Rule of Life by Rev. J.D. McQueen
“Grace Church is a place drenched in prayer.” Many people that have been here to visit have expressed that sentiment to me in so many words. That’s wonderful to hear, especially since I agree, because prayer is where we go to meet God most intimately and most personally. It’s what should be the foundation of our relationship with Him, which should be the foundation of our lives. Churches then should be places where people have been praying, pray frequently, and are able to pray easily or, at the very least, comfortably. For all those reasons, Grace Church fits that bill.
However, if our Christian community is to be one that changes our lives and, contagiously, the lives of those around us, prayer has to happen in places beyond our sanctuary. I don’t say this because I don’t think it’s happening. I actually know for a fact that many of you structure your days around vibrant prayer times, morning and evening. I say this because I know from experience that this is not an easy thing to accomplish. Based on my experience, though, I can help everyone at Grace Church accomplish that prayer life much more efficiently. I can do that because I know that the only way to do that is by following a rule of life.
While I would say that prayer has been a constant from the beginning, it didn’t start really changing my life until it gained some structure. In middle school and high school I had a paper route and, as time went by, that time early in the morning became my prayer time. I won’t pretend that I came to that on my own through any great spiritual revelation. Rather, it was only at the urging of my youth group’s leaders that I (begrudgingly) started to pray about a call to the priesthood. Since my morning already included some built-in quiet time, I seemed to be in an ideal place for listening. Imagine my amazement when just the introduction of some semi-comatose but consistently structured prayer led to the greatest spiritual growth to date. As you may have guessed, it even led to my eventual recognition of God’s call.
When I went to college, I again found myself still praying quite a bit, but without that consistent structure. As a result, those weren’t particularly fruitful years for me spiritually, even though I was still praying just as much or more. The problem for me is that prayer is very much like reading a book. If you read frequently and consistently, you always just pick up where you left off. However, if you go a week or two or three between sessions, you find yourself having to backtrack and refresh where you are in the story. Without structure, I found myself having the same conversations with God over and over trying to find my place instead of simply opening the book and reading.
Seminary was the complete opposite, as you can imagine. It was much more like never putting the book down and then being in a book club discussing it on top of that. With corporate prayer in the morning and the evening and personal prayer seemingly everywhere else in between, plus meeting God in study and in conversations with friends and classmates about their own conversations, my prayer life flourished. I quickly found which things were helpful to me and which weren’t. I began to find it easier to pray for others and with them, which enlivened my own prayer all the more. A tremendous amount of fruit was born during that time, simply because of that consistency.
The trouble is that most of us don’t find ourselves in seminaries or monastic communities; most of us have to create structure for ourselves, which is hard. It’s hard because there’s no one to hold us accountable or introduce something new that stretches us. We’re not always sure what or when to pray or, sometimes, even how. That’s where a rule of life comes into play.
A rule of life brings about consistency and direction, a place to start. Will it turn out that some things work better for you than others? Of course, but you’ll have tried them. Will you like some and hate others? Of course, and you’ll gain discipline from doing things that you don’t like, but know that you have to do. Because, as St Bernard wisely said, “He who makes himself his own master makes himself the disciple of a fool,” here are some places to start.
The first thing that has to be taken into account is that the rule needs to be consistent and attainable. We all have different schedules and so our scheduling of prayer time will vary, but we need to start with what we know we can accomplish. This doesn’t mean doing the bare minimum, but being realistic. If you work full time and have a family of five, trying to do all seven monastic offices in their entirety is setting yourself up for failure. Having quiet time first thing in the morning is great for people that enjoy getting up early, but for others it will be a rare occasion that they trade dreams for prayers.
Also, there are some aspects that are required of any rule of life. These are things that can’t be ignored because they’re good for us, whether we like it or not. Those things are receiving Holy Communion regularly, reading scripture and meditating on it, examining your conscience, and your own personal prayers. Holy Communion is vital because, first and foremost, it puts you in direct contact with Jesus in the Eucharist, which cannot be duplicated or substituted for with anything else. Also Mass happens to kill several birds with one stone, in that it gives you scripture and meditation, it should force you to examine your conscience, and lead you to personal devotion. Spending your own time reading and studying scripture is necessary because that’s often how God speaks to us most clearly. A regular examination of conscience is necessary because the more often we thoughtfully and honestly bring our sins to light, the more we begin to hate them and avoid the occasions for them.
Finally the personal prayers are necessary because they are our most intimate times with God, the times when the presence of God has the most potential for transforming us. It’s transformative for two reasons. The first is that talking about our concerns and listening for God’s response can help us discern more about our lives, our wants and needs, than we can imagine. The second has more to do with the “how” of our spiritual lives. Not everyone finds their greatest union with God in praying the rosary, though some do. Not everyone finds great success in journaling, though some do. Taking time for our own personal prayer allows us to play to our strengths. It’s important to force ourselves to do some things because they stretch us and help us learn discipline, but we also have to be able to continually come back to something that refreshes us. Our personal prayers give us that outlet. They allow us to speak the words of our hearts and directly address the things with which we need God’s help and attention.
Another aspect of our prayer life is community. I mentioned before that they help hold us accountable and force us beyond our easy comfort. But also nowhere in the Bible will we find support for living a solitary Christian life. God reveals himself to us in other people and shows us something of ourselves in those interactions as well. Caring for a brother or sister is at the heart of the Christian mission and we can’t do that praying in a closet by ourselves. Finding a spiritual director is tremendously important and having a group of people to talk and pray with is a blessing even when it feels like the heaviest burden.
Prayer should be the cornerstone of our lives because our relationship with God should drive all of our decisions in some way. The only way we can make informed decisions is to know God and we learn about God by spending time with Him. But we can’t do that on Sunday mornings alone, we have to do our homework. We can’t expect to be “drenched in prayer” if we only lounge on the side of the pool with our feet in the water.