Monastic Stability: In One Place with God and OthersBy Rev. Fr. Gerard D'Souza, OCSO for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Some time ago I was asked if I would be willing to participate in a forum on localism. I hesitated. I did not even know what localism specifically was about though the name itself ‘localism’ offered a clue. The person who invited me proceeded to twist my arm. I finally caved in but wracked my brain as to what I could offer. In fact, around 10 days ago, one of the brothers asked me “What are you planning say about localism? Are you going to speak about Monks Bread?” Quite frankly I did not think I had an obligation to market Monks Bread here.
What I can offer is my own experience of the monastic life and localism in the community. I therefore thought of offering some rather simple musings on monastic stability. After all, the Abbey of the Genesee has been stable in this locality since its foundation in 1951. It may be a good example of localism. But more important than our buildings, or even the bakery which has produced Monks Bread for over 60 years, there are the members of this community, the brothers who have vowed to remain in this place and with this community for the rest of their lives. They have come, many from the east and the west, to a particular spot in the beautiful Genesee Valley to be there, pledged to the place for the rest of their lives. To be as stable as the magnificent oaks on the property.
As monks we actually take a vow of stability, a promise to be in this place and with this community of brothers for the rest of our lives.
As I share with you something about this thing called stability, I will be focusing more on the spiritual implications of staying with a community for life. I will try to draw out the spiritual implications of a lifetime commitment to this group of brothers. I will also be speaking as a Catholic monk, drawing on the Catholic tradition as I reflect on stability in place and community and its spiritual implications.
We belong to the family of Saint Benedict who wrote his Rule for monks in the Sixth Century. In a time of turmoil, when the old order of Rome was breaking up before the onslaught of barbarian incursions and a new Europe was taking shape, just when things were unstable and in flux, along came Saint Benedict who required monks to take a vow of stability. His own monastery possessed a motley crew of characters – Roman patricians, slaves, Goths — the hardworking, the lazy, the sophisticated and the uncouth, the upbeat, the depressed. And this cast of characters was to live with each other for the rest of their lives. And it has been so ever since in Benedictine monasteries.
One of the chapters of St Benedict’s Rule is called the Tools of Good Works. It is a list of 74 good works or deeds enabling someone to make spiritual progress in a community. So many of the good works are about how to relate with other people. How do you grow to accept them? To serve them? How do you live fruitfully with other people?
And at the end of this chapter, St Benedict closes with what might seem a very prosaic comparison. He says, “the workshop where we are to toil faithfully at all these tasks [these good works] is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community.”
St Benedict is pointing out something that experience bears out – you just cannot live with a group of people fruitfully if all that matters is yourself. The group breaks down. You can live fruitfully with same people for the rest of your life only by working at relationships. There is nothing dramatic about this. It is a workshop where you have to take up the tools each morning and work at it. There is nothing glamorous about it either. It is work, day in and day out, in the same environment and with same people. But hopefully, like the quiet work of craftspeople, something good will emerge from this workshop. A community will be formed and it will be stable because all are more or less committed to making this work. But this would not occur unless we, the monks, had not pledged to remain in the same place with the same group of brothers. This localism, if you will, is the foundation for the community’s growth.
Now I am well aware of what I am saying may not resonate with you. It may even seem crazy in our highly mobile society. Staying in one place and being stuck with the same group of people for life — the definitive closing of options — might seem at best odd, and at worst terrifying.
It is in stark contrast to the larger society. There is so much mobility – both physical and even mental. But I wonder whether amidst all this mobility and change there is not the anguish of inner instability. A basic homelessness, a not-being-at-home-in-one’s-
A homeless person does not have the comfort of his own four walls to enclose him in a sort of Sabbath rest. Not having a place, a physical place, that you can call your own is not a good thing. We are ill at ease in strange places. Have you ever felt unsettled in the home of a stranger? We feel people peering at us, eyes upon us, seeing us in a harsh light. The person who is homeless feels thrown upon the world, feeling exposed to threats on every side. Using this analogy for interior space, a person who is homeless on the inside does not have the psychological walls to provide inner rest, especially when we are homeless, spiritually speaking.
