Skip to content

American Christianity and Vows of Stability

I’ve written previously on my own ecclesial location within the New Monasticism, which is a movement of sorts among protestants today who are seeking to re-appropriate the monastic traditions in moving towards different forms of intentional community.  One of the central elements of my own congregation’s form of life together involves a practice closely akin to the Benedictine vow of stability, namely of promising permanence of place, one to another.

 In the most recent book to appear on the New Monasticism, entitled Inhabiting the Church, Jon Stock, one of the authors, and a pastor in my church makes the following statement about our practice of taking on vows of stability:

 Our primary concern in the making of this vow is with the creation of a polis that is shaped by the character of God as revealed in Jesus and the Scriptures.  We desire a polis that is held together by obedience to God.  Yet we so often fail (Hos 4:1; Jer 25:31).  Thank God that his loyalty is greater than our own, and that we find forgiveness in it.  Our covenants form the social function of creating a particular type of stability (e.g. marriage covenants).  Is it even possible to from a “place” or a “community” fragrant with God’s shalom without entering into such vows?  We have always answered this question with a “No!”  And so, all member mutually affirm the Statement of Commitment, one to another.  We share out vow before God, allowing him to be party to it.  (p. 111)

So, the statement that I want to call attention to is the last few sentences of this paragraph.  Today, particularly in evangelical and emerging-type churches there is all kinds of talk of “community” and “place” where “authentic relationship” takes place.  However, the question this paragraph raises is whether churches in that form really can be such a thing as an authentic place or community.  How is true intimacy, true ‘one-to-anotherness’ possible in an ecclesial context in which members of a given church are free to move where they wish at the whims of their careers, families, or preferences?  Even when faithful people, with the best of intentions seek to live authentically in those contexts, it seems to me that there is a culture of provisionality always already presupposed in the forging of relationships in ecclesial life.  The fact is that people’s relationships in most American churches are entirely provisional, and dispensable and everybody knows it. 

This form of provisional relationality that obtains in most American churches today is nothing like what we behold in the character of Yahweh’s hesed, his boundless loyalty to his covenant people.  This is nothing like the radical attachment and incarnational love of the persons of the Holy Trinity who suffer the sin of the world in Christ for our salvation.  Yahweh, the Triune God of the Bible is a God who is supremely invested in binding himself to a people and sticking it out with them through thick and thin, even when that has to mean some pretty tough love.  The “authentic relationship” that is offered in most churches today is a plastic sentimentality, and an occasional fraternity established mostly on the basis of common interested and similar socio-economic positions in life.  All of which is engaged in under the assumption that no one is ultimately committed to the other.  At the end of the day, each Christian has their own life, and is free to go their separate ways, and woe to anyone who would claim the gospel might want to jack around that ideology of freedom.

 So, the question I put forth is this:  Is this quotation right?  Is a vow of stability, really the only way to create an authentic community and place?  If not, how can the cultural of provisionality and transience in the conventional church be overcome? 

10 Comments

  1. Fred wrote:

    There’s a crying need for stability these days (noticed by Balthasar and Giussani on the RCC side of things).

    Vows are OK, but so are promises, affirmations, and preferences. There’s value also in stability of relationship even if stability of place is not embraced. That is, one remains with certain people and doesn’t break with them for light reasons.

    It also seems to me that stability is the commitment of a community and not merely a mass of individual commitments. What I mean is that Benedictine monasteries witnessed to stability, even if others visited them or didn’t remain. I think of the memoir, Father Joe as an example of the benefit of stability for one (or many) that lack stability.

    Monday, June 4, 2007 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Preferences? What do you mean by that?

    And I just wonder how we can have stability of relationship without stability of place. Can we really?

