Stability: Revelation of the Many Faces of God

· Articles & Essays · ,

by Joan Chittister, OSB

Everywhere you look in our monastery there’s a cross: on the bell tower out- side the large front entrance for all the world to see; on the chapel doors; on the wall behind the prioress’s desk. When I was a young sister in the community, I think I would have preferred more exciting markers—an elegant oil painting, perhaps, or a statue of the Ascension done in gothic beauty, or something abstract and provocative. Not that there weren’t plenty of each around, of course, but the first sight a visitor got was always the cross; the most prominent thing was always the cross; the thing at the center of the most symbolic places of the community—the front door, the chapel, the refectory, the prioress’s office—was always the cross. A little old-fashioned, I thought. A little macabre. After all, we have to keep our eyes on the bright spots of life and beware the darker aspects of religion. And I still think that’s true. To a point.

The fact is, though, that as life goes on, it becomes clearer and clearer that the cross is not a dark aspect of religion. It is, on the contrary, the one hope we have that our own lives can move through difficulty to triumph. It’s the one thing that enables us to hang on and not give up when hanging on seems impossible and giving up seems imperative. The cross is our one proof of human possibility. The cross says very clearly that things will work out if we work them out and that whatever is, is important to our life’s fulfillment. The cross says that we can rise if we can only endure.

 

Now That Is Not What I learn from the culture around me. In this day and age everything is expected to be instant, nothing is to be endured. We’re a society of pop-up tarts and instant cocoa and microwave ovens and same day surgery. Americans are instructed that they must never tolerate a cold or a backache or acid indigestion. And we want things when we want them. We wear headphones to create our own private little worlds. We run our lives on timers for the VCR and timers for the lights and timers for the oven in order to create our own private little schedules. We buy TV dinners so everyone in the family can live their own private little lives. We change schools and jobs and homes as casually as we once changed clothes. We are born in one state, raised in another, married in a third, and retire in a fourth. Everything we touch is immediate, private, and fluid. Life, for us, is very, very personal and very, very mobile. Our lives are so mobile and so private, in fact, that loneliness and fragmentation and selfishness are endemic to the culture. We “mind our own business” while people cheat and lie and die around us. We fail to make connections between this little suburb and the world, my life and the health of the planet, this policy and the fate of ages and peoples yet to come.

 

When My Novice Mistress insisted that nothing be left on the novitiate table overnight, I didn’t make many connections either. When I was assigned to live with people I didn’t know, I didn’t understand why connecting with them was important to me either. When my first local superior gave each of us one hanger and one hanger only in the community cupboard, I didn’t understand why my needs didn’t determine the allotment either. When I was told to work with people whose methods I didn’t understand and whose personalities countered mine, I didn’t know why it was necessary for me to have anything to do with them either. When we were told that typewriters could not be used in the bedroom areas, I didn’t see why they shouldn’t be either. After all, I had grown up an only child. The world around me belonged to me. Things went my way if only because there was no other way for anything to go. The turf was mine to own and shape and control. I was a world unto myself, all others need beware.

Then, as the years went by, I began to understand the spirituality of stability that was so clearly a monastic quality. The Desert Monastics explained it this way:

Abba Poemen said of Abba John that he had prayed to God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. In fact, Abba John went and told one of the elders this: “I find myself in peace, without an enemy,” he said. And the elder said to him, “Then go and beseech God to stir up warfare within you so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.” So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, “Lord, give me the strength for the fight.”

—John the Dwarf, section no. 13

 

Another Story That Reflects the spirituality of stability comes from Cassian. Cassian wrote that Abba John, abbot of a great monastery, went to Abba Paesius who had been living for forty years very far off in the desert. As John was very fond of Paesius and could therefore speak freely with him, John said to him,

What good have you done by living here in retreat for so long, and not being easily disturbed by anyone?” Abba Paesius said, “Since I have lived in solitude the sun has never seen me eating.” But Abba John said to him, “As for me, as long as I have lived in community, the sun has never seen me angry.”

—Cassian, section no. 4

It is easy to be even-tempered in private, in other words. It is easy to be virtuous alone. It is easy to be strong when untried. It is easy to win when there is nothing to endure. It is also easy to be superficial and self-centered and characterless. It is also easy to run from what I may most need to confront in life if I am ever to be whole. Monastic stability, you see, is concerned more with depth than with comfort.

