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Benedictine spirituality: the first vow, stability

Friday February 12 2016

Benedictine spirituality: the first vow, stability

The first vow laid out in Benedict’s Rule is stability. To a monk or sister, it means being committed to stay in this particular monastic house with these particular people. It means being willing to look for God here in the constancy of this place in this rhythm of life, rather than seeking God in ever-changing places and varied routines.

In Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life, Paul Wilkes calls stability a “sense of where you are,” and he believes that our disjointed lives and fragmented society present ample evidence that we desperately need to embrace stability. “What was needed, Benedict taught, was maddeningly simple. It was a commitment to trust in God’s goodness – that he was indeed there, in that very place; and that holiness, happiness, and human fulfillment were to be found, not tomorrow or over the hill, but here – today.”

Wilkes argues that a sense of stability offers a resting place, but that we must not understand stability to mean that we can never change. Because life is a journey, there will always be transitions and changes. Stability, Wilkes believes, “is woven of the ability to stay put and yet never lose the explorer’s desire for new experiences. . . . Stability’s goal is that we might see the inner truth of who we are and what we are going. That we might be still long enough to be joined intimately to the God who dwells within. . . . It is difficult – no, it is impossible – to find and maintain that center if our waking hours are a blur of mindless activity, without the presence and practice of stability in our lives.”

Stability, for those of us not living in the monastic rhythm of prayer services, can mean a commitment to daily, weekly or monthly prayer disciplines. A weekly Sabbath observance and attending church each week can be part of our expression of stability. Faithful demonstrations of family commitments are connected to stability. For the first thirty years of my adult life, I called or wrote my parents every week, and I now understand that rhythm to be part of the structure of stability that keeps me healthy. Faithfulness to our marriage vows, checking in regularly on our neighbors, and consistent attempts to affirm and listen to our co-workers can all be expressions of a commitment to stability, as we realize on a deep level that this is the field where God has planted us and called us to bear fruit.

Benedict calls us to listen as a part of the vow of stability. The Rule says, “Listen with the ears of your heart, for the Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teachings.” We need to listen to the scriptures in order to know God’s teaching. We need to listen to the Holy Spirit, to teach us how to apply God’s truth. We need to listen to our own lives, so we can understand the ways God is speaking to us in this day, in this place.

Retreat director Elizabeth Canham, in Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Today, talks about the fact that so often when we feel any pain, we immediately choose the appropriate medication to ease it. Sometimes, she believes, God speaks to us through our fatigues and headaches and muscle aches, revealing to us the lack of balance and health in our lives. If we immediately medicate ourselves with drugs or caffeine, we lose the opportunity to hear God speak. We need to learn to listen more deeply to the negative and irritating things in our daily lives in order to hear God speak to us through every part of daily living.

Canham also points out that the willingness to wait is a part of the vow of stability. Waiting, she says, is difficult for us because “it reminds us that we have not yet arrived, that we are unfinished.” Waiting frequently compounds our fears and doubts. Canham believes that we must embrace waiting, in part because, “Waiting is also God-like. Scripture bears witness to the God who waits again and again for the right moment to act in the life of a community or an individual. That waiting is especially poignant as God takes flesh in the body of a young woman and becomes subject to the nine months of pregnancy.”

Canham notes that often we become discouraged as we wait, wondering if God will ever answer our prayers. She believes that our faith and prayer will grow as we honestly acknowledge the turmoil of inner emotions that we experience when waiting. We will grow in ability to rest in stability. She notes that the psalms are full of allusions to waiting, which can encourage us as we learn to wait in hope.

The Benedictine vow of stability can be affirming and encouraging as we enter into the second, third, fourth, fifth or even sixth decade in the same marriage, the same job, the same church, or the same town. We need to be reminded of the significance in God’s eyes of continuity and faithfulness.

A few commitments, a few essential disciplines can help us stay where we are and look for God in that place. We don’t have to do everything. We can rest in the limited view out the round window of the cupola, because we know that we will actually see the sky more clearly when we see only a part of it. (For more on the metaphor of the limited view outside the window, see last week's post.)

This is the fifth post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. The earlier posts were
     Embracing structure
     John's story
     Who was Benedict?
     Monastic living in ordinary life

Next week focuses on the second vow in Benedict's Rule: conversion of life. Excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife (InterVarsity Press, 2002), copyright © Lynne Baab. Illustration by Dave Baab.

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For further reading:

Paul Wilkes, Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

Timothy Fry, OSB, editor, The Rule of St. Benedict in English (Collegeville, Minn,: The Liturgical Press, 1981).

Elizabeth Canham, Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Nashville: Upper Room, 1999).

Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1989, 1997).

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).

Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids: MI: Brazos Press, 2007).

Gifts of Freedom: The Sabbath and Fasting, article by Lynne Baab that draws on her monastery visits.



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