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Eight Principles For One's Rule of Life

1. A rule of life, made up of structures, is necessary in the spiritual life.


Spirituality is more important than structures. Still, one’s spirituality needs the support of structures for its sustained health and growth. Here we will speak of spirituality primarily in terms of the virtues – thus, the growth in spirituality is the growth in virtue.

All believers have an informal rule of life made up of structures (both public and private ones, as explained below). But not all believers think explicitly or intentionally about their rule of life. There is a value to thinking explicitly and intentionally about the structures you follow as your rule of life.

2. A structure is a directive that can be observed in two senses: the directive can be observed (as in followed) and one can observe (as in notice) whether one followed it.


Here are some examples: a speed limit; a recipe; the practice of saying the Rosary every day; a musical score; an organizational chart (also called a “governance structure”); the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation; a diet regimen; a workout routine; wearing a Benedictine medal.

3. The purpose of structures is to foster the virtues.

If they do not, they are useless and may even be harmful.


Structures can foster virtues in a variety of ways. Some offer ways of practicing virtues (e.g., a commitment to volunteer every month). Some help to curtail behaviors that foster vices rather than virtues (e.g., a limit on screen-time). Some test our hearts to see what progress we have made and still need to make in conversion (e.g., the vow of poverty is a structure that tests how attached to wealth you are). Some structures cultivate a mindfulness of God and His ways and what we should be about (e.g., making the sign of the cross at the beginning of the day as a reminder of being conformed to Christ crucified and of one’s Trinitarian faith).

4. A virtue is ready and steady ability to act in a particular way that fulfills us and unites us to God.

To fulfill our calling, we need certain abilities. That is, we must be able to act in certain ways, such as to make good decisions, to control our behaviors, and to endure hardships.

There are three things about these abilities, when they are virtues. First, they are not latent abilities (e.g., my ability to run a marathon if I trained for it) but a ready ability (e.g., my ability to run a marathon because I have trained for it). Second, the ability is not a passing one (e.g., my ability to be generous when I’m in a good mood), but a steady one, that is, one that is abiding and consistent (e.g., the ability to be generous no matter what mood I'm in). Finally, the ability is for a particular kind of act, namely, a kind of act that leads to my genuine well-being (such as the act of being patient). The above definition captures this last point by saying that a virtue is fulfilling and that it contributes to union with God.

5. We should joyfully follow public structures.

Public structures are those that apply to all within a group or community (e.g.: rules of the house, such as chores; laws of society, such as the tax code; precepts of the Church, such as those regarding Mass attendance).

We are speaking here of those public structures that we should follow. There can be public structures that we should not follow (e.g., sometimes we should disobey an unjust law) or that, due to a particular situation, we should be dispensed from (e.g., going to Mass when you have a 102° fever).

Since we are speaking of public structures that are right and just to follow, then following them is a good thing and we should do so joyfully and for God’s sake. (See what St. Benedict says in chapter 5 of his Rule about a cheerful giver.)


A related aside is this: If you are in a position to establish public structures for a group (e.g., a parent in a family, boss at work, pastor of a parish, superior of a religious community, member of a board that oversees a school), you have the responsibility to do so in ways that foster virtues, particularly those needed for the well-being of the group, and not in ways that are overly burdensome (see vs. 46 of the Rule’s prologue).

6. We should prudently employ private structures.

Private structures are those that one freely chooses for oneself (such as when to fast, what kind of prayer to do, dietary structures). One’s rule of life consists of all the structures that one follows, both public and private; yet, in speaking about a rule of life, the emphasis will be on the private structures, since these are the ones that one is free to choose for oneself.

7. Private structures should help foster those virtues that we especially need at this point in our faith journey.

To discern what private structures to employ, we should discern what virtues (i.e., abilities) are especially needed now in our lives. Choose the structures that will help to foster these virtues. You might invent your own structures or borrow ones that you have learned from others.

Keep the focus on the virtues (that is, moral abilities) that you need. Here are some ways to discern which virtues are especially needed now in your life. Do an examination of conscience, so as to identify your habitual sins and then look at the virtues that you need to break free from those sins. Or think about the three theological virtues and the four cardinal virtues, and see if you currently need to work especially on any of these or the virtues that fall under them. Another way is to consider the virtues that concern sexuality, possessions, and free will, since these three areas are those touched on by the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience and, as St. John Paul II teaches, all Christians can learn from these counsels, even if they do not profess vows about them (see Vita Consecrata 21, 87-91).

8. Balance is making prudential decisions about what private structures to employ and when to dispense ourselves from structures, whether public or private.

Again, we want to choose private structures that fit well with our current efforts to grow in virtue. Be prudent in deciding which private structures you should follow in your current situation. Keep in mind that while some structures are good for certain people, they might not be good for you (e.g., many of the structures of religious life are good for those who are called to religious life, but not for others, such as married persons). Also some structures are good for us at certain times, but not at other times (e.g., a fasting regimen that worked well when I was younger but not when I am older, or a workout routine that helped when I was 18 years old but not when I am 65 years old).

Most structures admit of situations in which they should be dispensed from (thus, as noted above, you should dispense yourself from the structure of attending Sunday Mass if you have a 102° fever). Prudence entails being able to see when a structure, which we would normally follow, should not be followed.

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