The Wisdom of Stability
Instability seems to be the condition of our age. The stock market spikes and dips, currencies waver, real estate signs line the streets. The more education you have, the less likely you are to live where you grew up (if you can even say that is one place).
There is also the instability of soul—a restlessness that drives us to move, to explore, to find some better option. To live in one place, much less one house, for thirty years is an anomaly for the most of us. We can barely stick to our electronics long enough for them to wear out.
"In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it." These words from Abba Anthony are shocking to our ears—radically countercultural. This is a call to stay put, to develop deep roots with all of the accompanying limits and with all of the accompanying nourishment and strength of established ground.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's new book, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, is a call to follow St. Anthony's advice. It is a call to be incarnate—no Gnostic dreams of cyberspace or of imagined lives lived elsewhere. Wilson-Hartgrove reminds us that as followers of a savior who came to be with a particular people in a particular place, we are called to go and do likewise.
For Wilson-Hartgove, at the root of modern instability is an essential misunderstanding of who we are as people. Our consumer society has tried to convince us, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that we are above all individuals and that it is the pursuit of our particular passions and interests that will fulfill us.
In reality, the pursuit of individualism leads to what we might call the market segmentation of the soul: our desires become scattered. We seek to find an anchor in a community, but having insulated ourselves from the limits and sacrifices that real, proximal community requires, we are drawn to quasi-communities clustered around a brand, a hobby, a style. We become hipster or hip-hop, J. Crew or Armani. Our "style" becomes our place.
Against all this, Wilson-Hartgrove writes, "True stability can never be a product for individuals to consume. Rather, it is an invitation to shared life with particular people in a specific place." Stability is then a result of true community—of the sort Wilson-Hartgrove has worked to establish through the community house his family is a part of in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina.
But community requires a great deal of work and risk. Wilson-Hartgrove writes, "This is at least part of the reason books on spirituality have become more popular in the last generation, even as church attendance has gone down significantly …. The trouble … is that a spirituality that works for me cannot save me." Spirituality becomes the name of an online store category—a choose-your-own-adventure sort of religion that gives comfort but demands little and therefore results in little transformation. Stability helps protect us against spirituality of this kind by forcing us to be present with our neighbors, whether we really want to or not.
If we want to grow spiritually, Wilson-Hartgrove suggests, "Maybe the single most important thing we can do … is to stay in the place where we are." Such staying is so important because it forces us to face the real problems in our lives—the problems we can't mask with new friends, a new job, a new house, or a new car. Staying shows us that what we need isn't another church or a town where people "get us" or a new adventure. What we need is to face ourselves and stay still long enough for God to change us.
Wilson-Hartgrove quotes the desert mother Amma Theodora, who tells the story of a monk who decided to leave his cell because of a great many temptations. "As he was putting on his sandals, he saw another man who was also putting on his sandals and this other monk said to him, 'Is it on my account that you are going away? Because I go before you wherever you are going.' "
We are not and have never been purely independent beings. To achieve the illusion of "independence," we must ignore the networks that support us, and we do so to our peril. To have stability in a place we must have humility—"growth in our awareness of our own insufficiency." As Wilson-Hartgrove writes, "I cannot do anything—not even keep my own faith—alone." This may seem a bold claim in the age of church shopping, but we must remember that we worship a Trinitarian God who is never alone, who is the essence of community.
In order to live in our insufficiency, we must learn to pay attention—pay attention to where we are and on whom we are dependent. Stability requires us to know our neighbors, and more than that it requires us to participate in the act of neighboring—to recover "neighbor" as a verb.
"To embrace the limits of a place is to learn to look at the people around us with fresh expectation," writes Wilson Hartgrove. "Whether these people are easy to love is not the question. Stability invites us to ask, 'How are they gifts from God to help me grow in love?' " Throughout the book, Wilson-Hartgrove paints a picture of what genuine neighboring looks like in a community of stability. These "Front Porch" vignettes flesh out the principles he advocates. And an appendix of sorts, "Collected Wisdom on Stability," gathers passages from Scripture and reflections from the Christian tradition on the importance of staying put.
The Wisdom of Stability is a helpful and necessary book, but it is only a beginning, written by a young man. I hope that Wilson-Hartgrove will continue to explore these themes, and I look forward to his ongoing reports from the neighborhood he now calls home.
Ragan Sutterfield writes and farms in his native Arkansas.
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