The Common Good

Giving Up Your Spiritual Journey (and Putting Down Roots)

Don lived for years in the Chicago area, working hard and trying to keep up with the fast pace of his profession. Several years ago, he left the city and took a job on a somewhat remote college campus run by Benedictines. While visiting on the campus once, he and I walked the carefully cared-for grounds, talking about our faith. "Since coming here," Don said, "I've given up my spiritual journey."

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I could tell from his smile that he had a point to make, so I asked what he meant. "Well, you know, we Christians talk a lot about our spiritual journeys. We get excited about experiences and go places looking for the next spiritual high. We say God called us here. Then God calls us there. But it's all so individualistic. It's all so focused on little 'lessons' or 'insights' that we're supposed to take with us to the next place." Don paused and looked around at some of the old men in long black robes who were walking by us on the campus. "I think I'm learning from these guys that God can change us if we'll settle down in one place. So I've given up my spiritual journey. I'm going to just stay with God here and see how I can grow."

We cannot ignore the many ways that our culture of hyper-mobility has shaped how we think about our spiritual lives. Thanks to cheap plane tickets and strong economies, we can go more places now than we've ever been able to go before. We go to Italy to see where Francis lived and to Ireland to learn about Celtic Christianity. In spite of the obstacles of military occupation, we may even go to Israel and Palestine to walk where Jesus walked. We go to conferences to hear from the latest spiritual gurus and we go to retreat centers to find some solace in our busy lives.

Of course, we find some good in all these places. But picking up fragments of spiritual wisdom can begin to feel like trying to piece together a tree from limbs that we've broken off here and there. Even if we gather enough limbs to make a tree, something is still missing. Life just isn't in the pieces the same way it is in a tree whose roots are fixed in the soil of a particular place.

The practice of stability invites us to give up spiritual journeys for the sake of growing in a life with God. As it turns out, people have been doing this for thousands of years. The forth century desert Father, Abba Anthony, said, "In whatever place you find yourself, do not easily leave it." For over 1500 years, Benedictines have made stability a vow. For a host of reasons, staying put is becoming something of a movement of its own today. This is good news for those of us who've dug wells three feet deep in 10 different places and become frustrated that we haven't hit water. It's good news for neighborhoods that have been passed over and used for their cheap labor. And if the scientists are right about historically unprecedented climate change, this is good news for the earth too. It may well be that the most important thing we can do in our time for social justice is to give up our spiritual journeys and put down some roots for life with God and other people.

I've written more about this in my book, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, which released this week. You can watch a short video about it here.

portrait-jonathan-wilson-hartgroveJonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is an author, speaker, and new monastic who's put down roots in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, NC (www.jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com).

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