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Stability and Conversion

I reported in my last post about the flurry of activities that is occurring these days around the work of the writer Frederick Buechner.  This past weekend, I was on-hand for the Buechner Institute’s annual lectureship—this year featuring the poet and essayist, Kathleen Norris.  It was a lovely day, made possible by the work of the Institute’s director Dale Brown and his team—and the Institute’s very real commitment to cultivating a rich conversation about the intersections of faith and culture.

As part of the day’s activities, my friend and fellow The 12 blogger, Jeff Munroe, conducted a masterful on-stage interview with Norris.  (I imagine Jeff may have more to say on the activities of the day–and his interview–in his next blog).

I was very struck by the answer Norris gave when asked to discuss the vows she had taken as an oblate of the Benedictine monastery, Assumption Abbey (which she had joined in 1986).  In her response, Norris emphasized two vows that Benedictines take: the vow of stability and the vow of conversion.  With the first, Benedictines promise to remain with the same community in the same place for the rest of their lives.  I had not realized that Benedictines commit not just to an order but to a very specific iteration of that order.  In other words, the monastery that they enter will be the one from which they are buried.  As someone who moved nine times growing up (and has moved many more times as an adult) and who has changed churches three times in the place I now live, I marveled at the testimony of people willing to make such a vow.  For all our much-vaunted talk about community, I wonder if (or how much) we are really willing to put in the hard work required for community to be achieved, even in small measure?  Outside of monastic orders, has the church lost the ability to nurture this at least in some form?  Do we care if we can’t—or is it all too much bother anyway?

At the same time, Norris noted, the vow of stability is importantly counterweighted by the vow of conversion.  As Norris explained it, this is a promise to continue to grow and develop as a person of faith; it is a vow that values change. Thus, the vow of stability alone could lead to stagnation and nostalgia (“we’re rooted here, and it needs to stay like it always has”), while the vow of conversion could lead to valuing change above all. 

My institution is currently undergoing a prioritization process, and Norris’s remarks have reminded me anew how the principles these two vows articulate—a commitment to a place and a people, but a commitment too to continue to grow together—is vital for our good survival as an institution. 

How to do it?  I don’t know. But perhaps expressing these principles as values for those of us in the wider Christian community to attempt, even in a small way, is a start.  


Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.

One Comment

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    I also greatly enjoyed the day and do plan to post about it next Monday. Holding stability and conversion in creative tension made me think of the value of not resolving everything. I had a chance to ask her why so many psalms have opposing sentiments in them and about how frustrated I've felt that the psalmist can so quickly come to resolution. She suggested I was reading the psalm incorrectly – that we are meant to hold statements like "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" in tension with "Praise the Lord, he has listened to your cry for help." It's not one or the other, it's both at the same time. Doesn't that sort of tension more accurately reflect the reality of our lives?

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