Benedictine stability is a promise to meet life head-on. Monastic stability deals directly with three things: centeredness, commitment, and relationships.

There are some things in life that cannot be avoided: death, illness, change, personal expectations. What each of them does to us depends a great deal on the way we have allowed ourselves to deal with lesser things. The purpose of stability is to center us in something greater than ourselves so that nothing lesser than ourselves can possibly sweep us away.

Stability says that where I am is where God is for me. More than that, stability teaches that whatever the depth of the dullness or the difficulties around me, I can, if I will simply stay still enough of heart, find God there in the midst of them.

Mobility tempts interior stillness to the breaking point, however. Every store window holds a better bargain. Every relationship promises a more satisfying partnership. Every new place and new person and new possibility tempts me to try again, to try over, to try once more to find the perfect place or at least the place perfectly suited to me. But centeredness is an antidote to the fragmentation that comes from never settling in to where I am or what I’m doing or what I’m meant to learn.

 

When The Monastic Makes a vow of stability it is a vow designed to still the wandering heart. There comes a time in life when everyone else’s family seems to have been better than my own. There comes a moment when having everything seems to be the only way to squeeze even a little out of life. There comes a day when this job, this home, this town, this family all seem irritating and deficient beyond the bearable. There comes a period in life when I regret every major decision I’ve ever made. That is precisely the time when the spirituality of stability offers its greatest gift. Stability enables me to outlast the dark, cold places of life until the thaw comes and I can see new life in this uninhabitable place again. But for that to happen I must learn to wait through the winters of my life.

The problem is that perseverance and persistence are aspects of stability which the present world counts little. If our children don’t learn, we blame the teachers rather than expect the students to study harder. If the book is difficult, we don’t read it even if the intellectual struggle would be worth it. If the show is too long, we leave early even if that wastes the price of the ticket. If the work is hard, we quit.

Stability enables me to outlast the dark, cold places of life until the thaw comes and I can see new life in this uninhabitable place again.

Stability, however, says that we have an obligation to see things through until we have done for them what can be done and, no less important, until they have done for us what can be done as well. Stability says we will walk the major roads of life unto the end, no matter what. There is, of course, a kind of pseudo stability that is destructive. To fail to move out of situations that are unjust or demeaning or depersonalizing simply because I cannot find the courage to take the step is not stability. That kind of rootedness is a kind of bondage or suicide that comes from inertia, or entrapment, or a love of pain that betrays some twisted need for sympathy or pity or false martyrdom. Stability says that we stay with a thing in order to grow, not in order not to grow. Fidelity is to be valued, of course, but not at the cost of mental health. Humility is to be valued, indeed, but not if it implies becoming masochistic. Prayer is to be valued, certainly, but not instead of responsibility to others. Stability says there are some values beyond other values that ought to be pursued.

Stability says we will stay with the humdrum if only to condition our souls to cope with the unfleeable in life. We stay with what, if we wanted to, we really could get away from so that we can come someday to cope with what we will not be able to leave.

Stability requires us to be constant of heart and unremitting in our spiritual efforts. We don’t pray in hope of visions; we pray in hope of becoming prayerful. We don’t struggle in hope of triumph; we struggle in hope of growth. We don’t continue in hope of winning trophies; we continue in hope of winning the struggle to become better and stronger human beings than we were. If this is a thing worth doing, then I must do it. If this is a cause to which I can make a contribution, then I must make it. If this is a promise that needs keeping, then you must be able to count on my keeping it.

 

Commitment, However, Is Not necessarily our long suit these days. Nothing in this society requires it and everything militates against it. It is not expected, after all, to promise to stay at a thing when something bad happens to it or something seemingly better comes along. It is not easy to continue the hard work of being here when everything around us says go there where it will be easier. It is hard to go on when it would be so much simpler just to quit. But the question becomes, what will happen to me as a person if I don’t go on, if I don’t persevere, if I don’t persist, if I don’t see this through? The answers are myriad.

In the first place, I will certainly fail to learn a great deal about myself if I leave a thing before it’s finished. I will fail to learn the strengths that give me quality. And I will fail to face the weaknesses that call for change. I will end up being less than I can be. It is the image of Robert E. Peary stopping just one hundred miles away from the North Pole that tarnishes his image more, for instance, than if he’d never gone at all.

