Saint Benedict’s “Rule for Monks” requires three vows of those joining a Benedictine monastery: a vow of stability, a vow of conversion, and a vow of obedience. Together they form a structure upon which healthy communal life can be built for a lifetime.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how my own life squares up to the vow of stability. In essence this vow is a pledge of permanence, a commitment to stay in one place and make one’s life within a single community. It’s a vow that is beyond the reach of many in our highly mobile societies. As a consequence, our relationships never reach the depths which God intended. Conflicts are resolved not by working things out, but by waiting things out – snug in the knowledge that we, or the person who offends us, will soon move away. Some of us are faced with the additional temptation to always be looking for greener grass somewhere else. As Thomas Merton noted, “in making his vow (of stability) the monk renounces his vain hope of wandering off to find a ‘perfect monastery’.”
With the exception of a few short sojourns elsewhere (Spain/Morocco, Canada) I have lived in greater Amsterdam for all but four years of my adult life. I arrived here at the age of barely 22. I learned the language (more or less; see the blog below), adapted to and adopted the local culture, became a season ticket holder of Ajax FC, sent my daughters to the local Dutch schools, and generally did all I could to advance what I believed were the interests of the Church and the Kingdom of God in this city. When I agreed to be ordained as an Anglican, I understood it to be within the context of my local community. Amsterdam was my town; the closest thing I have ever known to “home”. I had implicitly taken a vow of stability, without consciously thinking about it in those terms.
Then came 2006. In that year I was offered a ministry position which I believed was perfectly suited to bring together all the various strands of my background and formation, and put me in a place where I could continue to bless Amsterdam for many more years to come. I envisaged getting old here. I remember surveying the memorial plaques in our local church, dedicated to the memory of ministers who had served especially long tenures, and thinking, “I will surpass them all in longevity.”
But it was not to be. At the last moment the door was slammed in my face, the position given to someone else. I wept. Literally. Again and again. Because the logical implication, in my newly-embraced Anglican polity, was not simply that I had lost the position itself, but I had lost Amsterdam as well. I would be forced to move on by a system that did not appreciate or understand a vocation to place.
Four years on and I have gone from one interim position to the next. It has been interesting and fulfilling, to be sure. I have been useful in those various places, I know that. I have even wondered at times whether intentional interim ministry is the way I should go. A year here, a couple years there, change, travel, solving problems, the experience of a diversity of cultures. It is attractive. It does fit me in some ways.
And yet, I still mourn the loss of my hometown and, even more, my community. And I wonder if what I really need is to make a vow of stability to a new community. But where and when will that come?
This morning, having a Sunday off at my current parish, Renata and I went along to the Old Catholic church in Amsterdam. Bishop Dick Schoon was taking the service and in his sermon he spoke about St. John’s vision of the new Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. “I did not see a temple in the city,” says John; a statement that must have been shocking to his Jewish readers in their day. The temple in Jerusalem had recently been destroyed, and here is John saying that in the new age to come, the temple would not be rebuilt. God was doing a new thing.
A message of hope, meant just for me.