Monastery of Our Lady of Compassion,
As a complement to the reflection on the phenomenon of migrations, the author, enriched by her long experience as mistress of novices, here shows how the purpose and vow of stability required by St Benedict is rooted in the spiritual tradition. The stability required of the monk or nun is an encouragement to take profound roots in a relationship to Christ in the heart of a community, neither fleeing nor moving away. Such a stability then gives the possibility of an intense capacity for creation and renewal.
If we promise stability, conversion of life and obedience, this is a sign that they do not come to us spontaneously! Free, united, stable in our desires: an ideal? A path marked out by the Rule and the three steps constituted by our monastic vows. The path is one – is it not Christ himself? – and each of the terms of our profession details one unique demand, which St Benedict himself sums up in the lapidary formula, ‘to prefer nothing to Christ’. Three terms, united in one act, the ‘promise of which the monks shall bring a request written in the name of the saints whose relics are in this place, which he shall write in his own hand in the presence of the abbot’ (RB 58).
It has long been remarked that stability is the first of the vows, and this on two grounds: it is the one we mention first in the formula of profession, but also it is promised by the newcomer when, it seems, the Rule has not yet been read to him! We do not know very precisely how the postulancy ran at that time, nor how long it lasted, nor how the elder conducts himself to examine the dispositions of the newcomer, even if the elements which will form the material of the definitive promise are already thoroughly present: truly to seek God through the opus Dei, obedience, through putting up with the hard and rough things which reveal us to ourselves and to others, and become the road for conversion in truth and humility. However that may be, it is clear that the postulant is no little one, not still a raw recruit, when he is asked to promise to keep stability with perseverance, ‘if he has promised perseverance in his stability...’ – a strange formula which takes up the same terms as those which will be used for the definitive promise! Of course this promise does not have the solemnity which will mark definitive reception into the community. Nevertheless, it is a first engagement.
Never to move again, to stop going from place to place
The newcomer has already shown a certain perseverance: he has been made to wait at the door and has been told that the search for God is not a long, smooth river. St Benedict does not take it up, but one can hear the traditional question, ‘Abba, what should I do?’ One knows the answer normally given, ‘Stay in your cell, do what you can without getting upset.’ This is exactly what the Rule takes up. Anyway, the newcomer is there and that is the chief point! He has found his place and this place is going to work for him. No other requirement is put to him than to let it do so. The Fathers taught, ‘The cell will teach you everything’. ‘Do you agree to commit yourself not to move off?’ asks St Benedict. Let us make no mistake about it: the work which is going to come, passive of course, is not an irresponsible quietism. It is not the walls who will be the teachers, but what this enclosed space delimited by them will allow, a descent into oneself, that circle at first unquiet, where our interior world bubbles and only waits for the breach which will reveal another, infinite, space.
The elder of the deserts of old whom Benedict puts before the novices is there, watching. The cell too has its mirages. The cell teaches everything; the monk has a partner, someone other than himself, a witness and guarantor of the authenticity of what is going on in this stability. Stay there! You have no more need to run to right or left in search of the ideal place, of the spiritual master of your dreams. Neither the one nor the other exists The best place for you is where you finally stop rushing around, to believe that Christ is there, waiting for you. Semper vagi et numquam stabiles, always wandering, never stable. That is what gyrovagues are, the perfect counter-example. Stay where you are!
The young man is there, full of fervent zeal, promising to remain, but the path is still long – life-long, in fact! Under seductive or frankly brutish disguise lurk temptations: I won’t get there, it is too hard. So what? Is this anything new? Boredom, acedia, doubt, taking various shapes, partnering every stage of life, do their quiet or brutal work of sapping the resolve. Stability gets burdensome. What are we talking about? To put it in another way, just what am I afraid of?
Of those never-changing walls? At one time they were attractive, when the sun, the star of heaven or the eye of our heart bathed them in light and poetry, but which have in time become grey or even invisible – except that they block my view. Of this community, has it become dry and lifeless? Of myself, who have lost my first fervour and doubt that I will ever find it again – and quite right too: paradise lost is a myth, when Life stands before us. From disillusion to discovery, we walk towards a future ever unknown, but no less real for that; the snare is to immobilize ourselves in fear and regret, or to flee. The same mistake!
‘It is inevitable that the spirit which has nowhere to return changes every hour and every moment because of the varied ideas which attack it. Under the influence of what comes from outside he changes continually, putting on the first mood that occurs to him’ (Cassian, Conference 1.5). An old snare which still works.
When evil attacks us, and it does not matter what form it takes, we often feel ourselves – let us have the courage to admit it – closed to any moral or spiritual guidance. There is only the Name of Jesus, tirelessly repeated, or, if the combat is so strong that prayer seems extinguished, to remain immobile and silent, like the beast mentioned in Psalm 72.22, ‘a clumsy animal in your sight.’ To remain and ask that at the hour of temptation ‘an angel of comfort’ may be given (cf. Luke 22.43).
