Recently a Catholic friend who has frequently visited a monastery for much of his adult life asked me about how Protestants can create stable communities that will preserve and pass on the Christian faith without monasteries. For many Catholics, he said, the monastery is the most stable institution within the church.

The spirit behind his question is roughly in line with what David Nolan wrote for Fare Forward several years ago when he argued for the necessity of monks. The vocation of the monks, my friend said, tends toward a level of stability and fidelity that is deeply helpful not only to the monks, but also to any lay Christians living nearby. The monastery essentially says “This is a good life. We will live here and dedicate ourselves to this work. Even if no one else is here, even if no one else notices us, even if no one else cares, this is what we will do.”

That comment, however, suggests that there may be something different that Protestants might learn from the monks. Our problem is not necessarily one of stability. A lack of stability, after all, is as much a matter of making choices as it is about being subject to cultural forces outside one’s control. Taking monastic vows locks one into a sort of stability, I suppose, but there is no reason that many lay people cannot also realize some kind of stability themselves. After all, you don’t have to take that new promotion or go back to school or take that new job in another state. You choose to. And just as you choose to uproot yourself, you can also choose to stay put. We just don’t want to do that. But it can be done. My parents, for example, have chosen to stay in the same house they got married in 32 years ago.

To be sure, stability is not a norm in most American sub-cultures and that can make it harder to realize. For natives of small towns in particular it may genuinely be more-or-less impossible to achieve that kind of stability in the place of one’s birth. Small-town economies are generally weak and, depending on what one does after high school, one’s post-secondary job training may force a person to move after graduating. Likewise immigrants and refugees are obviously condemned to a lack of stability for some significant amount of time, although there are things that could be done culturally, economically, and politically to help address that problem.

However, most of us can still create a kind of stability. If you can’t stay put in your hometown, stay put in the city you moved to for trade school or university. If you can’t do that, stay put in the city where you get your first full-time job that pays a sustainable wage.

The issue is, in one sense, relatively simple: Stop uprooting yourself every five years in search of a new, better life. Or, more simply: Stay put, dammit. On the other hand, the fact that so few of us do stay put suggests that there is a deeper reason for our hyper-mobility, a reason that merits further comment. Why is it that evangelicals, as well as most other middle- to upper-class Americans, seem so allergic to stability? Why must we move so frequently? And how do we cultivate the sort of spirit within ourselves that would make us desire stability enough that we’ll pass on exciting opportunities that would require us to uproot ourselves?

This, it turns out, may be the lesson that monasteries, amongst other places, can teach us. The greater lesson we should learn from monks is not to pursue stability, important as that is. It is to cultivate the virtue of indifference—indifference to results, indifference to the opinions of the sophisticated masses, indifferent to the trends and norms that shape popular culture. That is the key in my friend’s comments—the monastery says “We do not care about 90% of what the world cares about,” and that is one of the fundamental beliefs that explains and preserves the life of the monks.

This sort of indifference is something largely alien to most evangelicals. One of the lessons that can be learned from many of the memoirs being written currently by millennial evangelicals is that we are piercingly aware of ourselves as individual brands and are deeply concerned with cultivating the right sort of public image. This is, to be fair, something our parents taught us, for one of the consequences of the seeker-sensitive movement of the 1980s is that churches and their members learned to think of themselves as products that must be marketed correctly in order to gain new customers.

As is often the case, despite our protestations to the contrary, the greatest problem with younger evangelicals is not that we are unlike our parents, but that we are like them in many mostly bad ways. We did not reject them so much as we learned the wrong lessons from them. The power we give to the opinions of our peers is one area in which we are eerily and distressingly like the generation that came before us.

To be indifferent is, in the sense we are speaking of today, to be confident in the goodness of a certain way of life. It is to be immune to the appeals of popularity and relevance, committed instead to the work we have been given to do. It is to be convinced enough of your vocation that you don’t need to be bothered by many of the things that consume the attention of your peers. It is to say that you are not concerned with finding your next promotion, accumulating life experiences (which you use to build your brand on social media as well as your CV), looking for your next big house, or seeking out the right school to advance your child’s career prospects. It is to be content with the life you have been given and to work in one’s home place for its improvement rather than seeking a better place somewhere else. It is, to borrow a phrase from Berry, to acquire the joy of sales resistance.

Of course, this kind of indifference is not indifference to the world in all ways, nor is it an excuse to ignore or neglect the Christian duties we owe to our neighbors. Rather, it is in fact a necessary condition for caring for the world and our neighbors in the right way. We cannot love the world if we are preoccupied with ingratiating ourselves to it or with meeting its own standards of success. In our particular moment, it is also worth noting that integrating ourselves too much into a culture as materialistic and individualistic as ours will also have the effect of shaping us in ways that are, at best, unhelpful toward maturing in Christian love and, more probably, are actually harmful to that work. The indifference we must learn is thus not an absolute indifference, but a wise indifference that is able to see the world as it is, love it, and yet also recognize where it is not possible to be like it.

