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In my previous article on monastic principles, I discussed the practice of silence and the role it has in helping monks and nuns to find the peace that Jesus offers to his disciples. In this installment of my discussion of monastic practices and principles, I want to examine what is, to me, the most appealing and mysterious aspect of monastic life, the Benedictine vow of stability.
In the first chapter of his Rule, St. Benedict describes four varieties of monks: cenobites (monks or nuns who live in a community under the authority of a rule and an abbot or abbess), anchorites (hermits), sarabites (who have as a rule of life "only the satisfaction of their own desires"), and gyrovagues. This last type of monk St. Benedict particularly criticizes: gyrovagues "are always on the move; they never settle to put down the roots of stability; it is their own wills that they serve as they seek the satisfaction of their own gross appetites" (Chap. 1, Rule of St. Benedict). In an age of broken families and great mobility, it seems as if St. Benedict is describing the average 21st century American when he gives us his description of the gyrovague. In light of our unprecedented mobility and access to up-to-the-minute information and communication with people across the country and around the world through social media, a life of stability is as countercultural as the practice of silence I previously discussed. So what, exactly, is stability?
"We Shall Persevere in Fidelity… Until Death"
Stability, in short, is a vow to remain in the monastery until death. This means remaining in community life with one’s monastic brothers or sisters, living under the authority of the rule and the abbot or abbess, but also in the place, the monastery. Unlike members of other religious orders, such as the Dominicans and Franciscans, monks and nuns living under the Benedictine rule (such as Benedictines and Trappists) do not move from location to location as part of their apostolates. Rather, they live within the geographical confines of their monasteries, where they pray the office in community, engage in their private study and devotions, eat their meals, and perform their manual labors. When a monk makes his solemn profession of vows, he vows to remain part of his community, in that particular place, until he dies.
As a result of this vow, the monk develops a view of the world and of his place in it far different from the view so many of us in the fast pace of modern life have. Time tends to slow down, and details become much more noticeable. At New Melleray Abbey, there are numerous monks who have been part of the community for over fifty years, and who speak of watching trees grow up on the property over the years. They speak frankly about death: about the deaths of their deceased brethren, about the life-and-death cycle of the seasons, about facing their own deaths. They talk of the monastery as being a "school of the Lord’s service", to quote the Benedictine rule, and they refer to the plain black iron crosses on the graves in the monastic cemetery as "diplomas" indicating that a monk has graduated from this school. On the feast of Corpus Christi, the monks’ Eucharistic procession goes out of the church, through the Chapter room, and outdoors around the perimeter of the monastic cemetery. The "alumni" of the school are remembered and included in the prayers and life of the community in this way; the stability professed by the living monks entails honoring the memory of those who went before.
Stability as Counterculture
To spend a few days in a monastery is to discover how much time we who live in the outside world spend going from one place to another, contending with traffic, running errands, shopping, or going to a job. In monastic life, everything is in one place: home, work, family, church, leisure time; in a sense, one is presented with the frightening opportunity to "be" rather than to "do". This is a radical departure in understanding the human person from what we live out in the world. In being freed up from all the distractions and efforts involved in simply living day-to-day in the world, one is confronted with big questions and big challenges. The freedom that stability provides not only encourages but necessitates change, growth, conversion.
An analogy for this is to think of the monk as being like a tree, rather than a rock. He is "planted" within the community, in a particular place, the monastery. In order to flourish, however, he must grow and adapt to the way of life of the community and he must continue to grow as the other members of the community grow. He is not a rock placed there that remains unchanging. Stability paradoxically encourages change. This is the point that St. Benedict makes in his description of the gyrovague; in moving from place to place constantly, chasing after satisfaction of his own desires, the gyrovague has no need for growth.
In many ways, this reveals how our own culture is a gyrovague culture. When I was getting sober, I heard sober alcoholics describe "geographic solutions" to their problems; rather than look at thought and behavior patterns that caused problems, alcoholics tend to think that they can improve their situations by changing external circumstances. This could entail breaking up with a girlfriend, or quitting a job, or going back to school, or moving to a new city. I have done this in my own life, moving far from my home, periodically changing jobs, and moving again to yet another city. Seeking after new surroundings, new circumstances, and "new beginnings" is not limited to alcoholics; it is an aspect rather of our broader culture of globalization, social media, and constant access to up-to-the-minute news and information. There are always new things to see and do, new destinations to travel to, and new people to meet.
In contrast to this, the life of stability boldly promises the possibility of boredom, detachment, familiarity, simplicity, and intimacy. Stability takes away empty novelty and proposes personal growth in holiness and love; it takes away entertainment and proposes appreciation of simplicity; it takes away networking and proposes love of God and of monastic brothers; it takes away distraction and proposes self-knowledge and attention to God’s voice in the Scriptures, the prayers of the liturgy, and his presence in the Sacraments.
How might one live stability out in the world? This is a particularly challenging question, as it has both spiritual and practical dimensions to it. The spiritual dimension shows that it requires an abundance of faith, and hope, and charity. On a practical level, it entails conscious effort to foster community, starting with one’s family and branching out from there to one’s neighbors, or co-parishioners, or coworkers. A most obvious place is to look at marriage
and to embrace the deep spiritual dimensions of marriage in its sacramental reality as a source of holiness and an encounter with God’s love for us. Perhaps it might involve becoming familiar with a religious community or a monastery and pursuing membership there in a lay association or a third order. It might entail embracing a spirit of hospitality or service to neighbors. None of these things are as drastic as a monastic vow of stability, yet they point toward the same sort of selflessness that can be found in that life.
Colin O’Briencurrently works in the Communications Department of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and has previously worked as a litigation paralegal in New York City. He completed a six-week observership with the Trappist community at New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa in spring 2013, and is affiliated with the monastery as a layman through its Monastic Center program. He periodically updates his personal blog, "Fallen Sparrow," and also sings in his parish choir. Colin is a native of Minneapolis and studied philosophy at the University of Minnesota. He currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area.