How can the wisdom of the monastery help folks like you and me — who are not monks or nuns — to grow spiritually?
To answer that question, we can begin by looking at The Rule of Saint Benedict.
The Rule of Saint Benedict remains one of the great classics of western spirituality, even though it was written for a very small and specific audience: monks and nuns. What on the surface looks like an administrative manual for the smooth operation of a monastery is actually a text full of profound wisdom.
There’s so much there. In a short document (about 13,000 words, less than half the size of a typical paperback book), Benedict talks about prayer, humility, silence, hospitality, the spirituality of work, how to form and manage a community, all while turning one’s heart, mind, and eyes to the “deifying light” — the light of God which transfigures us from the inside out.
While some sections of the Rule may seem overly administrative or obsolete (like Benedict’s detailed instructions over which Psalms should be prayed on what days, or his clearly pre-modern ideas about how best to discipline unruly boys), virtually all of its 73 chapters contain nuggets of spiritual insight.
Today, however, I want to focus on just one sentence that comes toward the end of the book (chapter 58), in which Benedict spells out what a monk’s vows should consist of. Even if, like me, you are never going to make vows to become a nun or a monk, you may find the spirituality of these three vows to be a rich invitation to your own spiritual growth.
Here’s the sentence, first in Latin and then in English:
Suscipiendus autem in oratorio coram omnibus promittat de stabilitate sua et conversatione morum suorum et oboedientia.
When [a new monk] is to be received, he comes before the whole community in the oratory and promises stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience.
— Rule of St. Benedict 58.17
So the vows of a monk or nun include:
- stabilitate — stability
- conversatione morum — fidelity to monastic life
- oboedientia — obedience
How can we relate the Benedictine Vows to life today? Words like stability, fidelity and obedience seem like quaint values, if not even dysfunctional, in today’s sophisticated but individualistic society. Perhaps we can unpack these terms a bit, and then we can more readily see their treasures.
Stabilitate implies staying put, being grounded, being centered. For a monk or nun this was eminently practical: he or she vowed not to leave the community when things got tough. Those of us outside the monastery may find it impractical to commit to live in just one place: work or financial considerations may make it imperative to move.
So for us, the invitation is to an inner stability, being grounded not just in relation to the land where we find ourselves, but to the place within where we meet Christ and commit to live according to His teachings. So stability is really about relationship — just like a monk has a relationship to his monastery, so each of us is called to stability in all our relationships: to the land where we live, and also to our family, our community, and most important of all, to Christ.
Therefore stability also invites us into integrity and authenticity, because the only way we can persevere in stable relationships is by being honest about who we truly are. It’s the “know thyself” vow.
Conversatione Morum is perhaps the hardest of the vows the translate into English. The translation I quoted, by Timothy Fry, renders it as “fidelity to monastic life,” but other translators render it as “faithfulness to the way of life” (Luke Dysinger), “conversion of his way of life” (Carolinne White), or simply “to live as a monk” (Meisel & del Mastro). Google translate renders conversatione morum as merely “way of life.”
If the first vow implies stability and groundedness, this one is more dynamic. It’s also a vow of commitment — of fidelity — but it is a commitment to a way of life that implies that ongoing healing, growth and transfiguration: in other words, ongoing conversion.
This vow acknowledges that spirituality is not something mastered with a single decision or a one-time commitment. It requires on-going choices and commitment.
Stability means knowing who you are, especially in relationship with others; fidelity to the spiritual life means making a commitment to grow, and understanding that growth and healing take time.
The third vow may be the most scary one of all. Oboedientia — obedience — is a word we almost instinctive recoil at, assuming that it implies an unhealthy relationship based on power dynamics of dominance and submission. We think of the ordinary citizens of Nazi Germany who obediently committed crimes against humanity. If that’s what obedience is, who needs it?
Thankfully, that’s not what obedience is — at least not in a Benedictine sense.
Obedience comes from a Latin root word that implies not submission but listening — look at its similarity to the word “audience.” So at its root, obedience is about listening, paying attention, being mindful. For a monk this has a practical dimension of following the monastic chain of command: giving the Abbot and other community leaders the respect due to their office, if not to the individuals themselves.
But on a deeper, more spiritual level — for all people, not just monks or nuns — obedience means listening for the still small voice of God.
A spirituality of obedience is a spirituality of contemplative listening. It is a spirituality of mindfulness — of what St. Paul calls “having the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). In Philippians 2, St. Paul links the mind of Christ with kenosis, or emptiness.
Mindfulness, in this contemplative sense, means emptying ourselves of our agenda for power and control, instead adopting a gentle, spacious posture of willingness and listening. In short, a spirituality of obedience is a spirituality of contemplative silence.
And in that space of contemplative silence, of deep listening, we make ourselves available to the very self-knowledge and continual conversion that we seek, that comes from within by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
So there it is. A spirituality that begins with stable relationships and self-knowledge, opens up to continual growth and healing, which is facilitated through a lasting commitment to silent, contemplative prayer. This is what Benedict asks of his monks and nuns. And it is available to all of us who seek to walk in the ways of the Mystery of Christ.