One book that has survived moves and book purges since I graduated seminary is Francis and Clare: The Complete Works from the Classics of Western Spirituality series. Saint Francis may have top billing, but I’ve kept the book over the years because of Saint Clare. For some she may dwell in Francis’ shadow, but for me she’s an inspiration: monastic, mystic, spiritual leader, writer, non-mother.
Clare is one of twenty-five women profiled in my book Unexpected Abundance: The Fruitful Lives of Women Without Children. Clare wrote the first Rule of Life by a woman, but it was not officially approved until her deathbed.
Clare’s “Poor Ladies” were cloistered, whereas the Franciscans were wandering mendicants. Both orders valued voluntary poverty, but the Rules originally imposed on the Poor Ladies were Benedictine so did not emphasize this. Clare’s own Rule mentioned poverty in its opening chapter, “to observe the holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own, and in chastity” (Frances and Clare, 211).
We don’t have to be monastics like Clare to follow a rule of life. While the word “rule” might sound confining, rules of life are like maps that help us walk in the way of Jesus and, in the words of the Episcopal Baptismal Covenant, “whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord” (Book of Common Prayer, 304).
We can discern our own core values and craft a rule of life accordingly. Obviously, as Christians, Jesus is the core for us, but which of his teachings do we emphasize? Clare clung to poverty and spent her life advocating authorities to approve this as a way of life. Those in authority over her may have resisted because when wealthy women entered convents, normally their families donated what would have been their dowry, making it easier for the convents to be self-sustaining and helping enrich the Church. That practice also meant women from lower classes were not able to join such orders. With voluntary poverty of the Poor Ladies, however, women from lower classes could become nuns, and instead of living off dowries, the Poor Ladies relied on income from Francis’ order, which begged for funds rather than emphasizing work, as Benedictine Rules of Life do.
To create your own rule, think about which scriptures or teachings of Jesus mean the most to you and what matters most to you in your life. Perhaps, for example, family life is core for you. What practices can you do every day, week, or month to enhance this? Can your family commit to attending weekly church, for example, or eating a meal together daily? Set goals that are attainable to avoid frustration.
Rules of life often include prayer practices. What prayer practices sustain you?
Episcopalians often commit to praying the Daily Office, but my mind sometimes wanders during this practice. Praying outside, I have found, is a way to keep me engaged. For the past year, I have prayed the Daily Office outside through the Forward Movement Daily Prayer app, which features two priests and a lay person as well as a selection of volunteer readers. Hearing these voices through earpieces while walking makes me feel part of a community. Sometimes I pray the responses aloud and cross myself and have stopped worrying about what the neighbors think.
Note that my prayer practice changed in my personal prayer life, an important component of any rule of life: change. What works for you today, may not work tomorrow. I need to pray daily, but the way I do it changes. My core values were wanting to connect to the holy daily and wanting to spend time outdoors while doing it. I’ve gone from sitting on the deck praying to walking and listening.
Clare’s Rule of Life is divided into “chapters.” You can do this as well, or create a spreadsheet, or something visual like a map or picture.
In summary, here’s a brief outline for creating your own rule of life:
- Discern your core values and scriptures. Don’t rush this step. This rule is something you can use for the rest of your life.
- Align practices with values by creating habits that exemplify said values—e.g., church attendance, date night, one-on-one time with children.
- Revisit your rule and update frequently. While the core values are likely to remain the same, the practices may change—and your core values may, too. If your rule feels stale, redo it.
Clare, a humble leader who left a wealthy family to embrace poverty and live more like she imagined Jesus did, wrote the first Rule of Life by a woman. Can you honor her legacy by writing your own rule?