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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.

What Are Structures?

The word “structure” is used in different ways. Here it means a prescribed way of acting or, to put it simply, a directive. Here are some examples: a schedule, a speed-limit, fasting on Fridays, attending Mass on Sundays, a recipe, and a melody. In each case, something is prescribed for you to follow.


There’s another feature to a structure, as understood here. After you follow a structure, you can observe by some external means whether you followed it. Contrast this with the directive not to nurse a grudge. Whether or not you have followed this directive can be hard to see, since the grudge you bear may be buried in your heart. There may be no external sign by which to see whether you have followed the directive not to nurse a grudge. But with structures, there are external signs that tell you. As examples, notice that you can see on your speedometer whether you followed a speed-limit and you can observe from your external acts of eating whether you fasted. So, structures are not only directives, but externally verifiable directives.


Since they have external features, structures are sometimes spoken of as “externals.” This might lead some to say that they are not important, since what is inside and not what is outside matters. But while it is certainly true that the internal has primacy over the external, still structures are important. The reason is that they are indispensable helps for interior conversion. They help us to do the interior work of growing in the virtues and in such growth is true conversion. This, then, is the value of structures: they are valuable not in themselves, but in their ability to cultivate the virtues. 


Cultivating the virtues is an interior work that can be difficult to monitor. On the other hand, it is easier to monitor structures, since they have an external character. So, we want to take advantage of this by making use of structures (which can be monitored and therefore managed) in such a way that they help us to grow in the virtues (which can be difficult to monitor and therefore manage). 


In sum:

  • Structures are observable in two ways. We can observe (that is, follow) them as prescribed ways of acting and we can observe (that is, notice) whether we followed them since they have external features.

  • Structures are not valuable in themselves, but as ways to cultivate the virtues.

  • The external character of structures allows us to manage them more readily than interior matters and, making use of this, we should employ structures to foster growth in the virtues. 

Virtues: the Aim of Structures


We must always keep in mind that structures are for the sake of the virtues. Otherwise, we risk misusing structures. What, then, is a virtue? 


In good Thomistic-Aristotelian fashion, we start with what we are trying to do. We are trying to attain true human fulfillment, which is found in God and which is also called “salvation.” So, we need to do the kinds of acts that contribute to this fulfillment. Call them fulfillment-fostering acts. A virtue is a steadily ready ability to do a kind of fulfillment-fostering act. Let us break down this description of a virtue. 


First, there are two ways in which a person is able to do something, as may be seen by considering the example of Jill training to run a marathon. She would not have begun training for this, if she did not think that she could run a marathon. So, when Jill first decided to run a marathon, she determined that she was able to do so. But her ability to run a marathon when she first decided to train for one is different from her ability to run the marathon after she has trained for one. At first, she has a remote ability to run a marathon and, after training, she has what might be called a ready ability. A virtue is this latter kind of ability, a ready ability. In other words, your ability to do an act that contributes to fulfillment is heightened, or perfected. You have a facility for doing the fulfillment-fostering act.


Second, a person may be readily able to do something only at certain moments. Jack, for example, is in a generous mood because he had a good day at work. Therefore, when he comes home from work, he is very generous in offering help to his family members. But usually, Jack is not helpful. His ready ability to be generous is only momentary, arising from him having had a good day at work. A virtue, on the other hand, is a steadily ready ability. You are able to do the good act consistently and even when it is difficult to do. So, a virtue is not only a ready ability, but a steadily ready ability to do a kind of fulfillment-fostering act.


In order to identify examples of virtues, let us start by identifying a kind of fulfillment-fostering act and, then, trace this back to the virtue that is the steadily ready ability to do that kind of act. For example, the act of believing what God has revealed to us is a fulfillment-fostering act, for by believing this we allow ourselves to be led by God to true fulfillment. The steadily ready ability to do this act is called the virtue of faith. Another fulfillment-fostering act is the act of making good moral decisions in concrete situations. Knowing and then executing the right thing to do in the here and now is crucial if we are to live in a way that leads to genuine fulfillment. The steadily ready ability to do this kind of act is called the virtue of prudence (or sometimes, it is called discretion). 


