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Practicing Stability: Part 2

From my portion of the Hutchmoot 2016 session “In Search of Home.” You can read Part 1 here.

Professor and writer Scott Russell Sanders has this to say in his book Staying Put: “In our national mythology, the worst fate is to be trapped on a farm, in a village, in the sticks, in some dead-end job or unglamourous marriage or played-out game. Stand still, we are warned, and you die.”

When you look at it that way, the act of staying put feels deeply counter-cultural. In 1956, President Eisenhower authorized the funding and construction of the Interstate Highway system, connecting all corners of the United States and revolutionizing American life. In the 1990s, the Internet came into its own, enabling worldwide communication in the minutes it takes to write and send an email. And it was less than a decade ago that the iPhone’s arrival turned smartphones — mini-pocket computers — into first a hip luxury, and now, a near necessity.

Technology continues to close our distances and expand our horizons, and I’ll be the first to say this is not an evil thing. Technologyis the reason we can even have this conversation space!

But this freedom comes with a price. In Florida, I lived in my hometown, but drove an hour each way to find full time work in the career I wanted. Now I live in one city, work from home for companies in other parts of Massachusetts, and joined a church across my state line. Sometimes having little roots in so many places feels downright disorienting.

In her book on stillness and creativity, World Enough and Time, Christian McEwan quotes the poet Robert Hass: “‘Longing,’ we say, ‘because desire is full of endless distances,’” Then she makes the observation that “the distances are being erased now, and the longing too, as all seasons merge into one long triumph of consumption.”

Does anyone really, truly live in one place? Is it even possible anymore? I’m honestly not convinced it is. How can you, without cutting off all contact from anyone outside your physical place? Family and friends scatter, jobs or love make us move… not to mention that, as Christians, we follow an itinerant preacher whose final command was to take his message “to the ends of the earth.”

But for all our sometimes necessary wandering, maybe what we need is some spiritual grounding… Tucked into a chapter of the book Slow Church by Chris Smith and John Pattison is an interesting bit about Stability as a spiritual practice, a literal vow taken by Benedictine monks, a vow to stay in one place for a lifetime, sink roots deep, and forsake the possibility of all the other places in the world. What can a sixth century monk have to do with 21st century America? Plenty, it seems.

St. Benedict was a young, educated Christian from Rome, who, disgusted with the decadence of the failing empire, left to live as a hermit and pray. But over time, he found he wasn’t alone. Gathering like-minded men, he formed monasteries and wrote a famous rule that would guide many monastic orders through much of the Middle Ages. This rule wasn’t just a nice ideal for a bunch of people to hide from the world. Eventually, these monasteries, despite apparent isolation, became outposts of beauty, culture, and evangelizing to a darkening world.

So here are these premodern hermits that turn staying put into a hard discipline of the soul, a means to grow closer to God and, rather than isolate, actually promote human flourishing. I am thankful for technology that lets me leap the distance from Boston to Nashville in hours, and for the possibilities the Internet has given me to do work I believe in. But still, how easily this can distract me from everything right outside my door.

Let’s face it: Though physically staying where you are is easy, spiritually it’s hard to be fully rooted and present. In her book Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris, writing about the even earlier monastic orders of desert fathers, reflects on the struggle for monks to keep this vow:

“…acedia [the old name for sloth and boredom] mocked their good intentions by reminding them of the comforts they had forsaken and urging them to abandon their hard way of life. One abba said, ‘If some temptation arises in the place where you dwell in the desert, do not leave that place… for if you leave it then, no matter where you go you will find the same temptation waiting for you.’”

But how do we practice stability in a shifting, interconnected world? What do we do when we hear a clear call to move on for the betterment of the world? How can I practice presence where I am, without neglecting my roots, without forgetting where I came from? How can you, when you’re a college student in an unfamiliar city, a military family waiting for the next orders, an apartment-dweller weighing your options when the lease runs out?

There’s a physicality to stability, to cultivating home and hospitality. But perhaps too, it’s a mindset. It’s a determination to say, this is not my home, but it can be a home. Finding those places that are only yours, where you know what time to look for that perfect slant of light, that corner where you can pray and read, that cafe where you don’t even have to read the menu. Seeking community in an imperfectly beautiful church, even if it doesn’t meet every ideal. Seeking opportunities for hospitality and welcoming strangers, because you know that you’re just a stranger here too.

And I think too that loving a place, calling it home, is an ongoing process of rediscovery. Richard Rohr in Falling Upward observes the disillusionment of our age: “For postmodern people, the universe is not inherently enchanted, as it was for the ancients. We have to do all the ‘enchanting’ ourselves.”

And enchantment is easy when you’re new to a place. The first time I saw snow, it was pure magic. And then… I lived through my first winter. Four blizzards. A broken arm. Days where I just sat at home looking outside and it was gray… and gloomy… and oh my gosh, I missed the color green.

I missed green! For 30 years, I saw green every day!

Sometimes, I realize I don’t see beauty anymore. This is deadly to the soul. This is the heart of acedia, of restlessness, of the boredom that St. Benedict had to caution his community against. This is the reason we need stability more than ever.

There was a time I felt like I lived “in the sticks,” embarrassed by my small town. And then, on the cusp of moving, I would pull into my yard after the long day of work and driving, and look through the Spanish moss, trying to memorize the way moonlight shone on the front yard of my youth.

Next month, my husband and I are moving out of our first apartment. And once again, I’m trying to memorize the angles of light, trying to re-enchant this familiar place so I’ll never forget it.

This is stability. Honoring what is, learning to see what could be, envisioning a flourishing patch of land, then digging into the dirt and loving it back to life.


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