Post Author: Ali Van Kuiken
A few months ago I attended a CREDO conference, a week-long conference offered to Presbyterian and Episcopal clergy through their health and pension benefit. It’s something like a cross between a conference and a retreat that centers on four areas: spiritual health, vocational health, mental and physical health, and financial health. It includes plenary sessions, small groups, daily worship, and opportunities to consult one-on-one with the conference faculty members. There is pre-work and post-work inviting reflection on values and connecting those values with a “rule of life.” Much like a monk or a nun who lives by a rule, the conference offered an invitation to create our own rule (unlike monks and nuns who don’t get to write it themselves) and to implement it in our life.
I am no stranger to rules of life. Before joining the Episcopal church, as a Baptist-raised liturgy-leaning teenager, I went on a weekend retreat at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan and became entranced by the daily office. Upon returning to my parents’ home, I began to implement my own daily regimen of prayers, attempting to pray the entire Psalter in a month as the monks did. As with most of my spiritual and devotional innovations, it fell to the wayside, but the desire remained. I continued to feel a tug, a pull, to live a more structured spiritual life.
After visiting a convent in England while studying abroad in college, I decided to ask if I could be a long-term visitor during my gap year between college and seminary. While at The Convent of the Incarnation, I lived the daily life of a nun (without the habit or the vows) and got to experience the rhythm of work, prayer, and rest that is part of their Benedictine rule of life. I knew it was impractical to continue it upon my return to non-monastic life and the beginning of seminary, but I kept on trying. I made my own rubric for praying the Psalter in a month, printed it out, and put it in the back of my Book of Common Prayer.
It wasn’t until seminary that I officially joined the Episcopal Church. My husband and I were confirmed together, and in our confirmation class we were asked to create a rule of life. I don’t remember what went into that rule, but I’m sure it was full of structure, including the daily office and monthly reading of the Psalms.
At CREDO I was surprised by the invitation to create a rule by beginning with reflecting on our values. It was part of the conference pre-work: identifying our values, reflecting on their shadow side, and noting ways in which they conflict. This activity helped me create a rule of life that felt more manageable and in line with what I believe to be important. I also felt encouraged to consider not only the things I wanted to do as part of my rule, but also the type of person I want to be. For instance, I want to be present in the moment to what is happening now. Presence can be lived out by petting my cat and being fully present at breakfast and supper with my toddler.
Several faculty at the conference also encouraged us to think simply and to focus on just one new practice. We could allow ourselves time to incorporate new practices into our routine. We weren’t expected to implement the entire thing all at once. It was okay if it took six weeks for us to take on one practice. This idea shocked me: I had thought I needed to correct my spiritual life all at once! But that is not a very practical way to approach change. Instead of trying to add ten minutes of yoga back into my mornings and an examen break mid-day and petting the cat and spending time doing creative writing in the evening all at once, I was free to choose just one of those things and spend six weeks getting used to it being part of my routine. As I returned to my regular life, one thing felt manageable. And thinking about my values and who I want to be felt like an important guiding focus.
So this new year, if there are things you want to change about your life, go ahead, make a list. Heck, make a rule of life! But give yourself grace in the implementation. You don’t need to change everything all at once. Give yourself time. Accept yourself as you are with your human limitations. Doing so may be a vital path to enact lasting change.
The Rev. Ali Van Kuiken is a chaplain at a psychiatric hospital in central New Jersey where she lives with her husband, toddler, and cat.
Image by: Jesse Zink
Used with permission