We then are ill at ease in a spiritual void. There was a unique group of people who once lived in the Egyptian desert. We call them the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They went into the desert beginning around the third century, to seek God. But they also knew from experience that the desert is a place of fierce combat with themselves and their disordered passions – like anger, despair, boredom, lust, and gluttony. They experienced these deserted places as spiritual voids as well as physical deserts, peopled by demons who prowl the earth and the waterless places. And they harassed those who had no interior place, who were ill at ease in their own skins, who were restless and who had no center.
This lack of interior place is illustrated well by a story from the desert fathers.
One of these desert monks was living in an old pagan temple. And like a good desert monk he busied himself with his handiwork – lets say basket weaving. Demons told him to flee from their place. He told them you cannot tell me to leave from this place because it is not yours. You demons do not have a place. And that is true, demons are homeless. The demons messed up his handiwork and began dragging him out. He tried collecting up his palm leaves but as they began to drag him out, he cried for Christ’s help and they vanished.
The moral of this story is clear. As long as the monk thought he could do it himself by his own power, he was as unanchored as the demons. That is why they could attack him with impunity. He really had no inner place, even if he thought he did. But when he remembered his true place – namely Christ — and called out to him, the demons fled from him and from that place.
It is an important lesson for us monks who take the vow of stability and live in community. What makes the place fixed and stable and holy for us – it is the relationship to God and the brothers in the place. Finding our place depends on the quality of relationships there with God and with our sisters and brothers. You get what you put in.
St Anselm of Canterbury who is famous for his Ontological Argument but who also was a monk, says of stability:
Just as any young tree, if frequently transplanted or often disturbed by being torn up, after having recently been planted in a particular place will never be able to take root, will rapidly wither and bring no fruit to perfection, similarly an unhappy monk, if he often moves from place to place at his own whim, or remaining in one place, is frequently agitated by his hatred of it, he never achieves stability with roots of love, grows weary and does not grow rich in the fruitfulness of good works.
… Therefore anyone taking on the monastic life should strive with total application of his mind to set down roots of love in whatever monastery he made his profession. … Let him rejoice at having at last found a place where he can stay, not unwillingly but voluntarily, for the rest of his life, and having put away all anxiety about moving from one place to another … let him resolve to devote him assiduously to pursuing the single-minded exercise of a holy life.
St Anselm says that stability comes when there are roots of love, love not being a mere sentiment but active self-giving. But love of this sort needs training and discipline, and an environment where our fine sentiments and good intentions are put to the test. They are only proved true when we make a trial of them.
Remaining in one place with this particular group makes us put our money where our mouth is. It is also revelatory of the obstacles to living for others since we are congenitally selfish.
First of all, the being ‘stuck’ in place reveals our boundaries. It is easy, without real commitments, to float around with illusions of the possibilities and opportunities open to us. Somewhere over the rainbow there is that illusory pot of gold. So we might nurse somewhere in our sensibility, the illusion of infinite expansion which is deceptive. But when you are in one place, the false self is exposed and our vulnerabilities and weaknesses rise into the light. That is why the desert ascetics were so particular that we should not introduce distractions into the place we inhabit, otherwise there is no confrontation with the false self. Abba to his disciple Paul – “take care not to introduce an alien word into this cell.”
It brings on our concealed fears and the most basic anguish we all feel at death, and this basic anguish is confronted with faith rather than buried, working like a hidden acid in our hearts and on the lining of our stomachs.
A monastic writer has said ‘‘Stability ensures that it is more difficult to avoid the twin struggles … actively to persevere in doing good and passively to withstand the rigors of progressive purification.” Stability makes us aware of the concrete dimensions of our negativity. Aspects of self that could have been successfully concealed in looser associations assert themselves in a close community and cause pain – to others but more especially to ourselves.
This self-knowledge is important if we are to grow in self-giving. A degree of inner freedom from our self-absorption is necessary to be able to invest yourself in others. Stability happens because we make room for the brothers in our own hearts.
A monk is not looking for a convenient place or the magic monastery. He will never find it. His search for the place that will keep him is really the search to find a place for the brother in his heart. When he finds that place, he finds his outer place as well. John the Dwarf wrote, “a house is not built by beginning at the top and working down. You must begin with the foundations in order to reach the top. They said what does this saying mean he said the foundation is our neighbor whom we must win and that is the place to begin. For all the commandments of Christ depend on this.”
