Benedictine Vows Part 1: Conversatio Morum

I recently read a blog post that stated (in part), “change is the only constant in the universe.”  That got me thinking about my vows as a Benedictine monk and about how my vows are different from those of the Franciscans, Dominicans and countless other religious communities who take vows of “poverty, chastity and obedience,” or as a Franciscan long ago put it to me: “no money, no honey, no job.”  This article will be the first of three that will unpack what the Benedictine vows are and what differentiates us from our brothers and sisters in consecrated life whose vows are a later development of what St. Benedict prescribed for his monks and nuns in the 6th century.  The Benedictine vows are obedience, stability and conversatio morum, and the topic for this article is the vow of conversatio the because it lines up well with the idea that “change is the only constant in the universe.”  

Change is everywhere but remains a perennial riddle of human existence.  The ancient Greeks wrestled with this and in the 3rd century BC, Heraclitus, “the philosopher of change,” opined that permanence is an illusion:  “Everything changes and nothing remains still . . . and . . . you cannot step into the same river twice.”   You go into a river, come out, and go into it again, but what you are now immersed in is different than what you experienced by your previous foray into the water because what you first walked into is by now already down-stream.  I am presently in a different reality than I was in not long before. So, for Heraclitus and to many in our present age, permanence is an illusion.  All is change.  

One hundred fifty years after Heraclitus was Aristotle took up this topic in his Metaphysics where he addressed the question, “how much of the acorn is left in the oak tree?”  His  answers to such philosophical questions were further developed by Socrates and Plato, who enlarged on their predecessors’ understandings of man’s place in the cosmos.  Aristotle’s answer to the “acorn in the oak tree” question employs terms such as “actuality, potentiality, telos, material cause and formal cause,”  and is far too technical for this article.   For our purposes, let us accept  that in our own age, we still have to wrestle with the ancient question about man’s place in a world constantly in motion.

If all is change, then on a personal level, one can ask, “am I the same person I was last year? Five years ago? Ten years ago? At my baptism?  Especially for one who professes belief in Jesus Christ: am I growing in my true identity as a son or daughter of God?  Or, am I living a lie, allowing myself to be conformed to every whim and temptation of my fallen nature?  To borrow the marketing slogan for a popular sports shoe and clothing company, do I “Just do it” and then rationalize my actions as not all that bad because everyone’s doing it?  Who am I hurting anyway?  Don’t be a prude!  This isn’t as bad as this that or the other that is much worse! But then the Holy Spirit brings to mind the words of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:19, 25) These words bring us to pray Psalm 51:4 “against You alone have I sinned; what is evil in your sight I have done,” and as Catholics we make our way to confession!

What does this tell us about change and St. Benedict’s vows?  If change is constant, then I, too, can change my ways and strive for holiness.  St. Benedict knew this and for this reason, he gave us conversatio morum, a vow that is less a promise and more of a “rubric.”  It is an act of the will that says, “I want my life to change” by conforming to the disciplines and customs that have developed over the centuries of Christian monastic practice.  But conversatio morum is not limited to consecrated religious.  Anyone who takes the spiritual life seriously can benefit from traditional monastic practices such as praying the Liturgy of the Hours, practicing lectio divina (divine reading),  praying the Rosary or by setting aside time each day for silent contemplation.  Each day I can make a change to go deeper in my prayer life so that I might grow more open to my true self.

Our monastic observances and pious devotions set us apart from “the rest of the world,” and we live a life as is summed up in Acts 2:42 when the early Church were those who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  That aptly describes the life in the monastery.  Our way of life is distinctive and radically different from what one finds “in the world.”  This is why, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is so popular.  If you have not heard of this book, David Brooks writing in the New York Times describes it as “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”

Dreher writes about the societal change that has been taking place since the sexual revolution of the 1960s and argues that we are not all that different from people in 6th century Italy when Benedict first fled Rome to live in a cave.  In this flight from the world (“fuga mundi” in Latin), Benedict was following the ancient monks of the Eastern desert tradition, who were themselves following Jesus in John 17:14 when he said, “I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.   St. Paul takes up this idea in Romans 12:2 when he says that we must “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind[s], that [we] may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  To be transformed, then is to change.  But is change indeed the “only constant in the universe?” Before answering that question we will have to reflect on  the Benedictine vow of stability that will help us answer that question.