“In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.” Abba Anthony, 3rd century AD
Hermits, as all Christians, are called to live according to the Gospel with stability and endurance. But we live in a world in which stability is undervalued. The rates at which people now change jobs, even careers, let alone houses is extraordinary. Interests are taken up with enthusiasm, and abandoned without much thought. Perhaps, noting the contemporary statistics for divorce and other forms of relationship breakdown, even more extraordinary is the rate at which people change relationships. Stability is, it seems, equated with stagnation, boredom, being in “a rut”, being “stale”, and a lack of excitement in life.
Stability must be established, and it must be maintained.
However desirable stability may be, no-one can rationally commit to stability in a particular way of life without planning, testing, reflection and self-questioning. This will be assisted by the development of a Rule of Life. Without a strong foundation to establish stability, there is little, if any, possibility of it being continued.
Traditionally, monastic communities have set out a process of testing a vocation before anything like long-term let alone life-time, commitment is made to the Rule of Life on which the community is based. While it would be foolish to decide after, say, a month or a few months, that a pattern of stability could not be maintained, it is entirely appropriate that a choice made at one time might require revision or even radical change. To use the traditional monastic model, a period as a “postulant” should be undertaken during which the individual maintains stability of the religious life form a period of (usually) less than one year, followed by a period of stability as a novice (Slavonic: послушник, poslushnik, lit. “one under obedience”) for a period from one to three years. This equates to the image of the tree: it has been planted, but has it taken root, and is it growing in a healthy condition? It is far better that the postulant or the novice (and his or her superiors) recognize that this is not the right “life of stability” for the individual, which he or she is then free to depart, than that it continues.
Any long term, let alone lifetime, commitment to a particular life of stability can only, realistically and honestly, be made after a suitable period of trial and testing. Sadly, a decision not to pursue the path initially chosen is all too often seen as a “failure” or an abandonment of the spiritual life. It is, of course, nothing of the sort. Far better that a man or a woman realizes that his or her vocation is, for example, to marriage and family, than that he or she persists in the wrong vocation as a monk or nun.
But the key principle here is surely this: there must be a reasonable and appropriate time of testing during which there is a firm commitment to stability. A pupil who, after two lessons and a week of practicing scales, decides that he or she has no gift for the piano is less likely to be making an informed decision about musical competence than demonstrating a lack of capacity to endure. An athlete who decides after a week of training that it is all too much effort is less likely to be making an informed decision about physical skill than demonstrating a lack of capacity to endure.
And it is far better that, even when an apparently decisive choice has been made, that an individual is capable of and free to make a change, even after many years, than that he or she feels compelled to endure the appearance of stability.
A choice to accept a life of stability – whether in the traditional vows of the monastic life or according to a personal rule of life – must be free and informed, made with awareness of the costs and the obligations. The choice can only be made after testing and trial. It can only be made with the qualification that an alternative choice, however unforeseeable or improbable it may appear at the time, might be made in the future.
The possibility of stability requires the building of a sound foundation upon which it can be based.
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell– and great was its fall.” [Matthew 7:24-27]
Occasional prayer, periodic adherence to spiritual disciplines like fasting, reading the Scriptures when the time is convenient…..this “sand” rather than “rock”. In this regard, a properly developed Rule of Life will be of positive benefit.
I enjoy watching television documentaries about individuals who labour to build their own, personalised dream homes – programs like “Grand Designs”. While the end of each episode in which the finished, often spectacular, building is revealed may be viewed by many as the most important part, I find the beginning stages more enlightening. The challenges, often almost overwhelming, of laying the foundations and ensuring that any pre-existing structures in an old building do not fall down, are the essential prelude to all that follows. Tedious labour, day after day, a week after week, and, often, month after month produces no impressive results – perhaps just a dull grey concrete foundation. But without that, the final magnificent work of architectural triumph cannot be created.