That is why for the community to flourish in a place, it requires that each of us work at mending our fences with those we live with. Otherwise we will never mend our fences with God. One of the key elements to community is forgiveness and acceptance. Forgiveness is essential to living with others. In order to co-exist with our brothers and sisters we need to find a place for them. In Greek to accommodate is in the same ballpark as to forgive which is synchoreo. That is, to accommodate and to forgive are both about finding space for others.
Undergirding this stability in community and making room for the brothers in our heart is the deeper strata of our relationship with God. A climate of prayer blesses our place and brings God into our place. When we discover the presence of Christ in the place, we do not feel homeless, even if the place be uncongenial at other levels. If the monk experiences the presence of Christ, the monk will not feel suffocated or crushed by despair within. Similarly he will be able to remain in peace. He does not flee the monastery. The longest periods that would otherwise drive him crazy are suffused with the presence of God. As Abba Sisoes said, “finding the place peaceful, I have settled for a little while here.” He was then asked, “How long have you stayed here, Abba?” The monk replied, seventy-two years. They count as but a little while.
I just spoke of forgiveness as accommodating the brother and making room for him. But this would be impossible for us if God had not reached out first to make room for us Himself. Our human community of brothers is underwritten at the most fundamental level by the accommodation of God Himself. God made space for us in Christ. The Incarnation is the most absolute form of synchoresis.
I have sketched out, in the most basic form the spiritual aspect of monastic localism or stability if you will. It cannot quite encompass all that needs to be said, obviously, but I hope it gives you an idea of what is involved in our being committed to the particular community we have chosen to be with for the rest of our lives.
When one sets forth the overarching vision, there is always the danger that it might be mistaken for the reality on the ground. Stability, true stability is something all of us have to work for. It does not happen all at once. It is a long term process, even a life-long process, of change and conversion and each of us is at various stages of the journey. Some at the beginning, some at the middle, and others advanced. It does not look clean and neat as in our brochure, it is as messy as life itself. But the important thing is that we persevere and move forward in faith — faith in God and trusting that the other brothers with us are also making sincere efforts in the same direction.
If I had time, I thought I would dwell on a practical aspect of stability. It is the commitment factor. And it might intrigue someone why a person would choose and take such a risk of commitment.
No doubt there is the whole issue of faith and the sense of being called to a place. It is too huge to go into here. But I want to add my two cents to speak of an important distinction when it comes to making a commitment, between predicting and promising. This is a distinction brought to my attention by Guy Mancini, OSB.
Both look at the future but are very different things. To predict comes from the word – prae-dicere – that is, speaking before. I can predict the weather, and I might be wrong. And then I can say that I have made a mistake in predicting, in saying beforehand what would happen. To predict is linked to seeing or imagining the future. I am not the doer but the seer.
Promising on the other hand is different. To promise comes from the Latin – pro-mittere – to send before. That is, to throw myself into the future, to send myself into the future before I know what it is. It is not a seeing and imagining of the future so much as an action that plants me firmly in the future in the present act of making the promise. To commit myself to the future before I even know what its particularities are about.
The problem comes when I confuse prediction with promising in areas where promises are made. In commitments we make promises and not predictions. If we treat a promise as we would a prediction, and if things did not work out, we could say I made a mistake and entitled to get out of it. But then we were not promising but only predicting when we made our promise.
In the vow of stability we make a promise. No doubt we exercise our prudence. But in making the promise we are in effect planting ourselves in the future no matter what, and not predicting. Which means we take the good or bad as it is dished out to us. And if it is bad, we do not have to take back our promise, because we did not make a prediction that it would be good. We made a promise that we would take it as it came to us.
It is this throwing oneself into the future that makes for a stable community where we have committed to be there for each other. Rowan Williams had a beautiful vision of what stability in community means:
The community that freely promises to live together before God is one in which both truthfulness and respect are enshrined. I promise that I will not hide from you – and that I will also at times help you not to hide from me or from yourself. I promise that your growth towards the good God wants for you will be a wholly natural and obvious priority for me; and I trust that you have made the same promise. We have a lifetime for this. Without the promise, the temptation is always for the ego’s agenda to surface again, out of fear that I shall be abandoned if the truth is known, fear that I have no time or resource to change as it seems as I must. No one is going to run away; and the resources of the community are there on my behalf.
Delivered at the Front Porch Republic annual conference, October 3, 2015 in Geneseo, New York, a few miles from the Abbey of the Genesee.