I was recently sent a copy of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. I think I’m supposed to disclose that fact, although his book has been on my wish list for some time now. I’m glad the book found its way to me. Christian spirituality is a crowded field and this one is well worth picking up.
The title gives you a good sense as to where he’s going. Wilson-Hartgrove takes on the grass-is-greener mentality that so many of us have—the tendency toward upward mobility (or just mobility). He critiques the idea of a spiritual journey, which is such a central metaphor in the Christian faith, and wonders whether we’ve taken this metaphor too much to heart:
The trouble for most of us isn’t so much that we cannot afford stability as it is that we don’t value it. We idealize and aspire to a life on the move, spending what resources we have on acquiring skills that make us more marketable (that is, more mobile*). We want to “move up in the world,” which almost always means closer to a highway, an airport, or a shopping mall. I cannot deny that this is why I left the rural farming community where I grew up. But neither can I ignore the fact that this is what has been unraveling the neighborhood where I now live since the late 1960s.
(*Regarding this point, I wonder how technology will change this. Could we not soon reach the point, as people gain more and more skills and value to a company or industry, that they are given the freedom to work from home and/or telecommute, thereby allowing them to stay rooted to a particular community?)
Wilson-Hartgrove tackles biblical texts, the desert fathers and mothers, and monastic tradition and blends it all together with some deft cultural analysis. I loved his discussion of the man called “Legion” whom Jesus heals—and then tells to stay put. Fascinating take on that text.
Each chapter ends with a section called “front porch” in which Wilson-Hartgrove tells a story or vignette from his own life of rootedness in a particular community, a community with its own unique quirks, needs and stories. These beautifully written segments were my favorite part of the book.
The book seems providentially timed. There are so many people who simply can’t move right now, even if they’d like to. Their home is underwater and/or they are limited by jobs or lack thereof. Wilson-Hartgrove helps us see these geographical constraints as an unexpected gift.
This business of stability is something that my husband and I have struggled with. The story of how we came to live in our particular house is not all that interesting, but the upshot is that we made a very quick decision by necessity. I had never even set foot in our house until after we already put a contract on it. We like a lot of things about our house and our neighborhood, but also feel out of step with our community’s values in certain ways. We’d like to live closer to the city, though we’re fortunate to be very convenient to a Metro stop where we are. On the other hand, it feels like a grasp towards simplicity just to decide to stay… to give up trying to manage and optimize the situation and just be content where we are.
I also think about this stability business in terms of my vocation. I’m in a group of clergy that meets yearly, and many of us have accepted new calls since we started meeting. We even experienced the uncomfortable situation of having two people in our group apply for the same position. After that experience, we met with a member of another clergy group that’s been meeting for more than 25 years. Since his group has experienced similar situations, he gave us some advice for navigating the “competition thing” and assured us that it will happen again.
I don’t doubt that, but as I looked around the room, I saw a great many folks who are embodying stability, whether by choice or not. One person is geographically limited because he is gay and very few presbyteries will receive him into membership. Another person has told me that she expects to spend the rest of her life in the small southern city where she lives, thanks to her spouse’s job and a large extended family there. Speaking for myself, it would take a burning bush to move me from the Washington DC area. I’m not sure how many of us are willing to pack it all up and move wherever the biggest and best job is—maybe there won’t be as much of the “competition thing” as we fear. Whether that’s the wisdom of stability or not, I can’t say. There’s probably some Gen-X stuff in there about working to live, as opposed to living to work—quality of life matters a lot to folks in my generation.
As you can see, I enjoyed the book and it also sparked some very specific thinking about my own life and values.
By the way, if you’re interested in this sort of book, the Englewood Review of Books is a great source for reviews, commentary and excerpts. Check them out in print or online.