Sometimes it is said that a certain bullet-point in the Rule of St. Augustine—the Rule we friars follow—should be interpreted “in its spirit,” not “in its letter.” Frankly I don’t often know what’s meant by these words; they seem whisked over so many un-relatable cases. I do know, however, that what is sometimes meant is that the taking of our Rule “literally” at certain points would be silly, and silly because not every point is possible anymore to carry out. Thus the Rule becomes, more or less, a catalogue of ideals. Ideals are things that cannot, here, be carried out or achieved. As when, for example, Jesus says, “Be perfect.” He exhorts us to seek perfection, but here,—at this time, or in this place,—we seek it as an ideal. And we recognize it is an ideal, because nobody ever reaches perfection here or now; and yet we we pursue it all the same. In this way, the ideal is useful as something to follow, as the Vikings followed their lodestar. “Ideals are like the stars,” writes John le Carré in his angelic novel, A Perfect Spy. “We cannot reach them, but oh! how we profit from their presence!” Sometimes this is how we are taught, or tempted, to read St. Augustine’s Rule. And if this is what the Rule really is, I then say we chuck it.
If a religious Rule is not meant to be carried out, then, for Heaven’s sake, what is it for? A Rule has to be achievable or it is no longer a Rule, either nominally or by definition. If a Rule is only a list of ideals, then to the trash with it. If a Rule is idealistic, what we want is, not its preservation for history’s sake, but another Rule. A Rule is supposed to be a measuring stick. It is practical, useful. The measuring stick, such as the wooden ruler you once used in class, only measures what can be measured. A Rule, then, needs to be read literally, and the moment it is read in any other way, we know that either its author, or the guy reading it, is in league with the devil (that one called Titivillus). So I say: Either our Rule should be understood literally or trashed.
Yet,—yet,—there are bullet-points in the Rule that don’t seem doable today. Let us take an example. “Books,” it says in chapter five, “are to be requested at a fixed hour each day, and anyone coming outside that hour is not to receive them.” Someone could say to this: “Why on earth should we live this one out? Must we keep all our books under lock and key? Doesn’t this go against our being able to keep our own libraries? And anyway, does some guardian brother really have to watch over them? Books are no longer so precious or so scarce. Half the books worth reading can be downloaded for free at Project Gutenberg anyway. How the dickens else are we to interpret this point?”
My take is that the example above is a point, not a Principle. The Rule is made up of a bunch of Principles, and these Principles can be, and should be, interpreted literally. A Principle, unlike an ideal, can be and, if it be sane, should be, achievable here. This example then provided above is an Application of an implicit Principle. It is, in other words, an Example. Whenever the Rule does not clearly explain a Principle, it is instead giving us an Application (or an Example). Several of these Applications (or Examples) may no longer “fit” the circumstances in which we live, but the Principles on which they are based certainly do. It’s true: books aren’t so scarce and precious anymore. They don’t have to be sealed away to be protected from the covetous. The covetous, who have always followed a different star, aren’t after our books anymore; they’ve read what’s in them and found them useless. In sum: A given point in the Rule shouldn’t ever be read, or thought of, as an ideal, but as an Application of either one Principle or several Principles embodied in the old language.
Every point of our Rule applies today. We need to be constantly challenged by it, constantly measured by it, in order that we know better what it is we profess to live out and live out fully. If I am confused or skeptical about some point being made in it, I search underneath for the implicit Principle. This requires, I agree, proper exegesis, but never this noise about Ideality. I think we ought to make it a point never to talk about ideals, ever. My Principle here being, of course: In talking about ideals, we often don’t have a clue what we actually mean; and are, besides, a little too prone to demean, or un-mean, the religious existence we profess.
I conclude noting that, like with the wooden ruler, we thankfully appreciate that a good Rule shouldn’t ever be cracked over the kiddos’ heads.