Few people know that Benedictine monks do not make vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. They do vow obedience. That is correct. But their other two vows are conversatio morum and stabilitas loci. The first of these obliges the monk to an ever continued conversion, an ever repeated renewal of his life, an unceasing yielding to the formative power of monastic living. Thus, poverty and celibacy are here implied. Stabilitas loci (literally: “stability of place” or “local stability”) is a vow which offers a timely starting point for tackling our topic and the question it poses. Our answer will have bite if we avoid generalities. This will be easiest if we start from a clearcut point of view. You will allow me, as a Benedictine monk, to make this uniquely Benedictine vow my starting point, even though my friends tease me about having stretched Local Stability, in my travels, to distant parts of the earth. Well, looking at things from a distance sometimes makes us see the essential features more clearly.
What, then, is the meaning of Local Stability? Its central concern is with being truly present where we are. This concern is common to monastic traditions throughout the world. Most of us tend to be present with only a small portion of ourselves. A larger portion may still be clinging to the past and with another part we may be ahead of ourselves, impatiently reaching out for the future. But, since the only moment for action is now, spiritual training implies an effort to be present here now. Surprisingly, this goal can be achieved by methods that seem to contradict each other. Their extreme forms would be always travelling. Historical forms reach from extreme to extreme. Christian tradition knows St. Brendan the Seafarer and other Irish monks, who were vowed to continuous travels, abandoning themselves in small boats to the currents of the sea. And over against them stands St. Simeon the Stylite, who spent thirty years atop a pillar. Between these two extremes are many different degrees of cutting loose and of taking roots, all of them aiming at the same result: to make the monk fully present wherever he is.
In St. Benedict’s 6th century Italy, the wandering monks had become a bit decadent. St. Benedict speaks of their restless round of monasteries. They stayed three or four days in each, and in his wording there is just the slightest hint to suggest that the length of their stay depended on how well they liked the food. (For our own monastery-hoppers today, the travel section of the New York Times offered, not long ago, helpful hints complete with clues to the menu.) By introducing Local Stability, St. Benedict went far beyond correcting monastic abuses. This new vow had unforseeable consequences. It turned out to be literally epoch-making. It turned Benedictine monasteries into stabilizing centers in Western society, and the epoch in which this took place is sometimes called the Benedictine centuries (8th-12th).
When one becomes a Benedictine monk, one joins a particular monastery and belongs to it, normally, for the rest of one’s life. In contrast to other orders in the Church, the Order of St. Benedict is simply a confederation of autonomous monasteries. In some monasteries the vow of Local Stability is interpreted in a strictly residential sense. In others it is seen to allow for travels, under obedience. Always, however, this vow roots the monk for life in one specific place, in one particular community. And that local community extends to the angels (or nature spirits), the neighbors, the animals and plants of that area. This is where the relevance of Benedictine stability for our environmental concerns comes into view.
What threatens our times is not mobility, but uprootedness.
The Dark Ages of Europe were a time of utter uprootedness. In this they resembled our own times more than any other period in history. When we read an account like Christopher Dawson’s The Making of Europe, this resemblance may come as a shock. At a closer look, however, we discern also a force of renewal during that period, which could renew our own culture: Local Stability. Its opposite is not mobility, as we might think, but uprootedness. This distinction between mobility and uprootedness is of importance. Mobility is not an evil, but a high achievement. To be able to travel easily, quickly, and safely is a great benefit. We can cultivate this good without being swept away by it. What threatens our times is not mobility, but uprootedness.
The roots that kept the Dark Ages from being swept away in a tide of violence were the roots of monastic stability. Monasteries, too, were vandalized and burnt to the ground again and again. But again and again they would be rebuilt in the same spirit and – a most important fact – in the same place. The monks replanted their orchards, restored their mills, and remembered local lore. That was decisive. It gave cult, culture, and agriculture the necessary anchorage. There is no reason why monasteries cannot play a similar role today. Some do. Families that were attached to our monastery, but had to move, will sometimes come back year after year, even clear across the continent. Their only real home is with us. Monks must rise to that responsibility. But that won’t be enough. Millions will have to rise to their responsibility, commit themselves, and take roots again locally. What agonies of decision this can cause for parents who have to choose between economic advancement linked to a transfer and their children’s needs for local stability.
Children do have that need. Some qualities of the human psyche will simply never develop unless one grows up in a stable family – one that is stable also in a local sense. We speak of growing up. Why do we never speak of “growing down”? Because roots don’t matter to us. They are just that dirty mess that is inevitably attached down below to what we really admire. But when we put an avocado pit in water to let in sprout, we notice that it grows down before it grows up. And for a long time so. Not until the roots are well developed do the first leaves appear. This is nature’s way. It is ingrained in us humans, too. But children are incredibly adaptable. If they have to change schools every other year, they will adjust. They will get used somehow to making new friends, again and again, if they must. It will leave scars. But they will compensate for the loss. Children of army personnel and of parents in the diplomatic service are sometimes good examples for this. We humans can weather many abuses. Our natural environment, however, must pay the price.
