The Spiritual Discipline of Staying Put: Planting Roots in a Placeless Culture
I had a neighbor growing up, Alan, who worked for the power company. He was a young guy then and didn't mind danger or odd hours, so the company put him on call for emergency repair jobs. Early one morning, Alan was called out to fix a stoplight at a busy intersection. He parked his ladder truck in the middle of the intersection, put out his caution cones, and climbed to fix the light, some 20 feet in the air. While he was working, a drunk driver raced through the intersection and clipped the back of Alan's truck. Alan flew off the top of his ladder, cut a back flip in the air, and somehow landed on his feet in the intersection. Miraculously, he wasn't hurt. But Alan had a hard time trusting ladders after that. Wanting to keep his feet on the ground, Alan found another job.
Most of us don't have an experience as jolting as Alan's, but his story may serve as a parable for our spiritual lives in a mobile culture. Even if we don't feel it now, we can remember a time when we felt young, confident, and ready to take on the world. We set out to excel and make a difference—to end poverty or fix a broken school system; to be the first college graduate in our family or the first black doctor in our town. If we were at all religious, we probably had some sense that these dreams were from God. We trusted the Lord for strength to go on when the journey seemed impossible. We were spurred on by the testimonies of those who had "made it," getting to the top of the ladder and achieving what they dreamed for so long.
Like Alan, though, we have felt the ground beneath the ladder shift from time to time. Maybe we saw it coming—a move to a new school, an internship in a new city, a long-hoped-for marriage to someone half a world away. Or maybe, like Alan, it blindsided us—a company transfer, a slouch in the economy, a sudden divorce. Whether as a result of carefully laid plans or catastrophic interruptions, few of us seem able to stay in one place anymore. Maybe we have survived the moves. (In some cases, our survival seems almost as miraculous as Alan's.) We're still alive, but our spirits are hungry. We long for connection with God and other people. We're desperate for community. We're hungry for a way to live that feels authentic and true.
Early in the 6th century, Benedict of Nursia wrote a rule of life for monks who were longing for community and connection with God. Some 1,500 years later, the Rule of Benedict is one of the most lasting and widespread guides for religious life in the West. Benedict knew that the spiritual seekers of his day had big dreams and great hopes, not unlike the inner stirrings that had inspired his spiritual journey as a young man. Benedict did not squash human ambition, but he saw clearly that if we want to ascend to life with God, it matters a great deal which ladder we climb ….
Like the African American spiritual written a millennium later, Benedict insisted, "We are climbing Jacob's ladder." The angels going up and down from heaven to earth presented a practical lesson for Benedict's community: "Without doubt, this descent and ascent can signify only that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility." The way that leads to life, Benedict told his followers, is a way of humility. According to the Rule, people who follow this way of humility promise "stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience." The threefold commitment is made as one promise, Benedictines say, something like the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are said to be one essence. But it's striking to me that Benedict decided to put stability first in his list. If we're going to climb Jacob's ladder toward the humility of Jesus, Benedictine wisdom says the first thing we need is a stable place to begin.
The humility we aspire to at our very best is inseparable from the humus beneath our feet—the ground that someone must till if we are to eat, that someone must tend if we are to survive. Stability of place begins with the humble acknowledgment that our life depends on the land we live upon. Barbara Kingsolver, one of our most articulate contemporary advocates for the land, reflects on her adult life, noting that she has dug asparagus beds into the yards of every house she has owned and some that she has rented. Why bother? we might ask, when asparagus is readily available at any good supermarket, and for much less trouble? Kingsolver answers, "I suppose in those unsettled years I was aspiring to a stability I couldn't yet purchase."
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.
Walltown, North Carolina, a historically black neighborhood, was a tight-knit extended family that fought to survive the racism of the Jim Crow South for much of the 20th century. With the access that was gained through the civil rights movement, however, everyone who could leave Walltown did. The neighborhood was left to people without resources and became a prime staging ground for the crack epidemic that hit Durham like a Mack truck in the 1980s.
The simile from interstate commerce is fitting because none of this would have been possible without I-85. A principal artery linking the major population centers of the Southeast, the highway made possible a mobility that was unimaginable a century before. By virtue of the highway, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., were suddenly a day's commute from one another. For an individual with an automobile and a tank of gas, the road was free. The social cost of the interstate highway system, however, was carried disproportionately by poor African American communities like Walltown and farmlands like the place where I was raised. In Wendell Berry's memorable phrase, "It made distant what had been close, and close what had been distant." Neighborhoods like Walltown that had already lost their educated and well-employed citizens were systematically cut off from the local economy by highways that made the next city closer than the other side of town. In such a situation, getting drugs from the highway and selling them to your neighbor came to look more like economic commonsense than like self-destruction.
The summer Leah and I moved to Walltown, I heard gunshots through the open window in our bathroom as I was getting ready for bed one Saturday night. Such a sound was common enough that it did not interrupt my routine. I turned on a fan in our bedroom—both for the breeze and the background noise—and I went to sleep. "The dogs howled all night long," Ms. Carolyn told me the next day as I stood on her front porch and watched the police come and go.
They found Lil' Robert face-down in the drainage ditch behind the duplex that Ms. Dot and Ms. Nora shared. Standing at the intersection three doors down from our house, Robert had been hit in a drive-by shooting and left for dead by his friends. The news reported that he was a victim of gang violence, gunned down by rivals who felt he was infringing on their market share. What they didn't say was that the "competition" looked like him. They were his neighbors; victims, like him, of powers that insist nothing good could happen in a place like this.
In the face of such death-dealing violence, Jesus' words to the demon-possessed man are an invitation to be born again. The problems of neighborhoods like Walltown are directly connected to a culture where success means moving up and out, and education equals climbing the ladder in order to rise above common places. The homelessness of guys who are hooked on crack in Walltown is but the flipside of the placelessness that drives ambitious young students to see this university town as a stop on their way to somewhere else.
Perhaps stability is the great leveler in a society of widening gaps, calling each of us, whatever our social status, to acknowledge the extent to which we're equally bound by powers beyond our control. Rich or poor, we are in desperate need of the ladder that Benedict offers—a way of life founded on solid ground, freeing us from the illusion that we can live without limits and climb above the ground from which we were made.