How Saints Benedict and Ignatius inspired my own Rule of Life
I am a 40-something mom of teenagers in modern America—possibly the furthest thing from a father of Western monasticism or a Renaissance-era Spanish theologian. Yet Sts. Benedict of Nursia and Ignatius Loyola have guided me with their wisdom the past few years through a tool I use weekly: a Rule of Life.
Let me back up.
Several years ago, my family of five embarked on a pilgrimage around the world, living out of backpacks for a school year while we circumnavigated the globe. Both my husband’s and my jobs allowed for location independence and we homeschooled our young children. We also had a hunch this freedom wouldn’t last indefinitely. We took advantage of our unique situation.
To give ourselves an escape hatch button, we planned our trip only three months at a time, which means when we left Texas for China one humid September afternoon, we knew our itinerary only as far as the end of the calendar year. Once we landed in Australia for the holidays, we’d decide if we wanted to keep going. Road-weary and desperate for a breather by December, I was grateful for this strategy because my mind and body were crying out for a pause. I was exhausted from four months of nonstop backpacking in Asia with my three children under age 10, juggling my work as a writer and somehow making sure they snagged bits of time for times tables and spelling lists. Kyle, my husband, also had to steal work time whenever he could. We loved our adventure and had no regrets thus far, but we felt in our bones the weight of responsibility as parents and adults with careers—we weren’t university-age, globetrotting backpackers with the freedom to fly by the seat of our pants.
Sts. Benedict of Nursia and Ignatius Loyola have guided me with their wisdom the past few years through a tool I use weekly: a Rule of Life.
After a nonstop round of Asian hostels, guesthouses, housesitting gigs and the occasional hotel, I was beyond grateful for the invitation to stay a few weeks at a family home with a backyard trampoline in an English-speaking country. Home in this Sydney suburb (a fellow writer friend was also traveling with her family and offered her home as holiday refuge), we’d celebrate Christmas with cereal-box stockings, bake a few cookies and let the kids rest in a house with toys, books and backyard chickens. Kyle and I would catch up on work, relish not doing laundry in a bathroom sink and enjoy going nowhere but the back deck to revel in a Southern Hemisphere summer.
As I rested, the quiet questions I asked myself in our first few weeks in China called out louder. What was our main reason for this year of travel? What wisdom did we hope to gather from backpack vagabonding? How will we be different people once we return home?
Naturally, we’d talked about these general ideas countless times over several years before taking the leap. I already counted the benefits of what we were doing: seeing the world, family bonding, fostering a sense of adventure in our kids. But as I confronted my exhaustion, which surprised me with its intensity, I realized I’d failed to ask one crucial question: Who was I?
A year of travel didn’t lead to knowing myself better; in fact, unpacking my backpack in that ordinary family home gave me the epiphany that it is in the ordinary sundry of life where we find our true selves.
At my core, what sort of person am I? How does knowing this afford me the ability to say no to one possible direction on our trip, but yes to another? How does it also provide the same freedom in my “real,” non-traveling life? And as a wife and mother, how does all this play in tandem with my clan members who bring their own answers to these questions?
It took stripping away my familiar default culture and the safety net of a home base to recognize the foundational nature of these questions. It took the invitation to sip Australian wine under a summer sky with my journal and a few weeks with nothing on the agenda to realize how necessary it is to know the answer to these questions—and not just when I was on an adventure. A year of travel didn’t lead to knowing myself better; in fact, unpacking my backpack in that ordinary family home gave me the epiphany that it is in the ordinary sundry of life where we find our true selves.
I didn’t know it yet, but these questions were the birth of my fascination with an ancient monastic practice called a Rule of Life, credited most notably to St. Benedict. He is known as the father of Western monasticism largely because his concept of a Rule became standard practice for monastic living. By writing down the details of what it meant to live in a community, St. Benedict established both inwardly reflective and outwardly functional guidelines for daily life. His ancient text included a range of ideas, from why one should pray and what should be one’s motive for serving others to how to serve one’s shift in the kitchen. It was both spiritual and pragmatic.
I wanted to create for myself a Rule of Life, but I wanted it to serve more as an ebenezer, a reminder of how God had always been guiding me in life thus far, than a detailed handbook for my days.
I didn’t feel the need for a written down play-by-play on how I should structure my bedtime routine or why my kids should embrace their chores, but I knew I needed to know, deep in my bones, my why for doing what I did. Why did I educate my children with a particular method? Why am I a writer? Why would we eventually live wherever we settled down? By writing these answers down, I would have something to read whenever my motivation stalled.
This is where St. Ignatius’ wisdom joined Benedict’s. I wanted to create for myself a Rule of Life, but I wanted it to serve more as an ebenezer, a reminder of how God had always been guiding me in life thus far, than a detailed handbook for my days. I wanted this Rule of Life to serve as a tablet that etched in stone the things I didn’t want to forget about my truest self—the things I most tend to forget when life is stressful, chaotic or boring.
Gleanings from St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises proved to be the thing I needed to snap the puzzle pieces of this document together. With his foundational principle to find God in all things and his instruction to purposely seek this out daily, I am able to peel back the top layer of my life to see what’s just below the surface. As a busy mom, I’m unable to take a 30-day retreat to participate in Ignatius’ structured contemplation, but I can ask God in the moment to show me where he is as I stir soup for dinner, sit in traffic and chat with my neighborhood barista. As I slow down enough to notice these ordinary invitations to participate in the work of God, I can transform my ordinary life into that which Ignatius inspires me to aspire to: a contemplative in action.
As I slow down enough to notice these ordinary invitations to participate in the work of God, I can transform my ordinary life into that which Ignatius inspires me to aspire to: a contemplative in action.
Several years post-travels now, I’ve achieved a comfortable rhythm of asking myself a set of specific inward questions in order to create my outward Rule of Life, written down in my personal journal and reviewed weekly. I give myself permission to adjust this Rule twice a year, on my birthday and at the start of a new calendar year, acknowledging that God doesn’t call me to a stagnant life. This Rule is divided into six realms: work, relationships, money, health, community and home, and in each, I acknowledge several core truths so that I remember what matters most to me. For instance, the work realm includes the statement “My work is in its rightful place when it’s in tandem with rest and play,” which reminds me that my work doesn’t define me. In the money realm, I’ve written, “We prioritize investing in the future above spending in the present,” a helpful guide when making decisions in our bank account.
These simple, direct statements provide an impetus for me to live a life of both contemplation and action because they are rooted in the fundamental idea that God can be found in all things. I simply need to choose to see it and then take the right action in light of it.
I have Ignatius and his predecessor Benedict to thank for guiding me into a regular rhythm of noticing God in daily life and capturing this truth in words that steer me into saying yes and no to the right things. This practice works whether I’m exploring cobblestone streets of Italy with my kids or more commonly, when I’m taking the recycling to the curb and inviting my neighbor over for a drink.