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.


The Hidden Virtue of a Simple Interior Life

Something's Missing

Serving as a missionary for the last five years, I’ve often heard and taught about our need for a regular daily prayer life.  Many times that’s translated into a “holy hour” or time of prayer, usually in the morning.  And it’s mostly comprised of meditative prayer and/or spiritual reading.  But I often find that I don’t do much with this little period of prayer, and I end up feeling like something is missing with my interior life.

Having checked the holy hour box, I usually just continue on with my day.  It’s a crapshoot if I’ll live in the light of the grace I’ve received in that prayer or continue to meditate our ponder the Lord.  I read about lovely concepts like practicing the presence of God, and I don’t know for the life of me why I’ve completely forgotten about these ideas approximately ten minutes after I’ve signed out of prayer (literally a phrase I learned in Catholic high school- you sign in when you do the sign of the cross at the beginning and you sign off when you do it at the end- woof).

But that approach ignores St. Paul’s exhortations to “Rejoice constantly, pray ceaselessly, give thanks in all circumstances… Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess 5:16ff).  We forget that the God wants to sanctify you wholly (1 Thess 5:23), not just in the times we set aside for prayer, but in every thought, action, and word we speak or hear.

Russian spiritual master and theologian Theophan the Recluse warns that a prayer life that exists going from holy hour to holy hour is a faulty one.  Every hour of prayer you build up your heart, only to spend the day tearing that foundation down when you don’t remain in the presence of God.  Then you spend your next holy hour building back up on the fallen foundations, limping along in your progress without sustaining the grace that you’ve been built up in.

In our bento box life, compartmentalized in its aesthetically pleasing way, our interior life, at least in practice, becomes just one more storage space like the rest.  And meditative prayer seems to be the most aesthetically pleasing form of prayer to fit into that box.

But the Spirit exists to break the boxes that we place ourselves into.  And I think help in sustaining ourselves in the Lord lends itself towards a bit of an out-of-the-box solution.  Out-of-the-box because it seems to call us, in a sense, to regress in our interior lives.

Maybe the key is getting back to our basic prayers, a little less aesthetically pleasing in one sense, a little more bland maybe, but still potentially revolutionary.  Remember that when the apostles asked Jesus how to pray he taught them the most basic of rote prayers:  the Our Father.

The Virtue of Simple Prayers

We have loads of these prayers memorized. Why not put them to good use.  Our friend Theophan claims that when you fill your mind with this type of simple constant prayer, keeping in mind that the Lord is present in your heart as you say the words, your mind can be at prayer even when your hands are at work.  Even more when you attempt to fill your mind with the things of God, you tend to start thinking more like God.  Your conversation and the inner workings of your psyche start to transform- all through a persistent stream of Hail Mary's, Our Father’s, Glory Be’s and (if you’re feeling adventurous) the frequent repetition of the Jesus Prayer.

But basic, simple prayers in and of themselves tend to bore us. I’ve heard a million times, “I don’t like praying formal prayers like the rosary.  I like to pray more organically in my own words.”  

The Russian Byzantine Saint, Dimitri of Rostov, in The Art of Prayer, writes this about praying simple, “formulaic” words:

“During lengthy prayer, the mind of the inexperienced cannot stand long before God, but is generally overcome by its own weakness… and drawn away by external things… Short, yet frequent prayer, on the other hand, has more stability, because the mind, immersed for a short time in God, can perform it with greater warmth… St. John of the Ladder also teaches: ‘Do not try to use too many words, lest your mind become distracted by the search for words… An excessive multitude of words in prayer disperses the mind in dreams, while one word or short sentence helps to collect the mind.”

The short prayers we say are filled with depth, though we often barely consider them.  

The “Our Father” is probably the first prayer you learned, and it’s said everyday by most Christians across the world, which probably accounts for the fact that we’ve lost a sense for its profundity.  Luis Martinez, in The Sanctifier, thinks differently:  “In the prayer to his Father in which he made a sort of summary of his desires to teach us what ours should be, we find these words that seem to come forth as a triumphant cry from the depths of his soul: ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Mt. 6:10).”  

If our heart was rightly ordered we would pray this prayer with all the gusto we can muster because it is a list of the desires of Jesus’ heart- given to us as a model for the desires our hearts should yearn for.

