Saint Syncletice said: … If a hen stops sitting on the eggs she will hatch no chickens: and the monk or nun who moves from place to place will grow cold and dead in faith.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 7.15

I had the opportunity these last two days to visit Princeton for an academic conference. It is a beautiful place, but in many ways it does not feel much different than home in the Midwest … except for all the castles, that is.

Princeton is a place that people mythologize, and rightly so. In particular I have spent most of my time at the seminary. It is full of paintings of famous theologians who once taught there. And it continues to be a place that merits high regard for its academic achievement. It is one of a few places where the United States approaches anything comparable to European high society.

Interestingly, while these fortress-like buildings are probably the oldest my eyes have witnessed, they proved rather unimpressive to some of the Europeans present here. How can you impress someone who grew up in a town with Roman ruins with buildings that are only two or three centuries old?

Our hometown cannot boast such a prestigious educational institution of mythic proportions. Its oldest buildings are at best a little over a century old. However, it is where God has placed us in our lives right now, and we enjoy such a loving and supportive network of family and friends from work, our parish, and school. What we have is something special; something that Princeton could not ever have for us in the same way.

Syncletice warns that “the monk or nun who moves from place to place will grow cold and dead in faith.” Why might she say this? One reason, I think, is that constantly moving, always looking to another location for the future, reveals a dissatisfaction with the present. The “grass is always greener” mentality of some can be a lack of thankfulness for the good of one’s provision and context.

There is a sense in which one can only be truly capable of living anywhere if one is fully satisfied with where one lives. The only way constantly moving would not cause a person to “grow cold and dead in faith” is if that person had no desire to move, if one was content to live anywhere. Perhaps paradoxically, contentment with the present is necessary for detachment from it.

These contrast with the vice of envy, which responds to inequality, whether just or unjust, with the desire to achieve equality (or superiority) by acquiring what one does not have and is not one’s property, or—even worse—it responds with joy at the suffering of the one who possesses what one does not have and longs to see it taken away.

Contentment and detachment, on the other hand, remind us that unequal stations in life—though sometimes truly unjust and in need of remedy—are actually equal when it comes to what really matters. If we could look to the ways in which the strengths and weaknesses of our current situation are all opportunities for acquiring heavenly treasure, i.e. virtue, then envy would have no place to gain a foothold in our hearts.

In this way, we can give glory to God for all things, realizing that he has created everyone intrinsically equal, with equally infinite spiritual and moral potential. The inequalities we perceive, while, yes, sometimes evidence of injustice that ought to be set right, are nevertheless in large part illusory when viewed from the perspective of eternity.

No matter where I might live, I will be challenged to overcome the passions of discontent and envy. And I can work on that at home just as well as anywhere else. Eternity, after all, is not bound by space or time or any other finite aspect of our present context. So why not stay here? Why not give thanks for the immanence of the transcendent and the value of true, heavenly riches? I have so much to be thankful for, the little bit of virtue I have most of all.

Thus, while I like what I see at Princeton and have had a wonderful time, at the end of the day it is not really so different from the Midwest after all … except for all the castles, that is.