On perseverance: the virtue of stabilitas
by Sarah Colyn
The Desert Fathers were some of the Church’s earliest pastoral care experts. They were moved to seek communion with God in the quiet, rugged atmosphere of the Egyptian desert. In the first generations after Christ’s incarnation, thousands of men and women went to live in these tiny communities to pursue union with Him. Some of you belong to religious orders that are descendants of these groups, and what a privilege it is to have you join us at MPC schools! The scenic setting of these hermitages brings to mind Leanne’s description of the “rigorous but sternly magnificent work”1 of becoming our true selves in Christ. And as for all who desire to abide in Christ, our spiritual ancestors’ most significant choice was not to go to the desert, but rather to stay.
We can imagine a disciple in his austere room, days or weeks into his time at the hermitage. The excitement of his new commitment is fading, the rough edges of his fellows are starting to rub the wrong way, and character defects and unconfessed sins of the past are surfacing. As he sits, directed to study, pray, or simply be silent, temptations pepper him at a steady pace: ideas of other work and service he should attend to, resentment toward the leaders and program he’s committed to, frustration that nothing seems to be changing in his soul, doubt that this is really the direction he wants to go in life. The counsel the Fathers gave such a disciple is sorely needed for us today: stay put. The seeker’s task was to stay. He was to resist the sense that there was something else he needed to go take care of. He was to resist the doubt that what was happening in that room was working or was doing any good. He was to choose stability, to cultivate the capacity to remain in the place where God is at work. The Desert Fathers called this virtue stabilitas.
About sixteen centuries after the Desert Fathers started recommending the virtue of stabilitas, Leanne Payne was praying through Isaiah 58, “Is this not the fast that I choose,” and asked the Lord, “What fast do you desire me to keep?” His answer profoundly ordered her personal life and ministry: Persevere with Me as I have persevered with you. Leanne testified, “I have not arrived, but am still persevering, and find that all my joy and any wholeness as well as ministry that I have is in this fast.”2 Truly, Christ calls all His followers to this practice, to keep the fast of stabilitas – remain in Me, abide with Me, persevere with Me, practice My presence.
Our Lord longs for us to stay with Him and His regenerating, transforming work because He longs to make us new. It’s no coincidence that Leanne wrote about perseverance in The Broken Image, a book that demonstrates healing for the deepest damage the human soul can know. For all who seek such healing for ourselves and others, we will certainly need this virtue of stabilitas, the capacity to persevere. As we chalk up day after week after month after year of perseverance, we can join Leanne in testifying to the truth of one of her favorite phrases, “The becoming never stops!” As with all true virtue, stabilitas displays the beautiful mystery of the Christian life: Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling – persevere, stay, choose – for it is God who is at work in you – God’s own indwelling presence is your hope and confidence (Philippians 2:12-13, NASB).
1. Payne, The Broken Image, p. 156.
2. Ibid, p. 145.
Thanks to The Heritage of the Desert Fathers project and their website, desert-fathers.com for the images of the West Thebes hermitages.
I would love to hear your testimony of how the Lord has blessed you through perseverance! Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.