Should You Stay or Should You Go?
By jonathan wilson-hartgrove
September 30, 2011
Don lived for years in the Chicago area, working hard and trying to keep up with the fast pace of his profession. Several years ago, he left the city and took a job on a somewhat remote college campus run by Benedictines. While visiting on the campus once, he and I walked the carefully cared-for grounds, talking about our faith. "Since coming here," Don said, "I've given up my spiritual journey."
I could tell from his smile that he had a point to make, so I asked what he meant. "Well, you know, we Christians talk a lot about our spiritual journeys. We get excited about experiences and go places looking for the next spiritual high. We say God called us here. Then God calls us there. But it's all so individualistic. It's all so focused on little 'lessons' or 'insights' that we're supposed to take with us to the next place." Don paused and looked around at some of the old men in long black robes who were walking by us on the campus. "I think I'm learning from these guys that God can change us if we'll settle down in one place. So I've given up my spiritual journey. I'm going to just stay with God here and see how I can grow."
We cannot ignore the many ways that our culture of hypermobility has shaped how we think about our spiritual lives. Thanks to cheap plane tickets and strong economies, Christians in the West can go more places now than we've ever been able to go before. We go to Italy to see where Francis lived and to Ireland to learn about Celtic Christianity. When it's relatively safe, we go to Israel to walk where Jesus walked. We go to conferences to hear from the latest spiritual gurus and we go to retreat centers to find some solace in our busy lives.
Of course, we find some good in all these places. But picking up fragments of spiritual wisdom can begin to feel like trying to piece together a tree from limbs that we've broken off here and there. Even if we gather enough limbs to make a tree, something is still missing. Life just isn't in the pieces the same way it is in a tree whose roots are fixed in the soil of a particular place.
Stability doesn't make the spiritual life easy. Having given myself to Walltown (an inner-city neighborhood of Durham, N.C.), I've not seen it transformed before my eyes. The power of death is real in this place, and I often feel overwhelmed. Working to save a few kids from the grip of gangs, I'm driven to despair by a fledgling budget, frustrated by the kids' despondence, overwhelmed by my own anger at the sight of lives cut short before they ever really got started. Yes, I'm tempted to leave. Some days I don' t know what faith means for me in this place, even less how to share it with someone else.
I remember the pain of my neighbors who never had the option of leaving Walltown, but nevertheless learned to sing, “I told Satan / Get thee behind / Victory today is mine." Living and singing alongside them, I am learning that the victory I claim is not a celebration of my ability to overcome. Rather, it is a confession of my utter dependence on a power beyond me to progress toward abundant life in this place. On my best days, it is the faith I long for. But it is not easy. I need a community around me and the wisdom of a communion of saints across time to keep my feet on the ground.
Whether we think we have options or not, the wisdom of stability suggests that we can only begin to grow spiritually by accepting the gift of faith in the place where we are. We choose neither to flee to a better place on earth nor to despair in the face of demons that taunt us where we are. By God's grace, we stand and sing, "Just like a tree planted by the waters / I shall not be moved."
This refusal to flee is not a denial of our need for conversion but a confession of the renewal we always need. We are, after all, a pilgrim people on a journey toward our true home. We are Abraham's children, called to go to a land that God will show us. We are Israel in Egypt, trusting God to lead us out of bondage, through the waters and into the Promised Land. We are disciples of the resurrected Jesus, hearing once again that He is going ahead of us into Galilee. Like the first disciples, we must follow after Him. We are on a journey, marching up the King's highway, climbing Jacob's ladder to a building not made by hands.
But progress along this way is impossible if we are not grounded in reality, planted by streams of living water, standing on the promises of the One who is our rock. Stability challenges us to question the assumptions of a hypermobile culture, but it ought not make us immovable. Staying put and paying attention are, rather, dynamic disciplines aimed at helping us grow and progress toward wholeness. "Monastic theologians interiorized the Christian custom of pilgrimage," writes contemporary Benedictine Charles Cummings. "Without leaving their abbeys, monks and nuns could leave all selfish ways and go on an interior pilgrimage. ... Stability became a broader, richer reality as it incorporated both the essence of pilgrimage and the essence of rootedness."
Here, then, is the spirituality I need to stay put: a ladder that brings together my need for a firm foundation and my need to progress toward holiness. For people who think little of flying across a continent, the assumption of rooted spirituality is striking: If we want our very being to rise up into God's being, nothing is more important than rooting ourselves in a place where God can happen. Yes, we're on a journey. But not all movement is progress toward the Promised Land (Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, after all). The difference between progress and wandering seems to depend on whether we can trust God to deliver us from bondage in the place where we are.
Excerpted from The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, with permission from Paraclete Press. www.paracletepress.com.