Updated: Aug 16, 2021
This may be an odd time to write about the spiritual practice of stability. As we move into the second year of lockdown restrictions imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I think that the last thing any of us wants to be is “stable.” Stable sounds like stuck, and we have had more than enough of being stuck. Yet, they are not really the same thing, and perhaps it is useful to consider the practice of stability while we are stuck- before some kind of return to our old lives makes us too busy and hectic to do so.
Because, if we are honest, there was much in our pre-2020 manner of living that was not really a blessing to the human spirit in general, or to those who are trying to cultivate an intentional Christian lifestyle and practice. As of 2019, the average American moved house more than 11 times. In a span of 32 years, they averaged 12 different jobs. The result? A lack of community, and the loneliness, depression, and anxiety that seem to come with that. Though these statistics differ from country to country- and are more pronounced among younger people- the basic fact remains the same throughout the West: we live in a society that is much less rooted than the one our immediate ancestors did, and we seem to be reaping a particularly negative batch of consequences as a result.
The spiritual effect of this are manifold. As Johnathan Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “Deep down in our bones, we seem to know that rapid change and constant motion are hazards to our spiritual health. Humans long for the simplicity of a life that blossoms into its fullness by becoming rooted in a place.” We have been taught to disregard the place and people we find ourselves in, which also can mean ignoring the providence of God. We are constantly striving for the “next,” the “newer,” the “better,” which means we may overlook the blessings we already possess. Restless, ambitious, fearful of missing out, and hooked on the “next”- the next relationship, job, city, friends, or whatever- we are conditioned to struggle toward the horizon, seeking for that elusive “enough” that will make us feel complete, satisfied, and whole.
The Christian tradition, and especially Benedictine spirituality, offer a different message than this. The desert father, St. Anthony of Egypt, says “In whatever place you find yourself, do not easily leave it.” and again, ““If a trial comes upon you in the place where you live, do not leave that place when the trial comes. Wherever you go, you will find that what you are running from is ahead of you.” St. Benedict warns of those monks called gyrovagues, “who wander about, all their lives, from Province to Province…ever rambling- slaves to self-love and all those disorders of which gluttony is the parent”
Stability is not always possible- education and employment may offer us few options but to move. There are also those, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, who by virtue of their vocation have a highly mobile lifestyle. Yet stability seems to be the norm historically, for both humans beings and for Christians in particular. If that makes us uncomfortable, it is perhaps because we are so submerged in a culture that believes that constant motion is what life is, and that to practice stability is to stagnant, or worse, to die. “Practicing stability,” Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “has meant unlearning the habits of a culture that tells us the answer to our problems is always somewhere else.”
Practicing Stability: Some Considerations
Interested in valuing and practicing stability more? Here are some things to consider. You may wish to journal about them, and try and move towards an intentional integration of stability into your day-to-day life.
Perspective- First, there is the human reality to consider: as the character from the old movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai put it, “no matter where you go, there you are.” We can only be in one place and one time. We are here and now. Add to that the reality of God’s providence- that, as a loving father, he is working all things for good. What this means is that where we are matters, and not merely as a stepping-stone to somewhere else. Can you trust God and leave the future to him? Can you believe that where you are matters? Can you commit to this spiritual reality, rather than to the voices of a rootless consumerism?
Place- This inevitably means we must consider our place. Not as a prison, but rather as where we are called to live out our Christian vocations and incarnate the coming Kingdom. Why are we here? Again, providence would suggest a reason, and the Lordship of Christ would also suggest that no place is godforsaken, no matter how we may feel about it. “Stability is a commitment to trust God not in an ideal world, but in the battered and bruised world we know. If real life with God can happen anywhere at all, then it can happen here”
People- Why these people? Why did God call them to be my church, my community, my neighbors? As my neighbors, how can I love them as myself? How about the relationships I have been given- as spouse, parent, friend? Am I faithful in my vocation to those people, or do I change relationships too frequently, leaving people behind?
Pattern- Stability requires a habitus- certain ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions. Does my Christian discipleship create a pattern of life that values stability and focusses my attention on the place and people I find myself in? Do my spiritual disciplines help commit me to serve my local church, my neighbors? So often, our spiritual practices in this digital age can unintentionally heighten separation from our local context, as opposed to grounding us in stability. As one fellow observes, ““I think I’m learning from these guys that God can change us if we’ll settle down in one place. So I’ve given up my spiritual journey. I’m going to just stay with God here and see how I can grow.”
Purpose- God’s providence- and our personality- means that we each have a specific set of gifts and skills for use in our vocation. Sadly, we so often buy into the myth that we are in constant need of re-inventing ourselves that we can frustrate both our vocation and who God has made us uniquely to be. Are you fulfilling your vocation? Comfortable in who you are? Do you believe the subtle lie that you need to constantly be something better, different, more? That you could shine brighter if you were doing something else?
Stability cannot be achieved quickly. It takes time and attention, and the blessings of such a life may be hard to perceive at first. Our culture no longer values it, and so we who live in this culture may not value it much at first either. If, however, you are worn out by the pace and rootlessness of modern life- lockdowns notwithstanding- the fruit of stability may be what you are looking for. After all, we are only here and now. We can trust God’s graciousness and believe that where we are is as good a place as any for the Kingdom to take root.
Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.
- “Moving Industry Statistics,” (Nov. 4, 2020), www.movebuddha.com/blog/moving-industry-statistics, accessed May 8, 2021. - Bureau of Labor Statistics (Aug. 22, 2019), www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/nlsoy.pdy, accessed May 8, 2021.  -Wilson-Hartgrove, J. (2010). The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture [Kindle iOS version], p. 12.  - quoted in Wilson-Hartgrove, J. (2010). The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture [Kindle iOS version], p. 35. - The Holy Rule of St Benedict, a priest of Mount Melleray, trans., (1865), London: Thomas Richardson and Sons, p. 11.  - Wilson-Hartgrove, J. (2010). The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture [Kindle iOS version], p. 40.  - The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, 1984. - Wilson-Hartgrove, J. (2010). The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture [Kindle iOS version], p. 24.  - “Don,” quoted in Wilson-Hartgrove, J. (2010). The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture [Kindle iOS version], p. 46.