Someone asked Abba Anthony, “What must one do in order to please God?” The old man replied, “Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.
from ‘The Sayings of the Desert Fathers’ collected by Benedicta Ward.
A while ago I wrote a post called “A mobile sort of stability” (https://pilgrimtraveller.wordpress.com/2010/03/), where I praised the virtues of the monastic rule of stability…to remain and to grow in the place that God has put you.
Just recently, however, I’ve struggled with the temptation to be on the move again. A searching, hungry mobility seems to be one of the features of our age…we always seem to believe that whatever it is that we seek will be found there, rather than here, and thus we need to be constantly seeking new faces, fresh spaces and new experiences…and I am not immune to its attraction, especially as I struggle to make sense of a changing stage of life.
Since moving to the place I now live I’ve struggled with so many things…a sense that “they’re not like me”, a more reserved and conservative culture, failing to make an impact…but above all an all pervading sense of loneliness as long term friendships become more distant or end and as family become more and more dispersed. A conversation I had with a friend the other day about just beginning to have deep friendships after 20 years living here didn’t help much. It takes tremendous resilience to stay put against such odds.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers have much wisdom to share about the constant draw to mobility but the longing and discipline for a life of stability.
An anonymous desert monk said: “If a trial comes upon you in the place where you live, do not leave that place when the trial comes. Wherever you go, you will find that what you are running from is there ahead of you.” Sometimes standing still and staying put can be life changing as we are finally forced to face our monsters.
And again, Amma Syncletica said, “If you are living in a monastic community, do not go to another place: it will do you a great deal of harm. If a bird abandons the egg she has been sitting on, she prevents them hatching; and in the same way, the monk or nun will grow cold and their faith will perish if they go around from one place to another.” This has implications for changing church as much as to do with monastic living,
I am also discovering something that I overlooked in my re-prioritising of my life to give pilgrimage first place over community…the pilgrim always returns to the place from which they begun, to the community of which they are part; but the returning pilgrim is a changed person, different somehow to the person who undertook the journey. Community on the road is very real, but can always only be a life in transition. True community is rooted in a particular place and time.
The two…community and pilgrimage…are inextricably linked by the need for a place of homecoming, a place where one can put down roots and say, “This is my home, and these are the friends I love”.
I am finding Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book “The Wisdom of Stability” really helpful (and painfully challenging and encouraging!). He writes with the wisdom of someone who has faced the same challenges and, because of his commitment to be rooted in a particular place long-term, faces those challenges every day.