I recently heard an abbot of a monastery say that the monastery’s practice of hospitality is not absolute. We are happy to welcome guests into our life, he said, but we will not welcome people if doing so renders us incapable of fulfilling our vocation. Hearing him say that reminded me of my time at L’Abri, a place that has certain similarities to the monastic life, although its missional focus makes it a distinctly evangelical take on the idea of monasticism. Anyone is welcome to come to L’Abri, but people whose presence there makes it difficult for L’Abri to fulfill its calling to create communities that look like the Gospel in which people also hear the Gospel will not be able to stay. While that does mean certain behaviors we more commonly associate with those outside the church cannot be tolerated in the community, it also means that the sort of self-righteousness more commonly seen in the church is equally unwelcome.

L’Abri is a place that understands itself thoroughly, knows its work, and is able to delight in that. It is thus a place largely immune to the trends and fads of any single cultural moment. It is, in fact, a place existing outside of the temporal moment in which it exists so as to be able to point people toward a transcendent order. Would that we had more communities like that.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy, and son Wendell. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • My husband is active duty Navy, so we do have to move every 3 years. I wish we could have more stability of place. But I do like your idea of indifference as a confidence in the goodness of a certain way of life.

    I’ve just found your blog from Rod Dreher’s recent link – enjoying your writing.

    • Thanks much for the kind words. Rod is great and I’ve really appreciated his enthusiasm about what we’re doing here for the past few years.

  • Alison Swihart

    I had a pretty bad experience at Labri. Everyone else was young and except for 2 people, they had no use for a middle-aged woman trying to salvage her faith. I did love the teaching, though. The rest of it just kind of confirmed what I thought about Christians and Christianity and I still feel immensely sad when I think of my time there. I think somewhere through the years, it lost its purpose.

    • Alison – I’m really sorry to hear that. It’s a good reminder that there’s no perfect ministry. Would be happy to talk more about your time there if you’re at all interested. jakemeador at gmail dot com.

  • Greg

    Very perceptive piece. You might check in with Fr. Greg Peters of Biola who’s written two books (I think—or at least one) on retrieving the monastic tradition for Protestants.

    You allude to, yet also pinpoint, what we might call the “independent variable” in the BenOp: Stability in Place and Time.

    The BenOp revolves around and hovers above a fundamental tenet. Namely, that engaging deeply in an extant parish, over time (ie, decades in the same place, with a consistent community) takes us, as individuals and within community, 99 yards down the field of BenOp “dependent variables.”

    We’re fortunate to have a “base of operations” that supports, encourages, loves, and tends to our wounds in charity through the vicissitudes of marriage, family, education, and the spiritual life.

    This does not mean the BenOp is unnecessary—only that it is not new.

    This makes the BenOp an important reflection: It points to what ????????? ?????? ??? ?? ??????? ?????????, at least for Catholics.

  • “It is to be convinced enough of your vocation…”

    For many of us working in the information age, this is turning out to be a perennially tall order. We followed all the best advice and got engineering degrees or taught ourselves computer programming. Our work, though certainly in high demand, seems to have an incredibly ephemeral value. A rather well-known programmer quit suddenly a few years ago after posting:

    “Programming is rather thankless. You see your works become replaced by superior works in a year, unable to run at all in a few more. If you program and want any longevity to your work, make a game. All else recycles, but people rewrite architectures to keep games alive.”

    The utter intangibility of our creations makes the rest of the package – loving a small town, staying put, ignoring peers, etc. pretty incongruous. I love all the stuff Berry has written on the topic, but it seems dramatically more difficult to implement than it was when he wrote most of it in the 1970s.

    Having a bunch of kids is probably still our best bet to willingly enter into these good constraints.

    It wouldn’t hurt to have a monastery near by either.

  • Dan Grubbs

    I wonder as humans if our tendency toward instability is based in our lust. We are not satisfied, and like the first Adam, we seek after that which we feel we do not have. Consider that Adam had a place designed perfectly for him to live in harmony and wholeness with his Creator. Adam had everything at his disposal and wanted nothing for a fulfilled life. Adam walked in the presence of God daily and must have felt things I think we modern Christians only can touch on occasionally today. He had total provision and only one prohibition. Still, Adam made the choice to follow his lust for something he didn’t have, causing instability. I believe we are simply living with this same choice today. I don’t believe stability is gained by asceticism. Rather, I am convinced that stability for the human is found in the responsive and profound relationship with God as accessed through Jesus Christ. We are fulfilled only in Him, and not what we do. The “God-shaped vacuum” we have cannot be filled with career, avocation, or even family. No, it can only be filled accurately by our Creator, who designed us to be in a relationship with Him and we will be found wanting without Him. As A.W. Tozer wrote, “God formed us for His pleasure, and so formed us that we as well as He can in divine communion enjoy the sweet and mysterious mingling of kindred personalities. He meant us to see Him and live with Him and draw our life from His smile.” As I take it, we find our stability not by where or when we are, but in our relationship with our heavenly Father. I think the resistance of Protestantism to monasticism is because of the teaching of the Apostolic letters that we don’t have to cloister ourselves to enjoy the stability of a close relationship with God. Yes, some may find it less distracting to take a monastic approach, but that is based on the personality of that individual, not because it is the appropriate systemic approach to stability.

    I have only recently discovered this site and am enjoying very much the posts here. I look forward to the dialog as we all reason together.

  • Smfrmrinfrisco

    And what keeps evangelicals or other non Roman Christians from becoming Benedictine Oblates and living monastically in the world?