In the second place, I will lose the opportunity to grow. Stability is the quality that enables me to confront life’s questions with both self-knowledge and self-giving. Not every question reveals itself at once. Not every effort succeeds at first attempt. Not every good thing that happens, happens without persistent purpose and continual failure. After Vatican II, for instance, religious life, parish life, and personal morality took erratic swings. People stopped going to church. Men and women left their religious communities. Some went the way of the past in order to maintain direction; others launched out into a chaotic present without map and without caution. Not a few left the spiritual life altogether. The critics said that God was dead, that religious life was over, that the Church had lost meaning. But there has never been a more exciting time, a more hopeful time, a more important time for followers of the gospel than now. Now spirituality has become a gift rather than a social expectation. For those for whom staying with the struggle demanded conscious commitment to faith alone, religion has taken on a meaning beyond itself. Indeed, the search for purpose and meaning and relevance has often become skewed these years and has seldom been clear. It has nevertheless managed to remain very, very important. The staying through itself, in fact, has often been the best part of the spiritual gift. The dark night of faith can be its own kind of blessing, just as staying through a relationship or staying through a crisis or staying through an illness can be a gift, too, if we stay for no other reason than to discover with open minds and accepting hearts who we are and what we are expected to give and to learn in this situation.

To those who are pure of heart, to those who come to see God where God is, to those who persevere in the presence of God, to those who, as the Rule of Benedict says, “have used the spiritual craft without ceas- ing day and night” (RB 4:75-76) is promised the reward of a loving God: peace of heart and eternal life at the end of whatever daily deaths crowd our lives.

 

Stability, In Other Words, is an outward demonstration of what we say is our inward disposition: the love of God in all things but especially in the humdrum and mundane, in the here and now and the them and those.

Obviously, then, stability has to be more than centeredness and commitment. Stability must most of all be the sanctification of relationships, the discovery of friendship where perhaps once only chemistry had been. The fact is that stability is an invitation to live life deeply rather than to spend it superficially. The temptation to flit from person to person, from commitment to commitment, from place to place in a mobile society is of very modern making. Our ancestors stayed with one job for a lifetime. They lived in their hometowns all their lives. Choice was not a luxury they had. Stability was their way of life.

But modern society has lost that essential call to the depth and conversion that comes from knowing everyone and having everyone know you. Now we confuse community with living in groups. Yet lots of people who seem to be living with others are simply living alone together. People live in the same neighborhood together for years 28 and cannot even call one another by name. People work for the same company all their lives and never even see one another. People go to the same schools together and never even know it. Indeed our lives are lived on the suburban surface of things, not in community at all.

Photo by Thomas Germann

Photo by Thomas Germann

Ongoing revelation of God’s goodness depends somehow, though, on permanence, on realizing that God’s action in my life is different today from what it was yesterday and realizing that my actions in life are different today from what they were yesterday. To test and try all those dimensions of life takes time. It is one thing to speak kindly to an irritating stranger on Monday. It is quite another thing to go on speaking kindly to the same irritating relative, or irritating employee, or irritating child day after day, week after week, year after year and come to see in that what God is asking of me, what God is teaching me about myself in this weary, weary moment.

 

What Enables A Person to keep going back to the difficult parts of life is, inevitably, certitude in the faithfulness of God. I do not keep the promises I’ve made, the contracts I’ve signed, the guarantees I’ve given because I am sure of my strength. I go on keeping covenants that would be easy to forego only because I am sure of the constancy of God. I am sure that God will keep God’s promises of presence and grace. I feed my ailing mother every day because I am convinced that God is God. I patch and patch and patch this marriage together because I have no doubt that God is God. I go on hoping in this difficult child because I am convinced that God is God. I continue to pray when prayer itself is a burden because I am certain that God is God. It is not myself and my own strength and my own fidelity in which I put my hope. I put my hope in the certain, the guaranteed, the gracious faithfulness of God. That’s what makes stability possible. That’s what makes stability imperative.

Photo by Gerald Streiter

Photo by Gerald Streiter

Stability, you see, is essential to the ongoing revelation of the many faces of God in my life. Someday, somehow I have to see a thing through to the end or I will never come to know what I was meant to find there and I will never come to recognize the face of God that is hidden there and I will never come to be all that I could be there.

