Finding Tranquility in the Ordinary

Last Saturday, NPR’s Scott Simon interviewed Eric Pulido of the Texas rock band Midlake. In the course of the interview,shutterstock_146710214 Pulido passed along this tip to start-up bands everywhere:

I remember Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips once told us, ‘You know, if I could give you one piece of advice … .’ And we’re all waiting with bated breath to hear what Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips would send down from heaven and give us this piece of advice. And he says, ‘Just stay together.’

Just stay together. Pulido went on to say, “You know, it was so simple, but it’s right.”

Indeed, it is a wise bit of counsel, and it’s been around a long time. Monks, for example, have always known about staying together — at least, they’ve lived it since the sixth century when St. Benedict instituted the vow of stability.  Stability is one of the defining characteristics of Benedictine life: When a novice makes a final profession of vows, he or she isn’t just committing to the Order or to a way of life in general, but also to a particular spot, and to the other people who have permanently tethered themselves to that same particular spot.

Benedict was hoping to avoid the pitfalls that other forms of religious life had taken in his day. For example, when describing a nomadic form of religious life, St. Benedict decried its rootlessness and its concomitant decadence:

But the fourth class of monks is that called Landlopers, who keep going their whole lifelong from one province to another, staying three or four days at a time in different cells as guests. Always roving and never settled, they indulge their passions and the cravings of their appetite.

Benedict’s solution was simple: His monks would stay put, and in so doing, they’d be forced to overcome their faults and curb their excesses rather than indulge them.

A few years back, Gretchen Rubin wrote a piece for Slate about some contemporary applications of this wisdom, most notably in reference to our troubled institution of marriage:

Marriage is a vow of stability, made with the conviction that by committing yourself to one person, you’re better able to achieve happiness than by searching continually for the ‘perfect’ person and that the ordinariness that descends on it after the early exhilaration and novelty wear off is, in fact, one of its most prized aspects.

Really, a terrific jolt of clear insight — one borne out by those of us who have abided by the stability part of the marriage vows through thick and thin, “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” and all the rest. But, is that really all there is to it? Just stay together — that’s it? Stay together, no matter what, and you’ll have a successful rock band, monastery, and/or marriage?

Not a chance. For one thing, there are clearly extenuating circumstances which might require the busting up of any one of those relations of stability — marriage being the most painful example. When there is abuse or neglect or mortal peril, then stability no longer applies. If heeded regardless of toxic circumstances, stability in marriage becomes a tool of manipulation and guilt, and no longer something oriented to nurturing joy, fruitfulness, and love.

Yet, even without such extreme conditions, good marriages — stable marriages in other words — clearly require more than merely staying together. Stability is not an end in itself, but rather makes possible the conditions required for communions and communities to flourish — namely proximity and time. People who live together get on each others’ nerves. Stability means that we learn to work out our differences instead of fleeing.

Consider again Benedict’s directives for new monks. As important as stability was (and is) to Benedict’s followers, it was never meant to be a panacea. Instead, it’s like a canvas — rather, it’s like the frame of a canvas. G.K. Chesterton wrote that “art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.” Monastic life — and married life, and family life for that matter — explodes with a hundred colors on a taut, blank fabric, forming a landscape of reckless imagination. Stability is like the frame which provides limits and delineation, compelling the artist(s) to be disciplined in expression and creativity.

Toward that end, the other two characteristic Benedictine vows need to be highlighted here: Obedience and conversion of morals. Through mutual respect and deference (obedience), as well as the pursuit of holiness and the avoidance of vice (conversion of morals), those in monastic and married life can create something truly beautiful. They can find true bliss within the confines of their stability. And it is confining, but confining in a liberating way, for the confinement compels them to liberate themselves from pettiness and pride.

Chesterton, himself a devoted husband, wrote of nuptial stability in this startling way: “Marriage is a duel to the death which no man of honour should decline.” Yes — until death do us part. Love, to be sure; joy and delight, no doubt. But between the vows and the final leave taking, there are battles of will and agenda and different visions of the future. The spouse-combatants have bound themselves together for the purpose of getting each other to heaven, along with all the little souls God chooses to entrust to them, so they must come to terms. Survival (eternal and otherwise) is goal number one, and it is contingent on husbands and wives surrendering to Providence and, through Providence, to one another. In truth, it is contingent on them becoming saints — not isolated on some desert isle, but right smack dab in the midst of turbulent family life!

Hang on. Stability is a wild ride.


image: mgfoto /

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Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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