Bridges & Pathways to God: Stability & Community
Kristin (who administrates our blog and website, along with her husband Jason) and I (Ron, who has been writing these weekly posts) decided recently to ask several NCF-ers to write guest posts. We will be publishing them from time to time, whenever they become available. It is a privilege to be able to post the first of these today, written by a long-time member of our community, Walt Kelly. And, what a challenge! Thanks Walt, I really appreciate the vulnerability and the challenge.
I recently returned from a four-day retreat at the Gethsemani Monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky, about an hour from where I grew up. It’s most famous for being the home of Thomas Merton, the controversial Catholic spiritual author and mystic. For the past five years, I’ve gone on retreat there with my father. It’s a time I look forward to with great anticipation every fall. The monks go about their business of prayer and work in silence, and invite us to participate in their life as fully as we want (including getting up at 3 AM to chant Psalms).
Trappist monks make five vows when they fully commit to the monastic life, four of which are obedience, conversion of life, poverty, and celibate chastity. The fifth is stability, which to me is the least memorable and most obscure. Here’s what the Trappists say about that particular vow, as found on their website (yes, monks have a web presence: http://www.trappists.org): “By our vow of stability, we promise to commit ourselves for life to one community of brothers or sisters with whom we will work out our salvation in faith, hope, and love. Resisting all temptation to escape the truth about ourselves by restless movement from one place to the next, we gradually entrust ourselves to God’s mercy experienced in the company of brothers or sisters who know us and accept us as we are.”
This is a radical statement for our time and culture. Our society places a high value on mobility, and this is especially true in a university community like Champaign-Urbana, where many of us come for a few years, leaving after we’ve gotten our degree, or our grant has run out, or we didn’t get tenure, or we got a better offer somewhere else. We come from someplace else, and we leave for someplace else; our roots are shallow.
This year while at Gethsemani, I read “The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture,” by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a book I picked up at the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) meeting that I and several other NCFers attended in Minneapolis earlier this fall. The theme of the book is stated in its second sentence, that “the most important thing most of us can do to grow spiritually is to stay in the place where we are.” And Wilson-Hartgrove makes it clear that he believes stability in Christ always means stability in community.
Stability is an ancient concept in Christianity, going back at least to the third century AD Desert Fathers. One wrote “In whatever place you find yourself, do not easily leave it.” Another counseled a young follower, that “when a trial comes, do not leave that place. Wherever you go, you will find what you are running from is ahead of you.” (Avoiding conflict, as I can readily attest, is a not a good long-term strategy.)
But Wilson-Hartgrove says the concept of stability goes back even further, to Biblical times. As an example, he quotes Jeremiah 29:5-6, where the Lord tells the Israelites in exile to “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters…” He also makes a point concerning the story of Jesus healing the man possessed by the demon named “Legion” that I had never considered. When the healed man asks to go with Jesus, Jesus tells him “’Return home and tell how much God has done for you.’ So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.” (Luke 8:39). Wilson-Hartgrove suggests that Jesus was offering this man and his community the gift of stability.
And stability is a gift. Look around at the people God has put into our lives. The question is not whether these people are easy to love. Stability says: How are they gifts from God to help me grow in love?
During my almost 20 years at NCF, there have been three major disruptions that led to people leaving in anger or frustration. There have been many other quieter leavings as well. I recently learned of someone who left without telling anyone due to a personal conflict. A small group we belonged to in the 1990s had 15 members at its largest; ten no longer regularly attend NCF. They all left for legitimate reasons, as far as I know, but nevertheless they are mainly gone from my life and I miss them.
Wilson-Hartgrove says that, of course, there will be times when we are called to move on. But we should not easily leave. And where we find ourselves, we should be building community, and this takes time. Wilson-Hartgrove tells a story of a man complaining to his pastor that, after a year in a church, he wasn’t experiencing much community. The pastor asked how long he had been there. “About a year.” “Then I guess you’ve got about a year’s worth of community. Stay another year and you’ll have two years’ worth. Stay thirty and you might find some of what you’re looking for.”
To Wilson-Hartgrove, this yearning for community is a clear sign that God wishes to give us the gift of stability. So, despite the occasional rough patches and disappointments, Lee Ann and I are committed to being at NCF. And I look forward to additional years worth of community we’re building with you.