A Review of
Stability: How an Ancient Monastic Practice can Restore our Relationships, Churches, and Communities
Reviewed by Julie Sumner
“Who knows if the whole world isn’t being held together by the prayers of the monks on Mt. Athos and some grandmother praying in Arkansas….” I said this to a dear friend at church one morning, and he heartily agreed. We both observed that we understand so little of how the kingdom of God is held up by the hidden things of God through Christ and the Church. I wonder how many people and practices that our consumer culture deems irrelevant, like those who choose to stay in one place, or those who believe in praying fervently, are, in some mysterious reality, wellsprings of God’s care for the whole world.
It’s with these ideas already well-inscribed on my mind that I was delighted to encounter Nathan Oates’s new book, Stability. A fascinating exploration of the Benedictine Rule by a Protestant pastor, Oates’s basic premise is that the church in America is in great need of people who eschew the consumer culture, which says to pursue everything you want at all costs, for a different view of life, one grounded in place, looking to build your confidence in God right where you are, leaning into your circumstances rather than avoiding them or fleeing from them. Finding peace in your present circumstances is about as counter-cultural as one can be in America these days, and staying in one place is seen as unattainable at best, or a huge loss of opportunity at worst. Yet our culture is desperate to see relationships of any kind that last longer than a few months, a few years, to see communities that are committed to living through all of the warts of life together to create something more beautiful and enduring than could be achieved in isolation.
Stability is written for anyone looking for ways to gain more of a footing in their church community. Special attention is given to those people who move from church to church, never settling in with one long enough to establish relationships or give of themselves, always looking for something else. St. Benedict recognized these same tendencies in the monks of his own day and time, and coined the term gyrovagues to denote their circuitous wandering behaviors, and their habitual abuse of the Benedictines’ hospitality. These were the people he felt did the most harm to relationships of the community. Oates, also convinced of the damage of such tepid commitment to the body of Christ in our own American church, refers to the behavior more starkly, as “consumerism cloaked as Christianity” (19).
Oates makes an excellent case for re-instituting the value of stability as an antidote to the restlessness and consumer-mentality that plagues so many contemporary American churches. Oates focuses his book particularly on the most important first rule: the vow of stability. Coming into existence during the chaos of the fall of the Roman Empire, Benedict encountered a culture much like our own, characterized by instability of every kind and people beset by aimlessness. In order to truly serve and bless a place, as well as to know one’s own self, Benedict believed a person had to stay in that place.
While Oates also acknowledges that Christians are often sent, he argues that they must go only after they’ve had a significant time of stability, and have found God where they are, as he says, before they move toward outward mission. Oates brings the reader’s attention to this pattern as a highly biblical one, citing this in the lives of Moses and the apostles. Unless the time of stability has developed our confidence in God in that one place, any movement we make, whether to a new church, a new job, a new city, has the potential to cause great harm to the communities we leave and those we enter.
Oates devotes a chapter each to different areas of life that can benefit from stability: God, self, others, and our current geographical place. In every chapter, there are ideas offered for developing practices that can help us grow roots where we are, and most of them are deceptively simple. In the chapter “Stability and God,” Oates advises us to note how we pray, to reframe the prayer “God, please be with me,” to “God, please help me to be with you,” and the difference is that the first prayer subtly reinforces the idea that God is not there, but in fact, Oates writes, God is always there, right where you are (36). Oates continues with this as his basis for the believer not having to go somewhere else to “find God.” He’s right here, Oates would say, and he will continue to remind the reader of that wonderful fact through the rest of the book.
In addition to his observations about the benefits of staying in one place for the believer and their community, Oates also gives us a peek inside his three-week long retreat at a Benedictine monastery in Italy. His diary of his time there is interspersed throughout the chapters, and his interactions with the monks and the nuns that he visits along the way provide a lively point of reference for his own theories about the virtue of stability. In so many corners of the church, rules and vows are immediately perceived as a form of legalism, or works of righteousness. As I read of Oates’s struggle with his own inability to pray, his distracting hunger, and his feelings of tiredness and loneliness, I did not see the glaring inability of rules to reform; rather I saw a tangible illustration of Paul’s admonition that it is the law that leads us to grace.
Repetition and struggle are unglamourous and sometimes boring, but also the most effective ways that we learn new things, both in the life of the mind and the life of the spirit.
Oates completes his book with the acknowledgement that sometimes we are called to leave a place and community. He gives a brief but insightful overview of the discernment process and how to come to a decision with the use of the perception of the Holy Spirit, your community, the Bible, and reason, as a means of determining your decision. Oates also briefly acknowledges that being committed to a person or community or church is in no way indicated if there is abuse of any kind occurring. However, I do wish he would have added an additional chapter with more about that kind of conflict and how it affects the Church’s stability as much as the ‘gyrovagues.’ Also, in some cases, we want to stay, but have no ability to, due to work or family conflicts, or financial concerns. I would appreciate Oates’s opinion about how to continue to dwell in the stability of God, even if our circumstances force us to keep moving. But I must admit, when I consider these conflicts to a person’s stability, I come back to the thing that Oates repeats throughout his book: God is here. Wherever you are, God is too. For this persistent thought that now seems foremost in my mind after reading Stability, I am deeply grateful.