In a culture that values what is new over what is old, excitement over routine, style over substance, it is not surprising that instability plagues many lives, and that those who are constantly seeking their peace in different experiences, jobs, places and people, never seem to find it. This wanderlust-of-heart, ever restless until we rest in God, can cause us to feel discontent with the very thing our Lord gives us to help us to find Him: stability.
Look at the Herons
So often in my life God gets my attention, gives me signal graces, through nature, especially animals and most especially birds. There are the Cardinal couples that remind me of St. Joseph’s faithfulness to Mary and the lone Cooper’s Hawks being harangued by twin Starlings reminding me to fly higher when under attack. The doves I hear quietly cooing on the telephone wire as I take my evening walk remind me to be content with the present moment and coo my own thanksgiving to God. But one bird more than the others illustrates my life these mom-of-teenagers days: the Heron. Just about every day I see one fly overhead at a slow and steady pace. Herons tend to feed in one area and nest in another, so each day I witness their daily commute.
This routine is what caught my attention and reminded me of my own life. Like most people, I tend to drive the same routes each day, back and forth, back and forth. There are some variations and seasonal changes, but the one constant is repetition. In this repetition I hear God speaking to me about stability and gently teaching me virtue.
The Wisdom of St. Benedict
St. Benedict believed stability was so important that he added it to the traditional religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. On their website, the nuns of the Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey describe stability:
We vow to remain all our life with our local community. We live together, pray together, work together, relax together. We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledging one’s own offensive behavior, giving up one’s preferences, forgiving.
In taking a vow of stability, the Benedictines promise to abandon their will to the will of the Lord expressed in the location of the community He has chosen for them. Through stability, they eliminate the temptation to flee difficulty and trial and to flee the Cross; instead they choose to lean into that Cross, shoulder to shoulder with Jesus, being where He is and becoming who He is. It is very counter cultural! In a society that says you can reinvent yourself and start fresh by picking up roots and moving to a new city, the vow of stability replies, “Let God remake you into a new creation right here, and in the process remake your community with you.”
Living Stability Outside the Convent
As lay persons not vowed to lifelong stability, we may indeed discern times to pick up root and move to new places that are God’s will for our lives, our family’s life. But there is still much we can learn from the virtue of stability. The routine of our lives can be God’s teaching method. I think back to typing class in high school: aaa sss ddd fff. Every day we practiced the same routine, the teacher calling out the letters. Every day we got a little better and faster at it, making fewer mistakes. By the end of the year we could type quickly and effortlessly. In this simple little skill, faithfully learned, the freedom to write without being bogged down in transcription was released. In a life of stability, a simple routine gives us the freedom to be present to the people and experiences God puts in our lives in a deeper way.
When we know what is going to happen, when we can let those details fade into the background, we can let the precious souls before us come to the fore. When making my auto-pilot drives I can listen to my children tell me about their day or entrust a concern, I can pray a Rosary or a Chaplet of Divine Mercy for a friend I just spoke with who is going through a hard time. I can sing praise to God without annoying anyone with my “just for God” singing voice! Those simple Heron drives can refocus me in a way that no other daily activity, no other daily chore, really does. It becomes a melded “ora et labore”: prayer and work rolled into one. As I watch the Heron fly silently overhead I am reminded that God created this routine in my life and, as in everything He gives, it is a gift that needs to be unwrapped to be appreciated.
The Routine Is The Canvas
There are of course, other routines in my life besides driving. In fact most of my time involves something that I do at regular intervals. Rising, praying, grooming, cooking, cleaning, working, sharing meals: it is all pretty much constant from day to day, year to year. But, far from being boring or stifling, this routine, this stability, is merely the frame and canvas that God, the Great Artist, paints the days of my life on. There may be thousands of identical framed canvases lined up before me, but each painting, each day will be a unique creation by the Artist. The painting itself may be of a great storm or of a gorgeous sunset. It is up to God. My hope is to remain a soft and pliable paintbrush in His hands, not to allow myself to become crusty and hard by neglect of the daily cleansing action of prayer and the Sacraments.
Our routine, our stability, is not meant to be an enemy, but an ally. Much like the Laws of God can be seen as a fence along a beautiful, cliff-side playground, stability frees us to live life fully right here and now. Forgetting what might be if we were living a different life, we open ourselves more fully to this life, this moment, this gift from God, never to be repeated.
The truth is, though there may be thousands of identical blank canvases lined up before me, there may be only this one. For each of us the end will come, the last painting will be painted; the Heron will cease its daily commute. If I knew that this was my last day on earth, I would want to live it as fully as possible,not only to unwrap God’s gift, but to use it up completely with nothing left. I wouldn’t be able to do that by flying off to some other life, some other canvas, but only right here where God has planted me, in this routine, in this day and time, with these precious souls.
These precious souls God has given to me are first my husband and children, but then my family, friends, co-workers, fellow parishioners and other co-Herons. There are many people whom God places in my path routinely. Do I recognize these precious souls when God keeps bringing me into their presence? Do I pray for them, show concern for them, even acknowledge their shared humanity? In practicing stability God gives me many opportunities to love others whom I might not have ever met otherwise. The stability these co-Herons live adds to my own sense of community, of oneness in the Body of Christ.
“A tree which is often transplanted does not bear fruit.” -St. Euthymius the Great
Every time we choose to change parishes, switch schools, leave jobs or even stop shopping at the same drug store, we are changing our community. The fruit we are called to bear in the lives of the souls is our current routine, will not be born if undiscerned changes are made. These changes must therefore be made prayerfully, reverent of the consequences to ourselves and all of our co-Herons. This is not to say we don’t make changes that are for the good of ourselves or our family, but the larger the change to our routine, our stability, the more we should prayerfully discern whether the change is in accord with God’s will for our lives or not. We might question ourselves if we are following God’s lead or simply running from conflict or trial.
Trusting God When the Routine is Disrupted: Stability in an Unstable World
Oftentimes our lives do not go routinely; our routine in fact, seems nonexistent: a catastrophic illness causes a sudden shift of focus to caretaking or to being bedridden ourselves; a new job in a new town causes our entire life to be uprooted and settled in unfamiliar territory. Whatever the reason for big changes in our routine, stability is still a virtue that can guide us through.
Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything. – Sayings of the Desert Fathers
In times of disruption, our “cell” is our heart, or better still, Jesus’ Sacred Heart, where we place ourselves through prayer. When God asks us to detach ourselves from our routines, our homes, our external stabilities, the internal stability of our prayer life will guide us to God’s next chapter for our lives. Soon new routines will emerge and be established, new feeding grounds and nesting grounds and co-Herons will appear, soon new precious souls will come to the fore.
The routine for building all virtues including stability is prayer: time spent in companionship with God. Through stability in prayer we find God. In the routine of life where His precious souls come to the fore, it is He who ultimately comes to the fore. When we pray and reflect back, when we look through all of those now-filled canvases, we see how faithful God has been to us, giving us the freedom to live a deeply beautiful life, in the simplicity of routine, in the virtue of stability. Gently teaching and guiding our lives with our daily Heron flights, He is really turning our hearts away from the externals to what is eternal: life with Him.
Lord, thank you for these Heron days. I ask that you help me to be content with the routines you have given me, to be freed to be present to the souls you have placed in my life by the gift of a stable life of prayer and work. Blessed Mother, you who lived a very routine family life most of your years, help me to gratefully receive each blank canvas I am given, and to be a soft and pliable brush in the hand of God.