This post is an excerpt from my book St Benedict and St Therese–The Little Rule and the Little Way
The monk’s vow of stability is intimately linked with his vow of obedience. When the monk submits to his superior he fulfils his vow of obedience. When he submits to his particular environment and set of circumstances he fulfils his vow of stability. With the psalmist, Benedict’s monks sing, ‘My heart is fixed, O Lord, my heart is fixed.’ The monk’s vow of stability is fulfilled in his lifetime commitment to his community. Benedict puts this fact in a stark way at the end of his chapter on receiving brethren. After the monk takes his solemn vows, ‘From that day onwards he is to be reckoned among the community.’ He has accepted a life sentence. He is married to that community and they to him for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health until death do them part.
As always, Benedict sees the physical and the spiritual as intertwined. The monk’s physical commitment to a particular monastery is linked with his spiritual stability. He cannot have one without the other. Benedict contrasts the rooted-ness of the cenobite—-the community-based monk– with those monastic mavericks he calls ‘gyrovagues’. The gyrovagues, ‘are never stable their whole lives, but wanderers through diverse regions, receiving hospitality in the monastic cells of others for three or four days at a time. Always roving and never settling, they follow their own wills, enslaved by the attractions of gluttony.’
Benedict paints a vivid portrait of the bored soul. He is a spiritual channel hopper, always looking for the next stimulus, the next religious entertainment, the next spiritual thrill. Benedict would not reserve his condemnation for discontented monks. Church-shopping is one of the spiritual diseases of our age. Constantly on the lookout for an excellent preacher, good music, fine liturgy or architecture, we become liturgical tasters and our taste becomes so refined, that like the connoisseur who has spoiled his appreciation through snobbery, we can never find a church exquisite enough for us.
Benedict sees a spiritual disease underneath this physical restlessness. The disease is discontent, and it is caused by disobedience. We are born with the instinct to be our own masters, we imagine all authority to be authoritarian and do everything to avoid its claims over us. We even imagine our restless disobedience to be romantic and sophisticated. We see ourselves as brave individuals or intrepid spiritual explorers—one of those courageous souls who always seeks but never finds. We swallow seductive aphorisms like, ‘It is better to travel honestly than to arrive’; forgetting the obvious fact that travelling without a destination is the same thing as being lost.
Certainly we must search for God, but we need discipline and guidance to ensure we are running on the right path. Our capacity for self-deception is so great that it is very possible to imagine we are searching for God when in fact we are fleeing from Him with all our energy. Without stability and a superior authority we are more likely to find a god of our own making than the God who made us. We need to settle down and centre down. The vow of stability is the discipline that ensures we are pilgrims and not fugitives. Benedict says, commit yourself. Make a vow of stability and find reality, even if the reality is grim.
Learn more about St Benedict and St Therese–The Little Rule and the Little Way