Christmas is coming. It is a time for rules and rituals. For my Christmas, it is a space where the whole family can gather together. We never have a turkey, the Christmas tree only goes up the day before Christmas and there are lots of presents. We have a crib and the crib figures are now over thirty years old. It is a time when our large old house is full and we use rooms that are rarely otherwise used. In fact our main sitting room, used only for special occasions, is called the ‘Christmas room’ by our children and grandchildren.
Rules and rituals dominate our lives. We might think we have the freedom to do what we like. In practice, this freedom is just too exhausting. We might experiment, but we settle down quickly to certain patterns of behaviour. How we celebrate Christmas is just one example of this.
Over 1500 years ago, an abbot in Italy called Benedict wrote a short rule of life for his monks. Nowadays called The Rule of St Benedict, it has had an enormous influence on the life of monks and nuns down the ages. The Rule sets down how monks are to live their daily lives, from when they eat to their form of prayer to how they are to treat each other. It is more a manual of living than a high level justification of how Christians should lead their lives.
One way to explore its depths is to become a Benedictine monk or nun and experience living under this Rule. Since I am married, that is not an option for me. An alternative is to read the Rule and allow it to challenge how we live our own lives. Benedict was not rigid. On several occasions in his Rule he writes that if what he suggests is ‘unsatisfactory’, then do something else.
Christmas is not mentioned in the Rule. Today’s celebration of Christmas is very much a Victorian invention with Prince Albert and Charles Dickens leading the way. But in our celebration of Christmas we can see some similarities to ideas contained in the Rule. For example, for one day a year we close ourselves off from everyone else to celebrate the feast. In the Rule, monks are told to enclose themselves to devote themselves to a life of prayer and encounter with God. Christmas for many is about family and we have no choice about who is our family. In the monastery or abbey, family is the community of monks or nuns and again there is no choice about who is found there. Christmas should be a time of love and acceptance. In the monastery, monks ‘must show selfless love’ to each other.
We all have a rule of life which we construct for ourselves. Benedict’s Rule is something we can pick off the shelf and use to put Christ first on our journey through life. By remodelling our life, reordering our priorities and listening more carefully to what Christ is telling us, we can ‘run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love’. After 1500 years, Benedict’s Rule is still a profound inspiration to many Christians round the world. Could it be the Christmas present that God is offering you this Christmas?