A friend of mine went back to visit his grandmother’s farm, where he had grown up as a child. His family had lived in that place since colonial times, but they had all moved away and the grandmother had long since died. Where was the farm? Where was the old swimming hole at the rock spring? “It is probably a wet spot in someone’s basement now,” my friend said with a bitter smile. “They cut down the pine forest to the last trees and bulldozed right over the spring. But why?” He answered his own question: “There was no one left to tell them where to stop.” Newcomers don’t. Every place on earth has its ecological problems today. If we are merely transients, we won’t even be aware of these problems. We will have no eyes for the grassroots solutions. Nor will we have the drive and stamina to labor for those solutions, unless we make the personal investment of committing ourselves to a given place. Staying-power is what counts.
Poetry gives us access to those reasons of the heart which reason cannot fathom. Only the poet within each of us has eyes for the inherent sacredness of nature.
But there is more to it. Having roots in a place helps taking root in one’s own depth. For the span of a lifetime now, my friends Art and Nan Kellam have been living alone on an outer island in Maine. When a visitor asked if they ever got struck by wanderlust, Art simply said, “When you can’t go far, you go deep.” That is the direction to which Benedictine monks commit themselves by their vow of Local Stability. It should make them sink their roots into that inner depth where the great images of myth and poetry come alive.
“Since poetry has so small an audience, the notion has begun to grow up that it is a kind of survival from more primitive times, a form of communication no longer needed by modern people. The fact is rather that modern people are something like a survival of poetry, which once shaped and interpreted our world through language and the creative imagination. When poetry withers in us, the greater part of experience and reality wither too; and when this happens, we live in a desolate world of facts, not of truth – a world scarcely worth the trouble of living in.”
This perceptive passage by the Australian poet Judith Wright gives us a key to our problem. Poetry has withered in us. The environmental abuses we perpetuate all over the world are largely the results of poetry starvation. It is not only that “poetry takes the violence out of reason,” as J.F. Kennedy put it. Poetry gives us access to those reasons of the heart which reason cannot fathom. Only the poet within each of us has eyes for the inherent sacredness of nature.
John Henry Newman characterized the Benedictine tradition as the poetic thread woven into the history of the great orders in the Church. Seen through the eyes of this tradition, the problem stated in our topic calls for an educational, rather than a legislative solution. The answer to our question will have to be evocative, rather than provocative. How can we make the intuitive knowledge of the sacredness of nature an effective force in the world? By exposing ourselves to the sacredness of nature through a stable commitment to the place where we live, and by rooting ourselves in the realm of intuitive knowledge through poetry. The educational implications could be revolutionary. The effective force released could be momentous.
When education is at its best, it frees within us our own effective force to become who we truly are. The biblical prototype for who we humans are is Adam – Adam, formed out of the very soil of the garden in which he lives, and where he gives names to all creatures. Adam, the Earthling, the Human, is both gardener and poet. In the history of Benedictine education the image of Adam plays a central role. I remember entering the great lecture hall at the University of Salzburg, in the shadows of an ancient Benedictine abbey, and there, on a wall-hanging above the rostrum, was the image that gathered up the significance of the whole institution: Adam in the garden, naming the animals.
Adam in the Garden of Eden bears the likeness of God, whose image he is. But the Old Adam becomes a warped mirror, as it were. The New Adam, Jesus Christ, restores in himself the image to its original likeness. In the Garden of Olives the bloody sweat of Jesus irrigates the earth. And on Easter morning the risen Christ is at first mistaken for a gardener. We never cease to be image of God, disfigured though this image may have become. By the labor of obedience we can return to the one from whom we strayed in lazy disobedience, and the image will regain the splendor of its likeness. Adam means “human.” And so, each one of us is meant to be poet and gardener. The more human we become, the more fully we become image and likeness of God. But God is both Poet and Gardener.
Play has no purpose, only meaning. And there is no end to meaning. Once we open our eyes to this, we won’t be concerned with “discovering the purpose of human life.” Rather, we will celebrate its meaning.
