“Monastic stability implies a basic contentment with the life, the place, and the people who happen to live in the same place and whom I did not choose as my companions, but whom God has chosen for me for mysterious reasons of his own.” C Cummings
Take a good look at today’s picture taken from the Refectory of St Otillien Arch-abbey. This picture of the Last Supper presides over every meal in the Refectory of the Monks here in the Abbey. It was painted in 1984 to celebrate the centennial of the Monastery (1884-1984). I was blessed last Summer while I was here to meet the monk who had painted this picture some 24 years ago. He is now up in age. If you look closely it is not just any Last Supper. Jesus is surrounded by his disciples, yet they are Monks sitting at table with him. One of them has a watch and the other a pair of glasses that he has just removed. Judas is on the far left and is just about to leave the scene. He is the only monk with his back to Jesus and the others, he is turning away. This picture speaks of the timelessness of life in a Monastery and for me speaks even stronger of the meaning of the Monastic practice of Stability. It speaks of our common life together as human beings, of community, and of turning towards or away from God during our journeys.
Monastic Stability is a practice that easily extends into the life of any Christian. It is about finding God “where we are not where we want to be”, says the great Benedictine writer Joanne Chittister. Every time I come to the Monastery I observe the older monks because they are the most impressive of all who live here. There are many of them here. Some in their 80’s and others in their 90’s. They are all still active in some way, they have little duties when they are able, but mostly you see them praying in the chapel alone and in silence before any of the regular prayers are said and eating in the refectory together at one table. (Monks sit at table in the Refectory according to when they entered the Monastery by rank) These are Monks who have lived and practiced Monastic Stability all of their lives. They are the true and the tried.
There is a lot of history in any Monastery. This too says something about stability. The many religious pictures and statues on every wall are all historical. Some are hundreds of years old. The church and the buildings all carry history within their walls. There is a Jewish cemetery here at the Monastery which speaks so strongly of history. The Nazi regime closed the Monastery down in 1941 as a reprisal against many of the religious establishments that were beginning to resist the third reich. Dachau, one of the famous concentration camps is only some 30 miles from the Monastery. In April 1945 the Camp was liberated by the American Army. There were many sick and ill inmates and many people rescued in the concentration camps were beyond help. Some 65 jewish victims of the Holocaust were first buried initially here on the sight of the Monastery grounds. Years following unidentified bodies from the Concentration camp were also buried, at least 85. Others also were brought here who died in the local hospital and care center set up for the victims of the holocaust. They were buried along with some protestants, orthodox and catholic victims of “ethnic cleansing”, camp survivors who are also in this cemetery.
The deep sense of history in a Monastery points to the fact that people do not come here to just “stay for a while”. They come here to find God in this place until they too are carried out by their brother monks to the Cemetery behind the Monastic Closure. The English Monk and Cardinal Basil Hume explains clearly what Monastic Stability is about. “We give ourselves to God in a particular way of life, in a particular place, with particular companions. This is our way: in this Community, with this work, with these problems, with these shortcomings. The inner meaning of our vow of stability is that we embrace the life as we find it, knowing that this, and not any other, is OUR way to God.”
It has taken me an entire lifetime to find my deeper sense of belonging, of stability, of HOME. For me that place is Mexico City, where I lived the most time in my life, some 15 years and where I am about to return, to what I hope will be my final journey in December of this year. HOME is all about stability. It is a place that is both inside and outside one self. It is a place that also has relationships that are connected to it, not just a building or a city, or a location. I always say that every place on this planet has it’s own spiritual energy and its own sacred surroundings. Mexico for me is the place where that energy draws me most. Each of us seeks and longs for those spaces. Sometimes we are taken into exile, as I have been numerous times before we can really appreciate where that place is. Absence does make the heart grow fonder. Our journeys both towards our homelands and away from our homelands always help us see where our stability lies and where are longings and desires are the strongest.
Searching and seeking
There is a piece of stability that is always unsettling and uneasy. It is the piece our author calls the “pilgrim” in us.
Even in a monastic setting, we are always somewhat uneasy about our surroundings, looking, longing, seeking, searching for God. Some of us “never” really settle down. Thomas Merton for all the years he lived in Gethsemane was always longing and searching for something, somewhere else to call home. It was his deep longing for the sacred trying to find that place where God was most prominent. One author writes, “Thomas Merton was a perpetual seeker, ceaselessly searching, the search never seemed to end.” All of us are always pilgrims. There are always unsteady and vulnerable aspects to our lives and our relationships. It is part of our humanity and part of our mortality. But in the midst of our frailty and vulnerability we are all called to find those anchor points in our lives. The places we live, the friendships we form, the respect and love we have for our family and elders, the sacred spaces we carve out for ourselves. These are the touchstones of stability in our lives. In this sense, all of us can practice Monastic Stability if we are willing to work towards it and make it real.
There are important phrases our author uses which speak profoundly to the meaning of stability
“An abbey does not acquire the quality of serenity over night, but only after it’s walls have echoed for years with sung praise and silent longing, and seeking, with the struggles and victories of many people.”
“Stability gives us a sense of relatedness to our locale: to the land, the mountains or hills on the horizons, the rivers lakes or woods. The material world that surrounds us makes a unified totality of which we are component parts.”
“We inevitably stamp our dwelling place with the qualities of our own personality and temperament. Over the years, there is a silent dialogue between place and person, as they adjust to one another, and a harmonious relationship has been formed between them.”
IF it isn’t obvious by now it should be, Stability takes time to find, to discover and to live out. There are times in our lives when we are very unstable and ungrounded. Hopefully all of us eventually find a place that we too can call “Home”, even if it is a home away from home. Stability in the end is about our grounded-ness in God.
“Monastic stability is designed to help us find our place and our peace in God.” says our author in his concluding remarks to the longest chapter in his book on Monastic Practices.
I would like to bring us back to our lovely picture of the Last Supper. It is there that each of us must find our place at the table of the Lord. It is at that table that we are fed spiritually and physically. It is in the sharing of meals that we always feel most at home. It is there that we gather with others and are not alone in our journey. It is there that the Lord reaches out to us and invites us to turn always towards his face, his countenance, symbolized by the glowing halo that distinguishes him as Lord and Master of the House.
We come to the table of stability, to the altar of stability. No wonder the Psalmist was so enthralled when he wrote,
“How lovely is Your dwelling place, O Lord, O God of hosts.”
Pax Benedictina +