When I’ve traveled to a new place, I usually prefer to linger in one area and get to know it well — whether that’s hanging out by a cabin beside a lake, or walking around a friend’s neighborhood in San Francisco. In one afternoon at the Smithsonian, a new friend and I looked carefully at just the roomful of Madonnas with child, just to observe the iconography of animals in the margins and to notice changes in the style and themes over the centuries.
One of the appeals of monastic life is the idea of a ruled life that permits — demands — that we slow down. Slowing down may happen less in practice, especially for those in orders more active in the larger world. Still, recalling the Benedictine vow to stability of place can itself shift the spirit of even those of us not in a monastery. Recollection of the vow of stability can open up a capacity to snap into perspective about what is most valuable, like a puzzle piece suddenly fitting.
It’s not really a sense of perspective dependent on whether or not one’s particular place is a good fit. What I am thinking of here is more about the reminder that it is acceptable to do less, acceptable to pull back from pursuing every possible move of any sort — be it physical or avocational or relational.
The vow of stability is a confession of failure — failure of the rightly humbling sort. We fail to know and love every place, path, person, plant upon this earth — itself a speck of dust within a very dusty, many-dimensional universe. Our attention and compassion and productivity — all are finite.
Stability of place can be like a turning top, allowing one to turn in every direction while spinning upon one spot. As one who avidly reads international news in The Economist, I know that an appetite for ever broader, better knowledge of people, places, and things is not itself at odds with a vow of stability, a sense of limits. Likewise, to think about the vastness of creation can be comforting as much as terrifying — another reminder that we ourselves are not the center of things. And so, a sense of our current location in space and time is not incompatible with a sense of connection to all times and places insofar as we can can know them through their representations in words, images, sounds.
Slowing down, we can travel at the speed of light.
For those of us for whom Christ is the Light of the world, the Icon through whom we perceive God, slowing down means having time to notice deeply and widely (“let those who have eyes to see, see; let those who have ears to hear, hear”) and thereby syncing our lives with that of the Christ, who illuminated all of creation through one particular human life.
Whether we stay in the place we are in, or move from it, unless crisis forces a decision like a whirlwind, God’s grace seems to speak most often in a slow speed that looks carefully and everywhere from the spiritual place of not having to accomplish something for its own sake — but only when it accords with a sense of the pull of the Spirit, who haunts the whole of creation yet unites all its particulars.