Friday, July 20, 2012


Across the country this morning, people read, heard, or watched coverage of the tragic Dark Knight Rises movie massacre in Aurora, Colorado.  As we process the news and learn more about the victims as well as the assailant, the same tropes of mass shootings pop up:  there's blame on gun access, similar venues amp up security for fear of copycats, there's blame on the venue itself for allowing this kind of thing to happen, those who know the assailant often say they never saw it coming, people are moved to create a memorial for the victims, people try to move on with their lives as best they can, and most people not linked to the story forget until the next "random" act of violence occurs.  

I propose that we place the blame on one thing: instability.  A blog post I read by Msgr. Charles Pope, A Reflection on the Benedictine Vow of Stability, started this thought in my head when I read it a week ago.  Now, in the face of the movie massacre, I find Msgr. Pope's words to be prophetic.  Hear me out...

Benedictine monks and religious sisters take the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience like most religious orders, and they add the fourth vow of stability.  Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey, a monastery of Trappist nuns, sums up their vow of stability very eloquently:
We vow to remain all our life with our local community. We live together, pray together, work together, relax together. We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledging one's own offensive behavior, giving up one's preferences, forgiving.
In other words, when the religious men and women take a vow to live, pray, work, and relax together forever, they are humbly submitting to being a part of the community.  There is no isolation.  When there is conflict, it is worked through quickly for the greater good of the community.  Living in such an intimate environment is an exercise in humility, as the individual's vices and temptations are more likely to be exposed.  There is no anonymity or ability to hide in the crowd.  

To most, this sounds like some kind of a terrible prison.  I propose that the men and women who humbly submit to a vow of stability are more liberated than most of us will ever be.  When they live in that kind of an environment, where their weaknesses and sins are on display for the community, there's incentive to change.  In such a tight-knit community, the ripple effect of personal sin is magnified.  When your anger, your greed, your pride, your other sin of the month is out in the open and everyone knows about it, there's no reason to hide it.  The logical person chooses to work through it and change.  The illogical person (that's most of us when we're trapped in a pattern of sin) chooses to persist in the sin.  It's the persistence of charitable neighbors affected by that sin who encourage the change--whether through prayer, word, or action.  What's more liberating than living in a stable environment where you learn to break free from the patterns that your sins keep you in?

The rest of us Americans living outside of the monastery walls are experiencing what Msgr. Pope calls a "pandemic" of instability.
Instability is pandemic in our culture and it has harmed our families, our communities, our parishes, and likely our nation. Almost no one stays anywhere for long. The idea of a “hometown” is more of an abstraction or a mere euphemism for the “town of one's birth.”       
When an individual creates a Facebook account, the user can choose to include his or her hometown (From) as well as their current city (Lives In).  More often than not, the two are not synonymous.  When meeting someone, a routine question is, "Where are you from?"  Now, people have to decide if this person is asking where they grew up or where they currently live.  Msgr. Pope observes this kind of instability within neighborhoods.
The layers of extended family that once existed were stripped away by the migration to the suburbs and the seeming desire to get as far apart from each other as possible. Old city neighborhoods that for generations nourished ethnic groups and identities emptied out, and now, most neighborhoods, cities or suburban, are filled with people who barely know each other and who seldom stay long in one place anyway. (emphasis mine)
People aren't staying in one place for very long, so the logic seems to be that there's no incentive to know your neighbor.  There's even less incentive to start a friendship with a neighbor and become emotionally intimate.  Why tell them my life story if they're going to move when they get a new job anyway?  Msgr. Pope argues that "the economy both feeds and reflects this instability."
Gone are the days when most people worked for the same company or even in the same career all their life. Accepting a new job or promotion often means moving to a new city....The American scene and culture has become largely ephemeral (i.e. passing and trendy).
Many young people who were given the promise of the American dream work through college to find that there are no jobs available for them after graduation.  Unfortunately, as Msgr. Pope says, the instability is not confined to the economy or the neighborhoods.  We "reinforce this attitude" of instability in our personal lives. 
1. Marriages – Spiritually everyone who enters into a marriage takes a vow of stability to be true and faithful to their spouse in good times and bad, in sickness and health, in riches or in poverty till death. And yet more than half of marriages fail to realize this vow. Many want their marriage to be ideal and if there is any ordeal, most want a new deal. And, frankly most who divorce and remarry  are the most likely to divorce again. As the Benedictine statement above says, Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion.
Growing up with divorced or single parents continues to increase with each generation, fueling the instability that children feel during their formative years. 

