In the early centuries of the Church, whenever Christians got serious about following the teaching of the Gospel, this often led them to write a rule of life as a measure for how to live. The most famous of these is probably The Rule of St. Benedict, and before this came the Rule of St. Basil (which is mostly an organized list of Gospel passages) and the Institutes of St. John Cassian.
Why write or follow a rule? Here's a passage from Habakkuk:
Write the vision;
make it plain upon the tablets,
so he may run who reads it.
For still the vision awaits its time;
it hastens to the end--it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
It's easy to think about how one should live and even to talk about every so often, but by actually writing it down you can now hold in your hands and see the standard of your life before you. When you pick it up and review it, you can see "Oh man, I haven't been doing that lately..." or if your rule includes the reasons for why you live as you do (and all the best rules have this!), you will say, "Oh yeah, that's why I do that!" and thereby be renewed in your zeal. So the purpose of the rule is to attain the goal sought more perfectly.
But will this not restrict freedom? Yes and no. Inasmuch as a rule will bind you to do something and forbid you to do others, indeed this is a restriction on the endless capacity of your freedom. Yet by this same restriction, one is more free to do and attain that for which one has any freedom at all.
Every action limits or determines your freedom in some way. When you make a decision, you no longer had the unlimited freedom which you had before making that decision. But we have no choice with respect to one thing: we must make our choice. The question is whether we shall make a choice that leads to more freedom or a choice which cuts off and limits our path to higher freedom. Back to rules of life...
Sin, the devil, and the cares of this world are 3 things which are always drawing near and taking hold of our freedom. When you choose to sin, you exchange your freedom for the consequences of sin--anxiety, punishment, and loss of communion with God and one another. So the freedom dedicated to sin is thereby lost. By a Rule of Life, one orders the exercise of freedom so as to maintain it and increase it. The setting aside of time for prayer, study and work keeps keeps the world and its charms (which are often quite meager, really only distractions). By constant examination of conscience, the devil is foiled in his devices and the vices are rooted out and replaced by virtues.
And what are virtues? They are firm dispositions of character by which one is capable of exercising freedom. Really? Yes. Here are the chief virtues and how they contribute to this:
- Temperance: By this virtue we use the things of this world for the sake of our own ends, without becoming overly attached to them and making them ends themselves
- Fortitude: By this virtue we have the vigor to actually strive for those things we desire most in life; this is opposed to the slavish habits of laziness, fear, and so on
- Prudence: By this virtue we consider what means are most apt for attaining our end, so that our freedom is not wasted doing in a sloppy manner what could have been done neatly and reasonably
- Justice: Yeah, this is always listed as a cardinal virtue by the ancients and medievals, but it does seem a little different. It's often characterized as that virtue by which we give each man his due. Certainly if we don't do this, our conscience will plague and we will thereby lose any authentic freedom. Also, people aren't like any other objects in the world. Ultimately, the greatest use of freedom is when it is ordered to other persons. Anything less would make us subject to some inanimate body. An idol. But I'll need to think about this more. The first three should be clear enough.
- Rule of Faith: Believe all that is contained in the Scriptures and Apostolic Tradition as taught by the Pope and all the bishops in communion with him. This is the norm of faith, and whatever else someone believes, this is always to be upheld.
- Rule of Hope: Our final end and purpose is eternal life in heaven with God and the saints. Whenever we sin and fall from this end, we must not despair, but confess our sins and seek eternal life once again.
- Rule of Love: Jesus taught only two commands. Love God with all your soul, strength, mind, heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. This is the regula vitae for every Christian, and everything else must be ordered to living these two principle commandments more perfectly.