Stability of place: this is a Benedictine value that’s always seemed so against the immigrant American sensibility, and a wider North American value of moving for the sake of educational opportunity, greater financial success, urban excitement (or suburban amenities), escape from misfortune, or the desire to see and do more.
Yet the first Benedictines in the US came as pioneering immigrants. Stability of place is not an absolute rule, but a conservative guiding principle: don’t move from one place to another without first really pondering why.
And sometimes we make a commitment to a place that at some point no longer has a place for us. This has been on my mind since Illinois’ new governor declared that he intends to cut state university budgets by 31.5%. While the state legislature may prevent him from making such drastic cuts to state support for higher education, cuts of some deeper sort than usual seem likely. It’s too early to say what that might mean for university employees, though there is already a plan in place to review and eliminate programs. Downsizing of an institution means forcing some to lose their jobs, or at least to move from the “place” of one department to teaching in an area outside their field where there is still need — a place to put tenured faculty until they retire and their faculty lines are not renewed.
My mother worked for years at UP Power Company, and she was one of a small number who were able to keep their jobs without having to move out of state to Wisconsin, where the company that bought UPPCO was located. Employees who’d had family roots in the UP had to decide whether to move for the sake of keeping a job, or stay in a place they called home without a guarantee of finding a new job.
I find myself wondering about the wisdom of ever having bought a house, and having a mortgage I can’t easily leave.
What will I do if I lose my job? I could list the ideas that cross my mind here, but readers can place themselves in the same question to the same effect. It’s one thing to choose to move, it’s another to feel forced to make a move (of job, of home, or both).
But I also recognize that I’m as much curious as I am worried — curious about what other life directions might be possible (if at great cost and using much energy). Perhaps curiosity is an element of stability. At times of emotional crisis, curiosity has often distracted me out of a focus on feeling hurt or abandoned or distressed about a situation that had no easy resolution. The curiosity usually takes some intellectually stimulating form: curiosity about this or that complex idea, or international news, or noticing patterns in our lives together and wanting to analyze them with someone.
Curiosity keeps us engaged with many currents of information and possibilities at once. It can go deep and focused; it can go broad and wide-ranging. It gallops us along, letting us meet what is going on with an open heart, an inquisitive spirit. Such curiosity can be open to us even when elderly enough to be bed-ridden — a companion alongside prayer as a way of interfacing with the world.
I’d not expected when I began to write this that curiosity would be tied somehow to stability. I’d originally thought only of how I find a stability in myself as I witness the questions unfolding in my own department, and find that I want to bear witness to the value of our department, while also staying present to the larger institutional and state-wide conversations with more interest than panic — even though the end result of those conversations might involve my displacement. Surely some will be displaced, whether or not I am among them.
For all the value of travel — especially to cultural spaces quite different from one’s own — there are things human beings can learn only by belonging to a community over a stretch of time. Inner stability is cultivated by such communal belonging. But once is it has been cultivated, stability of mind can accompany us whether we move or stay in a particular physical place.
It’s curious, isn’t it, how stability of place can let us walk far away from our home?
Perhaps this is one fitting awareness as our Lenten journeys begin, as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus who journeyed in the wilderness before going home in a new way.