As someone who’s lived in eight cities over two continents in the course of my studies and career, I’ve struggled as a Benedictine lay associate to understand the monastic vow of stability — the commitment to intentionally stay in one place.
Stability runs counter to our American fascination with mobility. We think of mobility as the ticket to freedom and success. These past months of the pandemic have helped me to see another side of stability, one that fills me with gratitude this Thanksgiving week.
Ever since I married 15 years ago, I’ve resided in the university town of Normal, Illinois. However, I spent most of that time traveling, first as a correspondent for PBS-TV and more recently to speak and lead retreats across the country based on my books.
I can describe to you in detail every house on the block where I grew up in Bayonne, NJ. I can describe many of the trees and possibly even some bushes. I can tell you the names of every neighbor. It wasn’t that way with Normal. Until the pandemic.
In this time of largely staying in place, I’ve become re-acquainted with home. I’ve spoken with neighbors I didn’t know before. I’ve befriended several trees, observing their subtle changes over the months, from budding leaves to full bloom to autumn colors to now bare branches.
I’ve gotten to know the excitable crows whose conversation awakens me each morning at dawn. I’ve met several of our local cats. I never knew there were so many.
One of my new rituals is to step outside each night and observe the stars. What a show the night sky has been putting on all year! Multiple Super Moons. Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn blazing in early evening alongside the moon. Venus shining like a spotlight before dawn. Orion, the Dipper and the Pleiades completing the nighttime tableau.
In a time of relentless news developments, to gaze at the moon and the constellations is to take comfort in what is fixed and unchanging in the universe. These stars have existed through wars, famines, and other outbreaks of disease. They will endure through this crisis as well. And so will we. For that I am thankful.
My friend, Sister Jennifer Halling of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Kansas, shared a lovely blog post last week written by a Kansas City writer. Reflecting on the highly charged atmosphere in the country, Michael Sanem asks, “How, in the face of death, division, and political turmoil, is the equanimity, peace, and love of Jesus even possible?”
Sanem found an answer in his encounters with the struggling people and the volunteers at Morning Glory Ministries.
“If I focus less on the struggles of the powerful and more on the struggles of the poor … if I shift my focus from all that is wrong to all that is right, all that is beautiful, and all that is true, I find that my soul begins to dwell a little more deeply in this Kingdom (of God),” he writes in his blog, https://incarnationiseverywhere.com/2020/11/15/they-cant-touch-my-soul/.
As we approach our national day of Thanksgiving, I’d like to share with you a poem I wrote a few years ago during a difficult moment in my life, after a cherished work mentor had retired and two colleagues suddenly died. I wrote it to remind myself of the simple wonders I encounter within the stability of my daily life.
Every morning I think about how bland
my world would be without dawn,
when the tongues of the lawn mowers have gone dumb,
replaced by the rising/falling hiss of the cicadas,
the dickcissel’s whistle and the crows’ repeating caws.
Or without the skunk who arrives at midnight,
leaves his gamey scent on the front doorstep,
like a calling card. To all this I say thank you.
And thanks to my dreadlock-sporting
newspaper deliverer Orlyn, a post-modern Elijah,
who arrives bearing The New York Times
so I can read about a spacecraft named Juno
hurtling toward Jupiter to pierce its inner core
and feel grateful I read Bulfinch’s Mythology
in high school and can grasp the symbolism:
the jilted wife finally lancing her philandering husband’s heart.
Soon there will be Bengal chai tea
with milk steamed in a silver pot from Siena,
a half-moon of grapefruit, some ten grain bread,
a dollop of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter,
and blueberry yogurt on the side.
I will look in the morning light at the face in the mirror,
at the fine mouth lines, the brow crevices
that shout thank you for having lived this long.
Then who will judge me poorer,
drunk as I am on this cocktail of blessing?