In my previous article, I discussed how the Benedictine vow of conversatio morum addressed the idea that change is the only constant in the universe. If change is constant, then we can strive to change our lives so that they might reflect more clearly God’s image in each of us. But is change really the only constant in the universe?
Consider eternal truths and laws of nature. Do they change? On our planet, drop a pen and it will always fall to the floor. If we put our hands on a hot stove, we will get burned. If we violate one of God’s commandments, our consciences will be pricked. If we reject God, He will still love us. When we ask God to forgive us, He does - again, and again, and again - “seventy times seven,” as Jesus says! (Matthew 18:22) Some things just are, and this is what St. Benedict’s vow of stability reflects - that we are grounded in, and may even allow ourselves to be formed by, unchanging and universal truths written on the human soul.
As we previously acknowledged, the riddle of change and permanence is nothing new. In ancient Greece, Heraclitus described the universe as ever changing; to him, permanence was an illusion. However, not all agreed with him. As in modern times, there was a diversity of thought.
Before we turn to St. Benedict’s vow of “stability,” let us take a look at Parmenides, a younger contemporary of Heraclitus. Parmenides is “the philosopher of permanence.” (I teach my students to remember the difference between the two: Parmenides and “permanence” begin with the letter “p”). Parmenides is Heraclitus’ polar opposite: unlike Hercaclitus where “all is change,” for Parmenides, change is an illusion because “all is one.” His argument can be surmised as follows: “What is cannot not not be, and what is not is not anything at all; what is cannot pass away, and what is not cannot come from what is not.” Therefore, change is impossible. In his view, sense perception cannot be trusted to reveal truth; change and movement are nothing more than perceptions of reality that is changeless and permanent. Parmenides’ philosophy distinguishes between “the way of truth” and “the way of opinion,” and it is not hard to guess which would be his idea of reality.
This brings us to St. Benedict and his vow of stability. For all the chaos and violence in the world, certain things just persist. We can find enduring joy in living in a world that is good, holy, beautiful and true - a world already redeemed by Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:7). The Benedictine vow of stability helps us open up to this underlying reality. Benedictine monasteries rose up all over Europe just as Roman civilization began to collapse, and they were the places that preserved learning and cultivated erudition during these “Dark Ages.” Countless generations of monks and nuns followed God’s call to live under the Rule of Benedict in an ordered and structured manner - in a life of stability equally balanced between “ora et labora” or “prayer and work.” They did so in answer to His call that the Church might “pray without ceasing” (1st Thessalonians 5:1) so that the world might be sanctified, that all might be open and receptive to our unchanging and all merciful God.
A few metaphors can help us understand the Benedictine vow of stability. A sailing vessel has sails and a keel. If the vow of conversatio morum catches the wind in the sails, the vow of stability is the keel that keeps the ship from being blown sideways and provides the ballast that keeps the boat from capsizing. Staying with the ship metaphor, one could also describe the vow of stability as the anchor of a ship within a safe harbor.
To use a different metaphor, Benedictine monasteries and our vow of stability provide a “field hospital” for the Church - a place where people overwhelmed by the pressures and burdens of everyday life might retreat from the world in order to to seek and encounter the God who is eternal and unchanging. It is a great privilege to be able to provide such a place for those working in our nation’s capital who need the safe harbor of the monastery where the Divine Physician can heal wounds and restore one’s equilibrium.
Some might rightly say, “well, don’t the Dominicans and Franciscans and countless other religious orders provide the same?” Of course they do, and thanks be to God for the diversity of religious charisms in the Church! However, as I explained to someone, when I was attending a Washington Nationals Baseball game during the August gathering of the Catholic Beer Club, I had to leave the game at the top of the third inning to get back to the monastery in time to pray Vespers with my brothers. Our mendicant brothers could easily have had their breviaries with them and invited people to join them by praying Vespers in their seats at the ballpark. That is their role in sanctifying the world - to be with the people and witness to the joy of the gospel! But that witness needs, behind the scenes, the backup of the Benedictines, with our vow of stability, reliably counted on to be in a fixed place at a fixed time every day of the year, year after year, century after century.
So, just as change is an evident and an ever present reality of human existence, so too, there are eternal and unchanging truths, revealed by an eternal and unchanging Creator who wrote the truths into the structure of the universe. Through human reason we can ascertain such truths and by God’s grace be conformed by them. As with Heraclitus’ change so to with Parmenides permanence; as with the vow of conversatio morum, so too, the vow of stability - the human condition experiences both opposing realities simultaneously. It is difficult of course, even for a monk, to reconcile change and permanence within oneself, which brings to us to the final vow for our next discussion: the vow of obedience.