We’ve had a difficult last few weeks, for reasons that it wouldn’t be prudent to write about publicly. Suffice to say there’s been a higher-than-usual number and magnitude of challenging issues and conflicts to work through. Important issues, an unavoidable part of life in a busy and growing medical ministry in Africa, but issues which have taken all of our energy to work through, leaving us weary and discouraged at times.
I noticed a few days ago that in my down time I was starting to have thoughts like “I wonder what we’re going to do after we complete our work here”, and “I wonder where we’ll live after Kijabe.” My gaze was starting to wander.
And then, I realized something: I haven’t lived in the same house or held the same job for longer than 3 years in the last two decades. Submarines. Medical residency and fellowship. Changing continents twice. And now Africa: I am wired for change and transition every few years.
Now, approaching five years in the same place, things are a bit tough and I am getting itchy feet. What’s next? Is it time to move on?
I read something this morning by St Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictine monastic movement around 1,500 years ago. He wrote that people, like trees, need to settle down in one place in order to bear fruit: “Just as a tree cannot bear fruit if it is often transplanted too often, neither can a monk bear fruit if he frequently changes his abode.” (1) Benedict, like other effective leaders before and after him, knew what gardeners know: plants require healthy roots to grow to full maturity, and if you uproot a plant too often, you stress it and limit its future potential for fruitfulness and growth.
For Benedict, stability was a virtue. And so he called his followers to a vow of stability, a commitment for life to the monastic community in which they served, so that the monk could be planted in the community’s root system and mature in faith, hope, and love.
Thomas Merton, writer of The Seven Storey Mountain 1,500 years later (perhaps the most unvarnished-ly real autobiography I’ve yet read) agreed. For Merton, a vow of stability was about realism. In his view, Benedict “introduced this vow precisely because he knew that the limitations of the monk, and the limitations of the community he lived in, formed a part of God’s plan for the sanctification both of individuals and of communities.” And now, the realism: In making a vow of stability, “the monk renounces the vain hope of wandering off to find a ‘perfect monastery.‘ “
Merton noted this requires a deep faith, and a recognition that “it does not matter much where we are or whom we live with, provided we can devote ourselves to prayer, enjoy a certain amount of silence, poverty and solitude, worth with our hands, read and study the things of God, and above all love one another as Christ has loved us.” (2)
I found these thoughts by these two spiritual giants comforting and encouraging today. Also convicting.
I am reminded today that stability is a virtue.
That sometimes moving on to seek ‘greater favor’, the next new challenge, or a ‘new season’, can be a mark of immaturity and unwillingness to change and grow. Staying the course and working for the long term is more difficult than moving on every few years, and certainly more painful. Facing conflict and working through it in a loving way takes humility and commitment. And being honest about our weaknesses and flaws, and living vulnerably in a community where we are being shaped and changed through our interactions requires courage.
In addition to the importance of stability, I am also reminded that my timelines are always, always shorter than God’s. I want change and judgement now. And if I’ve learned anything in my short time on this planet, it’s that God is always in it for the long game, bringing about new creation around me over a longer time horizon than I might otherwise choose in my impatience.
I have itchy feet at the moment. But I will learn from those who have gone before me, and do my best to submit to the discipline of stability and be fully where I am planted.