Jesus’ way: expansive, not exhausting

The Spacious Path: Practicing the Restful Way of Jesus in a Fragmented World, by Tamara Hill Murphy (Herald Press, 2023)

For Much of my life, being a Christian often meant being a rule follower, my days guided by a series of “oughts.” It mattered little that those rules were created more by church tradition and the misapplication of Scripture than by what God really wanted for God’s children. Those in authority said what rules Christians — in my case, Christian women — ought to do: what clothes we should wear, how we should read Scripture, how often we should attend church, what our devotional time and prayers should look like. I mostly abided by the rules, though I was a rebel at heart.

Because these rules felt constricting, and my failure to follow them caused shame, I was intrigued by Tamara Hill Murphy’s ideas regarding a Rule of Life outlined in The Spacious Path. Rather than seeing spiritual practices as restrictive and shame-filled, Murphy argues for an approach to spiritual discipline that is life-giving and freeing, a “restful” way of walking through our often-chaotic world alongside Jesus and others. 

Murphy draws on the work of a fifth-century Christian credited with creating The Rule of Life. Saint Benedict of Nursia lived during a time of political and theological unrest, like ours. Benedict used a three-year span of solitude to find God’s purpose for his life. In a cave, Benedict “discerned that God’s will for him was to live a humble life shaped by contemplation and community,” Murphy writes. Benedict’s Rule of Life — centered in prayer, work, study, hospitality and rest — provides a path for countless people, including Murphy and her readers, “as we seek to live in the loving, restful way of Jesus.”

This idea of restfulness is foundational to Murphy’s work. Again and again, she returns us to the centering calm that can accompany those who choose a Rule of Life similar to the one she describes. Using a prayer labyrinth as a metaphor, Murphy describes the circuitous route that can lead us to the heart of Jesus, if we have faith to follow its turns. Once at the center, we are invited to mindfully take ourselves back through the labyrinth, into the world and into community. 

Murphy advocates contemplative work within community. She rightly argues that contemplation — “quiet, prayerful listening” — is an important part of any spiritual practice. In silence, we open ourselves to receive God’s love. But we are more than receptacles: “As we receive the gift of God’s presence, we share it with others.” The Rule of Life cannot thrive in isolation, and Murphy suggests several ways community and contemplation can be held in tension: through Lectio Divina, for example, a practice that requires reflection of Scripture within a community context; or through spiritual direction, which invites consideration of the Holy Spirit and its movements alongside a trusted guide. 

The book reflects Murphy’s own work as a spiritual director, as well as her lay leadership in the Anglican Church of America. As someone who is definitely low church (I’m a Mennonite-turned-Quaker), I appreciated Murphy’s reminders of the rhythms that define a church year, as she describes a Rule of Life operating in the seasons of Ordinary and Extraordinary time. Sustaining a Rule of Life within the context of the church year (as well as on the Sabbath) allows Murphy to contemplate her place in the historical and global church, connecting her to a community of believers that transcends space and time.

This contemplation and connection accords with Murphy’s understanding that a Rule of Life relies on Jesus’ “unforced rhythms of grace,” rather than the compulsory efforts we often make in our spiritual journeys: our attempts to bring control and order to our fragmented existence and our sense that there are practices we must attend to as believers. Centering a Rule of Life means focusing on balance, harmony and moderation, an invitation that opens up — rather than constricts — our relationship to God and to others. 

Murphy provides instruction that helps ground theoretical considerations of contemplation and community, including questions for further reflection as well as spiritual practices readers might try. These suggestions are not overly prescriptive, nor does Murphy insist that those seeking a Rule of Life must rely on the same disciplines. Instead, the practices and reflection questions support Murphy’s understanding that our spiritual journeys are indeed spacious, open to a diversity of approaches and of people. 

The Rule of Life is not filled with restrictive rules demanding our fidelity but with an openness that invites us all to walk the turns of a spacious path, and also to find rest. 

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