As indicated above, true fulfillment is realized in God. So, in helping us on to fulfillment, the virtues are bringing us closer to God. Consider two ways in which the virtues bring us closer to God. One way is by enabling us to do the fulfillment-fostering acts that lead to God. As St. Benedict says, “If we want to dwell in the tent of His kingdom, then unless we run to it by good actions, we will simply not reach it.” (Rule prologue, v. 22) We need to do good actions, in order to attain our dwelling place with God, and the virtues make us steadily ready to do those actions.


The second way that the virtues bring us closer to God is through good interior dispositions. That is, by being steadily ready abilities to do what is good, the virtues are dispositions toward what is good. Therefore, when we have these dispositions, our minds and hearts are lined up with what God wants, since God of course also wants what is good. So, even when we are not carrying out the fulfillment-fostering acts to which the virtues dispose us, the virtues are still causing us to be in alignment with God, and thus closer to God, by being good interior dispositions.


All this happens through Christ. As a human being, Jesus has the virtues; indeed, He has them most perfectly. So, His interior dispositions as a human being are most perfectly aligned with God’s will. Now, the grace of Christ conforms us to His humanity by making us virtuous as He is. But since His humanity is perfectly aligned with God, it follows that when we are conformed to Christ’s humanity in virtue, we are also conformed to—that is, more perfectly aligned with—Christ in His divinity. The virtues, then, conform us to Christ in His humanity and thereby conform us to Christ in His divinity. 


In sum:

  • When employing structures, the intent must be on cultivating the virtues.

  • A virtue is a steadily ready ability to do a kind of act that contributes to human fulfillment.

  • The virtues bring us closer to God by enabling us to do fulfillment-fostering acts, which lead to God, and by being dispositions that bring us into alignment with God.

  • Growing in the virtues means being conformed to Christ in His humanity and, in that way, also to Christ in His divinity. 

How Not to Use Structures


Let’s look now at how NOT to use structures. Consider three incorrect ways. They are out of anxiety, out of attachment, and out of pretense. In all these cases, the use of a structure is separated from the virtues they are meant to foster. 


Out of anxiety. The first wrong way to practice structures is out of anxiety—in particular, an anxiety that blinds one to the goal of structures, which are the virtues. The following two examples both involve a structure that is obligatory for Catholics, namely, the rules of fasting and abstinence during Lent. 


Wally keeps the norms for fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, so that on each of these days he abstains from meat, has one full meal, and has two smaller meals that do not equal the full meal. Anxious that his two smaller meals not exceed the full meal, Wally buys a food scale to measure the exact amounts. Here anxiety makes Wally so preoccupied with keeping the structure itself of fasting that he runs the risk of losing sight of the larger aim, which is to cultivate the virtues. This is what anxiety can do: make people short-sighted through a preoccupation with particulars, so that they lose sight of the larger scheme of things. Fasting offers many ways to grow in virtue, such as by teaching us to be less preoccupied with food and more mindful of the kingdom of God, but here anxiety causes Wally to become so focused on the very structure of fasting that he loses sight of the opportunity that fasting offers to grow in the virtues. 


Another example is Susie who receives a phone call from her friend, Janet, in the evening of Ash Wednesday. Janet is sobbing and is genuinely distraught, and she says that she needs to talk with someone. So, she asks Susie to meet her for a late dinner at a local diner. But Susie has already had three meals that day and she is worried about not keeping the fast for Ash Wednesday. So, Susie says that she cannot meet Janet at the diner. But perhaps Susie’s anxiety about keeping the structure of fasting on Ash Wednesday is blinding her to the larger issue, which is what virtue demands in the present case. Since structures are to serve the virtues, it follows that if omitting a structure would actually serve the demands of virtue in a particular case, then it should be omitted. Most structures, after all, admit of cases in which they may be excused from. To be sure, one should not lightly omit the Ash Wednesday fast, but one may do so if one sincerely judges that this is what virtue demands. Susie needs to make this judgment with a sound mind, deciding whether the virtue of charity demands that she have something to eat with Janet, since Janet is in distress and needs to be consoled. But anxiety gets in the way of making such a judgment with a sound mind and, therefore, it can make a person practice a structure when it should be omitted for the sake of virtue.


Out of attachment. Structures may also be incorrectly practiced out of attachment. Here one clings to structures excessively because of some consolation that they afford. Consider an example that concerns another obligatory structure in the Catholic Church, namely, going to Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. 


