Friday, March 07, 2008

March 7, 2008 - Stability

I’ve been thinking a lot about that word, “stable,” as applied to my enlarged lymph nodes. When the doctors use that word, they mean to say the cancer has remained the same size, over time. While I’d surely rather hear “stable” than “advanced,” I also realize it’s not as favorable as “reduced” or “disappeared.” It’s smack dab in the middle of the spectrum of possibilities.

Apart from the cancer context, “stable” is generally a good word. If you’re building a house, you want a stable foundation. If your son or daughter is getting engaged, it’s a good thing if the other young person is stable – emotionally grounded, economically well-established. While “stable” may suggest, to some, a Babbitt-like stodginess, it sure beats a lot of the alternatives.

To members of the Roman Catholic monastic order, the Benedictines, stability means far more. It’s an organizing principle of their community. Centuries ago, when Benedict was writing his famous monastic rule, he was alarmed by the tendency of some monks to travel from monastery to monastery, partaking of the hospitality of the brothers for a time, then moving on to greener pastures (or, in a few cases, better-stocked wine cellars). When conflicts arose between neighbor monks, in those early days, it was all too easy for one of them simply to pull up stakes and move on, without addressing the underlying spiritual problem. It’s akin to what our friends in Alcoholics Anonymous call “taking the geographic cure.”

Benedict promulgated the rule of stabilo, or stability. This meant a monk’s lifetime vows were taken not only to the Benedictine order, but also to the particular monastery. To this day, it’s an unusual thing for a Benedictine to relocate permanently to another monastic house (although they do sometimes live elsewhere for a time, to pursue academic studies or other temporary work).

An article posted on one Benedictine website quotes Dom Jean Leclercq: “Stability is derived from stare, which means to stand, and also to be still. From this comes its figurative meaning – to be firm, to stand fast, to endure, to persevere, to be rooted.”

The article goes on to say:

“The evils that stability of heart seeks to avoid, are ones that our times reflect so clearly, such as restlessness of mind and heart, thirst for new experiences and the allure of ‘life in the fast lane.’ Pursuit of these often results in the diminishing of the desire for depth, life becomes superficial, an unceasing search for new and exciting adventures.” (“Stability - Stability of Heart,” by Fr. Hilary Ottensmeyer, OSB.)

Stability of a cancerous tumor is not such a good thing – better than the alternative, of course, but still not so appealing as that blessed word, “remission.” Yet, when it comes to our inner, spiritual and emotional life, stability is a good thing indeed. I suppose the spiritual challenge of living with indolent cancer lies in cultivating a certain inner stability – a virtue that’s still largely eluding me. That “restlessness of mind and heart” is all too typical of my days.

From our Benedictine friends, once again:

“St. Benedict has a favorite image to help us hold the concept of stability of heart deep within ourselves – ‘the image of our life with God as His household, a household that He has founded on a rock.’ The flood waters of temptation, restlessness, discouragement may threaten to sweep away the house, but won’t because it is founded on a rock.”

That’s surely an allusion to Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:24-25: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.”

Now, there’s a stability I could learn to live with.

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