Ellen Echols Purdum"They need to find a rhythm of life." So declared my former New Testament professor and now colleague Carl Holladay, as he and I walked to the parking deck late one afternoon. It was the end of my first month in the new position of director of student life and spiritual formation at Candler, and April was around the corner, with its demands, deadlines, and flurry of activities marking the close of the academic year. I had confided to Carl that I was overwhelmed by the prospect of envisioning spiritual formation for close to 450 students representing almost 50 denominations. At the time I was grateful for his giving me an elevator speech I could use in those early days to respond to the question, "What does student spiritual formation at Candler look like?" As it happened, his words also proved to be true. 

On any given Tuesday or Thursday—our busiest days at Candler—it’s possible for students to move from morning classes to chapel, to lunchtime meetings or programs, then to afternoon and evening classes or contextual education sites without much of a break. Over the noon hour, they participate in student organization activities, community life events, academic enrichment programs and other opportunities available to them at Candler and Emory. Our community’s worship life also flourishes on these days, as we hear and respond to God’s word, gather around the table in ways that reflect our various traditions, and provide yet more opportunities for students to be involved in leadership and learning. 

So many good and needful components of a full theological education. So many choices to make. How to find a rhythm of life amidst all these riches, especially in a community gifted with such diverse expressions of faith and practice? It’s a challenge for any of us, but perhaps especially for theology students, who seek to integrate their academic study with their faith commitments.

Fortunately, our ancient teachers in the faith gave us a model: ora et labora, an intentional pattern of prayer, work and rest that enables us to understand our growth in God as a holistic enterprise, one that offers shape and balance to our days, in whatever season we are living them. Establishing a "rule of life," as the pattern is sometimes called, requires us to notice when every hour is filled with interactions, activities and words and to ask, "Where is the solitude? Where is the stillness? Where is the silence?" When is it time, however briefly, to "come away," as Jesus taught his disciples, in order to listen to our lives and the movement of the Spirit in them?

Candler’s Office of Student Programming does its share of contributing to the wealth of opportunities for students; we want them to enjoy a vibrant community life here. But we have made it a priority to offer them structure and guidance for developing a rhythm of life that will sustain them in seminary and beyond. Our creative student staff help us to pay attention to what is happening in students’ lives and to try out different offerings. A few resources that have proved valuable to students include:

  • A free three-day retreat offered each fall and spring break, in which 8 to 10 students take part in silence, prayer, spiritual direction and rest at a rural retreat center;
  • A new spiritual formation room on the lower level of Cannon Chapel, with a labyrinth, small chapel and mindful meal kitchen, where students retreat "on site" by participating in weekly prayer practices, or simply finding five minutes in a peaceful corner with a meditation cushion;
  • A regular set of programs addressing student health and well-being, including a Seeking Sanity in Seminary event each semester and monthly Poor Seminarian’s cooking demos.

Finding a rhythm of life in seminary is not just about self-care during stressful times, as important as that is. In Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit, the teacher and spiritual guide Henri Nouwen reminds us that "A life without a quiet center easily becomes delusional." Nourishing and strengthening the inner core of our lives enables us to be authentic, loving and wise leaders.