When I was in high school I lived in Belgium, because my Dad worked for 3M and got a job transfer over there. One of the things we used to joke about was that in Europe generally, people seemed to consider traffic signs, speed limits and the drinking age “suggestions.” When my dad got another job transfer to Tokyo in Japan, things were totally different. Speed limits were taken very seriously, mostly followed, and strictly enforced. These two cultures had very different approaches to communal rules and guidelines.
I myself have always tended more toward the Belgium side of the spectrum when it comes to rules. I’m not generally fond of limits imposed on me from the outside. A “rule of life” held no immediate attraction for me. But about ten years ago, an exuberant deacon approached me about her involvement with an intentional Episcopal community that had a rule of life centered on radical hospitality. One of them, a former Catholic nun, adopted five children—including a girl from India who had been born without arms or legs—as a single mother, because her commitment to the Way of Jesus was overflowing, and seemingly limitless. I was so impressed with them that I tried on their rule of life for a while. I did morning and evening prayer daily, studied the ancient monastic commitments to poverty, chastity and obedience interpreted for the 21st century, and looked for ways to be hospitable with every part of my life. In the end, I decided not to join them as a member—mostly because I yearned for a rule of life that wasn’t for a select community, but for garden variety Christian faith. I wanted an expansive faith that was inclusive and robust at the same time. I wanted to encounter God in prayer, as I had been doing through meditation already for years. I also yearned for a religion that addressed the suffering in the world with compassion, nonviolence, and justice. I wanted practices to help me live my life with integrity. Rather than having one or two spiritual practices that I would engage in alongside running and taking my vitamins, I wanted an overarching sense of purpose and practice coming from the Christian spiritual path. Yet, I was wary of anything that comprehensive. I was raised in a version of Christianity that was committed, but narrow. Did such a thing exist?
The Episcopal Church has come up with seven beautiful practices, themselves distilled from millennia of Judeo-Christian tradition, that are meant to provide just such a rule. The Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde wrote a book about these seven practices in which she says this:
A Rule of Life is comprised of specific practices that help us pay attention and respond to the presence of God.. . . [Spiritual practices] aren’t meant to be chores to plow through or exercises to whip us into spiritual shape. In the words of the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister, `A relationship with God is not something to be achieved.’ Rather, she writes, `God is a presence to which we can respond.’(1)
This tuning in to the presence of God is not meant for a self-centered life. It is meant precisely for personal healing and connection with the limitless reservoir of the love of God, which can never come to an end, and which overflows out of us into every part of our lives, including the way we love and serve the world.
What I’ve come to understand about a rule of life is that for me, it can never be a set of limits or directions imposed from the outside. For it to work, a rule of life has to be about my response to the pre-existing love of God for me. It has to be the way I choose to connect with that love. The fact that countless people across time and space have found these practices to be helpful and effective saves me a lot of heartache and frustration. I’ll still have to make them my own, but I know what the point is: to connect with the overwhelming love of God.
Over the next months, I invite all of you to join me. What is the heartbeat of Christian faith for you? How might these seven practices help you recognize and respond to the presence and love of God in your life, and change the way you walk through the world?
Lisa Wiens Heinsohn
(1) Mariann Budde, Receiving Jesus: The Way of Love (2019) at xiii-xiv.