Stability

Of the vows Benedictine monks take, the one I haven’t yet mentioned is that of stability. I haven’t written about it because I’m struggling to figure it out. For the Benedictines, stability is all about place and everything place represents.

When a Benedictine makes his or her vows to the monastic life, the vow is not only to the Order; the monk also commits to a specific monastery. A Benedictine monk does not move. The community lives together as a family for life.

This is fascinatingly different from an order like the Jesuits, who are all about action and service, and are often (I say this as someone who knows very little about Jesuits, my only research being the Gerard Manley Hopkins biography I’ve been reading off and on since last summer) moved from place to place. In my quest for the contemplative life, part of what drew me to the Benedictines was the fact that they’re bound to home. The part of me that is never satisfied wishes I were a Jesuit: getting to work, saving the world, pursuing justice in a tangible way.

I know, I know…I am doing something. I’m a mom. I’m building into my son values that I know could change the world. It matters. But it’s hard to believe that when my mean brain worm keeps snuffing out my worth at home just like the crazy landlady from last week who couldn’t understand why I wasn’t volunteering at the local community center with all my lazy free time.

And that is why I need the Benedictines and their stability. I need to know that hovering near the home is not a failed life. I long for the joy and sweet simplicity of the life at home: a life without public praise, without award ceremonies in my honor. Being Benedictine is good for me and my over-puffed ego.

But as much as I can relate to the monastic life “at home,” I cannot grasp what stability should mean to me. I understand the longing for physical stability, because I ache for it in my life. I think most of us do. I often think about how we as humans were not made to live life in multiple places. We can only really live in one place at a time, despite the whisper technology offers: You are a super human space hopper! You can live in 8 places at once as long as you keep your FB status updated! I can convince myself that I’m as much a part of my friends’ and family’s lives despite the distance we’re separated, but it’s not really true. As much as my joy cup bubbles over for my dear friend in Philly who has recently gained a dreamy beau, I don’t know them together. I can’t really.

In the same way I don’t really know my most loved friends. I know their past; I know their most embarrassing moments. I know whatever has happened to them in the past few years that has fit into sporadic twenty minute phone conversations. The highlights. I know their highlights.

We used to be humans stuck completely in earthbound bodies that walked places and lived on the same land we were born on. Now, we move because we have a work opportunity, or we have dreams of the big city, or we’re drawn to a certain form of education. I moved for all those reasons. When I left my hometown thirteen years ago, did I dissolve my chance of ever really practicing a vow of stability?

I know why I need it. In each city and community in which I’ve lived, I’ve sealed myself to people. They are people I love and long for. Despite that, I will never be with all of them in one place. I will always feel that separation. No matter where I move from here, I’ll never live near my complete “community.”

This weekend I left August in the hands of some amazing women from my church small group and drove solo (Chris is in London for work) up to Sonoma for the wedding of a friend from my college in Texas. Waiting for me at this wedding were three dear girlfriends who I can never see enough. You know what I mean when I say my insides sighed when I saw them? There are some friendships that will always take a little work: thinking of the right thing to say, hoping your response is appropriate. And there are some friendships that linger around you and tell you to relax.

Sitting around the table at the reception with these girls and their husbands, all of whom I adore, I couldn’t stop laughing. I laughed like I’ve only laughed with Chris since I’ve been in San Francisco. There’s just something about being known and loved. And those girls knew me in my heyday of Christian perfectionism. They cried with me when my college boyfriend and I broke up and I couldn’t get off the bathroom floor. They know what my dreams were and they understand the layers of complexity that years have brought into those dreams. I understand the same for them.

I have the blues today. That always happens the day after something spectacular. Usually I cry off and on when I get home from seeing my family or being in Philadelphia. Usually Chris is around to be my “old friend,” the person in the room who really knows me, who can laugh with me about the past.

It’s the layers that I miss here in San Francisco. I’ve met wonderful people who I would love to have real, meaningful friendships with. It’s just such a long process; and having kids makes the process even longer (conversations interrupted every three minutes don’t go deep easily).

I understand why Benedict valued physical stability long before staying in one place for life became a near impossibility.  You know that feeling when you long for something you can never have? I’m a girl from Texas who married a boy from the East coast. Our families will always be divided by thousands of miles. I will probably never be a regular at the Boyett Family Friday Pizza night.

So what does it mean for Chris and I to live out a vow of stability as a family? What does it mean to work for those layers in the friendships that are in front of me right now? How do I learn to commit to a place when I know it cannot be a life commitment?

Comments

  1. M.K. says:

    Lots to think about in your post. Perhaps as a layperson aspiring to Benedictine practices, stability won’t be able to be defined by place. What if stability is not a condition of place, but a condition of mind?

    There seems to me something very stabilizing about a rigorous practice of reflection, carried out no matter where you go, no matter from whom you are near or far. In this way, the mind itself becomes the monastery, quiet and steady whatever comes and goes.

  2. Janna says:

    I’m going through something very similar right now. We had an amazing vacation in Savannah, GA with my sister and brother-in-law (who live there). And now that I’m back home, I’m kinda depressed. I’m thrilled to be in my house in my city with my children and husband and dog, but I finally realized that my sister and her husband, who are my family and two of my best friends will never be a daily part of our life, since they live 3000 miles away. But if we move to Georgia, we won’t be in beautiful, temperate Portland; we won’t see my folks, my brother, his wife, my in-laws, our friends … Sad…

  3. Amy says:

    I can so relate to this post and have been trying to write about something similar as I too have moved quite a bit in the last 15 years and was really struck by this quote the other day:

    “It is kind of a death to leave a place where one is well known and has friends.”
    - St. Claude de la Colombiere (1641-1682AD)

    I’ve been pondering how with each move, a piece of me seems left behind since no one in the new place knows the past Amys.

    And then after reading this quote by Wallace Stegner paraphrasing Wendell Berry,
    “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are” and though I know where the TJs, the good bookstores, and good playgrounds are, I’m not really apart of this place yet. Wendell also says that for true community to exist, a family must live in a place for three generations. This type of stability and community seems to be lost for most of us.

    My hope has been the liturgical year. No matter where we’ve lived, how many kids we’ve had, and who are friends were, there were these practices which we’ve brought along with us. Traditions rooted in story of Christ, rather than our own stories. As we sought to find our story in God’s story (rather than trying to squeeze Him into ours) the narrative of our lives becomes part of the Great Drama, not one of fragmentation and loss.

  4. Friends, thanks for the thoughts. I hear you, Janna.

    Amy, as per usual, I love your brain. I am always drawn to the liturgy for that very reason, it roots me. And that’s what stability is, right? Being rooted. I understand how practicing the liturgical year and the idea of being part of the Great story, holds you in place.

    Which leads us to what you were saying, MK, about stability being a condition of mind, instead of place. I love that. I’m going to keep pondering what it means to be rooted in my mind, soul, heart.

    • M.K. says:

      It is interesting to bring in the idea of stability as being rooted. It brings to mind trees and plants, that although rooted still move in response to the wind and rain. Rooted, but not static. Rooted, but not unmoving. Not fixed. Secure in the ground, but responsive to the conditions in which they are found.

      • Thanks for that image, MK. It’s striking to me: the thought that we can be rooted even as we move physical distances (“in response to wind and rain”). Rooted but not static. I love that.

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  1. [...] Benedictines make a vow to Stability, a value greatly lacking in our society of nomads. And as one of those nomads, I’m noticing in [...]

  2. [...] can’t stop coming back to the idea of stability around here. The Benedictines commit to stability for life. And then I sit around reading books about them while moving myself and my family all over the [...]