The vestry met last Sunday and the property committee had a meeting Wednesday. A number of property related concerns were discussed, from the fact that all this snow is going to mean a big bill from the from company that plows our parking lot to a number of repair and maintenance projects at the church and at the rectory. Of course, I am never content NOT to turn everything into a theological reflection, so this got me thinking about our parish property in relationship to the themes of Lent and especially in relationship to the theme of monastic wisdom for non-monastic people like you and me. The first thing to say is that we can be grateful for our beautiful 70 year old church building. It is a gift from God and, like all such gifts, it requires good stewardship on our part. We have to care for it, or it will fall apart.
One of the marks of Christian monasticism is that monastics take several vows. These vows differ slightly depending on which Order or “flavor” of monasticism is being considered. The Most common in the Western Church is a monastery that follows the Rule of St. Benedict. This flavor of monasticism calls for three vows: fidelity to the monastic way of life, obedience to the rule and to one’s abbot/abbess (the head of the monastery), and stability. It is this last vow that comes to mind in relationship to the maintenance of our property and to our parish in general. Simply put, the vow of stability means that someone promises to stay put. Benedictine monks or nuns do not move around much. Most commit to staying in the same monastery for their entire life as a monastic. This is because they recognize that there is spiritual value in staying in one place. It is good for one’s soul to be content with the circumstances at hand, and to commit to cultivating a place for the long haul. There is a certain humility involved. Also, it gives one the opportunity to really pay attention to your surroundings, to your soul, and finally to God. This is counter-cultural in a society, like ours, that is extremely mobile. I mean, here I am writing 1500 miles away from the place where I was born! But, the whole notion of a parish is founded on the principle of stability—on a commitment to a singular place, a singular, bounded area, a neighborhood.
I love the way that Eugene Peterson paraphrased the beginning of the Gospel of John in The Message: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14). Jesus became human and lived in a specific, bounded place and time; he moved into the neighborhood! We too find ourselves in a particular context, and our call is to be disciples of Jesus where we are at. We are called to move into the neighborhood and incarnate the Body of Christ right there in the place we find ourselves. We are called to cultivate our place to make it a place to belong. Our parish is a particular outpost of God’s kingdom that is located here, in Penn Wynne, straddling two counties and two townships, situated near a park, with a small wood behind it. A stream flows under our parking lot and right across the front of our church building (buried underground). Our buildings matter in the grand scheme of things because of the incarnation. Our buildings represent the (literal) concrete embodiment of God’s grace. They are a vow of stability that our church has made to the neighborhood. They say, “we are here for you, and we’re sticking around.” As the context for countless church services and life events, our building has a special place in our hearts and imaginations. This is good.
The pandemic has, of course, forced us to see our church building much less. I spend less time there than I did before the pandemic, and I know there are some of you haven’t set foot inside the building in almost a year. With travel restrictions and increased danger, most of us have not move around as much as we are accustomed to. Even so, our call is the same—to be disciples of Jesus where we are at. To cultivate our limited circumstances as an outpost of the Kingdom of God. Right now we have the opportunity to be more attentive. To humbly accept our circumstances and limitations and to really pay attention to where we find ourselves physically and spiritually.
We take awe-filled and wonder-full things for granted all around us every day. The monastic wisdom of stability—of staying put, invites us to be present in a grace-filled, incarnational way to the place where we are at; to see how God’s kingdom is moving into the neighborhood, our backyard, our living room. Let it also inspire us to make our neighborhoods and homes better. Let it inspire us to pray—“In Penn Wynne or Havertown as it is heaven.”
So, here’s a strange sounding, but truly profound spiritual practice for you: Have you ever stopped and paid absolute, total attention to just 1 square foot of your backyard? Try it! Find a patch of grass and spend a very intentional 30 minutes, focusing all your senses on nothing else. Listen to the sounds of your backyard. Look at the muddy, messy, wonder that is all around you. Leave your phone inside. You are guaranteed to be astonished at the near infinite amount of fascinating, incredible, mind-blowing details packed into such a small, ordinary place. You will come away more grateful to your Creator and more at peace with yourself.