    Monday, June 4, 2007 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  3. Fred wrote:

    Halden,

    I’m thinking here of a convenient distinction that Balthasar makes between literally following the evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity, and obedience) and following their spirit. The literal following has a priority, but for the sake of those who follow in an analogous way, or for those who are entangled in a life of sin. Thus, Fr. Joe literally lives a life of stability, and for this reason Tony Hendra can always find him to renew their friendship.

    Biblically, stability is interesting.

    Jacob doesn’t wrestle with the angel until he returns to his homeland to confront the brother he betrayed. And Moses also leaves his people in Egypt only to later return and lead them into the desert and eventually to the promised land. Stability for Ruth meant staying with Naomi as she traveled back to Judah. Abel was a farmer and Cain was a nomad.

    Abraham, however, leaves everything to follow the call of God, and we have no complete stability this side of heaven. Earthly stability can at most be a sign of the stability of God (the rock) and a reminder of our heavenly home.

    In the New Testament, Jesus preached to those in Judea, wandering a bit within a set area. The apostles are sent out to preach the Gospel to the whole world.

    Clearly, the mobility of our times indicates a great need for stability, and it is hard to imagine human relationships thriving entirely without it. So, I practice it in a way that falls short of the (Benedictine) ideal. I remain with my wife and kids (we have our nomadic tendencies). We also remain with the people that we belong to: the Catholic Church, Communion and Liberation. I desire (prefer) greater stability, but I don’t know that I’ll find it in this life. I’m not indifferent here, but simply accept the circumstances I’ve been given.

    Can there be stability of relationship without stability of place? No, but these things exist in degrees as well as in literal forms. And the literal forms have an inestimable value for changing the world and for testifying to the value of stability. Not everyone in medieval Europe had a vow of stability, but the monks that did were the springs of civilization.

    Monday, June 4, 2007 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Yes, that is a convenient distinction. And maybe it’s right. Or at least folks like myself can’t become pharisees. And, of course stability doesn’t ultimately guarantee faithfulness. Though, of course it does provide a context in which faithfulness can take place.

    It’s intersting that many of the OT stories you mention are discussed at lenght by Jon in his chapter on stability. If you have the $$ I think you’d really enjoy the book.

    And to be sure, we live on the other side of the “not yet.” But, if the New Jerusalem is nothing less than a place (and I think that’s what it is), and we are called to anticipate that in the present through the work of the Spirit, we should certianly strive for stability. However, I am convinced that God will work with the church where it is, in its varying degrees of faithfulness. However, the question is what we must strive towards, and whether we should make provision for falling short, which I think we must not.

    Not, that I’m saying you’re saying any of that. At this point I’m just sermonizing. :)

    Monday, June 4, 2007 at 3:41 pm | Permalink
  5. Fred wrote:

    dangit! I may have to break down and get an interlibrary loan. Whenever I read it, I promise to blog on it.

    Meanwhile, here’s a new post by a Benedictine monk that discusses stability in a contemporary sense: Are you experienced?.

    Monday, June 4, 2007 at 5:39 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    That is an excellent post! Thanks for the link.

    Monday, June 4, 2007 at 6:15 pm | Permalink
  7. Fred wrote:

    By the way, what’s the name of the book by Jon?

    Tuesday, June 5, 2007 at 7:55 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Inhabiting the Church. There’s link to it in the post above.

    Tuesday, June 5, 2007 at 8:02 am | Permalink
  9. Fred wrote:

    Duh! I looked all on the blog, but not in the sentence introducing the blockquote.

    Tuesday, June 5, 2007 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  10. adamsteward wrote:

    Good stuff, man. By the way, we just moved to wordpress. Something crazy took control of our blogspot, and it doesn’t really work anymore. Lorettas Basement 2.0!

    Thursday, June 7, 2007 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. Stability « Loretta’s Basement on Thursday, June 7, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    [...] makes for a nice occassion for you all to go check them out. One is from our buddy Halden at Inhabitatio Dei. He writes on some of the convictions of the New Monasticism, which is a movement that he is a part [...]

Switch to our mobile site