Since the semester in Los Angeles that I read “Compassion” (which was co-authored by Henri Nouwen), I have had both the desire as well as the conviction that I needed to live in an intentional community. In 2003 I was confirmed Roman Catholic for many reasons, the greater of which was to discern a vocation to the be a monk or join some other order. As of the date of this writing I neither live in a formal intentional community or a monastic order. I do not have a family or a partner and am not moving toward having one. So when I read St Benedict’s instruction on stability I have reasonable fears that I may be a “gyrovague.”
The gyrovague, according to Benedict, is a monk without an order (wink). Gyrovagues were itinerant monks who were subject to the leadership of their own sense and senses who would travel from monastery to monastery depending on charity of others instead of their own work. It is why Benedict despised them. Today I think we call them leeches. I think this is also how Benedict saw them but he was far more concerned for their role in the Church and the good of their souls than merely the fact that the are needy annoying to be around. Both Saint Thomas and Aristotle would readily agree that friendship is a necessary good that one needs if one is to be and do good.
Lately, I have been watching the old Sci-Fi series Quantum Leap in which Sam Beckett leaps through time and space through 20th century America stuck in that particular era until he figures out and completes his mission. These missions almost always turn out to be a small, but apparently essential, pieces of history. He is Buddy Holly’s muse for writing being able the lyrics to “Peggy Sue.” He inspires a pulp fiction writer to put pen to paper. He changes a small family’s mind about interracial marriage.
His only companions are his friend Al, who appears to him as a disembodied hologram, and Al’s hand held computer named Ziggy who discerns percentage probabilities of what needs to be resolved in that slice of time. It is a delightful narrative except for its one fatal flaw: From where does sam get his moral fortitude? Even though he is altruistic, he is an impossible gyrovague who without communal support does what is true, beautiful and good.
I think of all the small moral challenges that face me in which I have to muster to whole of my courage to do what is right, or at least better. Sam moves solitarily from quandary to quandary and manages the insight and strength to fight sexism, racism, and violence. He faces each challenge one right after the other without a break and without despair.
Benedict and Sam confront my life and the world I live in. I hope and want to do good in my world and to do it well. I am no Sam Beckett. I know enough of me, of humans, to know that we do this together or it doesn’t get done. As a man without vows -marital, communal or otherwise- ( I wish I as entirely unique in this matter). I am going to have to move slowly and be carefully attentive in order to find all of the necessary goods to be good.