Stability: Peace in This Place
Wendell Berry is a farmer and writer highly considerate of place, community, and nature, and our relationship to each. Recently I came across the following quote from “Pray Without Ceasing” in That Distant Land: The Collected Stories: “And in some of the people of the town and the community surrounding it, one of the characteristic diseases of the twentieth century was making its way: the suspicion that they would be greatly improved if they were someplace else.”
The discipline of stability sets itself up against the spirit of discontentment, of acedia (a monastic term for apathy or boredom), and stakes its welfare in this place—like a settler who works his land all his life, whose children work the same land. It is their land. They do not look at the acreage across the state or across the river, but are content with what they have, where they are, and what they do.
Too often, in every area of our life, we allow the “noonday demon” of acedia and discontentment to have its way. We think about how much happier or better off we would be “if only.” If only I were paid more; if only I had a bigger house; if only I had a car that didn’t constantly break down; if only I were married; if only I were unmarried—if only, as Mr. Berry put it, I were someplace else. The list is infinite. It includes where we live and with whom we live. It covers the work we do and the places we worship. It questions what is given and dreams about what is not. It lives in a fantasy and rejects the reality. (As if some other place has the power to make me happy.) Peace is not found in the discovery of a more perfect place. If I stumbled upon paradise, I would not find peace there if I did not bring it with me.
C.S. Lewis writes of our natural instability in Perelandra: “One goes out to the forest to pick food and already the thought of one fruit rather than another has grown up in my mind. Then, it may be, one finds a different fruit and not the fruit one thought of. One joy is expected and another is given. But this I had not noticed before—that the very moment of the finding there is in the mind a thrusting back, or a setting aside. The picture of the fruit you have not found is still, for a moment, before you. And if you wished—if it were possible to wish—you could keep it there. You could send your soul after the good you had expected, instead of the good you had got. You could refuse the real good; you could make the real fruit taste insipid by thinking of the other.” And so often, this is how we live—making the good that is given lifeless and dull by dreaming about what is not given.
We strain against the goad instead of allowing our current situation to teach us obedience. We value change, always hoping it will give us what we do not have, what it cannot give. We are told to pray, “Thy will be done,” but we are drunk with the power of choice. No longer do we need to leave children or marriage or work in the domain of God; we have the power to choose and change such things through a multiplicity of means. So if we are fed up, underpaid, unsatisfied, or simply bored, we can change our house, our face, our work, our children (or lack of them), our spouse, our church—we can change anything at all. We relentlessly pursue peace but never find it; for how can one find rest who refuses to be at rest?
Stability teaches me that it is to this place, whatever it may be, that I am called. Clearly the discipline of stability does not teach us to accept evil (molestation, cancer, persecution, war, etc.) stoically—we resist and fight and escape such situations if and as we can. If we cannot, we hide in God. Stability is not even opposed to change, or to the desire to better oneself. It is opposed to the belief that says that my happiness is found within the change. Peace is found in God alone, and then it ripples out across the rest of our lives. It is not found in something, someplace, or someone else. Stability asks that we pause and consider our desires, to see whether good lies within them. Stability is fostered in silence and prayer. It learns life’s rhythm rather than rages against it. It allows us to learn obedience and to find peace even within the late snows of March.