To speak of God in these terms may strike us as fanciful. In fact, the way some people talk could make one think of God as accountant or policeman, rather than as poet or gardener. Could this be the result of the warped mirror within ourselves? All around us, nature bears abundant proof that God’s creation springs from the playful work of a gardener. God does not labor like a farmer. God plays. And all of history proves that God likes to spin a good yarn, poetically. What should give us a clue is the uselessness of it all. Why do we tend to overlook how useless God’s creation is to God? Poorly remembered, the story in the Book of Genesis makes us think that God worked hard to achieve a purpose. But what could that purpose have been? Was God in need of anything? The pattern on a goldfinch’s wing should be enough to convince anyone that it was all play. And the story of creation is told in such a way as to leave no doubt: it was all as effortless for God and as joyful as the whistling of a shepherd boy stretched out on the hillside and looking into the summer sky.
God plays. Work always has a purpose. But there is no purpose to nature and history. And yet, it all is filled with deep meaning. Thank God, there is no purpose to the world! That is why it is truly a world without end. Work comes to an end when its purpose is accomplished. Who would go on drawing water, once all the vessels are filled to the brim? But to play now that this water is wine: that is divine make-believe. Or to play that whosoever drinks from it will never thirst again; that, sprinkled on you, it can make you whiter than the snow; that you can go down into it, die, and come up more alive than before – those are games you can go on playing, world-without-end. Play has no purpose, only meaning. And there is no end to meaning. Once we open our eyes to this, we won’t be concerned with “discovering the purpose of human life.” Rather, we will celebrate its meaning. That will give us joy and strength enough to take care of all those purposes for which we are responsible on the level of work as if they were play. And this will lead to results that last.
Let us formulate a check list of questions to help us translate these reflections into action.
Did I hear a voice there in the corner, meekly asking, “but how?” Well, let us formulate a check list of questions to help us translate these reflections into action. (Please note that these questions apply regardless where you live, even in the city. Answering them should not be work, but play, and you can turn it into a game, if you and a friend do it together.)
- What place can you call home in the full sense of the word?
- How much time do you spend there? How much of it outdoors?
- How many flowers, grasses, trees that grow there do you know by name?
- What do you know about the mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, insects of your neighborhood? Their names? Their living habits?
- How many of your neighbors do you know by name? First name? Last name? The names of their children? Of their pets?
- How would you rate your relationship to your neighbors? Distant? Cordial? Cooperative?
- Do you ever discuss with your neighbors questions concerning the environment you share and its protection?
- When did you last sit or walk outdoors without a specific purpose, just looking, listening, doing nothing?
- Do you grow anything? In a garden? In flower pots or planters?
- Name the three most pressing environmental problems of your neighborhood, your country, your state or region.
- Who are your political representatives: What are their positions on environmental issues?
- What is your opinion of the significance of poetry in human life? In education?
- What place does poetry occupy in your own life?
- Name two books of the Bible whose literary form is poetry. Do you think one can get the gist of the teachings of Jesus (especially the parables in the gospels) without a sense for poetry?
- Name three poets whose work you personally enjoy (not just think you ought to enjoy).
- Name one poet whose work you enjoy less, or not at all. Give reason why.
- Who is your favorite poet?
- Do you know who your closest friend’s favorite poet is?
- Do you ever read poems with your friends? Your children?
- Which poet or poem had a significant influence on your inner development?
- When did you last sit down to read a poem for enjoyment?
- Roughly, how many poems do you know by heart? Recite one.
And now, to reward you for your patience, I will share with you a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It may not be an easy one, at first sight, but it is worth reading more than once. In re-reading, and especially when one reads it aloud, suddenly some dense passages become clear. This is true of all the poems that Hopkins wrote. He wanted them to be read aloud. The repetitions in lines 3 and 5, and in the last five lines suggest to me a sobbing which the poet cannot suppress as he laments the felling of these poplars, so dear to him. I remember a row of poplar trees behind my own home on the outskirts of Vienna. Local legend had it that Napoleon had given orders to plant that avenue of trees. The owner of an adjacent plot of land resented these trees for stealing the sun from his vineyard. During the last weeks of the war, he took advantage of the prevailing chaos and in one day he had them all felled. Those ax strokes of havoc still echo for me in the “all felled, felled” of this poem.
Hopkins knew about nature what we are barely beginning to realize a century later: “even where we mean to mend her, we end her, when we hew or delve.” And he finds the poignant comparison with that “sleek and seeing ball/but a prick will make no eye at all.” There is more here than an image of extreme vulnerability. These lines have overtones that make me flinch. There is allusion here to an equally vulnerable poetic vision, a fragile inner eye, a sense to see the sacredness of nature. Every child is born gifted with that sense. If only we allow our children to take roots on some soil that is home for them, to take roots also in that depth where the heart sees visions, Adam, the poet and gardener, may still survive on “God’s green earth.” +
Read “Binsey Poplars” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Reprinted from Epiphany, Spring 1983.
Feature photo by Paul McGowan
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