The fifth installment of guest essays on the Convivium Principles is by Fr Will Brown, rector of the Church of the Holy Cross, Dallas, TX. His regular contributions to Covenant and the Living Church, often bring together theology and ecology.
You drive through Atlanta (or, for that matter, Dallas or Houston) and take a look around, and up, and you wonder, what is this place? Is this a place? What’s going on here? Is this place trying to outdo New York or be something new under the sun? Is this progress, and if it is progress, is progress good or bad or both, and if both, how do you tell the good from the bad? (Walker Percy in “Going Back to Georgia” from “Signposts in a Strange Land: Essays”).
Written in 1978, these words have only become more apt with the passing of years, the questions more urgent. “Is this a place?” The question springs to my mind in connection with a preponderance of the “places” in which I find myself. And it leads to a deeper question: what makes a place? Might we identify place-making qualities in virtue of which a “place” becomes a place? And by extension, the perennial question facing the dislocated, those who find themselves, for one reason or another, “out of place” – what has gone wrong with our world? On account of what, precisely, has the prevailing sense of alienation, of being uprooted from one’s proper place, arisen in the consciousnesses of so many?
In his “Rule,” St. Benedict places great weight on stability, rootedness in place. The worst kind of monks, he says, are the gyrovagues, who have no fixed place, but “spend their whole lives tramping from province to province.” These monks are so miserable, says Benedict, that it is best not even to speak of them. By contrast, the defining feature of authentic brothers and sisters in a community is their rootedness in place, their resolution to remain there, barring some extraordinary circumstances, until they are dead. So important did Benedict believe this rootedness-in-place to be that he made it the cornerstone of monastic practice for his followers – it was (and is) the second of three vows made by every man and woman entering the Benedictine religious life: stability.
Obviously, most of us are not monks. Our personal and professional lives are “out there,” in the broad sphere of the world. But the principle of stability can and should inform our secular commitments too. Rootedness-in-place is, after all, a means to an end. It’s meant, in Benedict’s telling, and in truth, one might say, to be a school of delight, a platform from which we learn really to see, and so to love. After all, love is not an abstraction. It’s rather discreet and particular – if it’s real, then it’s always local – it must find a fixed object within the domains we actually inhabit. And this is more than merely a moralistic or romantic concern, for we won’t spoil or ruin the objects of our love, nor suffer others to spoil or ruin them. This thought is an urgent one, as we see more and more of our world being spoiled and ruined.
“What is this place? Is this a place? What’s going on here?” Percy intuited a peculiar problem of modernity: the possibility, one might say, of being dislocated in place – a phenomenon expressed in the loneliness of people in cities, even as they are living amongst a great aggregation of other people and things. The problem of dislocation-in-place is likewise exacerbated by the increasing technological mediation of all relationships. How many times have I checked Facebook or Instagram this week?
There are better ways of life, and it is our task to find them and to live them, not only for our own sake, but for the sake of our fellow travelers who do not even (yet) realize that there is a problem, who tramp from one province of life to another, never knowing that there are better and deeper and richer ways of living, better loves to cultivate, non-virtual spaces to inhabit and to till.