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Friday, June 4, 2010

Some More Thoughts on the Wisdom of Stability

"It's just the same story as a doctor once told me," observed the elder. "He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. 'I love humanity,' he said, 'but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,' he said, 'I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he's too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.' […]

[The elder continues with advice at some length, concluding:] “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it -- at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.”

-The Elder Zossima, from The Brother’s Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

As I continue my reflections on stability and our hyper-mobility which I began in my previous post, I can’t help but wonder how often we fall into the trap that Fr. Zossima discusses in this passage from the Brother’s Karamazov. How easy it is to love the poor, faceless Africans, the Haitians, the homeless; how laudable to send them our money or to go and be with them for a week or even a year. Yet how hard it is, often, to stay and minister for the duration when those same people take on faces and names; real people with flesh and blood, who can offend us and get on our nerves. When we no longer serve “the homeless,” but Andrew- who is drunk again, and hostile and ungrateful. Do we have the will to stay and love when life with real people becomes, in reality, difficult?

In addition, hyper-mobility comes with social costs; so often, poverty in small towns is directly linked to the labor force leaving, to all people with capabilities to make things better going elsewhere. As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove states in his aforementioned book (see my previous post), “the homelessness of guys who are hooked on crack in Walltown is but the flipside of the placeslessness that drives ambitious young students to see this university town as a stop on their way to somewhere else.” When everyone who can leave a place do, then all those who remain are the most vulnerable. It’s one of the reasons why the New Monastics, in their words, place such an emphasis of making community in the abandoned places of the Empire- the places where everyone who could leave, did.

Sadly, as I mentioned once before, I don’t have an easy answers to the question of when we should stay and when we should go, nor any compelling thesis about what the call to stability requires of us. I know that I am as guilty as anyone else: I put in my year of service at a homeless shelter, and then left it behind. I just moved to Chicago from Mesa, AZ, where I grew up, cutting all my ties with the people and places I had known before. However, these experiences have left me with the same uneasiness that has struck Jonathan; a feeling that frequent travel costs more than I thought it would.

We Christians have always had something of a revolutionary take on stability, and we see it all throughout our tradition. Many monks take a vow of stability, in addition to poverty, chastity, and obedience, and the monastic tradition has arisen out of people vowing to stay and cultivate life amongst one group of people and in one place. In our current climate of consumer relationships, the Church’s continued insistence on absolute monogamy is a revolutionary call to radical stability: the belief that the ideal relationship for the most common vocation in the Church is for two people to wed themselves to one another for life, to stay together come what may. Furthermore, there is no form of stability greater than that found in the Incarnation; the omnipresent and eternal God deemed fit to express Himself in the fullest sense in one human life, at one time and place, among one people.

Stability is an essential component of our tradition and our belief. I wonder if have we overlooked its importance in our daily lives, and in the life plans we make for ourselves? I am not advocating an uncritical acceptance of stability. An uncritical embrace of stability, of making it an end in itself, could be as potentially damaging as our current uncritical adoption of mobility, and could lead to stagnation and in-group exclusivity. However, some truths are only as true as the falsehood they are posited against; in an age that puts the primacy of value on the extravagant and the novel and the exotic, that can trivialize spirituality to nothing more than the collecting of personally touching encounters and interesting anecdotes, a bit more staying, and waiting, and watching may be just what we are called to, more often than we realize.

[read the first "Thoughts on the Wisdom of Stability"]

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