I sat down recently and, inspired by my reading on stability in the Benedictine tradition, made a list of all the times I’ve moved in my 34 years of life. When my list was complete, I looked over the list, its many different locations, and the brevity of time I spent in each living situation, and realized that I have had a distinct lack of physical stability in the 16 years since I left home for college. This transience in the past decade and a half is in sharp contrast to the first 18 years of my life, during which I lived with my family in the same farmhouse in Maine, the same home in which my parents still live.
When I got to college, however, I entered a new phase of life, one marked by multiple short-term living situations in a row. I had five different living situations in those four years — a dorm room, a house in Oxford, two campus apartments for one semester each, and finally one campus house in the second semester of my senior year. We might expect this kind of temporary housing situation for a college student. However, this pattern of moving frequently did not end with my graduation.
I made a series of nine moves in the next 12 years, as I took part in a postgraduate vocational program, attended divinity school, and served in two ministry positions. Some of these nine moves reflect a complete change of life, in which I moved from one state to another; others involved a move across town while staying in the same program or job. I have lived in my current city of Nashville for six full years, but in five different homes in the area. As I wrote out the timeline of when I moved and where, I realized with surprise and even shock that I had not lived more than 21 months in a row in the same house since the year 2000.
In our culture, moving is perhaps one thing of which we can be certain, besides death and taxes. I am not alone among Americans in making frequent moves; the Internet tells me that Americans can expect to move an average of 11.4 times in their lifetime. We rarely stop to consider the spiritual implications of all that physical instability.
Making a connection between stability and Christian faith would have been surprising to me until very recently. The charismatic and evangelical circles in which I grew up prized a willingness to go wherever God calls, regardless of what one had to leave behind in order to obey that call. The Christians I grew up respecting the most were the missionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries, who left their families and comfortable lives to live in foreign and often unwelcoming cultures thousands of miles away. When they heard Jesus say to them, “Come, follow me,” they obeyed him by leaving behind familiar, comfortable places, often with no promise of return in their earthly lifetimes.
There is plenty of scriptural support for this emphasis: from God calling Abraham to leave his home and go to an unknown land, to Jesus calling the disciples to leave their nets and follow him, to Paul’s many missionary journeys around the Mediterranean. One pattern of faithfulness to God seems to require giving up the security of staying put and launching out to an unknown place in faith.
The Benedictines have shown me, however, that there is another pattern of faithfulness, the pattern of staying put, of committing to a place and a community and refusing to run away. In her book Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, Esther de Waal describes the Benedictine vow of stability as “accepting this particular community, this place and these people, this and no other, as the way to God” and rejecting the “bewildering and exhausting rushing from one thing to another” that is so easy in a world full of endless choices like ours (p. 57). Stability is not in and of itself the goal; rather it is how “the individual may have space and time to enter into his or her personal dialogue with God” (p. 58).
I did this exercise at a point in life when stability is again the new norm for me. About a year and a half ago, my family and I moved into what we hope is our long-term home for the next 40 years. My husband has told me to go ahead and schedule the hearse to pick him up here in our current home, because, as he puts it, even if we win Powerball, we aren’t moving again. I am mostly thrilled about this return to physical stability: a younger me found most of my moves exciting, but as I’ve gotten older I have found it increasingly exhausting to reinvent all of the patterns and habits of my daily life in a new space over and over again.
In fact, having to do so has been an obstacle in my spiritual life; so much of my energy has been taken up with figuring out a new space, a new home, a new neighborhood and city, energy that might otherwise be spent deepening my “muscle memory” of repeatedly turning to prayer in the same place. In the past few years I have visited the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky each Lent; and when I turn up in the church for my first prayer service, I am always struck with the same thought: in the course of the 360-odd days that I’ve been away, during which I’ve been occupied by so many different activities and gone to so many different places, all that time these brothers have been here in this church every day, making prayer the focal point of their lives seven times a day.
While you might say that my year has been more varied and interesting than theirs, the brothers have practiced turning their hearts to God approximately 2,880 times in that same span of time, and surely they are the richer for it, while surely I am in some way the poorer for having my attention divided by all my activity and movement.
I feel relief at the prospect of staying put for a good long time; and yet I also experience a conflicting feeling: the nagging sense that by staying put I am missing out on some more exciting life of following God wherever he leads. I spent so long defining faithfulness as a readiness to pull up roots and go that I mistakenly came to see staying in the same place as settling into complacency, as letting inertia drag me down, as staying comfortable instead of going on an adventure with God. But that account is no longer adequate to my current stage of life.
If faithfulness to God means keeping options open, there isn’t much hope for the young parent who is tied down by obligations to a particular place and to a particular spouse and children. Discovering the Benedictine gift of stability has given me hope that life as a married person with kids doesn’t mean that God has passed me by in his search for more “available” people. Instead, my commitment to my husband, to my family, to the place where we will spend the next few decades of life, can be a means of deepening my spiritual growth by choosing to be available to God in the midst of these relationships.
I’m not much for hosting parties, but when we’ve lived in this house for 22 months, I just might have to throw a “Celebration of Stability” party. I expect that, as we put more years under our belts in the same place, I will receive new gifts from committing to live in a certain place and community with my husband and our children. I hope and pray that in doing so I will find this place to be, as the Benedictines say of their monasteries, a “school of the Lord’s service, a training ground for brotherly and sisterly love.”
Resources about Benedictine Stability
- Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict (Liturgical Press, 2001)
- Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability (Paraclete Press, 2010)
- The Full Text of the Rule of St. Benedict Online
[…] brothers writing for Meinrad Abbey’s Echoes from the Bell Tower and Sarah Puryear’s article “In Praise of Staying Put” helped inform my thinking about Benedictine […]