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.



Listen.  That is the first word St. Benedict instructs his monks and nuns in the Rule he wrote fifteen hundred years ago.  For all of humanity's advances, especially in the last hundred years, human nature has not changed.  Men's hearts are still capable of being troubled by the unsettling burdens of life, or of being silent so as to hear the voice of God.  Thus, St. Benedict’s instruction is just as pertinent to our culture at the start of the Third Christian Millennium as it was when he was alive in the sixth century A.D.

So, we must listen.  But to what . . . and how?  “To the master’s instruction . . . with the ear of [our] heart[s].”  There is a lot to unpack in those few words.  To submit to a master’s instruction, one must admit that he has something to learn. That is, one must have a teachable spirit.  Humility is needed in order to submit one’s will and intellect to eternal truths buried under a cacophony of “Noise–Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile” [C.S. Lewis, “Letter XXII” in The Screwtape Letters]. 

Listen - with the ear of the heart.  St. Benedict combines two disparate organs - one dependent on the other.  We use our ears to listen, but the ear cannot function if the heart's not beating; no heartbeat, no hearing.  So, we then must recognize that we are alive, and by being alive, we are capable of listening to noise, or for the voice of God.

One cannot listen if he is talking, and that is the problem for anyone who is trying to take the faith seriously and live according to it’s life-giving precepts.  It is so easy to “babble as the pagans who think they will be heard by their many words” (Matthew 6:7).  I speak from experience as one who always has something to say - to God, to my brother monks, or to anyone within earshot.  This is why a monastic vocation is such a gift, for monasteries are places that work hard to preserve silence. 

Silence is like a garden that produces the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control: (Galatians 5:22-23).  Noise is like weeds in the garden that chokes the life of the Spirit within the soul.  Silence is not a void to be filled. Rather, silence reveals a Presence that is always with us - a Presence that is Eucharistic and only revealed with the eyes of faith, a Presence in whom “we live, and move, and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

In these dog-days of summer when the Church commemorate the Feast of St. Benedict, may we listen to his instruction and learn to be silent so that the “still soft voice” of Jesus might draw us more closely to Himself.

What Lies Beyond the Silent Veil?

The air was thick with humidity and the cawing of a murder of crows that lived just outside the building. Every ten seconds a honking horn accented the bustle of Kolkata (Calcutta). Turning my focus away from the barred glassless window, I looked to the monstrance. There was Christ, present to me. I was sitting in the chapel of the Missionaries of Charity Fathers main house. Having travelled halfway around the world into ceaseless sounds, smells, and crowds; I found in the midst of all that distant chaos I was able to travel into myself. I encountered the Lord in a new way through experiencing profound interior silence. It was in the silence of my heart I began to perceive God, and as the Lord revealed himself to me I came to see myself more clearly also.

I wish that the interior silence I found there had remained undisturbed as I described for the last 4 years, but it has not. The constant buzz of life has grown deafening, and I yearn for silence. I do not think I am alone in this, as many conversations I have with friends relay the same stories.

My life is in my pocket, on my phone a schedule of reminders sing their announcement of an upcoming appointment. I am on call to the world and am expected to return messages and inquiries promptly. Constant videos, articles and blog posts (not unlike this one) are vying for my eyes and my time. There is so much chatter, but so little communication, for communication requires listening. We talk, and express, and share, and read, and like, and follow, and yet we hardly listen. I've bought the lies. "I am so important that if I am not on call and do not respond, the world will come to a screeching halt," and "If I do not read all the posts that come across my feed I will be behind the curve and lose a competitive advantage." These are all lies, and we perpetuate their importance when we drop everything to respond to an unimportant text, or as we read a less than satisfying article baited with importance but lacking sustenance.

It seems that with every unintentional word we read and speak, we place another brick upon the tower of babel. Yet, oh the gentle breeze of influence that comes from a word spoken out of contemplation in humility. Are these not the words that can break us free, if only for a moment, from our "like, share, and repeat" world? I am so restless in the noise, I long to rest in the silence of Eternity! Beyond the veil of silence we encounter the eternal presence of God.

So I challenge myself, and I challenge you, to question when and how we consume the noise around us. I challenge us to not be mindless consumers of the passing drivel of a world clamoring for attention. I challenge us to proactively seek and enter silence. I challenge us to sit in prayer, and let our silence speak to the Lord, and listen for His answer.

This lack of silence in our lives is dangerous for ourselves and damaging to others, but do not simply take my words for the importance of silence, let us look to wise Christians who came before us!

St. Faustina speaks to us about the dangers of breaking silence: 

"But, in order to hear the voice of God, one has to have silence in one’s soul and to keep silence; not a gloomy silence, but an interior silence; that is to say, recollection in God. One can speak a great deal without breaking silence and, on the contrary, one can speak little and be constantly breaking silence. Oh, what irreparable damage is done by the breach of silence! We cause a lot of harm to our neighbor, but even more to our own selves" (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul, Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska).

G.K. Chesterton explores the mystery of God that is hidden in silence: 

"The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels [Jesus] towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth" (Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton).

St. Augustine looks toward the beholding of God that can only happen in the silence of Eternity: 

"For we now believe what we do not see, that so by the merits of that same faith we then may merit to see what we believe, and may so hold fast to it that the Equality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and the Unity of the Trinity, may no longer come to us under the garb of faith, nor be the subject of contentious talk, but may rather be what we may drink in purest and deepest contemplation amid the silence of Eternity" (De Catechizandis Rudibus, xxv. 47, Augustine of Hippo).

St. Gregory expresses the value of words shared after contemplation and silence:

 "It is said of perfect men that on their return from contemplation: They shall pour forth the memory of Thy sweetness" (Hom. V. on Ezechial, St. Gregory).

As we journey into the silence of Eternity, I hope we may encounter the mirth of God. May the joy and levity of Heaven bring us from restless broken silence into rest, and when we return, may we truly have something worth speaking.