Benedictine Stability: When the Going Gets Tough, Stay!

Stace Tafoya:

There has been growing interest in the last few years in St. Benedict.  Benedict was born about 480, at Nursia in central Italy, and was educated at Rome. The style of life he found there disgusted him. Remember Rome had fallen and was at this time overrun by various barbarian tribes.  It was a shell of its previous glory.  The period was one of considerable political instability, a breakdown of Western society, and the beginnings of barbarian kingdoms. Benedict’s disapproval of the moral chaos of Rome led him to a vocation of monastic seclusion. I believe the urge to steal away to follow the precepts of the gospel is an urge for apostolic living.  A living picture of the life of Christ.

St Benedict at Subiaco Workshop of Fra Angelico c 1400

St. Benedict at Subiaco. Workshop of Fra Angelico, c. 1400

Benedict withdrew to a hillside cave above Lake Subiaco, about forty miles West of Rome, where there was already at least one other monk. Gradually, a community grew up around Benedict. However, initially he was too strict in his Rule, so much so that some of the monks tried to poison him.  He had to retool and reevaluate his methods and disposition.  Sometime between 525 and 530, he moved South with some of his disciples to Monte Cassino, midway between Rome and Naples, where he established another community, and, about 540, composed his monastic Rule. He does not appear to have been ordained or to have contemplated the founding of an “order.” He was simply trying to follow the call of Christ.

Benedict’s “Rule,” is a manual for monastics which covers a variety of topics, not unrelated to what you might think of when you think of monasticism: chastity, obedience, simplicity, prayer, etc.

Perhaps Benedict’s most compelling contributions are what he says about learning, listening, conversion and stability.

What is stability?  Benedict talks of those monks to beware of, those who go from place to place looking for the next greatest thing but who have no roots and are unable to commit. What is needed, is the monk who will stay put, to commit oneself to a particular place.

Stability is not just for monks or nuns in Benedictine orders.  It is for all Christians.  We are called not only to follow Christ as individuals, but also as those deeply rooted in community.

We are a transient people.  We get bored, things get stale, people are bothersome.  What we need more and more is to see the situation that we find ourselves in, and the place where we are— in family, neighborhood and in Christian community– and to stay put.

There is nothing idyllic about this— we know the reality of existing with more than one person. Esther de Waal puts it this way:

“[In community] some are stubborn and dull, undisciplined and restless, others negligent and disdainful (there are of course the obedient and docile and patient).  There are the stupid and the lazy, the careless and the scatterbrained, and those who are always getting in the way, only too familiar in any group or organization or parish.  We know the picture only too well.”

So why stay put?  Why stability?  Because we need that person next to us or across from us or in our home to help us be who we need to be in Christ.

Thomas Merton said, “The real secret of monastic stability is, then, the total acceptance of God’s plan by which the monk realizes himself to be inserted into the mystery of Christ through this particular family and no other…. [We have been] destined from all eternity to bring one another closer to God by our love, our patience, our forbearance, and our efforts at mutual understanding.”

keep-calm-and-stay-putAlso, while our tendency is to leave when the going gets tough, as Jonathan Wilson Hargrove says, “Wherever you go, you will find that what you are running from is ahead of you.”

Yet stability is not “the way we’ve always done things.”  It is not staying put for staying put’s sake.  Stability is the environment in which we need to be challenged to grow.  Stability says that our maturity in Christ is at stake whenever life in community is challenging.  Those whom God has placed around us are indispensable for the Holy Spirit to form us into the image of Jesus.

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