Stability, Nathan Oates. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021.
Summary: An exploration of the Benedictine commitment to stability, and what it can meet to sink our roots deeply, first into Christ, and then into the people and places to which he invites us.
We are a society on the move. I’m thinking just now of our church community. We have been a part of that community for 31 years and I can only think of eight people who were there when we came. Some of the departures were for very good reasons, to launch ministry elsewhere or to take a job that made sense for their calling. Some moved to nicer homes further away, and soon after found another church. Some just moved on for various reasons of dissatisfaction. At one point, during a difficult season when a number left, I described this as having pieces ripped out of my favorite shirt. Those departures hurt the most, and like other losses, I may not think of it as much, but the grief never goes away.
When Nathan Oates writes about stability, he is not insisting that we all stay put but rather that the stability that puts down deep roots, with Christ and with people in a place, is what births meaningful movement. It is different from the kind of restless movement of the gyrovague, that keeps thinking that the next new thing will satisfy our longings. (I should mention that the author does believe leaving abusive situations warranted.)
Oates turned to studying the life and rule of St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. Benedict gathered communities of those who wanted to set themselves apart from the world and created a Rule to govern their communal life. One of the problems he encountered was those who would never settle down in one place and it was he who coined the term gyrovague. His answer? He asked those who would join his communities to take a vow of stability: “to seek God in this place with this community under the guidelines established by this rule.” It was a commitment to a place, a people, and a purpose. Oates roots this call to stability in the omnipresence of God. We don’t have to go somewhere else to find God. Why then is there so much going in scripture? It is not in order to find God or whatever we are looking for, but rather that we have found what we are looking for.
Oates took his study of Benedict to another level, spending three weeks at the monastery at Norsia where the movement began. One of his first discoveries is to discover his days (and nights) being organized around prayer, seven times a day, where people scheduled meeting up “after Lauds.” You prayed more than you ate–two meals a day. Oates found himself constantly hungry. Instead of taking a break to pray, they took breaks from prayers, which Oates discovered is the monks’ real work. He learns that the formative work of stability comes as one goes deeper when things get hard, much like the choice every married couple faces. In turn, the stability of the monks becomes “the footing” for others around them. He describes the security the monks of Tibhirine provided their village–even when they suffered the death of a number of community members in a raid.
Oates sought to apply all this in his own church community, which led to four practices. First was to regularly celebrate the root of stability that bore fruit in the lives of people–birthdays, anniversaries, and even departures. Second, they valued the permanency of people. In this congregation it meant “raising our kids together.” Earlier, he speaks of a group of men who participated in his son’s “rite of passage” into adulthood. Third, they developed practices of placement, various traditions of community shared year after year–common meals and prayers, rites of passage, celebrations, and benedictions. Finally, he contends that families remain the primary formational communities (I wish he would have said more here about those who are not in families, where the church is family).
He concludes with an interesting question: where do we stay from here? The real issue is not just staying in a place or going. It is about radical stability–going deeper in Christ, growing closer to God. It has to do with prayer. The monks prayed a lot, and the point was deepening intimacy with God. He makes me wonder if so much of our present instability attests to how distant God is for us, and how so much of our grasping and contending is really an exercise in “looking for love in all the wrong places.” Oates believes the monastic practice of stability is something that God can use to renew our relationships, churches, and communities. So, where will you stay from here?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.