Last summer, I entered the discernment process for becoming a Third-Order Franciscan. The first step is to develop a Rule of Life, a set of commitments about how I will spend time each day, week, and year. Later I will say more about the content of my rule and my experience working within it. But for now, I can say that I like having a rule laying out, for example, how much time I should spend each day in prayer, or how much alcohol I can consume each week.
But to their great credit, the Franciscans warn, over and over again, against the perils of legalism, against taking the details of the Rule as themselves the point rather than as a means to the end of knowing Christ better. For people like me, people for whom legalism is a real temptation, that warning is important.
This is just my version of the great Christian issue of the first century. Should Christians obey the religious law they inherited from the religious tradition of Israel, or should they not?
Saint Paul says more about this issue than anyone, but what he says can be pretty confusing. On one hand, he followed the law when it seemed useful. “To those under the law, I became as one under the law . . . so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law, I became as one outside the law . . . so that I might win those outside the law” (1 Corinthians 9:20-21). That sounds like the law didn’t much matter either way to Paul himself. On the other hand, Paul also insisted, “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). That sounds like following the law could be positively dangerous!
This is not the place for working through the intricacies of Paul’s theology. But as I begin my reflections on the experience of following my Rule of Life, I am struck by the relevance of Paul’s words two thousand years ago. On the one hand, I want to follow my Rule when it is useful (in my case, to growing in the knowledge and love of God). On the other hand, I want to remember that my Rule does not justify me in God’s eyes, or in anyone else’s, or even in my own. I am finding my Rule to be useful. But it can never be more than that….