Msgr. Pope goes on to identify other areas of instability:
2. People do this with faith too, often moving from faith to faith, or at least from parish to parish in search of a more perfect experience of church. And while some are actually following a path deeper into and toward the truth, most who church-hop are looking for that illusive community where the sermons are all good, the people friendly, the moral teachings affirm them, and the liturgy perfectly executed according to their liking. It is a kind of “designer church” phenomenon. And yet again, the problem is often as much within as without: Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. 
Instead of accepting God for who and what He is, we try to domesticate Him and mold him to our fleeting feelings.  The realization that He knows us more intimately than anyone else ever will causes people church hop so frequently.  It must be scary being so vulnerable to God and allowing Him to rule your faith when many are not used to living this intimately with anyone else.  Like Adam and Eve in Eden, becoming aware of our sin makes us want to hide from Him.  So, when confronted with the truth of our shortcomings, it's easier to seek out a church that affirms our choices rather than remain in one that encourages change. 

Msgr. Pope goes on to describe how the older practice of buying a home is out of fashion.  Instead of settling in one neighborhood for a lifetime, families treat homes as stepping stones as their careers advance and they are able to move into bigger homes in more affluent neighborhoods.  The focus is less on the relationships built in the neighborhoods and more on the physical surroundings.  

Msgr. Pope briefly mentions the practice of retirees leaving behind friends, family, faith communities, and all that is familiar to move south.
Why is this so popular,  and does it also bespeak a kind of great divorce where family and obligations to friends and communities are seem more as burdens and part of the work that one retires from?
Like a good Catholic priest, Msgr. Pope prepared us for last week's Gospel reading:
In the gospel for this coming Sunday Jesus counsels: Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave. In other words, settle down and don’t go from house to house looking for a better deal or a better meal. Pick a house and stay there, set down roots in the community where you minister, eat what is set before you and develop the deep relationships that are necessary for evangelization and the proclamation of the gospel.
Stability, though difficult to find in our times is very important to cultivate wherever possible and to the extent possible. In particular, the gift to seek is the kind of stability that is content with what God has given and is not always restlessly seeking a more ideal setting. For again, as we have noted: Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion.
We may be "a pilgrim people," but that doesn't mean we are to pick up and move every time something is not to our liking.  We are "a pilgrim people," because our ultimate destination is not enjoying the fruits of our 401K and hopping from every person and place to make sure that happens.   

So, whenever possible, let's work toward increasing stability for ourselves, our children, and the other people in our circles.  Here are a few practical ways we can do that:

  • Meet your neighbors and introduce yourself to new ones.  Organize a neighborhood association to encourage neighborhood activities, safety watches, and accountability in keeping the neighborhood aesthetically pleasing.  Deliver cookies at Christmas, baskets on May Day, meals to new parents, those grieving, the sick, or the homebound.  Offer to babysit, shovel driveways, rake lawns, or run errands.  Be a neighbor!
  • Get involved in your church.  Join a Bible study, group for young parents, etc.
  • Visit extended family members as much as possible.  Communicate via snail mail when physical presence is not possible. 
  • Make it a point to learn the name of each person you routinely come into contact with, and whenever possible, strike up a conversation that will help you to learn meaningful details about that person.
  • Be a stable adult in the life of a child who may not have a stable home.  
Instead of playing the blame game when these tragic acts of violence occur, stop to consider three things:
  1. What kind of deep hurt and instability must have occurred in the assailant's life to lead them to this kind of thing?
  2. Is there someone in my life who might be hurting enough to do something similar?
  3. What specific things can I do to prevent something similar from happening?
The Benedictine monastery with the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability works.  Stability thrives in a world where we are committed to living and working together toward the common good.  May we strive to adopt this model in the larger world and within our circle of influence.  When we examine the stories like Columbine or the Dark Knight Rises movie massacre, we begin to see how isolated and unstable the assailants' lives were.  When we break the cycle of isolation and instability in the lives of others, we give them a chance at freedom.  We give them a chance to fix the brokenness and to get the help they need.

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