“A Vibrant Contrast to
the Madness of our Hypermobile Culture“
A Review of
The Wisdom of Stability:
Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture.
by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
The Wisdom of Stability:
Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture.
Paperback: Paraclete Press, 2010.
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]
Transience is a major curse of our age. From those who are always on the move to avoid their creditors to the upwardly mobile who are always seeking greener pastures, it seems that everyone is on the move. In our urban neighborhood, it is a fairly common practice for renters to move into a new place, paying the first month’s rent, and then forego paying the second month’s rent, and then at the end of the second month when their account is 30 days past due, the eviction process is started and the renter then has 30 days until they are evicted. Thus, crafty renters can get three months worth of housing for the price of one month, and force themselves into a cycle of moving every three months (or more if they are able to scrape together more than a single month’s rent). These habits have larger cultural implications; I have heard of a public school in our neighborhood that has turnover rates as high as 95% from one year to the next (i.e., only 5 % of the students who started in a grade one year were still at the school a year later). Lest I get too critical, it occurred to me recently that I myself have, in the last 15 years (since the summer before my senior year of college), lived at a staggering twelve addresses in four different states! Thankfully, I have been fortunate to live in the same house for the last six years, and have no intention of moving any time soon, and am slowly learning here about the historic Christian practice of stability.
Given the great mobility of American culture, it is not surprising that stability is virtually unknown in our churches today. In the historically Black Walltown neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and the Rutba House community have been growing roots over the last decade in that place and re-learning the practice of stability. Hartgrove has reflected on these experiences and on the Christian tradition of stability in his excellent new book, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. This new volume features a foreword by Kathleen Norris, who herself has reflected eloquently on stability in her most recent book Acedia and Me (which was our 2008 Book of the Year). The book also features narrative “Front Porch” reflections interspersed between the chapters, in which Wilson-Hartgrove captures vignettes from his own life that cut to the heart of the “craft” of stability.
Wilson-Hartgrove launches into the book with the bold assertion that “I hope to reprogram your default setting. As participants in a mobile culture, our default is to move. …But I am convinced that we lose something essential to our existence as creatures if we do no recognize our fundamental need for stability” (5). In spite of the overwhelming changes in society around us, Wilson-Hartgrove observes, we have deep longings for something solid to which we can cling. And yet, we as individuals can not find stability on our own, we have been created to be part of communities that are deeply rooted in a place. In addition to immersing ourselves in a community, Wilson-Hartgrove also observes that the practice of stability means “unlearning the habits of a culture that tells us the answer to our problems is always somewhere else” (40). We need to slow down and begin to reinterpret our hopes and dreams through the community of people that God has gathered for the purpose of tangibly embodying Christ to our neighbors around us in this place. The Wisdom of Stability is filled with stories from Jonathan’s encounters with the Benedictines, both historical and contemporary. Perhaps one of the most striking Benedictine images that Wilson-Hartgrove explores here is that stability in a Christian community — church, monastery or otherwise — is a sort of workshop where we learn the craft of a life with God. In this workshop, we learn the practices of the way of Christ, but this learning process is full of temptations, particularly the temptation to give up on others or on oneself. Instead of constantly running away from our problems, by staying put and wrestling with them, we begin to see the transformative power of God at work in our lives — teaching us practices like patience, peacemaking and forgiveness. This stability of a life shared in Christian community in a particular place creates an environment that Wilson-Hartgrove, and many others before him, describe as a “school for prayer” in which we learn what it means to dwell in unending conversation with God.
Stability is not only our teacher, but also our sustenance when the storms of life rain down upon us. A tree is a wonderfully fitting image: through our stability God grows our roots, and though the storms of life may bend us or break us, we remain unmoved. Furthermore, the deeper our roots reach, the greater the possibility of healing and continued growth after the storms. Wilson-Hartgrove, however, also notes that “the people closest to us are not only our connection points in a support system that we depend on for our very lives… but they are also mirrors who reflect the hidden shadows of our souls” (94). Wilson-Hartgrove thus reminds us in some of the book’s finest writing that stability is not a magic solution for all the problems of life, but rather brings its own set of challenges. Drawing on the rich tradition of our ancestors in the faith and especially the monastics, Wilson-Hartgrove speaks clearly and bluntly about the psychological experience of growing in stability. Indeed, his chapter on the demons that assail us as the adventure of committing to a place wears off and we grow in the practice of stability is perhaps the finest chapter in this volume. Ambition, Boredom, Vainglory; there is much here that rings true from our own struggles to learn the practice of stability as a church community here at Englewood Christian Church. Indeed, some of Wilson-Hartgrove’s words here probably hit a little too close to home.
Thankfully, however, we have hope beyond the ceaseless wrestling with these demons. We are not called to perish in the desert of our temptations but rather, as Wilson-Hartgrove notes to bloom there, and this blossoming will ultimately bear fruit. He says: “If God is faith in exile and present in human flesh, then everything — every place — is now holy. We learn to enjoy the fruit of stability as we embrace God’s mission where we are” (139). Stability is essential to our faithfulness as we share life together in our church communities, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Wisdom of Stability is the finest reflection on stability in the contemporary world. Through stability, we learn to mature together in a place toward the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4), becoming, by the grace of God, a vibrant contrast to the madness of our hypermobile culture. In The Wisdom of Stability, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove orchestrates the voices of those before us who have set out to cultivate the practice of stability and poignantly calls us to the threshold of this journey of growing into stability. May we have the courage to heed his call and set out together on this journey and the even greater courage needed to weather the many demons that will assail us as we continue to be faithful in our place, day by day and year by year.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com