How do you build an altar? Abraham built an altar with whatever stones were at hand where he happened sent up camp. Daniel prayed at an open window three times a day. Jesus prayed for long periods during the night. Brother Lawrence lifted his heart to God amid the clatter of the French monastery kitchen. Eighteenth century Methodists met weekly in small groups. The unnamed pilgrim in The Way of the Pilgrim repeated “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, as he wandered the steppes of nineteenth century Russia. I can remember the Friday night ritual of fresh bread and home made soup of my childhood and sundown worship to welcome the Sabbath. Through the ages lovers of God found ways to open their lives to the One they love. Times are different, but the desire for the one who created and redeemed us is the same. David’s cry resonates in twenty first century Western hearts as much as ancient Middle Eastern ones.
I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. Ps. 63:1 NIV
If we stop long enough, we intuitively understand Augustine who four centuries after Christ, wrote, “Thou movest us to delight in praising thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” (45).
I repeat, we understand Augustine’s longing as our own only if we take time to attend to the soul’s hunger. Often our desire today is hidden underneath days crammed full of commitment in a world going too fast. Being present to God does not happen by accident. We must arrange our lives for spiritual transformation if we hope for it to happen. If intentionality was required in the stone hefting, altar-building days of Abraham's time, it surely is in ours.
How do you build your altar? How does your yearning for God shape your daily routines? The question probes past the conditioned response of “Bible study and prayer” to encompass the whole of our lives. How do we nurture the desire for God in our circumstances? Here is where a rule can help. A rule of life is a pattern of holy habits that aligns our time and energy with our desire for God. Desire for the Holy without the support of spiritual practices fades into the noise of our overcrowded lives. A rule is personal. Which holy habits will best form my life with God? A rule is more actively discerned than passively received. In her book, At Home in the World: A Rule of Life for the Rest of Us, Margaret Guenther advises that discernment takes thoughtful reflection. What is the current shape of our lives? Do we feel oppressed? Are there areas where we experience inner freedom? (31). What are our deepest longings, longings so deep, we hardly dare express them? God asks us to name our desires. Jesus asked of people who came to him, “What do you want?” (Barton, 23). Answering the question requires a trusting vulnerability. To give voice to our yearning for God implies at least a flickering trust that he will give us the desire of our heart and no substitute.
Forming a rule is the process of giving concrete, daily expression of the desire for God that He himself, through grace, has placed within us. Time tested spiritual disciplines such as service, prayer, community, solitude, confession, and gratitude (to name just a few) are helpful. You work out the specifics in the life you have. What is liberating for one may be constricting for another. When is the best time for you to spend time with the Bible? Early morning, mid-afternoon or evening? How do you pray? I find much of my rule has to do with prayer. That is the primary way I connect with God. We have often been told to pray, but how often have we been taught different forms of prayer for different needs and occasions? Do you prayer walk, praying in the place you wish God to work? Perhaps the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” permeates your mind and heart. Do you pray at specific times throughout the day in continuation of the ancient practice of praying the hours? Do you use Scripture passages? One young father habitually prays when his small son stretches out his arms to him as he wakes each morning. How do you express the discipline of community? Of solitude? How do you keep Sabbath as sacred time? What practices sustain you? In short, how do you live a life intentionally focused on God? Your answer may include less mentioned spiritual disciplines. A young lady I know included playing the flute in her rule of life. That was when she often felt the presence of God.
A good rule recognizes our frailty as much as our desire for the Divine. So we find pithy statements in Augustine's rule “In the oratory let no one do anything except the one thing for which it is made and from which its name is derived.” In other words, "pay attention!” We get tired. Other demands press in on us. We’re bored. We’re distracted. Crises nearly undo us. Following a rule keeps us open to God’s work of grace though the inevitable dry times.
A rule is made to be practiced faithfully, not rigidly kept. It is not an end in itself. We don’t commend each other for the quality of our rules. A rule is arranging our lives for spiritual transformation. It is not the transformation itself. The author of Hebrews applauds Abraham for his faith, not his altar building skills. Once you have developed it, re-examine your rule every six months. Does it need to change? Marriage, a new baby, a new job, retirement or movement into a new stage of spiritual growth may call for some adjustment in our habits of devotion.
Holy habits link us to millions of others who have sought God in all the human variances of life. For all its precision of mapped out spiritual disciplines there is mystery about a rule. That is because following a rule only puts us in position to receive God's grace. Grace is mysterious. It cannot be commanded. Nothing is wrong if we fail to uniformly feel God’s presence. A rule is not a self-improvement program with goals to check off along the way. A rule combines the magnificent and the ordinary, the mysterious with the obvious, the particular with the universal, the awe inspiring with the day to day routine.
So how do you build an alter? You build it wherever you are with the material you have at hand. You build it to give expression to your deepest longings. You build it knowing the altar is only important as a place where you meet God. You build it with love in surrender to Love.
Sheila Clark is the Library Director at Canadian University College in Lacombe, Alberta.
Augustine. The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustine with a Sketch of his Life and Work. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Trans. J. G Pilington Ed. Philip Schaff First series, vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956. Print
Augustine. “Rule of St. Augustine.” Catholicism.org n.d. Web 7 Feb. 2012.
Barton, Ruth. Sacred Rhythms: Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2006. Print.
Guenther, Margaret. At Home in the World: A Rule of Life for the Rest of Us. New York: Church Publishing, 2006. Print.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3791