St. Benedict and Conversion

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Today we conclude a three-part reflection on the vow taken by many monks and sisters who follow in the footsteps of Benedict of Nursia. They enter a covenant of obedience, stability, and conversion of life.

Conversion is the most important of the three dimensions, balancing the other two and served by them. Obedience is for the sake of conversion. Stability is for the sake of conversion.

Without conversion, obedience and stability become toxic structures of decay and death.

There is an impostor stability that resists needed reform. It happens in every institution! There will be some who resist risk while cheering for the changes to fail. They feel a perceived need to keep things the same, and an obstinate refusal to see the evident truth that the status quo is failing. This pseudo-stability is the idolatry of comfort. It is trying to serve God and mammon. It is wanting to have happiness in this world, rather than accepting our status as strangers and sojourners. It is a refusal to die and rise with Jesus.

There is also an impostor obedience that kills conversion. It comes in many forms, both among leaders and followers.

Some leaders rigidly demand obedience. At its “best,” this becomes authoritarianism within a benevolent dictatorship. At its worst, it is a dumpster fire of narcissism, in which the leader demands unquestioning loyalty and the admiration of all. On the flip side, many of us leaders resist responsibility for the hard stuff – which always means being hated and persecuted by some. Who wants that unless he or she is truly committed to dying and rising with Christ?

For followers, too, there is an impostor obedience that refuses to walk the path of conversion. There are always the kiss-ups who ambitiously angle for power of their own, with no interest in seeking first the Kingdom of God. Much more toxic and dysfunctional is the tendency of institutions to equate obedience with a demand for loyalty, even when loyalty means a loss of honesty and integrity. Well-meaning followers, in the name of obedience, will collude in cover-ups, stay silent in the face of failing policies, protect the perpetrator, or blame the victim.  Rather than abiding in love and truth, this impostor obedience is governed by fear and shame.

Now let’s state the obvious: disobedience is not obedience. Obstinate disobedience is a self-exaltation and a hardening of the heart. It is the opposite of conversion.

There are many ideological Christians these days (both on the left and on the right) who wish that their church leaders would become noisy political warriors. Their deepest thirst is not for the Kingdom of God – which is not of this world (John 18:36). They are behaving like the disciples of Jesus, who expected him to stick it to the Romans and bring back the good old days of the Kingdom of Israel. At their worst, they are the ones who prefer Barabbas and want no king but Caesar.

We leaders need to hear their concerns, which contain much truth. There are injustices to be upset about, and genuine reasons for fear and concern. What then?

For Benedict, it means we need to have a conversation. The Latin words for “conversion of life” are conversatio morum. It means turning around and following Christ, but it also means a conversation, a willingness to enter into and stay in dialogue in healthy relationships – even with people we dislike or disagree with.

Conversion does not mean hopping onto a social media platform, undermining authority, name-calling, mocking, and shaming. That kind of criticism is not courage. There is no conversation and no conversion there. It is much harder to speak face-to-face and to listen with vulnerability and respect. No one possesses the truth; rather, we are possessed by Truth, and it is always greater than us. Conversion means I always have more to learn – even from those who are radically different from me. The disobedient do not tend to be lifelong learners.

One of the monks here compares monastic community with a rock tumbler. A group of hardheaded men is mashed against each other for years. As their rough edges smooth out, they emerged polished and beautiful.

Both obedience and stability are a grind, and our egos resist them. Who wants to be in an ongoing relationship with a bunch of hardheads, some of whom they really dislike?  The answer – someone with a deep desire to die and rise with Jesus!  On the day of their profession, the monks declare: “I desire to share in the sufferings of Christ in this monastery until death, that I may also share in his glory.”

Conversion is about turning around from our present misery and joyfully journeying to our real goal. Benedict urges us to hasten along the path of holiness: “Run while you have the light of life … If we wish to dwell in the tent of this Kingdom, we will never arrive there unless we run there by doing good deeds.” The Latin verb is currere, which means “to run, to move quickly, to hasten.” Think of it not so much as a sprint, but as a marathon or (better yet) a pilgrimage.

I once walked a 120-mile pilgrimage. My longest day was 31 miles. It became 32 miles because I missed a turn at one point. My stomach dropped in dread when I realized my mistake. I felt such an ache to get to my destination, and now it would take longer. In this case, by far my clearest option was to turn right around and go back to the crossroads. But one could easily imagine another scenario in which a new path would be much faster, and going back would be disastrous. Conversion is all about hastening to the true goal.

On a pilgrimage, you ache for your destination – and I mean that you feel the ache all over your body. You might linger here and there to delight in the scenery. Sometimes you sing as you walk and enjoy the journey. Other times it is sheer pain. But the one thing you do NOT want is to journey in the wrong direction. Conversion corrects our course whenever and however necessary.

Most of us prefer to live in denial about the fact that we are pilgrims in this life. Our true homeland is in heaven. Absolutely nothing in this world will last except for faith, hope, and love. The Benedictine vow of conversatio morum is a renewal of the baptismal vow. It is an absolute decision that I want to die and rise with Christ, and that I renounce all seductive counterfeits.

In the Prologue of his Rule, Benedict teaches that God does not will the death of the sinner, but our life (cf. Ezekiel 33:11). God lengthens our lifespan to give us adequate time to turn around and hasten to the Kingdom. God gives us many chances to commit and recommit on our journey of conversion. He is patient with our wanderings and opens up new (even if rugged and longer) paths. He shelters and guides us along our way, and is so eager to welcome us when we finally arrive at the Feast. Will we remember who we are and where we are going?

This post was originally published on Abiding in Truth and Love and is reprinted here with permission.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

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