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What is a Rule of Consecrated Life?

by Brian Lowery, OSA

Editors Note:  This posting was is part of a class given by Fr. Brian Lowery, OSA titled "The Spirituality of the Rule of Saint Augustine" in March 2018 as part of the Augustinian Spirituality Course.

Augustine is known for composing the first “monastic rule” in the western Church. Today I prefer to use the term “rule for consecrated life,” since “monastic” doesn’t correctly describe us as we are now. However, it did describe Augustine in his times.

Technically speaking, a rule is the foundational document of an important religious movement within the history of the Church. It gains a permanence either by entering into living tradition through widespread and enduring use, like the rules of Pachomius, Benedict, Augustine, Basil and others; or through official approval by the Church such as that of Francis by Pope Honorius II in 1223 and the Carmelite Rule by Gregory IX in 1229.

A rule doesn’t usually change. It is a heart that never grows old, the chief source to which a religious community returns for its basic inspiration and guidance. It is “a mirror,” as St. Augustine put it (Rule n.49), that best reflects the community’s identity. It is not intended to be so much a law. Rather it is a source of communion that assures unity of purpose and harmony of life within the community as it lives out its ideal. To it can be added secondary texts over the years, such as constitutions, statutes or by-laws that are applications of the rule to changing times.

Today, with the foundation of new forms of religious life, the term, “rule”, is being used again. Right now I am thinking of communities such as the Monastery of Bose in northern Italy (with a daughter community near us at San Gimignano) or that of Taizè in France (1952-3).

I believe that a rule of consecrated life should be called a gift from a charismatic and saintly founder to a community that is seeking God and wishes to do so in the way that was embodied by that charismatic person. The gift is directed toward the future, a “light unto their feet”, so to speak, exceptional for its wisdom and clarity, so that they can always return to it and grow in that path with surety. In that sense it is also a gift from God. 

The rule is the closest one can come to the original movement and the spirit of the founder. It reflects his or her special grace in the past, the charism to be shared in the present. Interpretations can vary according to times and places when they are made, but the essential, the non-negotiable, remains

Monastic rules throughout history also had their own stories. There is the story that precedes the writing and the story that follows it. With regard to the story that precedes, the Rule of Benedict is interesting. Many say that more than composing a Rule, Benedict harnessed a movement that was already underway and gave the fullest and clearest expression to it. Francis’ Rule had two earlier editions before it was finally approved by the pope. And the origins of the Carmelite Rule were in Jerusalem where the patriarch, St. Albert, gave concrete form to a rising eremitical movement in those parts. Augustine’s Rule you could call a gift to his community when he had to leave and take up the heavy load as bishop of a busy port city on the Mediterranean. At the end of our course I hope we will see the Rule of St.Augustine less as a document and more as a movement, less as a set of precepts and more as a gift.

Then there is the story that follows the composing of the rules. The rules hardly ever changed; their words were considered almost sacred and always valid for defining the community’s identity. Their subsequent history is more one about their travels beyond the place where they were originally written. For example, the Rule of St. Francis moved rapidly to distant parts of Europe as the travelling friars brought it with them. It went further to the New World when Franciscan missionaries undertook their evangelizing voyages and brought the Rule’s inner dynamic and universality that they as friars were living. Later it was interpreted by different cultures and ethnicities to give meaning to their own lives. The same is true with the Rule of Augustine.

And finally, there is the history of the rules’ going beyond religious communities all the way to the laity and profoundly influencing the rest of the People of God with their characteristic spiritualities.

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