John is a devout man who enjoys Mass, for it brings him peace, especially when he receives the Eucharist. But one weekend John comes down with the flu and he still goes to Mass, because he does not want to miss the consolation it brings him. This is wrong, for he risks getting into a car accident, since the flu makes him less alert, and he also risks giving the flu to others, since it is contagious. The virtuous thing would have been to stay home (and note, the Church sees such an illness as a valid reason to excuse oneself from attending Sunday Mass). To avoid misunderstanding here, notice that the consolation that John experiences when attending Mass is not wrong. It is not the problem and may even be a gift from God. But John’s attachment to that consolation is wrong. Due to it, his focus is not on the virtues (which call for him to stay home); instead, his focus is on the consolation of the structure. 


Out of pretense. Finally, a person wrongly uses structures out of pretense. This happens when one uses structures for the sake of looking good. Jesus Himself gives examples of this.


“[W]hen you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men…. And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men…. And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men” (Matthew 6:2,5,16). Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are “righteous deeds,” says Jesus (Matthew 6:1), and He speaks of “when” they are done, not “if” they are done. So, we should keep structures concerning prayer, self-denial, and helping the needy. But when one observes such a structure, in order to “be praised by men,” then the focus is not on the virtues, but on looking good before others. This is wrong.


Sometimes doing a structure out of pretense is not in order to look good in front of others, but to look good in one’s own eyes. Consider another example given by Jesus: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” (Luke 18:10-14) The Pharisee kept structures regarding fasting and tithing, but he was doing it for self-admiration. This is wrong. Just as when one keeps structures to look good before others, so too when one keeps structures to look good in one’s own eyes, the focus is not on acquiring genuine virtue, but on appearing to be virtuous. In His strong criticisms of this, Jesus makes it clear that this must be avoided when we practice structures.


We must be careful of these wrong ways of using structures. Sometimes when we have the wrong motives for employing structures, we fall into certain traps, such as trying to incorporate too many structures into our lives or thinking that we can merit salvation simply or mainly by keeping structures. Avoid these occupational hazards of using structures!


The fact that structures can be practiced wrongly does not mean that they cannot be practiced rightly. In fact, it is our view that we need the help of structures (granted that they are practiced rightly) to sustain our growth in virtue. Four ways in which structure can help with virtue-acquisition are given in the section on how to use structures.


In sum:

  • Structures are wrongly practiced whenever their observance is separated from the virtues.

  • We therefore want to avoid keeping structures out of an anxiety that is so preoccupied with the structures themselves that we lose sight of the virtues they are meant to serve. 

  • We also want to avoid practicing structures out of an attachment to some consolation that the structures afford, for then we are more focused on the consolation than on fostering the virtues.

  • And we must avoid practicing structures out of pretense, for then it is about appearing virtuous rather than about being virtuous.

How to practice structures


Structures can help us to grow in virtue in at least four ways. They are: practicing, protecting, probing, and pointing. 


As a prelude to explaining these four ways, first note that if we are going to attain our genuine fulfillment, we need to do the kinds of acts that contribute to it. This is why we are cultivating the virtues, for they are the heightened abilities to do these fulfillment-fostering acts, as we explained in the section on the virtues. So, the more virtuous we are, the more able we are to do these acts that lead to our genuine human fulfillment. 


But notice that the way that you build up an ability to do something is through practice. Thus, if you want to improve your ability to play the piano, you must practice playing the piano. Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes. The same is true for the virtues, since they are abilities. To be more and more able to do fulfillment-fostering acts, such as hoping in God, loving your neighbor, and discerning what is right vs. wrong, one must practice these acts.


Practicing. This brings us to one way in which structures help us to cultivate the virtues. It is by being occasions for practicing fulfillment-fostering acts. For example, the structure of putting aside 20 minutes every morning to read the Bible prayerfully is an occasion to practice the act of praying to God. And the structure that stipulates giving a certain amount of one’s income to a charity every month provides an occasion to practice the act of loving one’s neighbor, so that one grows in the virtue of charity. 


It is worth noticing here how easily we neglect doing fulfillment-fostering acts. For example, one may find the time to check social media frequently or watch hours of programming, but one does not find time in the day for prayer or for reading thoughtful literature. Or one may have more financial resources than one needs, but rather than give generously from that surplus to the needy, one spends it on things that one wants but does not need. Who has not been guilty of such neglect at times? There is a name for this tendency to neglect the activities that truly give life. It is called “sloth.” By providing us with occasions to practice the acts that contribute to fulfillment, structures are offering us supports for doing these acts against our slothful tendency to neglect them.

