In a post last month I mentioned that Benedictine monastics vow stability, fidelity to the monastic way of life, and obedience. I also mentioned that even though Oblates don’t make those vows, I try to live as though I have. But how can a married Protestant mother-of-two live as though she has vowed fidelity to the monastic way of life? I’ve already written quite a bit about how different my daily life is from that of professed monastics. So how can this work?
Fidelity to the Monastic Way of Life is Not Fidelity to the Monastery
The vows of stability, fidelity to the monastic way of life, and obedience come from Chapter 58 in St. Benedict’s Rule. Of course, this is an English translation. The original Latin words for stability and obedience are relatively straightforward: stabilitas and oboedientia. The second vow, however, is more difficult to translate. Conversatio morum is often translated as “fidelity to the monastic way of life.” That holds true both for Sr. Judith Sutera’s translation and commentary (which I prefer) as well as the RB 1980 that is commonly used. It has also been translated as “conversion” or “conversion of life.” The problem with this rendering, as Sr. Judith points out in her commentary, is that “conversion” suggests a once-and-done event. “Fidelity to the monastic way of life” does a better job of conveying the ongoing nature of the vow. But it also seems irrelevant to those who are not monastics.
Except it’s not irrelevant. Fidelity to the monastic way of life is not the same as fidelity to the monastery. It’s true that St. Benedict wrote his Rule for monks and/or nuns living together in a monastic community, but much of his advice extends beyond the walls of that community. And just as Oblates need to be a little more creative in defining our communities, we also need to be a little more creative in defining the monastic way of life.
Living this Vow as an Oblate
I pledge stability within my communities, and that stability changes depending on the community. My community with my husband is a lifelong commitment, but my workplace community or even worshipping community may be more temporary in nature. While those temporary communities exist, however, I endeavor to practice Benedictine stability.
Fidelity to the monastic way of life is a different kind of stability. It’s also a commitment, but not to a person or group of people. The phrase “way of life” is key here. The Rule provides instruction for how to live that life, but obedience to the Rule is its own thing. That’s the third vow monastics take, and I’ll write more about that in my next post two weeks from now. Today, we’re still talking about that confusing second vow.
How can non-monastics commit themselves to the monastic way of life?
It all goes back to St. Benedict’s assumption about who is reading his Rule. Towards the end of the Prologue he writes:
Now that we have asked who it is that shall dwell in God’s tent, we have heard the conditions for dwelling there, but only if we fulfill the obligations of those who would live there. Then we must prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to these instructions. Let us ask God to supply by the help of grace what is impossible to us by nature. If we want to reach life everlasting, even as we flee the torments of hell, then while there is still time, while we are still in this body and are able to do these things by the light of life, we must run now and do what will profit us forever.”St. Benedict’s Rule, Prologue (quoted from St. Benedict’s rule: an inclusive transation and commentary by judith sutera, osb)
St. Benedict’s Rule is for those who have already expressed a desire (even if only to themselves) to “dwell in God’s tent.” Therefore, committing oneself to conversatio morum means, essentially, committing oneself to God. St. Benedict understood the monastery as a “school for the Lord’s service.” Oblates are affiliated with such a school, but, as I’ve said repeatedly, our primary context is different.
As an Oblate, I live my commitment to God in my family, in my work, in my volunteer commitments, in my friendships, and in every moment of every day. Benedictine monasteries may have been established as schools for the Lord’s service, but they are not the only places where one can serve the Lord. (To be fair, St. Benedict never suggested they were.) Conversatio morum is a commitment to remember this commitment regardless of my context. And not just remember it in an intellectual sense. It’s a commitment to act on it.
The Commitment Is the Same
Our contexts are different, but the need to remember and act on our commitment to the Lord is the same for monastics and laity alike. Conversatio is conversation, an open sharing and receiving of words and experiences. We communicate with the people around us (both within and outside of our communities), and that ongoing communication eventually changes us.
Being open to that change is the point. Whether you live in a monastery, in a family, with roommates, or by yourself, the goal is to become closer to God. God is bigger than any of us, and God works in many ways that are outside our own personal experiences. Too often we take our own experiences as the rule and norm and expect others to abide by that. We get offended when they don’t, and they get offended when we don’t abide by their personal rules and norms. But God won’t be held by the confines of our limited experiences and understanding. And it’s not about us.
God works inside and outside the monastery. Some of us live inside, and some of us live outside, and we all have the opportunity to see God at work. The question is, are we willing to not only witness that work, but engage in it and be changed by it as well?
If the answer is ‘yes,’ than you’re beginning to understand conversatio morum. Because one doesn’t have to be in a monastery to embrace fidelity to the monastic way of life.
I suggest reading the section called ‘Conversatio or Conversio’ in the Monastery of the Ascension Oblate Handbook, found here, for an excellent treatment of this topic that goes well beyond the scope of my post.