I first met Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove when I was reporting on the New Monastic movement for Christianity Today. At the time, he was just finishing up his first book while also participating in an intentional community, completing his divinity degree, and doing lots to organize the new monastics. Since then he’s written a number of books on spiritual formation and racial reconciliation. Here’s his thoughts on how his latest book, The Wisdom of Stability, applies to the art of dying.
It is expected that we’ll downsize from a family-size house to something smaller and then to a facility where we may move from independent living to nursing care. How does your book apply to this kind of situation?
The wisdom of stability that I write about comes out of the monastic tradition. It’s fascinating to me that in Benedictine reflection on the vow of stability, they say the promise is really more to the people than to the place. To take the vow is to say to your brothers or sisters, “I’ll stick with you til I die.”
I visited an elderly sister in a Benedictine community several years ago. She was in her nineties and, as it happened, just weeks from her death. But here she was surrounded by fellow sisters who were taking care of her. And not because she was a burden, but because she was treasured. Though I didn’t realize it in the moment, she was giving me spiritual direction from her death bed. When I wrote to thank her a couple of weeks later, I got a response from one of her sisters saying that she had died.
Now, I don’t think we can all become Benedictines in the hope that we’ll die as well as she did. But I do think there’s a lot to learn from these folks about what it means to make promises to a people in a place. We’re not just bound to spouses “til death do us part.” To be part of the body of Christ is to treasure our elder members and love them til the end.
Long distance care for elderly family members causes difficulty for lots of people caring for their parents. In what ways have you seen this issue, and how can people grow roots across geographical distances?
My great Granny is in an assisted living facility right now. She’s eighty miles from me and my family. We see her maybe once a month.
That’s not real care. I can’t love my Granny the way she needs to be loved. So I’m glad that I’m part of this body of Christ that is real in every place. Here where I am, I take care of other people’s Grannies because in Christ, they’re my Granny too.
Our family has committed in particular to Grandma Ann–she’s an adoptive grandmother to our kids. She gives them and us a lot of love and wisdom. And we make sure all her bills get paid. I think there’s something about the practice of stability that draws us into the church’s wider definition of family. But this can’t just be a spiritual thing. Old people have to eat and pay their bills. If we’re really family, it’s about more than a feeling. It’s about the real needs of our bodies, whether they’re healthy or failing.
Stability isn’t just about staying in the same place, we can become distant from people while being close to them. How do we avoid this?
You’re absolutely right. And the tradition is ripe with wisdom on this. “Manifestation of thoughts” is the technical terms for the commitment to saying out loud the bad thoughts you have about the people you share life with. We’ve got to come clean about our feelings. No one loves everyone all of the time. But if we can learn to address the issue matter-of-factly, we can also put it all in the context of God’s grace. Sin is the root of my problems with other people–and its most often my sin that I need to address. I know this not because I’ve mastered self-awareness, but because other people have been honest about how I’ve hurt them. And they’ve shown me what forgiveness means. There is no community–no real stability–without forgiveness.
A lot of times, our roots extend only to those of our generation, but we learn to die well when we’re able to see others do it. We need these inter-generational ties. How do we avoid intergenerational instability?
Best I can tell, the only way to be part of an inter-generational community is to submit to something that precedes you. Young, radical faith communities just don’t draw in many old folks. We started an intentional community in our neighborhood, and this has been our experience. The people who’ve come are mostly our peers and younger. But we also wanted to learn from the wisdom of our elders in the community. So we joined the neighborhood church. Now, being together isn’t always easy. The old church ladies have very different concerns than the college grads who want to change the world. But we need each other. Messy as it is, we’re trying to keep going together.
How does “the wisdom of stability” help us to die well and faithfully?
When the desert mothers and fathers committed to stay put–to sit in their cells and not flee from the evil thoughts that assailed them–they had a practice of digging one shovel full of their grave each night before they went to sleep. Benedict picked up on this and wrote in his Rule that we should “keep death always before us.” So stability isn’t about building a fortress that guarantees our security. It’s about recognizing our limits. We can’t be everywhere. And we don’t live forever. In the end, the only hope we have is God–the eternal Rock who never moves. The wisdom of stability teaches us that this God is always eager to open a space where we can rest in Him.