In the United States we hold dear our rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, but what if these three ideals could be infused with a more profound motivation?
There are three vows for the Benedictines from which all of us can benefit: obedience, stability and conversion of life.
In the first two blog posts of this series we’ve seen how the vow of obedience requires careful listening and discernment of God’s will combined with an instant response to do that will. Stability is the realization that “God is not elsewhere.” If we can’t find him where we are we won’t be able to find him anywhere. The third vow is for conversion of life.
In a world often dominated by Evangelical ideas of religion “conversion” sometimes means a personal, individualistic religious experience. While this is part of conversion, Benedict’s phrase “conversion of life” carries a more profound meaning.
His idea is summed up in chapter seven of his Rule where he discusses humility. The monk or nun comes to the stage where “carried forward by love, such a one will begin to observe without effort as though they were natural, all those precepts which in earlier days were kept at least partly thorough fear. A new motive will have taken over — not fear of hell but the love of Christ.”
Through the practice of humility we move from religious duty to spiritual freedom. As St. Benedict writes in his prologue, “We run in the path of God’s commandments our hearts overflowing with an inexpressible delight of love.”
The object of obedience and stability is therefore intertwined with conversion of life. We obey God’s will and seek stability in the spiritual life so that we might be completed converted.
Conversion, of course, means transformation. We are called not simply to a momentary conversion, but to the conversion of every part of our life. God wants control of our mind, our heart, our sexuality, our finances, our relationships, our past and our future. He wants this not for our bondage, but for our freedom, and it is through this conversion of life that through his grace we reach that true freedom.
St. Paul puts it another way in his epistle to the Ephesians. He prays “that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—grow up into the full humanity of Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 4: 14-16)
This is the destiny and calling of all the baptized—to become mature, complete and perfect human beings. Holiness is wholeness, and the vow of conversion of life is our determination to set that wholeness as our object and goal in life. Everything else is a tool or a pathway to get us there.
This brings us back to the other two vows. St. Benedict realizes that obedience is the first and most powerful requisite for this wholeness. Through obedience our own will is subjected to God’s will. We learn this submission through obedience to our religious superior, our Church’s teachings and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We also learn this through stability. The vow of stability roots us in the troubles and joys of the here and now. Benedict insists that we will learn this holiness-wholeness not by running away, but by staying put, settling down and seeing it through.
We say that every American has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Benedictine ideal amplifies the American ideal by infusing the pursuit of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness with stronger and more astringent goals, stability, obedience and conversion of life. We find our life in what we are given here and now. We find our liberty in obedience and we find true happiness in conversion of life.