Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture

By Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, 163 pages, Paraclete Press.

Hartgrove asks readers to stop and ask themselves for a minute where they are and where they are headed. The modern world's "placelessness" contrasts with the rootedness required by spiritual growth.

The Bible and the Christian tradition are filled with journeys, certainly, but also with the advice that we can grow only when we confront our demons rather than run from them. We face them when we find stability. The desert fathers found their greatest demons, their greatest spiritual warfare, in their caves, alone with their thoughts.

Hartgrove returns repeatedly to the wisdom of the monastery in ancient Egypt and with the Benedictines. He writes simply of the integration of this spirituality of place into anyone's daily life:

"Stability of heart does not come naturally. But the simple rhythms of tending to body and soul - making oatmeal and saying prayers, keeping house and singing songs - bring me back to a center, to a still point that is fixed in this place."

Throughout the book, Hartgrove repeats his commitment to his physical home in a decaying part of gunshot, drug-dealing urban America. He blames restlessness for this violence, as Americans are always physically moving in the quest for the better-paid jobs.

His small, college-town city, on the way to somewhere else for thousands of students, is never a place where people put down roots. Drugs and violence result, as transient students fail to build true community.

The author warns that more and more American neighborhoods are places to somewhere else, where the fabric of community is unwinding.

America and its culture is placelessness, a sort of spiritual and community violence. People cannot put down roots and develop a community, yet neither can they put down roots to fight their personal demons. We find those demons not only in the mundane of daily life, but also in the daily grind of community.

With humor, Hartgrove reminds us of the value of clashing with others. Fighting can be good, and can draw us closer together.

The spiritual struggle is a battle over community-building, the author notes: "standing on my front porch surveying a neighborhood that has both suffered and survived this death-bound system, I cannot help noticing how our spiritual struggle is inextricably tied to this place - its heat and humidity, its highways and horticulture."

Ever the observer of practical things, he argues that one of the great tragedies of his community was the interstate highway, which made it easier for people to move to the big city. It connected his town to the wider world, and the exciting call of the wider world stole many.

The author admits, then, that even when someone does commit to staying put, community is often lacking because no one else has stayed put. Even the crack dealers move on or get arrested.

This lack of community gives modern North Americans a close spiritual connection to the desert fathers, who lived isolated lives on the fringes of their society. Anyone wanting to build community and stay somewhere is likewise on the fringe, as we have become a society without a center.

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