religious life

Benedictine Vows Part 3: Obedience

In 2008, when I seriously began to discern my vocation with the Benedictines in Washington, DC, I asked some of the monks what they thought was the most difficult aspect of monastic life.  I had been reading the Rule of Benedict where, in chapter 58, I first learned about the vows of conversatio morum and stability, which are different from the better-known vows of poverty and chastity.  What was the most difficult aspect of monastic life?  In a diverse community of men, I received a diverse array of answers, but one in particular stands out most.  One of the men who has been a monk longer than I have been alive answered, “Obedience is hardest.”  I think he’s right.  But what makes obedience so difficult?  

St. Benedict first mentions obedience in the opening line of the Prologue to the Rule: Listen, O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father, that by the toil of obedience, thou mayest return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience thou hast gone away.  Here we see at the very beginning of the Rule, that obedience is not easy; obedience is toil, it  requires work.  St. Benedict goes further in the next sentence of his Prologue, comparing obedience to wielding a sword or any other type of weapon: “To thee, therefore, my speech is now directed, who, giving up thine own will, takest up the strong and most excellent arms of obedience, to do battle for Christ the Lord, the true King.”  This reference to spiritual battle is redolent of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 6, where he writes that we must “put on the full armor of God.”  Although St. Paul does not refer to obedience, he does say that we should use the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:17)  Is not the sword of the Spirit that is the word of God none other than the very person of Jesus Christ, whom, St. Paul reminds the Philippians, was “obedient unto death - even death on a cross”?  (Philippians 2:18)

So, obedience has an arduous connotation and is synonymous with struggle, effort, hard work, dying to self. It is a weapon in the spiritual battle, and is personified by Jesus Christ who was obedient unto death on a cross.  At first glance, none of these ideas is pleasant, uplifting or edifying.  But let us recall that in the Book of Genesis, Jacob wrestled (struggled) with the angel and here had his name changed to “Israel” that literally means, “he who struggles with God”! (Genesis 32:28)  Struggles in the spiritual life are nothing new and go back at least to the time of ancient Israel.  This side of heaven, men and women will always struggle in matters of faith.  Even if I were to believe everything taught by the Church to be true, I might still wrestle with the fact that others do not believe as I do.  In this case, more likely than not, I will pass judgment on those who do not yet believe, thus falling into the trap of the pharisee who prays “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)  In this parable of the pharisee and the tax collector, our prayer must be like that of the latter who “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ ”

There is nothing easy about the spiritual life if one takes it seriously, and humility is required.  Jesus chose a cross for a reason, and his instruction to his disciples that they must “deny [themselves] take up their crosses and follow [him]” (Matthew 16:24) did not have much of a reference point when they heard him.  Two thousand years later, however, we can see the full context of Jesus’ instruction.  God does not ask anything of us that He, Himself has not already experienced.

Fighting against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12) is not for the weak or faint of heart.  This is true for all who take their faith seriously.  The spiritual life is not easy, nor is it intended to be.  But, nothing in this world that has any value is free - other than the unmerited gift of faith.  This gift is freely available to everyone, a gift waiting to be received.  For this reason we are obedient when we pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. (Matthew 6:10)

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.


I Ran Out of Excuses

I ran out of excuses.  If one were to ask me why I decided to discern my vocation with the Benedictines, in a nutshell that is my answer: I ran out of excuses.  After forty years of life, of serving my country in the United States Marine Corps, of serving the Church as a parish musician for many years, of discerning my vocation for the diocesan priesthood, of teaching children with special needs, of working in the foreign exchange market while teaching English and Spanish as second languages, I, myself, needed what . . . ?  In May of 2008, while looking for an answer, and to “get [the idea of religious life] out of my system,” I was on an extended visit to St. Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, DC where I found myself entering into the prayer life of monks who had been praying in our nation’s capital since 1924.  The daily routine of prayer begins at 5:20 a.m. and is returned to four more times throughout the day.  The monk’s steadily chanted prayer life brought a peace to the depths of my soul – a peace that had long been missing.  Even more than the prayer, the opportunity to be still before the Blessed Sacrament for half an hour each day in anticipation of Vespers gave me a sense of what I had longed for and had missed since leaving the seminary.   But my experience also made me afraid, for my contemplation made me to think about the rich young man who asked Jesus what one must do to gain eternal life.  After Our Lord’s reply, the man said, “I do all that already!  What still is missing?”  Then came the difficult call of Jesus that sent the young man walking away “because he had many possessions.”  

Don’t get me wrong – I knew the call of Jesus is surely a joyful call, one that unites the person all the more to Him.  Everything of value has a cost, however, and the more valuable the item, the higher the cost.  Religious life is neither for wimps nor for the fool-hearty.  This is why it takes years of discernment before one finally makes solemn profession.  Back to the rich young man – I didn’t want to be that guy.  I didn’t want to walk away from Jesus.  I knew in my heart He was calling me to a more disciplined way of seeking and finding Him.  Compared with others, I may not have had many possessions, but still, what I had was mine.  Most of all, I had my freedom to come and go as I pleased, and to pray or not pray whenever I wanted.  In this life before entering the monastery, I had all I needed and some of what I wanted, but I knew something was still missing.  I was longing for a more direct connection to Our Lord.  That is what I was to find in consecrated religious life.  

The excuses I gave to God were many, all beginning with the question, “yes, but what about . . . ?”  “Let me worry about that” was His reply.  “If you are seeking Me, let that go.”  Again and again, with one objection after the other came the same reply.  “Let me worry about that.  If you are seeking Me, let that go.”  Oh how easy it was to hold onto the things of this world and not of this world – things that brought me security and uncertainty, happiness and dejection, joy and frustration, contentment and emptiness.  But above all was an intangible longing for something more.  The monastic life, I have learned, has all that and much more as well.  There is security in the structured way we live, but also uncertainty about the monastery’s future.  I get to do what I love by teaching in the Abbey School, and yes, there can be much frustration living in such close proximity with my brothers (who by the way, continue to put up with me!).  And although there is a genuine happiness in the monastery, at times here, too, there is an emptiness – when the sea of Our Lord’s grace leaves me at “low tide” and all is exposed.   But then the tide returns and I am no longer at the water’s edge, but am now submerged in a merciful and grace-filled ocean where nothing matters but Him.

No longer do I have to wonder what God wants from me – I am living it daily, and sometimes failing miserably at it, but I am nonetheless supported by His merciful love and grace.  I now have the fraternity and acceptance of others who have answered a similar call by God to seek and encounter Him in the consecrated religious life.  Monastic life continues to provide a deep peace in the depths of my soul – a peace that “surpasses all understanding,” and that grows deeper as each day passes.

Why am I writing all this to you?  To share a bit of the joy I have come to experience by deciding to at last stay with Jesus, and not to walk away from Him.  No more excuses.  By submitting my will to His through the vowed religious life, I am able to see how my monastic vocation is His gift, for which I daily say, “thank you.”  To be able to do so sincerely makes all the difference.  

Please pray for all who have been called to this life, and for those whom Our Lord is calling even now.  By your prayers, please help us to hear Our Lord’s voice that trumps all excuses.  Help us hear Him when he says, “let Me worry about that; if you are seeking Me, let that go.”