Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything. – Sayings of the Desert Fathers
It’s 4:30 in the morning, and I am sitting on the edge of my piano bench in our living room looking out the window–waiting for my cab to take me to the airport. It is quiet and dark. The only light streams in from the street lamp outside, casting a warm glow on the room.
I scan the living room, and am struck with a multitude of memories. I have lived in this home longer than any other– times two! So many rich memories from this room, from this house, in the last eighteen years. As I sit in the stillness bathed in muted light, the room becomes a symbol of all that has remained constant these past eighteen years.
I look down at the worn piano keys and reflect on how many times I clumsily banged out show- tunes or Christmas Carols–entertaining no one but myself.
I think of the holiday parties in this room, the baby showers, the surprise birthday parties, ball games, and especially that one moment when my wife proposed to me.
I think of hundreds of conversations with my friends in recovery, as we sat in front of the fire–beginning with tears and ending in laughter.
Then, in the dark, waiting for the cab, my thoughts soar outside the room into the world, and I think of aspects of my life that have remained constant throughout these years.
- I have not strayed from my local parish. Priests come and go, friends move, but I have chosen it (or it has chosen me) and like a family, I stay even when sometimes I feel like leaving.
- I have maintained a regular (if not daily) practice of spiritual reading, prayer, and meditation.
- I have stayed active and engaged in my recovery and in helping others with theirs.
- I go to recovery meetings, even when I sometimes think I have heard it all.
- I stay in contact with my family and friends–though I could do better.
- I have stayed active in my profession of workplace safety, even when I have felt like leaving.
- I have remained close to and in love with my wife, even when I have been angry—or she has.
- I have written something almost every day, even though most of it is junk.
- I have exercised regularly and found ways to get outside every week, even in the North West January rains.
Remaining constant with some elemental commitments may be the very reason new and wonderful experiences have come my way. This is a paradox– that constancy in certain key elements of life leads to surprises, to gifts, and to growth in many others area’s. Though I may not see the direct connection, I now understand it as the spiritual principle of stability.
In the last 50 years, the word ‘stability’, referring to a constant approach to a way of life, has become an old fashioned concept. It may connote a lack of originality and creativity, or an unwillingness to take risks–or, at its worst, a boring person or life. “You should marry a boy (or girl) who is stable!” says the well- established parents. The wanderer is always the hero in the movies.
Today, mobility in the area’s of homes, communities, jobs, relationships,or spiritualties, is a normal part of life. Years ago, it was common to live your entire life in one community, sometimes in the same house. Today, moving from job to job and city to city is the primary means of upward mobility.
So why is the fact that I have stayed put these past eighteen years, with the same fundamental activities framing my daily life, so important to me?
In looking back, it becomes clear to me that all the good in my life is the direct result of embracing these key constants—in effect choosing to ‘stay put’ in certain activities, relationships, spiritual practices, and communities I have chosen. In the distant past, I would constantly look for something different and outside myself to change—some new opportunity, some new friends, some new idea or practice or diet or exercise routine. A new job, new car, new home, new this or new that, for my life (my feelings) to improve.
The Benedictine Spiritual principle of stability (for the religious brothers and sisters it is a VOW!) means that a monk stays put. Unless he’s sent somewhere else by his superiors, or gets a dispensation from Rome, a monk must remain in the monastery of his profession.
The Benedictine monk Thomas Merton explains: “By making a vow of stability the monk renounces the vain hope of wandering off to find a ‘perfect monastery.’ This implies a deep act of faith: the recognition that it does not matter where we are or whom we live with. …Stability becomes difficult for a man whose monastic ideal contains some note, some element of the extraordinary. All monasteries are more or less ordinary.… Its ordinariness is one of its greatest blessings.”
For the average person, this vow can become a spiritual principle to try to live up to. It is described by one monastery this way:
We vow to remain all our life with our local community. We live together, pray together, work together, relax together. We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledging one’s own offensive behavior, giving up one’s preferences, forgiving. (Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey)
Obviously we cannot control everything. Sometimes careers present wonderful opportunities elsewhere. Sometimes, a relationship is toxic or beyond repair. Sometimes health restricts us and requires we adjust. Sometimes our spiritual life requires a jolt of change. The question may be as simple as this; am I running away from something, or moving toward a greater good. Not always easy to tell the difference, but it does make a difference.
Most of the events of our lives can be characterized as “ordinary”. The paradox is that by embracing the good and ordinary in our lives through the spirituality of stability, some surprising and extraordinary things occur.
From simply showing up each day to be helpful in the very place we are put, careers are advanced, friends are helped through hard times, private journaling becomes published writing, mountains are climbed, marathons are run, spiritual life and wisdom advances, relationships are healed and strengthened day after day, and, yes, joy is experienced.
No more daydreaming for a better yesterday or tomorrow.
So, as the cab pulls up to take me from my home, I am grateful—grateful I have stayed put, in this house, in this neighborhood, in this community, in this marriage, in this parish, in this life I have been given. And, until I am led by my God to another place, this is where I will stay.
Here’s to the old-fashioned spiritual practice of stability. Now, that is unique!