The importance and purpose of habits

For Centuries Christians have known the power of habits, patterns and structure for living well. The Common Rule, by Justin Whitmel Earley reflects some of this wisdom. The following excerpts (in italics) might be helpful for you to consider as you start to form up your own Regula Vitae.

Our lives are formed and governed by a myriad of habits and rituals– daily, weekly, annual– which lie unexamined beneath the surface of our lives. It’s just how we are: some habits are good and some are bad. “… the most alarming part of this is not our bad habits, which we tend to know about. It’s our collective assimilation, which is invisible to us. We have a common problem. By ignoring the ways habits shape us, we’ve assimilated to a hidden rule of life: the American rule of life. This rigorous program of habits forms us in all the anxiety, depression, consumerism, injustice, and vanity that are so typical in the contemporary American life.” (insert your own thoughts about what might constitute a contemporary Australian life!)

And so we would do well to intentionally craft our own Rule of Life.

“What’s a rule of life?” I now know that a “rule of life” is a term for a pattern of communal habits for formation. The most well-known rules of life were originally developed by church fathers and ancient monastics, such as St. Augustine or St. Benedict. But for thousands of years, spiritual communities have been using the frame of the rule of life as a mechanism of communal formation. Despite our understanding of the word “rule,” a “rule of life” is much less about obeying rules than it is about finding communal purpose. For example, while both St. Augustine’s and St. Benedict’s rule have all kinds of tiny habits that we might either consider too inane to matter or too strict to be appropriate, we should notice that both of them had the same goal in mind: love. Both were obsessed with taking the small patterns of life and organizing them towards the big goal of life: to love God and neighbour. St. Augustine’s rule began with this sentence: “Before all things, most dear brothers, we must love God and after Him our neighbor; for these are the principal commands which have been given to us.” St. Benedict’s rule opens declaring that it means to establish “nothing harsh, nothing burdensome,” but goes on to describe walking in God’s commandments as being in the “ineffable sweetness of love.” Both saw habits as the gears by which to direct life toward the purpose of love. In fact, the word rule is used because it comes from the Latin word regula, a word associated with a bar or trellis, the woodwork on which a plant grows. The idea is that we (like plants) are always growing and changing. But when there is no order, growth can take something that was supposed to produce fruit and turn it into a twisted vine of decay.

… Let us see that habits shape the heart. Let us stop fearing that limits are a threat to our freedom. Let us see that the right limitations are the way to the good life. Let us build a trellis for love to grow on. Let us craft a common rule of life for our time, one that will unite our heads and our habits, growing us into the lovers of God and neighbor we were created to be.

One thought on “The importance and purpose of habits

  1. jenicholson January 14, 2020 / 3:58 pm

    I love the idea of habits as a trellis on which love can grow…easy to imagine, but a challenge to some of the ways I’ve tended to think about habits and about loving others.

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