Unlike silence, obedience, and humility, The Rule of St. Benedict does not have a chapter on stability. However, stability is a hallmark feature of Benedictine life and spirituality. St. Benedict concludes Chapter 4 on The Tools of Good Works with this statement: “The workshop where we are to toil faithfully at all these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in community.” (v.78) In Chapter 58, perseverance in stability is something that the novice promises in the course of his formation (v.9) and preparation for profession. Later in the same chapter, stability is identified as one of the three key elements of monastic profession along with obedience and fidelity to monastic life (v.17). The only other mention of stability in the Rule is when clerics (60.9) or visiting monks (61.5) seek to become members of the community; both must observe and bind themselves to stability.
Stability is what keeps the monk at the task of seeking God when the spiritual journey becomes difficult, boring, or otherwise unpleasant. It does include a kind of permanence of place, but the essence of the spiritual practice is remaining an actively engaged participant in the life of the community while at prayer, at work, and at leisure, even in the midst of hardship, disagreement or conflict.
It is human nature to want to opt out of a situation when it becomes challenging or unpleasant. It is difficult to remain in a relationship, in a group, or at a task when it no longer fills us with good feelings. Stability is what builds inner strength in the monk one day at a time. It keeps the monk tethered to something bigger than herself so as not stray too far from her ultimate purpose and goal. Sharing a common life with others, day-in and day-out, forces me to face the less-than-perfect parts of myself that might be easier to avoid when living alone. It fosters a life of conversion rather than complacency. When I get too comfortable with what is, I am less apt to change or to grow. So, I always can rely on the community to nudge me forward on the road that leads to everlasting life. Not a day goes by in the monastery when the opportunities to forgive and to be forgiven aren’t noticeably present.
I have heard stability described by another Sister as “staying at the table.” When disagreements happen and tempers flare, it is tempting to get up and just walk away. When the rest of the group decides to go in a direction other than what I think is best, it is difficult to swallow my pride and remain involved in discussions in a respectful and participatory way. Stability in the community is a spiritual practice because one must rely on the grace of God to get through these challenging circumstances. It requires the monk to remember God’s presence in the midst of adversity and to rely on God’s providential care come what may.
Promising stability in a monastic community for the rest of one’s life is a profound exercise of self-surrender. No one knows what the future will bring, but that future will be faced arm-in-arm and shoulder-to-shoulder with the other members of the community, all headed in the same direction. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, stability in community involves the sacred and mysterious process of being transformed from an “I” to a “we” reflective of the dynamic life of the Trinity.
Stability reminds the monk that in this earthly life no one ever fully “arrives” but is always on the journey toward God’s eternal embrace. As a community, we make this journey together. When I am strong, I help the weak. When I am weak, I allow the strong to help me. It is a sacred trust. Truly, stability in community is a testimony to God’s everlasting faithfulness, for it is God that upholds and sustains us in the promise we make.
“Receive me, O Lord, as you have promised that I may live,
disappoint me not in my hope.”
Verse sung during the perpetual monastic profession ritual
By Sister Therese Haydel, OSB