I remember the first time I noticed that some people arrange their lives to see sunsets. It was summertime in the Gulf of Florida when the days were hot and the nights were balmy. During the day, crowds of people were out lying in the sun and playing noisily on the beach, but in the early evening the real sun lovers came out.
These were the ones who planned their whole day around seeing the sunset; in the early evening they would emerge from their condos with beach chairs and maybe a glass of wine. They would position their chairs at the edge of the water and settle in as though they were awaiting the beginning of a much-anticipated movie or play. At first there was chatting, but as the sun sank lower in the sky, people would become quiet; couples would lean in closer to each other; children would stop their playing, and beachcombers would pause just to watch. As the sun hung low on the horizon, pregnant with color, and the cloud formations glowed from the inside out, a reverent hush would descend upon all who were gathered. In that fullness of time no words were necessary. It was enough just to be in the presence of such beauty.
Once I glimpsed the possibility of arranging my days at the beach this way, I, too, began to plan my days around the setting of the sun. Each sunset was unique, so I didn’t want to miss one, and my anticipation for sunsets only grew as the days went by. In fact, one evening I was running errands when I realized that time had gotten away from me, and the sun was going down “over there” while I was “over here” shopping for groceries. I dropped everything and drove like a maniac to get back to the beach, not wanting to miss even one of those spectacular moments. I began to bring to sunsets a kind of urgency and intentionality that had nothing to do with duty and everything to do with desire. I didn’t have to arrange my life to see sunsets; I wanted to. This rhythm of nature that happened every single day was so rich and compelling that I didn’t want to miss it.
It is possible to arrange our lives for spiritual transformation just as sun lovers arrange their lives around seeing sunsets. There are spiritual rhythms so beautiful and so good for body and soul that once we experience them, we don’t want to miss a day of living in them. In Christian tradition there is a name for a way of life that moves us beyond random and haphazard approaches to a more intentional approach that allows us to say yes to our heart’s deepest spiritual longings day in and day out. It is called a “rule of life,” and it is simply a way of ordering our lives around the values, practices, and relationships that keep us open and available for God’s mysterious work of transformation in our lives. A rule of life provides structure and space for our growing.
I have grown to appreciate the language of spiritual rhythms or sacred rhythms because it provides relief from some of the heavy-handed and rigid approaches to the spiritual life that many Christians—Catholics and Protestants alike—have experienced. This language draws on the imagery of the natural rhythms of the created order: the ebb and flow of ocean waves and tides, which come and go steadily but are full of infinite variety and creativity; the predictability of the changing seasons, but also the beauty and variance that capture us anew every time; the rhythm of a good beat, which makes music and dancing one of the most delightful and spontaneous experiences we enjoy.
There are also rhythms necessary for us to be alive, such as the rhythms of our breathing and our heartbeat. When either of these essential rhythms of the body stops, we’re dead. It is the same with spiritual rhythms. Certain rhythms are so essential to the spiritual life that when they stop, we become spiritually deadened and lifeless. Developing a rule of life is about arranging our lives around the practices and experiences that keep us alive spiritually and create space for the intimacy with God that we so desperately need and want.
Longing for More
The process of developing a rule of life or a rhythm of spiritual disciplines begins with paying attention to desire—and sometimes even desperation!—and then being willing to arrange our lives for what we say we most want. Our desire, then, becomes the impetus for deepening our spiritual journey. Desire can ambush us at the strangest times. One of these unexpected ambushes happened for me while sitting in a staff meeting at a church I was serving. The purpose of the meeting was to talk about how we could attract more people to join our church. At one point someone counted the requirements for church membership and made the startling discovery that somewhere around five extra time commitments per week were required of those who wanted to become church members! Outwardly I tried to be supportive of the purpose for the meeting, but on the inside I was screaming, Who would want to sign up for this? I was already aware of CFS (Christian Fatigue Syndrome) in my own life and couldn’t imagine willingly inflicting it on someone else.
And that was when my longing ambushed me. In that moment I felt my own exhaustion and realized that even though I was trying harder and doing more, there was a yawning emptiness underneath it all that no amount of activity, Christian or otherwise, could fill. It made no difference at all that I had been a Christian all of my conscious life, that I had been in vocational Christian ministry since early adulthood, or that I was busy responding to what appeared to be God-given opportunities to be involved in many worthy causes. The more I stayed busy and refused to acknowledge the longing for more, the deeper and wider the emptiness became—until it threatened to swallow me up. In the midst of such barrenness, it was hard even to imagine what Jesus might have meant when he said, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The Christian life just didn’t feel that way to me, and that was one uncomfortable admission. It was hard to know how to talk about such uncomfortable realities in that meeting and beyond.
