas and encouragement.

  5. Willa, the chapters and your post were very inspiring:-) I've spent most of my married life getting up soon after 5 am because my husband leaves for work then. But, there have been periods where I've risen, later, too. It's usually been linked to later bedtimes and it does affect my prayer time badly,

    Right now, I'm thinking about St. Therese - about how she was obedient to her rule, yet not self-condemning regarding her weaknesses. Do you think, even if we suspect a lazy attitude, if we offer up our weakness to God, He will provide us with the graces to overcome them? That way, we could have peace, even if we feel we're failing. I find that so much improvement comes from supernatural graces - a gift, rather than self-effort. These are just thoughts as I write, again, but it makes me think just how prayerfully we need to consider our Rule and how we need to balance self-discipline with humility and trust.

    I get the feeling that I've either gone off track or repeated what's been said already - too many jumbling thoughts!

    Love this book and your program, Willa:-) Thank you!
    God bless:-)

    1. Vicky,

      Your comments are always perceptive. I am so glad you are reading along, and I really appreciate you sharing faithfully. I think the reference to St Therese's attitude comes at just the right time. For me, certainly, and also it is helpful in the discussion.

      Whenever we are talking about Counsels of Perfection, we are necessarily talking about doing something more than the minimum requirement. And yet, God calls us to show generosity in such different ways. It's always difficult to steer the balance. The Church requires very little, and always lovingly, because it recognizes that people are in very different circumstances, and that "only one thing is needful". However, that doesn't mean that we won't want to do and be more than that minimum, if we love God. So this book gives advice for some ways to be generous, but not everyone is called to everything at the same time. The object is always growing closer to God, not getting more stars on our report card : ). The thief on the cross whose whole life was bad is better off than many Pharisees who always did everything according to the Law.

      I think that is why St Paul warns us not to compare. If we come out "ahead" it is dangerous because we can become like the Pharisee. If we come out "behind" it can lead to discouragement rather than fruitful humility, or distract us from our main goal to be more like Jesus.

      In that way the spiritual life seems to me more creative than performance-oriented. When we are in the creative flow we regret mistakes and want to do well but not in a self-conscious way -- simply because we have some beautiful thing in mind and want to bring our work closer to it. In a way it is irrelevant, then, if someone else is "better" because what we are focusing on is uniquely ours and has its own place separate from anything else.

      That's what I always think of when I see your photo edits, Vicky! You are a way better artist and photo technician than I am, but you share your creative process so that I can see how you are thinking and choosing. So it makes me feel like I could try it myself and come up with things that said what I wanted them to say. Even though I probably would not get as good as you are, that would not matter. So spiritual generosity can be inspiring and a gift to everyone, even though I will definitely not do what Francis of Assisi or St Paul did.

      St Therese managed to turn both her aspirations and her weakness to good, to God. She saw the truth that our failures, too, can be fruitful, because we are not dependent on our own strength, but on God's. I like the way our friend Suzie thinks of her failures (eg forgetting to say a day of a novena) as hopeful signs that now God is in the mixture! I have a hard time thinking this way, yet I believe it is profoundly true, and my difficulty is because my soul is not closely enough aligned with the Trinity.

      I can "see" it in creative processes, though; when we make a mistake sometimes it is a door to something better.

      Sorry this got so long, and probably confused! : ).

  6. Not confused, Willa - more food for thought:-)

    I feel such a spiritual connection with St. Therese. I feel an understanding of her way of thinking and her thoughts seem familiar. Thank you for expanding on the idea and deepening the reflection - this is a stimulating discussion!

    God bless, Willa:-)


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