Loyalty, love, and stability

I’ve been reading quite a bit lately about monastic traditions, including some reading related to a recent and ongoing movement that has been dubbed “new monasticism” (see also here and the Schools for Conversion web site). Missio Dei, founded by Mark Van Steenwyk of Jesus Manifesto is an example of a self-consciously new monastic community.

I just finished reading Inhabiting the Church by John Stock, Tim Otto, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a book that explores the nature of vows in the church and particularly the threefold Benedictine vow of obedience, conversion, and stability “from the perspective of people who grew up in the Protestant free-church tradition”, as they repeatedly say throughout the book. While the first two aspects of the vow are worth exploring and highly valuable for those of us who want to seek Jesus faithfully in postmodernity, I want to mostly talk about the third now – stability.

Two biblical words that resonate throughout the whole book are the Hebrew chesed and the Greek agape. Chesed is usually rendered “loyalty”, though more traditional translations often use “lovingkindness”. Agape is, as many of you probably know, a word for “love”, rendered as “charity” in many older translations, that specifically refers to a kind of self-denying love that gives without expecting anything in return. Chesed is a loyalty that transcends concern for one’s own self, the kind of loyalty that is often ascribed to God in the Old Testament – and it is charged to Israel to be a people of chesed for God and for each other in their ways of living. It is perhaps most memorably demonstrated in the story of Ruth, who demonstrates chesed for Naomi to the point where she is willing to leave her home and lose her familial identity in order to love Naomi. Ruth’s story is one with deeply subversive potential, and I will try and blog about that more in the future, but let me say for now that most scholars see the book in its finished form as post-exilic, and so possibly written as a counter to the nationally isolationist tendencies found in Ezra-Nehemiah. The faithfulness of a foreigner bursts out of the prominent categories of Israelite tradition, particularly the traditions of the law and wisdom, and it is this faithfulness that produces a lineage resulting in King David and his messianic dynasty.

Agape is likewise subversive. In a world where we are defined as consuming beings and where all material items, people, potential vocations, services, etc. are seen primarily as objects for consumption, to love another without expecting any return, simply because of her/his intrinsic worth as a human being created in God’s image is a truly radical act.

It seems that even from our birth we are steeped in the Disney mantra “follow your dreams wherever they take you”, regardless of whether that place is near or far from home. In our Christian culture we even glorify this impulse by celebrating missionaries and individual preachers, teachers, and workers who travel far and wide to “do God’s work”. Now, I’m not saying all these people are necessarily wrong, but does it not occur to us that perhaps we have so deeply imbibed this mindset that we might be missing the riches of the Gospel in our places by looking ahead to the next? To put a new spin on an old proverb, the grass is greener on the other side because that person spends his time cultivating the lawn instead of looking around for new and ostensibly better things.

Benedictines take a vow of stability, to live in the monastery until they die, only leaving upon permission of the abbot, generally for the business of the monastery. As an oblate, I too will take a vow of stability – not to live in the monastery, nor necessarily even to be rooted to one place until I die, but for stability of heart. The other week at our oblate chapter meeting here in Evansville Father Brendan came to speak to us about the vow of stability. He made one of the deepest statements I have ever heard, and one upon which I will continue to ruminate for years to come: “If you’re not finding God where you are, you’re not going to find him somewhere else.” What if we Christians were so committed to finding God where we are that it would take the voice of God specifically calling us to send us somewhere else? What if we rejected the individual American dream of prosperity and adventure and instead processed our thoughts, feelings, and desires with a community of fellow Jesus-seekers to discern together whether a possible course of action was really God-inspired, or more of a distraction?

The vow of stability is rooted in chesed, loyalty that puts the community of believers, the body of Christ, and the voice of God speaking to us in our place above our own easily-manipulated desires, thoughts, and feelings; it is based on agape, love that counteracts the individualistic consumerist orthodoxies of our society. If we can find true stability in God the insecurities of our time will have no power over us, and we will be enabled to follow God in any time and place, if only we can follow God where and when we are now.

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2 Responses

  1. Just wanted to let you know that when my new blog gets going, you will definitely be on my blogroll.

    Peace,
    A.T.

  2. […] Loyalty, love, and stability « An Absolution Revolution – oraculum seditionis “If you’re not finding God where you are, you’re not going to find him somewhere else.” (tags: new-monasticism spirituality theology) […]

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