‘For nine years a brother was tempted to leave the monastery. Each day he got his clothes ready to leave and, when evening came, said to himself, “I shall leave tomorrow”. The next day he said, “I’ll make myself stay another day, just for the Lord”. When he had done this for nine years God freed him from all temptation and he was at peace’ (Apophtegmes, Coll. Nau, 207).
Stability, material Place or interior State?
An abbey, at least still today in our western countries, can easily stand as a symbol of stability. The ancient buildings, solid, massive, built to defy the passage of time, make up an unforgettable scene – even if they are in ruins! We pass through a whole gamut of emotions in visiting them, but, if nothing else, they testify to their era. Less triumphantly perhaps the little contemporary communities, wherever they may be, have something to say about the lasting quality, the fidelity to which all aspire. The monk and the nun for their part in certain moments know that they feel close to the figure of the Master who had ‘nowhere to lay his head’ (Luke 9.58). Is this a paradox?
Every Christian can re-read his or her own life in the light of the gospel story of the Pilgrims to Emmaus. Life (Christian, monastic or simply human) is fundamentally a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage not undertaken on one’s own. We have to accept that we are always on a journey, never be satisfied with a situation completed and closed on itself, but be always ready to welcome something new and unbelievable which arises when one least expects it. For some, for certain communities, the road is concretely and materially one of uprooting, exodus and exile. For others it is the road of the banality of daily life, which can be, as we have seen above, a painful erosion of our ideas, a removal of our certainties. It is in these melting-pots that the meeting with Christ occurs: he comes, he who is the God who ‘is to come’, as we repeat in every doxology: glory to God who is, who was and who is to come. This is a stupefying reality, a marvellous certainty: as on an adventure, he rejoins us on the road, precisely where we are. He has nowhere to lay his head except the human heart, and he knocks ceaselessly: open to me.
‘Let us hold certain that it will not be possible to find shelter from storms of temptations and assaults of the devil if to defend our patience we put all our confidence in the enclosure of our cell, in withdrawal into solitude, the company of holy men or in any other help outside ourselves, instead of relying upon the forces of the inner person’ (Cassian, Conference XVIII.16). Well then, a material place or the depths of the heart? Let us not enclose ourselves in one sterile alternative without a third term which will resolve it and fulfil it: the community.
To prefer nothing to Christ, and may he bring us all together to life eternal!
First of all and above all, our promise of stability is a profession of faith: we are the Body of Christ. As Christians we repeat this affirmation, which was the basis for St Paul and the primitive Church. But do we really believe it? It is not only an image, an analogy; it is an incendiary reality! We have no power to tear the tunic which the soldiers, says the gospel (John 19.23-24), left in one piece because it was woven ‘in one piece from top to bottom’. What the evangelist wrote is not merely an anecdote; what is written, is written, a sign taking us back to a lasting truth. The garment of Christ, like his Body (of which no bone was broken) remains intact, and we are the Body of Christ.
Our monastic profession puts us up against this demand, not moral or aesthetic but ontological – and there is no going back – to make tangible this truth about the unity which cannot be torn, but which we can just mask by our divisions and indefinitely repeated quarrels. Our stability is indeed incarnated in one place; it is so just (in the two senses: it is true and it rings true, like a sign put straight) that we present ourselves as monks or nuns of this particular monastery. It is very significant also that when a conflict drives a community into exile it continues to be known by the name of the place it has had to leave: such a rooting is so durable that there is no new stability. Nevertheless the place, important as it is for us (we ought to love the stones of the place!) is defined by the living stones which are the brothers and sisters who live there.
‘To make profession of stability is our way of responding, in the humility of the human condition, to God’s own fidelity. It is to tie a personal bond, human and spiritual, with a community whose history, needs, aspirations values and deficiencies we accept as our own, the present and future reality. This is the commitment of stability of each professed member who constitute the community and its members a single body’ (Constitutions of the Benedictines of St Bathilde, #11).
We are tied definitively into one body, a sign of the unity of the great Body which is the Church, and beyond, to humanity. When the sacraments were fixed at seven, monastic profession was not included. Nevertheless, we can affirm that the brotherhood which we profess is of the sacramental order since it is a sign of the unity God desires. Without regard to the juridical and canonical aspect, this way of envisaging our monastic stability is surely inspiring. It goes beyond the distinction between personal and universal salvation: they are both one! A religious community in its tenacious and visible unity (and it is one of the blessings of our monasteries these days that they are easy to find), a call to the labour of unity and peace that every human being is called to pursue untiringly day after day. For the glory of God and the salvation of the world!