Stability is what gives me time in life, time for God and time for others. If I rush from job to job and city to city and relationship to relationship, I never discover all the aspects of each. I never find the rhythm of life. I never touch all the dimensions of anything. I never get stretched beyond myself. I never become bonded to others. I never become something new. And alienation sets in.

With these people, in this place, at this time, I dedicate myself to rebirth and growth and maturity, both spiritual and psychological.

Then, finally, it becomes clear. Mobility is not the ultimate enemy of stability, alienation is. When nothing has touched me deeply enough to change me, nothing can touch me at all. I become a cardboard cut-out that breathes. I learn to say the proper words, perhaps, but I never learn the grace that comes from anger suffered but not spat out, or pain borne but not denied, or love learned but never able to be expressed. I go through life on fast speed but numb.

 

The Benedictine Spirituality of stability is the antithesis of that. The Rule calls for steady, steady attention to everything: to prayer, to the service of the other, to the community as a whole, to regularity and continuity and manual labor and intellectual discipline, to “love of one another with chaste love” (RB 72:8). No one is excused from any of them Life is a package to be opened in its entirety, not a smorgasbord to be sampled as it suits us.

If there is anything, in fact, that reminds me that I am not a world unto myself, it is stability in my community: “the school of the Lord’s service,” “the workshop where I work out the spiritual craft” (RB 4). Stability implies both acceptance of the human community in which I find myself and immersion in it.

It is so easy for people to come to live with others as if they were living alone. All they have to do is to stop noticing one another. But that is not a spiritual community at all. I need the conscious presence of other people to become sensitive to God’s presence, to hear the gospel word in life through those who are speaking it around me, and to be able to express my love for Christ in a real way, in the other, in the world. Stability is the one sure tool we have to be certain that the world, for us, can really become a garden to be tilled rather than a candy store to be robbed.

Stability, the willingness to continue to grow where I am, ironically, is the ground of conversion, the willingness to be changed. With these people, in this place, at this time I dedicate myself to rebirth and growth and maturity, both spiritual and psychological. With the help of these others, I can commit myself to the faithfulness of a God who is also unpredictable.

Stability is a measure of love as well. Here in a stable relationship with others, we find that fullness of life is more than preservation of the self and that love is more than a matter of physical response, more than a mixture of fire and dynamite. It’s in stability that I find out that all love, to be true love, must, at least to some degree, be celibate. For love to be more than a passing mixture of fire and dynamite, it must come to withstand the days of no fire or dynamite at all. It must to some degree be more than sexual attraction and beyond sexual attraction. It must be made of friendship and mutual respect and spiritual integrity, or staying through will not only be impossible, it will be destructive. Friendship, in other words, is the call out of isolation and selfishness in order to teach me how to love and how to serve. But without stability, friendship—real soul-searing friendship, the kind that makes us choose between domination and infatuation and possessiveness and dependence for growth and freedom and depth and responsibility and self-knowledge—is impossible.

 

Stability Is What Enables Us, in other words, to live totally in God and totally for others. It is those two quests in life, in fact, that may be our only counterweights to pathological egotism in this self-centered world where whole nations can starve to death on our kitchen TV sets while we eat supper without even so much as raising an eyebrow about it all. What else can explain human callousness of that proportion except the lack of human caring that comes only from living through things with people? What else can possibly have led the human race to accept the prospect of nuclear annihilation in the name of “defense” if not the distances that have grown up between our worlds and the lives of those around us as we come and go and come and go through life, unrooted, unknown, and unattached?

 

Is Stability Easy? Not on your life. But as the Desert Monastics told us, “It is by warfare that the soul makes progress.” And if, by living as responsible members of the human community, we can come to the point where “the sun never sees our anger,” then we will have come to fullness of life.

That’s why, I have discovered, after years of monastic life, there are crosses in those four particular places in the monastery: on the bell tower above the building to raise our hearts and efforts to levels beyond the mundane; on the chapel doors so that I can remember what life is really all about; on the refectory wall to make visible the gift of personal growth that community gives; over the prioress’s desk so that I can see the divine behind the human everywhere in life. That’s what those crosses say every time I see them: Stability. Stability. Stability. Stability.


Joan Chittister, OSB is a Benedictine nun of the Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania. An author of some 50 books and over 700 magazine and journal articles, she is also a speaker, lecturer and co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women.

From Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of Saint Benedict Today. Copyright © 1990 by Joan Chittister, OSB. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

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