Tuesday, December 14, 2010

just finished: The Wisdom of Stability

I saw this book on the shelf when Josh took me to visit his seminary last week, and I'll be honest about the appeal: it was all the cover. I have a thing for trees. So I judged this book by its designer and had Josh check it out for me. The one constraint was that today is his last day of finals, so I needed to finish it in time for him to take it back to campus.

I did. It wasn't hard: the book is fairly short, fairly simple. Its basic premise is that in a hypermobile culture, choosing to stay put in a place and pay attention to it may be a radically good move. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a key voice in the New Monastic Movement, looks to the long tradition of Christian monasticism--the desert mothers and fathers, the Benedictines, and other orders--for wisdom about the joys and challenges of committing to a place and a people, and so the book is full of the sayings and stories of sages.

Kathleen Norris provided the foreword for the book, which makes perfect sense based on her own history of involvement in monasticism as a Benedictine oblate and her career of writing (quite beautifully) about the insights she's gained from the tradition. The danger, of course, is that this foreword set me up to make some comparisons, which isn't quite fair. Whereas Norris's books have the rhythm and depth of a mature writer's attention, The Wisdom of Stability is the sort of book a young man writes not because he's a devoted writer but because his experience has given him something to say. The researched chapters of the book develop the argument that our culture is desperate for lessons in stability and that the monastic tradition can provide this wisdom, and here the argument isn't terribly vigorous. But the book shines when Wilson-Hartgrove narrates his own experiences in concrete terms and reflects on them in all their complexity.

The other strength of this slim volume, to my mind, is its barely developed but seriously provocative assertion that staying put and paying attention are central counter-culture practices. I have been thinking a lot recently about attention, that near-impossible and absolutely necessary gift the philosopher Simone Weil famously describes in her book Waiting for God. It seems to me that our technologically- and market-driven culture is quickly losing whatever small capacity it had for paying attention in the past, so that a renewed awareness of this practice is essential for communities devoted to life rather than death. More on that another time.

Ultimately, I recommend The Wisdom of Stability to those of you who haven't yet read Kathleen Norris, to anyone who is contemplating the insane tempo and movement of our culture as possibly detrimental, and to those of you intrigued by the New Monasticism. This is a good place to start.

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