A Book Review Unpacking a "Rule of Life"

Living Faith Day by Day: How the Sacred Rules of Monastic Traditions Can Help You Live Spiritually in the Modern World by Debra K. Farrington. (This book review was written by my friend, CRM colleague, and former classmate Jean Gill.)

Living Faith Day by Day is both a basic primer and useful workbook for those seeking to learn more about “rules of life.” The author defines a rule of life as a collection of guidelines, covering all aspects of our lives, which help us keep God at the center of everything that we do (p. 4). She goes on to explain that “a personal rule is a response, first and foremost, to the God who loaves us more than we will ever completely understand. It helps us to make God the focus of every activity and thought in our life” (p. 17).

Farrington begins this very enlightening and practical book by inviting the reader to understand the rich history of rules of living and their application to life today. She also gives some very practical guidelines for creating and practicing rules, including helpful hints such as including joy, play and fun, the need to determine the amount of structure is needed for each person, having accountability, and being realistic in the amount of material to include in the rule if it is to be truly followed. Farrington then spends one chapter each on eight rules that have been commonly used in traditions throughout the ages: seeking God, prayer, work, study, spiritual community, care of our body, reaching out, and hospitality. Each of these chapters begins with an introduction giving some basic thoughts on this subject followed by between four and eight actual rules of life gathered from various traditions with commentary on each rule. Each subsection concludes useful questions that encourage further understanding and practical application.

Responding to proactive questions…

What is at the heart of the practice of sacred rules that has allowed them to remain in use in Christian communities for nearly two millennia?

At the heart of each rule of life is the believer’s desire to seek and love God. “To live a rule is to choose God, and to place God at the center of your world, rather than focus on yourself…We choose to follow a rule because we have chosen God, and living a rule helps us to keep choosing God as the focus of every part of our life” (p. 35). The various rules are simply means by which we make space and priority for God in the various parts of our lives: work, study, or relationships with others. These rules touch at the very heart of the Christian life as they encourage the believer to put into practice what Jesus exhorted us to do: to love God and to love our neighbor. These are simply practical tools that give structure and guidance and allow us to prioritize our lives in such as to honor the commands of Scripture.

What rule or practice did I find most helpful or challenging in my own life?

The chapter on “work” was very stimulating and challenging for me and tied in nicely with some of the important concepts I gleaned from Kenneson’s chapter on “Cultivating Patience in the Midst of Productivity”. Both chapters gave helpful insights that challenged modern culture’s drive to be productive, and the barrier this can be in our own spiritual growth. Farrington began this chapter by quoting a rule of life from the Jerusalem Community, “By choosing to work as hard as possible, but not more than you ought, not primarily in view of a perishable end but one that last forever, you are to stand free and challenging in a world where work has been overrated into a religion and often into a sacred cow…” (p. 89). As a full-time Christian worker who lives in two driven cultures, the US and Japan, I find myself in a continual battle against being seduced by the false allure of productivity. The author gives helpful examples of rules that attempt to counter this continual pull in our modern lives. Especially helpful was the concept that, in our work, we are cooperating with God in His work to redeem the fallen world. She also encourages her readers to be grateful for the gift of work – it is merely a tool, not an end in and of itself. The encouragement to listen carefully to the wisdom of community was also helpful and reminded me that nearly all work is done, to some extent, as part of a group, and all members need to be valued and acknowledged for the role they play. Farrington also encourages her readers to admit our limitations and to remember that our productivity is not a measure of our worth to God.

Were they any recurring themes that carried across these various rules that have important spiritual implications?

In reading Farrington’s book, I observed two key themes that ran throughout the text: that we as believers are to be the presence of God in the lives of others, and that the work God gives us to do on earth is His call for us to partner with Him in redeeming (Farrington uses the term “co-creating”) the world. Both are big-picture concepts that tap into the heart of God in sending Jesus to earth: to be present with man as Immanuel, to redeem man from sin, and to be part of the process of living out the Kingdom of God in this world as we anticipate it’s final restoration when Christ returns.

Debra Farrington’s book has given me a much deeper understanding of and appreciation for the sacred rules that have been handed down through the monastic traditions. Rather than the tendency to think of them as rigid rules to teach self discipline, this text instead reveals the heart of these rules: to help us make space in our lives for God and the things that are important to Him. These rules also give practical guidance in how to more fully know God and to be His presence in the lives of other people.

Farrington’s book can be a very a useful tool in mentoring and coaching ministry leaders. I feel it will have to be used with some caution so that it is not just taken out of context and turned into another avenue to enforce rules and regulations within a Christian community or for an individual believer. The opening chapters that explain the background and key principles of these rules of life are important to understand before attempting to read and apply any of the examples of rules offered by Farrington. Yet I think this will be very useful in aiding leaders in ministry bring proper perspective to the many demands on their lives. It can also help them prioritize their lives in ways that allows them to know God more deeply and be His presence in the lives of the people to whom they minister.

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