The “Hail Mary” is another great example of a profound prayer that goes unnoticed as it passes our lips, but it has contained in it all we really need for a good heartfelt prayer.  1) The first couple lines are scripture.  We acknowledge the truth of Jesus’ Incarnation and our faith in the Word of God.  It’s basically a little summary of the creed.  2) The hinge word is the name of Jesus.  Jesus is the center of the prayer.  When we pray His name we say the most powerful word in the world.  Just saying his name, according to Fr. Mike Schmitz, calls upon His power, His healing, and His presence.  When meditating upon the mysteries we call upon all of those things in the midst of each moment in His life.  We step into His life with Mary.  3) We ask for mercy and intercession.  The Eastern Catholics base their entire spiritual lives upon the name of Jesus and the plea for mercy.

Lastly in our list of basic prayers is the “Glory Be”, which is basically you giving God glory for whatever is happening at that moment- good or bad in your heart.  It’s a practical application of Paul’s advice to “rejoice always” mentioned above.

Think of these simple little prayers (or others like it) as  “leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Matt 13:33).

Now, I’m not meaning to say that these prayers will make you holy in and of themselves.  We have to pray them with our hearts and not just our lips.  Theophan (and really any good Byzantine monk trying to live out the exhortation to pray ceaselessly) cautions us that without remembrance of God’s presence in our heart these prayers are clanging cymbals and clashing gongs (see 1 Cor 13 for another “overused” piece of Catholic wisdom on that).  

A Cistercian abbot, Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, in the appendix to his famous book “The Soul of the Apostolate” teaches us how to tie in remembrance of God to these basic prayers:

“Take some text of Holy Scripture, or some vocal prayer, like the Pater, Ave, or Credo, and say it over, stopping at each word, drawing out various holy sentiments, upon which you may dwell as long as you like […] 

“[...] There is no necessity to be always making new acts; it is often quite enough to remain in the presence of God silently turning over in your mind the words you have already meditated upon, or savoring the affections they have aroused in your heart.”

So there it is, the most boring advice that has the potential to radically transform your interior life (and every other aspect of your life for that matter).  Thank your second grade CCD teacher, because when they gave you that cheap plastic rosary and prayer memorization sheet (perhaps unknowingly) just may have also given you the key to ceaseless prayer and recollection.

Avoiding Frenzied and Lonely: Investing in Community Simply and Wisely

In a world that often has us running around from one activity or event to another, we sometimes become overwhelmed trying to be in the right place at the right time. When it comes to finding solid relationships and a community that really gives us a sense of belonging, we can get exhausted by simply the thought of where, when, and how often to invest. When we’re feeling drained and don’t know what to do, it is always important to remember that we are creatures built for relationships, but they need to be the right kind and not haphazard. They are vital not only to our physical, emotional, and mental health, but also our spiritual health.  With that, I’d like to propose places we can aim to build community as a reminder to keep things simple so that we don’t find ourselves simultaneously overwhelmed and lonely.

#1: Our Families

The family is the first and most foundational community anyone will ever experience. One of the many benefits of the family you were born into is that they “get you” on a different level than any of the relationships you develop later in life. They’ve seen you grow up, they’ve seen you struggle and thrive, your failures and successes, they are similar to you genetically, and you have a vast array of shared memories that begin to tell the story about who you really are. Whether we are on the same page with our families on everything isn’t the most important thing for community. It is a place where, if you continue to invest, you will find a community that understands you and relates to you in a way that is authentic to you at your core and foundation and that you can find nowhere else in the world.

When feeling wiped out by the busyness of life, it will be important to slow down, and simplify at times so that we don’t put our families second to career goals or hobbies or other relationships. Our families are so integral to who we are that we should stay connected with them through every stage of life, starting with ordinary ways. Just by simply having dinner, watching a movie, or playing a game with family, we create opportunities for conversations about things that are important. In these things, we will be reconnected with our foundation with the people who have been with us from the beginning. This point becomes all the more important when we have families of our own. If you are a mother or a father, your family is your vocation. It is your way to heaven. You don’t get to make anything more important than that. Family time shouldn’t have to be elaborate. In fact, the strongest families are the ones that relate in simple, stable ways. You should find routines and recreation with your family that builds everyone up and puts the focus back on them. Everything else—your job, your hobbies, your friendships—comes after you find ways to consistently and healthfully relate with your spouse and children. You get to experience to beautiful struggle of family life that will bring up a new, healthy, and hopefully faithful generation!

