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Stability – A Reflection

January 25, 2020

Over the past six or seven years I have studied at some length, monasticism and the Rule of Benedict as a part of our Certificate in Christian Spiritual Formation through Columbia Presbyterian Theological Seminary. There are four vows a Monk professes in his solemn vows. They are Poverty, Obedience, Chastity, and Stability.

Thomas Merton struggles with several of these vows throughout his time as a Monk. One vow that has come to mind for me is the vow of stability. According to my reading and study of Saint Benedict’s Rule, Stability can be defined in this way. This vow binds the monk in both body and spirit to the community of his profession for the rest of his life, where he serves under both a Rule and an Abbot.

As I look at my own life and professional career, stability would be one of the last things I could claim in my ministry. Three years serving two small churches in West Central Minnesota followed by twenty-one years in the Air Force as a Chaplain which included nine different assignments plus three deployments (which included two war zones). Following my retirement, I have served two churches for the past nine years.

Is that stability? While I have served the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the parish for eleven years and as a chaplain for twenty-one years, I am not certain that I would call that stability. Each church involved a different local governing body and each assignment a different chain of command.

In the midst of all this, I wonder at times about the life of a monk. Merton stayed at Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky from December of 1941 until his death in December of 1968. Interestingly enough, as I read the volume seven, the last of his journals (The Other Side of the Mountain) I was struck with his own struggle surrounding stability. He often chafed at the bit under the rule of some of his Abbots and wished for greater freedom. This was especially evident to me as he supported and mentored various Peacemakers like Fr Daniel Berrigan, SJ.

Tonight I was reading about his incredible experience leading retreats and finding time in solitude on the Pacific coast of California. The following are some excerpts from the entries of May 21st and 24th, 1968.

It was a bright day and the sea was calm, and I looked out over the glittering blue water, realizing more and more that this was where I really belonged. I shall never forget it. I need the sound of those waves, that desolation, that emptiness… I must stay by the ocean at least for a couple of months. I need the silence and emptying… Certainly, every minute I was there, especially by the sea, I felt I was at home….

Spending the past few days with my Dad in the town I grew up in has been an eye opener. Dad moved so much as a child and as an adult. Yet for over fifty years Austin has been his home. It is where he and Mom made their life and raised me. That is certainly stability following years of being a nomad.

Yet for me life has been nomadic to say the least. When I returned to Austin, it is where I grew up and yet is it home? One day Denise and I will retire and find our retirement home. The Gulf Coast and the Rocky Mountains have both welcomed us in our ministry together. In that ministry we have found stability in serving God wherever God has chosen to place us.

Stability is indeed an interesting phenomenon. Is it perhaps one thing for monks and another for those of us who are nomads serving wherever God has called us?

In the end, Merton always returned to Our Lady of Gethsemane. Yet it was far more than the Abbey to whom he returned again and again. He always returned to the one whom he had sworn the vows of a monk. He always returned to God who called him so many years ago. How I would love to spend some time with Merton discussing this and so many other thoughts about life and ministry… likely it would be over a pint!

In God and God’s calling I will find stability. For that calling Denise and I are so very thankful.

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