A Lesson in Stability
One of the key aspects of Benedictine spirituality is “stability.” The Mennonite scholar Gerald Schlabach has written about what this means. Excerpt:
Benedict’s rule requires a “vow of stability” — the uniquely Benedictine commitment to live in a particular monastic community for life. At first, this may seem to apply least of all amid other ways of life. Yet precisely because it contrasts so sharply with the fragility of most commitments in our hypermodern society, the Benedictine vow of stability may speak more directly to our age and churches than anything else in the Rule. Application must be by analogy; my academic dean knows that I have yet to take a vow of stability, in anything like the technical Benedictine sense! And one cannot understand the vow of stability apart from the Benedictines’ two other vows — conversion of life and obedience, which in turn requires us to face questions of authority. Still, what I wish to argue is this:
It is no use rediscovering any of our church’s roots, nor discerning innovative ways to be faithful to our church’s calling, if we won’t slow down, stay longer even if we can’t stay put indefinitely, and take something like a vow of stability. Slow down — because postmodernism may really be hypermodernism. Stay longer — because there is no way to discern God’s will together without commitment to sit long together in the first place. A vow of stability — because it is no use discerning appropriate ways to be Christian disciples in our age if we do not embody them through time, testing, and the patience with one another that our good ideas and great ideals need, in order to prove their worth as communal practices.
As one Mennonite church leader remarked to me concerning the impact of constant mobility on our congregations: “It’s getting so the Abrahamic thing to do is to stay put.”
Of course there may have been good historical reasons for insisting on stability in the unstable sixth century that do not apply to our own. But his reasons for stability may pertain more to our own century than we like to recognize. In the closing paragraph of the first edition of his book After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre baited his readers famously by suggesting that we await “another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.” According to MacIntyre, “the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time” — polling, managing, manipulating, and creating our consumer preferences through corporate and governmental bureaucracies alike. Meanwhile, theorists of modern democracy fail to account for the moral life as anything more than emotivism, thus reducing moral action itself to consumeristic choice. According to MacIntyre, our hope then is in new and localized forms of community life, constituting traditions of virtue wherein Aristotelian apprenticeship not Kantian autonomy shapes the moral life. Such communities must divest their hope in empire, and shape their lives through narratives capable of countering its illusions. Only within such communities and traditions — which pass on their virtues through narratives and the heros or mentors who embody them — will intellectual, civil, and moral life survive the competing wills-to-power that are preying upon us.
MacIntyre does not quite convince me that we require a “doubtless very different” St. Benedict. But he does point to ways that our own hypermodern age is more like Benedict’s early medieval one than we may like to admit. Television preachers afflict conservative Christians, and theological fads afflict liberal ones; in other words, itinerant “gyrovague” Christianity cycles all around us, without the discipline of sustained community life. Further, as Stanley Hauerwas has noted, the “voluntary community” for which Anabaptists once died has degenerated — in this liberal society where most organizations are voluntary — into the marketing of churches and “church shopping” among all sectors within all traditions.
Thus, even if these groups have far more than the two or three members that Benedict imagined, they are still “sarabaite” in their desire for community only on their own terms. All this occurs in a larger socioeconomic context where most days are far too like the sixth century insofar as marauding bands of advertisers, poll-takers, and other well-groomed MacIntyrian “barbarians” comprise a danger to Christian faithfulness that is far more subtle and ubiquitous than either the Roman Empire or the modern nation-state.
Me, I find that “stability,” in the Benedictine sense, is also closely related to the sense of discipline and order that the Rule also calls for. My own sense of “stability” these days is far more threatened by the disorder in my own customs and habits. Put simply, I am far too prone to drift, and to avoid doing things I don’t really want to do. There is always a reason not to.
Case in point. We arrived at the beach in Florida late in the day after an exhausting nine-hour drive from Louisiana. It would normally have been a six-hour drive, but the weekend traffic made it far worse. The question facing Julie and me was whether or not we should try to go to liturgy the next morning. Turns out that the closest Orthodox church was 24 miles away. Julie was inclined to go, but her husband? Well, you can always count on him to rationalize away doing something he doesn’t really want to do.
My response to her went something like this: Well, we could do that if you really wanted, but we’re worn out from that drive. We’re on vacation, and the kids will really want to get to the beach. Do you really want to wake up and get everybody dressed to drive all that way to church? I mean, we’ll do it if you really want to, but honestly, this is vacation, and we should give ourselves a break.
We didn’t go to the liturgy, and it was all my fault. I’m embarrassed to recount this to you, but it’s important that I own up to it. Here’s why.
We came home a day early from our trip, on Friday. The kids had had enough of the sun and the surf, and we wanted to avoid the hellacious Saturday traffic. That meant we were back home in time for Julie to sing at Saturday vespers. Someone had suggested to our priest, Father Matthew, that we could skip vespers that weekend, and even Sunday liturgy, given the incredibly stressful week he had had. On Tuesday, his wife very nearly died giving birth to their fourth child, and both she and the baby were in intensive care. He had been keeping vigil there all week, between that and shuttling back to the country, 40 miles away, to check on his kids and their caretaker. Nobody in our parish would have begrudged Father Matthew the break. Nobody.
But he insisted that we keep up our liturgical schedule. “I need the grace from serving liturgy,” he told Julie. And that included the hour-long vespers service on Saturday evening.
After vespers, Father stood at the front of the church and thanked those present for our prayers and support all week. “The Orthodox Church gives us a rhythm to life,” he said. “We need to live by that rhythm, in good times and in bad. When you least want to come to church, that’s probably the time when you most need to be there. Where there is struggle, there is grace, and where there is grace, there is struggle.”
He was telling us, in other words, that amid the calamity crashing down around him and his family that week, the liturgy and the formal prayer services of the Church were what kept him grounded, and what became a vector for sustaining grace. The habit of prayer, and the stability that the prayer discipline brings.
We had a bigger crowd at liturgy the next morning than at vespers, and Father Matthew gave much the same message after services. It really sank in with me. I found myself ashamed that I had so casually dismissed the liturgy the weekend before, on vacation. It wasn’t in a legalistic way, my shame, but in a way that I took to be healing. Here was a man who had just had a harder week than I could even imagine, and yet here he was, in church, serving us — and openly admitting that he needed to be there, doing exactly that, because it was part of what held him together and kept him moving through a near-catastrophe.
What a lesson that was to me. Nearly everything I find lacking in my life has to do with my own lack of discipline, and how I cannot stay focused or committed to most things, even good things for which I have enthusiasm. It’s not that I’m not a hard worker. It’s that I am … well, I’m like this. It’s a character flaw. It really is.
As I’m thinking about the Benedict Option, I will keep in mind the good example my priest gave me in what was surely the most difficult and demanding week of his life. He wasn’t trying to shame us into coming to church. Rather, he was confessing his own need, his own weakness, and how the stability of following the church’s liturgical and prayer disciplines, especially when it’s really hard, gave him the strength to hold on and to carry on for himself and those who depend on him.