Protecting. Just as practicing fulfillment-fostering acts builds up the virtues, so the practice of fulfillment-hindering acts weakens them. Structures can also help us here by protecting us from doing bad acts, which diminish the virtues. 

For example, suppose Carlos spends too much time on his smartphone. This hinders his fulfillment, for it scatters his mental focus and energy and, as a result, he loses his zeal for doing good things. In response to this, Carlos may follow a structure that limits his use of his smartphone, such as not allowing himself to use it before or after a certain time. Structures that keep one busy can also serve to protect the virtues. This is because being idle sometimes leads a person to fall into bad habits, such as pornography or substance abuse. So, when structures keep a person constructively occupied, they protect against falling into these vices.

Another example of structures that protect the virtues are boundaries. Observing a boundary keeps a person from doing something that may not be bad in itself, but that can be a stepping stone toward a behavior that is bad in itself. One draws a line short of the actual bad action, so as to protect oneself from doing that bad action. For example, drunk driving is a bad action and to keep oneself from even coming close to that bad action, one may keep the boundary of not drinking alcohol at all when one is going to be driving. 


A final example to offer here of a structure that protects the virtues are structures of self-denial. These structures include fasting and intentionally doing something disagreeable (e.g., taking a cold shower), in order to subdue disordered desires or tendencies. By pushing back against the greediness of our desires, these structures help to protect a person from giving into wayward desires.


Probing. Deception hinders our efforts to be virtuous. If we are deceived into thinking that we are more virtuous than we truly are, that prevents us from doing the work that remains to be done in virtue-acquisition. After all, we fail to see the work that still remains to be done. Some structures help in this regard by probing our hearts, testing us, as it were, so that we more accurately see the extent of our virtue. Spoiler alert: the extent of our virtue is less than we think. 


For example, by observing a structure that requires us to give to the poor regularly, we may find that we are hesitant to give away our possessions and, thus, we see that we are more attached to our possessions than we realized. Further, we may think that we are not attached to the comforts of eating, but when we fast, we find that we become cranky. This shows that we are attached to the comforts of eating. Another example is when we keep a structure that requires us to spend time with others, such as to eat meals together or to do a common activity. Although we thought that we were fairly patient, it may turn out that when we spend time with others, we find that we are brimming with impatience.


Being shown up in this way is a good thing, for it humbles us with the truth. Therefore, when it happens, do not fight it, but acknowledge that you are still wanting in virtue. In turn, you are now able to take up anew the work of conversion that still needs to be done. God is pleased by the humility to acknowledge our faults and the resolve to work on conversion.


Pointing. We all need reminders, for we forget things, even important things. We can even forget God, that is, we can be unmindful of Him. We forget or cease to be mindful of other things as well, such as our dignity as human beings. So again, we need reminders, that is, things that point us to truths that we need to keep in mind, if we are to live virtuously. Some structures work in this way to point us to what is worth remembering.


One example is abstaining from meat on Fridays in Lent. This reminds us of, that is, points our awareness to, the sacrifice of the Cross. It also reminds us of our identity as Catholics, since this structure is especially associated with Catholicism. Moreover, wearing a wedding ring reminds one of one’s vocation to marriage and of the one’s spouse. Wearing a religious habit reminds a religious of his or her consecration to God through the profession of vows. Observing the memorial of a saint on the liturgical calendar points to that saint, to his or her example, and to his or her intercession for us.


Many structures concerning food, clothing, and rituals work as pointers, or reminders, in this way. In recent times, many are looking to incorporate such structures into their lives—especially families that are eager to foster a religious culture in the “domestic churches” of their homes.


The virtues are not mindless. Rather, they depend on remaining mindful of God and of what matters to God. By staying mindful of these things, our hearts are stirred to do the activities that contribute to genuine fulfillment and we keep in mind the things that truly matter. 


In sum:

  • Structures can serve as occasions for practicing fulfillment-fostering acts, so that the virtues are built up.

  • Structures can protect a person from doing bad acts, which diminish the virtues.

  • Structures can probe the heart, to show to what extent one has grown in virtue.

  • Structures can also point to things of which we should be mindful, in order to be virtuous.

How to Practice Structures
How Not to Use Structues
Virtues: The Aim of Structures
Overview SLM
What are Structures
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