Staying Put

Here are a few lines from Fr. Stephen Freeman, addressing place and stability:

In monastic tradition, a monk makes four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. Most people are familiar with the first three but not with the fourth. In classical monastic practice it meant that a monk stayed put: he did not move from monastery to monastery. It was not a new idea. Before this vow was formalized in various Rules, there was already the saying from the Desert: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

I have been lucky to have been able to stay put.  Perhaps, if I had been more talented or more ambitious or both, I would not have stayed put.  Perhaps I would have aimed more seriously at career upward mobility.  But I was not more talented and was not and am not more ambitious.  So, here I am.  So, here I stay.  Here I hope to stay–until I stay put permanently, resting, I hope, in peace.

When I got my job at Auburn, my teacher, Lewis White Beck, was very pleased.  He grew up not far from here.  His brother still lived (in those days) just north up 85, in Westpoint, Ga.  (I used to visit him to hear stories of Lewis’ childhood.)  Beck counseled me about Auburn:  “Don’t go and leave.  Stay and make it the kind of place where you want to be.”  The philosophy department at Auburn has become that, although I deserve little of the credit.  But I do think that staying has made me more of the person I have wanted to be.  I do not mean I am not deeply flawed; of course I am, of course.  Still, staying put has been a revelator and tutor:  I have learnt something about fidelity and commitment, about what it means to work with others to build something bigger and better than the builders.  I have learnt something about being unknown and unremarked, and about first being restively reconciled to it and later accepting it and still later coming to desire it.  “Live hidden” is good advice.  (Beck was once asked by the NYTimes (if I remember correctly) if they could do a feature on him, a sort of Elder Philosopher at Home bit.  He declined, telling them that he was determined to enjoy “the beneficent obscurity of senectitude”.   –Is that a line from Gibbon?)  I guess I still have a few years before I enter my senectitude, but it is not too early for obscurity to be beneficent.

As I grow older, my classes and my students fascinate me more than ever before.  Philosophical problems incarnate are now my meditation.  Philosophical problems disincarnate no longer exert much pull on me.  Perhaps what I have come to appreciate more fully is that there is a strict specificity about philosophical problems–they exist only in a specific person and they can be grappled with only in conjunction with that person and they can be solved–in whatever sense they are solved–only by that person.  Where I am not that person, I can help or hurt (from the lectern, from the page); but I can only help or hurt; but I can no more solve the problem for him or her than I can be prudent for him or her.  Philosophical problems arise from and are finally only responsive to the living experience of a specific person.  I believe I have learnt that from Socrates–himself a master of staying put.

As Robert Frost once recommended:  “Don’t get converted.  Stay.”

4 responses

  1. Just imagine what the rate of keeping one’s vow of stability would be among monks if novitiates could only get a position for one year in one monastery, then had to relocate for another year-long position in a monastery in some other part of the country, and so on, with no certain prospect of ever even getting the chance to “stay put.”

    • Yes. That’s part of what I had in mind when I wrote that I have been lucky to be able to stay put. The phil job market severely limits opportunities for staying put.

%d bloggers like this: