When I was a kid and complained that I was bored, my father or mother would invariably say “Go outside and play!” Most of all, they would ask me what I wanted to do. We had a house filled with books, artwork, and music…and we lived on a small farm. There was plenty to do, but the problem was not lack of activity, it was lack of engagement. In inquiring about what I wanted to do, they were, in their way, inviting me to listen to what my boredom was telling me.
The odd thing about the Christian life is that we are called to grow, to move, to journey. The first followers of Jesus were known as “people of the way.”
But here’s the weird part. We are invited to simultaneously journey and to stand still and listen.
That’s because the journey we are on is not from place to place. Nor is it that we go from a defined past to an imagined future, with the present as a mere way-station where we act busy…but rather the Christian journey takes place along a stream of an unfolding present.
We hope for the future, we are built on the past, but we always live in the present because it is this very moment, and none other, that God shows up. The journey really takes off when we discover that we are not going from here to there but we are really moving from present to present; from now to now.
The key to making the journey is to know stability. We want to do something! But Jesus invites us to be still. Or more accurately “To Be.” “Still.”
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, author of The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture says stability “is a commitment to trust God not in an ideal world, but in the battered and bruised world we know now.”
We Christians get excited about experiences and go places looking for the next spiritual high. We say God called us here, and then God calls us there. It’s all focused on little ‘lessons’ or ‘insights’ that we’re supposed to take with us to the next place.” We keep looking for God in the next place, the next new thing, the next mountaintop experience.
Our culture encourages constant motion from place to place, from job to job—and we don’t even need a car or a plane! We can sit at our computers or in our living rooms with a remote in our hand, and go from thing to thing, media to media, channel to channel, without ever leaving our house. So it’s no wonder that many Christians confuse “journey” with restlessness, and “stillness” with stagnation.
And it’s no wonder that Christians are so easily bored!
“We idealize and aspire to a life on the move, spending what resources we have on acquiring skills that make us more ‘marketable,’ that is, more mobile,” Wilson-Hartgrove says. The result is a sort of rootlessness and dissatisfaction that can move into the heart of our spirituality, and give us a kind spiritual “itchy-feet.”
A 2010 article in the National Catholic Reporter describes Wilson-Hartgrove, an associate minister at the historically black St. John’s Baptist Church, and the Rutba House community that he co-founded. His ministry involves him in peacemaking and racial reconciliation in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, N.C. The Rutba House, where Jonathan lives with his wife, Leah, their son, JaiMichael, and 10 others, is a new evangelical monastic community that prays, eats and lives together, welcoming neighbors and the homeless.
“Stability seemed to make sense for our community, given the challenges we face in a racially mixed, impoverished area. It’s a commitment to trust God not in an ideal world, but in the battered and bruised world we know.”
He credits the Rule of St. Benedict as a model and inspiration for his interest in and enthusiasm for stability as a spiritual practice.
“St. Benedict summarized the wisdom of the early Christian desert fathers and mothers in the rule he devised for his monastic order. Monks promise stability, fidelity to the monastic life, and obedience. It’s striking to me that Benedict decided to put stability first in his list. If we’re going to climb Jacob’s ladder toward the humility of Jesus, Benedictine wisdom says that the first thing we need is a stable place to begin.”
In his own time, Benedict of Nursia saw many spiritual vagabonds. Monks and nuns moved from monastery to monastery, looking for a more exciting spiritual experience, a wiser or more agreeable spiritual guide, even better food! Putting stability first was a counter to that. Benedict taught one must deal with our own demons in a particular place without running away.
Benedict recognized early on that one of the biggest threats to stability is boredom.
The main trap of boredom is the expectation that external things will feed our inner hunger. That’s why we fill up our time with endless activity, our silence with endless stimulation, and then wonder why we feel so tired and yet so restless when it becomes predictable or—worse, yet!--quiet. The real tragedy of boredom is that it tempts us to use our very creativity to separate ourselves from each other, to drown our feelings in stimulation, and to hide or relationships behind our busy-ness.
Stability invites us to turn our creativity into prayer, our activity into a form of engaging the world and listening for God, and time into moments of holy presence.
Many churches try to grow their numbers by mimicking the entertainment idioms of the culture. Once I saw a billboard for a church that showed people dancing to a band under a mirrored ball. To make church exciting, they chose to mimic a disco or rock-concert. I must admit that it sure looked exciting, but is worship merely a night out on the town? On the other hand, whatever music can draw us into the presence of God and rest in God, then I am for it because it is about presence not merely filling rooms (or merely doing worship “right!”)
Once a community of Benedictine monastics was encouraged by the significant increase in visitors to their monastery for retreat. They had to build a larger guest house. But they were also aware of the danger that a weekend with the monks can become an experience that people purchase to satisfy a spiritual itch without having to seriously rethink how they live with the people in their family, at work or school, or in their parish.
“True stability can never be a product for individuals to consume,” Wilson-Hargrove writes. Rather, it is an invitation to shared life with particular people in a particular place. “Nothing is more important than rooting ourselves in a place where God can happen.”
Russian Orthodox bishop Anthony Bloom once said, “You find stability at the moment you discover that God is everywhere, that you do not to seek him elsewhere…if you cannot find Him here, you cannot find Him anywhere else.”
Stability is the antidote to spiritual boredom. Or, as the old joke goes, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”