Lent is upon us!
Lent is the season that brings conversion to the fore for individuals and for believing communities. The season is historically geared toward Easter, when new members will be received into the Church and current members will renew their baptismal commitment to live fully in Christ. Lent gets us ready by shining a spotlight on those areas of our life that have drifted away or grown slack in seeking to put into practice St. Benedict’s exhortation to “prefer nothing to Christ.” Lovely to say, harder to live!
To return to the long-delayed project of reading The Life of St. Benedict in tandem with The Rule of St. Benedict, this seems an opportune moment to reflect a bit on St. Benedict’s own conversion and what he has to say about it. We should note that in a monastic context, the word refers not to the movement from unbelief to belief, or to the transition from one tradition of belief to another, but to a change in one’s way of life or, more specifically, the decision to embrace the monastic way of life.  In a broader sense, for oblates this conversio or conversatio refers to the decision to embark on a Benedictine way of life without entering a monastery.
St. Gregory, in De Vogüé’s translation, describes it thus: “He was born into a free-man’s family in the district of Nursia and was sent to Rome to study the liberal arts. But he saw that many of the students there had fallen into vice. So, hardly had entered the world than he recoiled from it, fearing that the worldly knowledge he had just begun to acquire would suck him down entirely into its bottomless whirlpool. He renounced study, put aside his father’s residence and fortune, and, desiring to please God alone, he went in search of the monastic habit in order to live a holy life.”
Benedict sounds very contemporary in his experience of leaving the sheltered life of what was apparently a Christian family home for college, only to find there that a lot of the students were way too wild for his experience or tastes. However, at least in this translation, his response sounds more like undiscerning panic than the wisdom St. Gregory attributes to him, saying, “Thus he quitted his studies, learnedly ignorant and wisely unskilled.”
We should remember that the monastic archetype, St. Anthony of Egypt, lurks in the background of other monastic biographies. St. Anthony, whose life story was written by the very learned theologian-bishop St. Athanasius, was admired for being wise without being literate. However, a more careful study of his life and writings suggests that was certainly wise but far from illiterate or unstudied in theological matters. However, the studies St. Benedict fled as a youth were no doubt those of the typical Greco-Roman syllabus, focusing entirely on the classics received from the hand of the great Greek philosophers who lived before Christ and of their later Latin disciples. They were not irreligious, but they were certainly not explicitly Christian. However, the bishop-theologians who lived and wrote before Benedict often began with a course of classical studies of the sort that Benedict abandoned. If you browse the RB 1980 table of biblical, patristic, and ancient works quoted or alluded to in the Rule, you’ll quickly realize that Benedict did not in fact reject learning for himself or his followers. In fact, he was obviously well versed in the works of these very theologians with their strong Greek philosophical backgrounds. What he does seem to have rejected as a young man is the study of pagan philosophical works unfiltered through Christian theological thought, works that could impress on the impressionable a worldview and ethical system sometimes antithetical to Christian belief and life.
However, what truly appalled him was probably less the school’s curriculum than the dissolute living of his fellow students, whether or not that was due to their studies. His response exhibits what would become a primary value in the Rule: humility. Evidently the life into which school threatened to suck him seemed too powerful an influence for him to resist. He was young, and he was scared. Unwilling to trust himself, he dropped out and ran away instead. His later monastic experience convinced him that only after long and disciplined practice of the monastic values is one safe to hazard a confrontation with the demonic forces, which he associated in the Rule with eremitical solitude as the desert monks taught (RB 1:3-5, but which he might equally well have found in life amid the unholy clamoring of a culture of disbelief.
Let’s pause for a moment on this point as we enter into Lent. St. Benedict’s emphasis on humility (RB 7, but also elsewhere) teaches us that we ought not assume we walk out into our everyday world sufficiently armed with our own good intentions and maybe some Rule study to be safe as we travel the path of the gospel (RB Prologue 49). The work of Lent is not our doing but that of the Holy Spirit working in and through us. On our own, we are more feeble than we might realize in pursuing the renewal of our life in Christ. Benedict provides his monks—who, he said, should live Lent every day of the year (RB 49), though he admits most couldn’t manage it (RB 49:1-3)—with a lifestyle compounded of constant immersion in and return to the Scriptures and ascetical practices such as self-denial in food, drink, and harmful conversation that are geared toward keeping the ears of the heart open to hear and to heed God’s voice speaking to us through the Scriptures prayed in private and in community. Very little time goes by in the Benedictine day without at least a quick sip from “the fountain of salvation” (Isa 12:3) to strengthen us in our life’s journey. God’s is the voice that drowns out and defeats the subtle voices such as those that might indeed have sucked the young Benedict down into a whirlpool of self-indulgent immorality. Benedict clearly knew that and sought to provide the protection of God’s word to his monks all day long.
The structures Benedict created are probably not realistic for all of you, but his principle is. He would tell you, tell all of us, on the brink of Lent, “Listen, listen, listen—and then listen some more. And keep those inner ears open, unclogged by selfish habits and practices!” So here are some questions for you as you make decisions about how you will plan your Lenten practices: How do you expose yourself to God’s word regularly, even if in very small doses? How do you carry with you and summon up for reflection simple words, phrases or images from your daily lectio or liturgy of the Hours? What decisions might you need to make about reading, media exposure—including social media—, and conversations with others that hinder your ability to listen to God’s voice and carry out what you hear? What about food and drink? It’s not that reading, media or social relationships are bad, not at all. They can be real points of contact with God, whether or not they are overtly religious. It’s not that bread and water should be your only diet. Benedict says rather, think about the quantities and qualities of all forms of intake, pay attention to their consequences, and limit those that seem to cloud your effort to seek God in all things—including meals, entertainments, and conversations with others. Benedict, obviously a bit extreme in his youth, grew into a teacher known for balance—but it is a balance always weighted in favor of that preference for Christ.
That one small instruction of his can be the key: before you start anything, stop for a brief moment to consult with the Lord (RB Prologue 4).
St. Benedict’s conversion story has more to teach us, but we will take that up next time. In the meantime, may your Lent be truly blessed!
Copyright Abbey of St. Walburga 2016
 You’ll find a long, complex but very interesting discussion of the language of conversion vs. the specifically Benedictine phrase conversatio morum in the full edition of RB1980, pp. 459-463.