#2: Our Workplaces

Hopefully your job isn’t everything to you. Hopefully your identity isn’t defined by what you do for a career. That being said, we all need jobs and most of us have a long time left before we can even dream about retirement. But, these are still important relationships. In a certain sense, they have built in strength because you are on some sort of mission together (and hopefully it’s meaningful). Because you have to go there every day and most likely over the course of many years, the way you invest in relationships with your fellow workers is really important. Some of your coworkers may become your natural and eventually intentional friends, but that doesn’t make your relationships with the rest of your co-workers unimportant.

In Romans, Paul says, “Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:17-18). In your relationships at work, do the right thing and relate in ways that lead to peace and not conflict, neither external nor internal. As I said, we have to go to work every day for years. If work becomes a place of distress and resentment, it will seep into all areas of our life and become a poison on all of our relationships. So here some thoughts to help with our relationships at work: First, bring joy into work with you and, if possible, laugh with your co-workers, especially your “non-friend” co-workers. Next, communicate things you feel are unjust with those who can change it, especially the person you believe is being unjust. Learn to forgive; holding resentment will be a poison beyond the walls of the workplace. Get to know more about your co-workers. Perspective on their lives will help you understand their idiosyncrasies and may help you be more empathetic. Lastly, as in all places, aim to make a positive difference in other people’s lives. I’m not saying we should all be superheroes for others and bring them to salvation in one emotionally charged encounter or something like that, but we can do little things that make a difference for each other. Sometimes, because we’re human, our perspective is only focused on ourselves. Everyone should want to work in place where we are mutually concerned for each other. When we notice someone is overworked or has a lot going on in life, even though we might not be natural friends, we can step in and be merciful.

#3 Our Friendships

For many of us, this is the sweet spot. This is easy, simple, and routine. But then again, maybe not?! There are people that you get along with for recreational sorts of things like conversations, laughter, wine and painting, beer club, playing sports, or maybe you share mutual hobbies like fishing, woodworking, parkour, martial arts, or noodling. That’s awesome. Most people don’t have a hard time building friendships like that. When it comes to these kinds of friendships, the problem generally lies in answering this question: how many of such friendships can I handle? When is the last time you hung out with all the people you consider to be your good friends? We only have the capacity to share ourselves with so many people. We live in a time where friendships are easy to come by and maintain, on a surface level, at least. But at some point, our natural, light-hearted friendships will need to deepen. Life will happen. They will need someone; we will need someone. We will all need people who mean more than beers and laughter (although, it’s a fine place to start!).

Friends you can have conversations about the things in life that really make a difference keep us grounded in reality and not just jumping from one event or activity to another. If you find yourself with frequent #FOMO, you’re probably lacking these kinds of friendships or not thinking about them in the right way (this is definitely true about me at times). You don’t always need to be out at the party. In fact, there are more important depths of community and relationships than the party allows. Language is a gift from God designed to help us externalize what is in our hearts. God gave us this ability because He knows we need to do just that at times. Find friends to discuss life with. I’m not talking about politics. I’m talking about talking about your life. People you can go on the adventure with. For example, instead of talking about poverty or evangelizing or being a holier person, get into conversations with people that lead you to actions in those areas and the areas of your life that make your life the adventure that it is. Our friendships are the community we’ve chosen. There’s a special power there because, unlike our family which is often a place of great similarity, our friendships are a place of abundant variety. And when we invest deeply in a few people, we will find that their perspective will be of great assistance to us as we traverse through life. Generally speaking, our families are our foundation, and our deep friendships help us become uniquely who God created us to be.

In the end, this article is not intended to be an exhaustive list of all the places to find community. Our parishes, community groups, and even our prayer life are also important areas for maintaining sensible relationships. The key I wanted to point out in this post is that by making these three areas consistent and routine we do not have to wait until life blows up. Just by being present to these people, we can build regular and healthy community. Keep it simple all year round, each month, each week, every day.  Maintain happy relationships with your family (the ones who truly get you), your co-workers (the ones who don’t always know us, but who we spend a lot of time with), and your friends (the ones with which you’ve chosen to live the adventure of life). Building authentic community will keep us at peace with ourselves, others, and with the individual call God has put in our lives.  This may not be major news, but I hope that next time life gets a little chaotic or you’re feeling busy yet lonely, you will be reminded to think about how wisely you’re investing in your family, friends, and coworkers.