Sunday, June 10, 2012
Rules As Rulers
The Apostle's fast begins tomorrow. It is not as strict a fast as Great Lent, but it is a fast nonetheless. I was explaining "less strict" to a catechumen last week, and she had trouble getting the concept beyond a strict reckoning of which days certain foods could and could not be eaten. From her perspective, and perhaps from the perspective of many trained to think in a western culture, something either is allowed or it isn't. You either do it or you don't. It is either a rule or it's not; and if it is a rule, you either keep it or you don't. I said to my catechumen, "it depends on what you mean by rule."
In Canada, a rule is synonymous with a law. It is something you have to do; and if you don't do it, you are guilty: you have done wrong, and you deserve to be punished. "You break rules and you get broken"--that's what I used to say in my Protestant days. Rules are something you keep or you break. Those are the only two options. And rules, at least in our modern framework, are very fragile things: they break easily. All you have to do is miss one point. Like a law, if you fall short one inch of the rule, you have broken the rule.
This is not how the Orthodox Church teaches us how to understand rules.
Rules in the Orthodox Church are measures, like rulers. So, for example, a rule of prayer is a standard, a routine of prayer that one seeks to emulate and follow, and by which one measures what one actually does. To be specific, if someone has a rule of prayer that involves saying so many prayers and reading so much of the Bible every morning, and one morning (or several mornings in a row) she doesn't complete her rule, she has not broken her prayer rule. She is not guilty. The rule is a measure. She has merely not met the measure.
When I was an athlete in college, we would sometimes do these killer workouts that began with running 4 X440 yds @ 60 seconds each. You got to rest until your heart rate slowed to 100, then you were off on the next. Then it was 3 X 880 yds @ 2 min 20 seconds (70 seconds a lap--10 K race pace). Then 2 X 1320 yds @ 3 min 30 seconds. Then one mile (four laps) @ 4 min 40 seconds. Then 2 X 1320, 3 X 880, and finally four more 440s at 60 seconds each. That was a killer workout. The time for each set was the rule, it was what we strove for. It was a certain pace that we hoped we could sustain for a ten kilometre race. Some days we could do it (especially toward the end of the season), some days we fell short of the rule.
When we fell short of the rule, it didn't mean that we "broke" the rule or that we were guilty or even that we had failed. It meant that for some reason we didn't measure up to the pace we had set for ourselves--our health or diet or mental focus was off. Or it could mean that the rule was just too difficult for us, and we needed to work up to it. The rule was a measure, it was a tool to help us train.
Rules in the Church function the same way. They are not laws that we must keep or else we face punishment, they are measuring sticks to help us train. The very word "asceticism" comes from the Greek word that means athletic training. When the Church gives us fasting rules or prayer rules or any other rule, the Church is not laying a set of laws on us. Rather the Church is giving us a measuring stick by which we can train ourselves in the various aspects of righteousness: prayer, fasting and alms giving. In fact, we miss the point completely if we fast or keep a prayer rule perfectly but fail to be transfigured by the Holy Spirit.
Just as our goal on the Cross Country team in college was to win races, our goal as Christians is to acquire the grace and peace of the Holy Spirit. However, unlike racing, acquiring the Holy Spirit is not a matter of working hard. It a matter of humility, inner quietness and attention. It is a matter surrender and love. And it is a matter being open, saying "yes" to God--and to our neighbor. Rules help. They measure things. But like the Sabbath, rules are created to help us; we were not created for the rules.