The Happiness Project

Monks Take a “Vow of Stability.’ Maybe You Should, Too.

A few years ago, I read Thomas Merton’s famous memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain (it was this book that led me to read The Story of a Soul , which got me started on my obsessive interest in St. Thérèse of Lisieux ), about his conversion to Catholicism and his decision to enter a Cistercian monastery.

I’ve been reading more Merton lately. In The Sign of Jonas , I learned, to my surprise, that Cistercian monks make five vows at the time of their profession. I knew about the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but it turns out they also make vows of stability and conversion of manners.

I was intrigued with the vow of stability . This vow means that a monk stays put. Unless he’s sent somewhere else by his superiors, or gets a dispensation from Rome, a monk must remain in the monastery of his profession.

Merton explains: “By making a vow of stability the monk renounces the vain hope of wandering off to find a ‘perfect monastery.’ This implies a deep act of faith: the recognition that it does not much matter where we are or whom we live with. …Stability becomes difficult for a man whose monastic ideal contains some note, some element of the extraordinary. All monastaries are more or less ordinary.… Its ordinariness is one of its greatest blessings.”

When I first read this, it reminded me of—what else?—marriage. Marriage is a vow of stability, made with the conviction that by committing yourself to one person, you’re better able to achieve happiness than by searching continually for the “perfect” person and that the ordinariness that descends on it after the early exhilaration and novelty wear off is, in fact, one of its most prized aspects.

But the the vow of stability also reminds me of my favorite lines from Samuel Johnson. Quoting a Spanish proverb, Johnson proclaims, “He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him.” I puzzle over the meaning of this mysterious line all the time, but in this context, it suggests that the perfect monastery isn’t a place you can join but an attitude of mind you must develop.

There’s a lesson here for happiness. It’s often tempting to think that we’d be happy if only external circumstances would change. Sometimes it’s true that some external change would make a huge difference to our happiness (some people argue that this is never true, that external conditions should never matter, but I think that’s unrealistic for most people)—but sometimes we need to embrace a vow of stability and make our happiness in the situation in which we find ourselves, instead of searching restlessly for perfect circumstances.

The vow of stability was difficult for Merton, because at least in the early days, he was tempted by the idea of joining the Carthusians—an order that has been described as a “community of hermits” in which monks spend most of their time alone. As a Cistercian, he spent more time with his community than he wanted. I wonder why he didn’t join the Carthusians in the first place. Does anyone know?

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* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just e-mail me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.