Life in and around the Christian community—at least in the places I had been—did little to help me attend to my longings, to believe that deep within there was something essential that needed to be listened to, or to offer much hope that such deep longings could take me somewhere good. Sometimes the language of longing was used to stir the emotions of a crowd, but most often what was offered in response was found wanting in the end. The longing for love was met with relationships that were fairly utilitarian and prone to fall apart under pressure. The longing for healing and transformation was met with self-help messages that left me briefly inspired and yet burdened by the pressure of trying to fix myself with some new technique or skill. My longing for a way of life that worked was most often met with an invitation to more Christian busyness, which I finally figured out merely reflected the compulsive drivenness of Western culture.
For a while my response to these longings was to attempt to tweak my schedule, to learn how to say no more decisively, to adopt a new time management tool. But there comes a time when desire is so deep that mere tweaking is not enough. Finally, I just gave in to my desire and made the choice to reorder my life radically in response to my spiritual longings. I began to arrange my life in ways that created more space for what I wanted most—intimacy with God, a way of life that worked, deeper levels of spiritual transformation. I discovered what spiritual seekers down through the ages have known: we can arrange our lives for the transformation we seek and, in fact, we are invited to do so by Jesus himself.
Jesus used parables to describe a person who had searched long and hard for something very valuable and precious. In one story it was a piece of land, and in another it was a valuable pearl. In both stories, the merchant had been looking for this prize all his life, and when he found it, he didn’t hesitate. He sold everything he had so he could buy what he had been searching for.
Both the field and the pearl are metaphors for the kingdom of God—that state of being in which God is reigning in our life, and his presence is shaping our reality. Jesus makes it very clear that the kingdom of God is here now if we are willing to arrange our lives to embrace it.
It is not until after we have settled into our desires and named them in God’s presence that we are ready to be guided into the spiritual practices that will open us to receive what our hearts are longing for. But a rule of life is not a glorified self-help project. It is rooted in the understanding that we cannot transform ourselves, or anyone else for that matter, but what we can do is create the conditions in which spiritual transformation can take place. We can develop and maintain a rhythm of spiritual practices that keep us open and available to the work that only God can do in our lives. Spiritual disciplines are the basic components of a rhythm of life that keeps us oriented toward God, open and available for God’s surprising initiatives in our lives. These basic disciplines include solitude and silence, prayer with words, reflection on Scripture, self-examination and confession, discernment, Sabbath-keeping, and caring for the body.
As a way of beginning, I suggest exploring the disciplines one (or at the most two) at a time rather than trying to change your whole life at once. If you are longing for an intimate encounter with God beyond wordy sermons and Christian busyness, you might feel drawn to silence. If you are longing to relinquish yourself more fully to God beyond your normal compulsion to control everything, you might choose solitude. If you are longing for a way of engaging Scripture that is personal and deeply relevant to your life, you might explore lectio divina. If you know there are hidden patterns in your life that are thwarting your relationship with God and others, you might enter into a deeper experience of self-examination. If you are aware that you are not living well in your body and may even be abusing your body through overwork, poor eating habits, and lack of exercise, you might sense a desire to learn how to honor the body as a spiritual discipline. If you are aware of deep levels of exhaustion and a frenetic quality to your life, you might explore Sabbath keeping.
Putting It All Together
After learning and practicing the individual disciplines, there are infinitely creative ways of putting them together in a rhythm of life that works for you and great freedom to add other practices and experiences as you feel drawn to them in the future. An effective rule of life is going to be very personal; it will be tailored to your personality, your spiritual type, your season of life, the sin patterns you are contending with, and the places where God is drawing you and stretching you. It will be realistic in view of your stage of life and the particularities of your life situation. It will also be balanced among the disciplines that come easily and those that are more challenging. And once we have identified a basic rhythm of spiritual practices that corresponds to our longing and our need, we will be flexible rather than using it as an occasion to become rigid or legalistic. 1
Sacred Desire, Sacred Rythyms
Desire has its own rhythms. Sometimes it ebbs, and sometimes it flows. But in the end it is the deepening of desire and the discipline to arrange our lives around our desire that carries us from the shallow waters of superficial human wanting into our soul’s movement in the very depths of God. Sometimes the tide brings us closer to the shore, and the soul frolics in the waves. But increasingly we find our lives to be hidden in the depths of God, and whatever is seen on the surface springs up from those depths full of beauty and grace.
I don’t know about you, but I yearn for the freedom and beauty of a life that is completely oriented to the reality of God. I long to experience my soul hidden and content in the very depths of God, so that what is seen on the surface is transformed and energized by what takes place in those depths. That’s why I live my life a certain way.
What about you? What do you long for? As you get in touch with your own longing, remember this: the choice to orient our lives to God’s transforming presence is always ours. Sacred rhythms help us to arrange our lives for spiritual transformation day by day by day. The words of Thomas Merton challenge us: “Ask me not where I live or what I like to eat… Ask me what I am living for and what I think is keeping me from living fully for that.”