But most of us want the final achievement now, or, at the latest, tomorrow. Many people will pray or meditate, perhaps using a particular method, and very quickly move on to another approach, or give up altogether. The commitment to reading Scripture every day is abandoned when it proves to be unexciting or to produce no “effects”. There is no consistency of applied effort continued even when it is a burden, or boring, or there are more interesting things to do.
Stability presupposes consistent labour. Any athletics coach or music teacher will confirm that maintaining consistent effort over time is a challenge: rising every morning at 5.00 am to run, or spending an hour a day practicing scales tends to be tedious, stressful, laborious, even mind-numbingly boring. But it is essential to lay the foundation for future achievement. Unless the foundation of the spiritual life is carefully and laboriously laid, the “house” on which it is built will collapse or not arise at all. We may desire action, change, excitement, and variety. But until and unless the basic skills have been learned and developed through long and tedious effort, we will lack the resources necessary: running in the Olympics or playing complex piano music come, not on the first day or even the hundred and first day, only when the essential foundations have been laid.
It is worth noting the number of images from Greek athletics found in the Pauline epistles and the Epistle to the Hebrews: they all relate to the importance of self-discipline and training in preparation for, in this case not the Olympic Games, but the “race of life”.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.” [1 Corinthians 9:24-26]
If stability must be established, so must it be maintained.
“Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”” [Luke 9:62]
The agricultural images used by the Lord in His teaching are almost certainly alien to those of us living in large, cosmopolitan, highly urbanized centres. Ploughs, insofar as we may know (essentially from television) what they are, are now forms of sophisticated agricultural machinery pulled by other forms of sophisticated agricultural machinery, increasingly automated and now sometimes even operating without direct human control and making use of GPS control systems.
At the time of the Lord’s teaching, the plough was a relatively primitive, unstable wooden implement, possibly with a small part in metal (the share or cutting blade), held by the farmer and pulled by an animal. To plough in straight lines (thereby maximizing the use of a field) required constant attention, manual dexterity, and concentrated effort. Being even slightly distracted, the farmer would find the plough being diverted and, once diverted, very difficult to get “back on track”.
Many things distract from an effort at stability. But, once again to use the examples of the pianist or the athlete, this is true not only of the spiritual life. There are, inevitably, sometimes more interesting and exciting and personally gratifying things to do. We are, to use the imagery of the early Desert Fathers and Mothers, surrounded by demons seeking to distract us from the spiritual life. Sometime if will be helpful, even essential, to have the guidance and support of a spiritual counsellor to assist in when the distractions seem overwhelming.
Stability does not mean a lack of movement or growth. A tree may remain planted in the one place, but that very stability enables it to grow, to expand and to thrive. However, if it is frequently uprooted, moved and replanted, its capacity for growth, expansion and even life is diminished. The tree must be initially carefully and skilfully planted, nurtured, watered, given the correct fertilizer, and protected from wind damage by supporting stakes. Until and unless a well-established root system develops, there is no certainty that the tree with growth and thrive, and will not be damaged by wind and rain.
Stability becomes easier as it becomes a pattern of life. As the potential athlete or pianist builds practice into the normal routine of life and sees it as the basis for better performance to come, so “the roots of the tree” grow deeper and stronger, and the life of the branches and leaves become richer. Thus, we can pursue with spiritual life with endurance.
“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.…” [Hebrews 12:1-2]
For many Christians, there is no stability of Faith in practice except, perhaps regular (more or less) attendance at Church services. But a stable Orthodox Christian life, for the laity no less than the clergy or monastics, is an hour by hour, day by day, week or week, and year by year process. It requires more than anything self-discipline, commitment and personal effort.
“Deep down in our bones, we seem to know that rapid change and constant motion are hazards to our spiritual health. Humans long for the simplicity of a life that blossoms into its fullness by becoming rooted in a place.
For the Christian tradition, the heart’s true home is a life rooted in the love of God. True peace is possible when our spirits are stilled and our feet are planted—and when we get this stability of heart deep down inside of us, real growth begins to happen.”
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove “The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture” [Paraclete Press, 2010]