Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Conversatio Morum: St. Benedict in the Wake of the Disciples

On the Solemnity of St. Benedict (March 21), the Benedictine liturgical calendar asked us to read a portion of Matthew 19.  There, in the discussion following the rich young man’s inability to give up all he owned to follow Jesus, Peter says, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?” Jesus’ response to this “what’s in it for us” is not the rebuke we might expect about taking the high road refused by the rich young man but a generous, “everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.”

In fact, though, the disciples who accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow him over time, would find themselves giving up a lot more than house, family and lands, as he himself had and would give up a lot more than that himself.  In those days, an individual’s very identity was defined in terms of family, geography, and sometimes work.  Peter, for example, would be identified as the fisherman “son of Jona” from Capernaeum.  That identity would root him firmly in the people of God committed to live the covenant made with Moses.  So it determined his religious beliefs, his moral choices, and his worship obligations.  In other words—remembering that St. Benedict is commemorated very shortly after the liturgical memorial of St. Patrick—it was rather like growing up Irish in a Kerry family in St. Brendan’s Parish in New York in the wake of the Irish immigration made necessary by the potato famine! 

In their journeys with Jesus, the talks they heard him give, the miracles and mercy they saw him extend to all comers (even a Roman centurion!), the commitment they witnessed to God’s uncompromising love for human beings of all sorts, the disciples were gradually forced to question and abandon some of their ingrained ways of seeing the world around them, assessing other people, trusting in the limits of common sense and experience, and, most painful of all, thinking about the one and only God for whom the Jewish people had lived and died for centuries.  It was ok to carry on a lively conversation with a Samaritan—and a Samaritan woman at that?  Tax collectors and prostitutes were often better table companions than wealthy Pharisees?  The storm that was about to drown you could be stilled with a word from this man you knew first as a carpenter from Nazareth and an itinerant rabbi?  A Roman centurion could surprise Jesus by cutting to the heart of faith where their co-religionists failed?   And this was all before their miracle-working Messiah died on the cross and then, against all the rules of history and cosmos, reappeared alive among them, himself but himself transformed in a way they had no words for!  For them and all who would come after them, “conversion” demanded far more than cleaning up your act and flying right, though it meant that too.

On the feast of St. Benedict, not all of you can or should claim to have sold your house and furniture, walked out on your family, and dispersed the contents of your bank account to the homeless down the street.  On entering the monastery, we vowed members of the Abbey, did some of that, but we still see, talk to, and care about our families, and we don’t expect to take off across oceans to preach the gospel.  In fact, we have vowed to stay put on this little patch of earth where the Abbey is built, unless circumstances change as they did when we had to leave Boulder.

But St. Benedict has invited all of us to join him in a life defined by constant renunciation of things, ideas, judgments, behaviors we would have thought we couldn’t do without.  In the Rule, he calls it conversatio morum.  That’s a tricky Latin phrase that seems most likely to mean:  change your ways so that your heart will be changed.  Do things differently so that you will come to see things differently.  Uproot feet, mind and heart from the fixed place where you thought you would be standing  forever—and it may not have been a bad place, mind you—and follow wherever Christ leads you because he is now your chosen polestar and pathway through life.

When St. Benedict tells us in Chapter 49 of the Rule that our lives (not just monks, but all who follow the guidance of the Rule) should be a continual Lent, this is the heart of what he meant:  by your commitment to conversatio, keep dropping what becomes inessential and burdensome—beliefs, attitudes, behaviors and all—as it turns out to hinder you in your search for God in all things (RB 58) and your decision to prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

The first disciples wouldn’t have used that language, but they would have understood:  when Christ invites you to drop everything and follow, drop everything and follow, without necessarily leaving home, closing your bank accounts, walking out on your family, or any other such extreme outward activities.  Listen, and follow what your heart hears way down deep where it matters.  Not easy, for sure, but a pearl worth the price!

March 21: Solemnity of the Death of St. Benedict

A Word from the Wisdom of St. Benedict

March 21 is the traditional date for the celebration of St. Benedict’s death.  In the revision of the Catholic Church’s universal liturgical calendar, most saints’ days that occurred during Lent were either reduced to commemorations or moved to a date outside Lent.  The universal observance of St. Benedict’s day was moved to July 11, which was a secondary feast of his.  However, the Benedictine liturgical calendar continues to keep March 21 as the solemnity of his death.  The Abbey follows that calendar.

The Life of St. Benedict by St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), includes the following description of a vision given to two monks on the day of his death: “On that very day he appeared in a similar vision to two brethren, one of whom was within and the other outside of the monastery.  They saw a path covered with tapestry and brightened by countless lights leading in a straight line from his cell toward the east and up into heaven.  A man of venerable aspect standing beside it, asked for whom that way had been prepared.  They said that they knew not.  Then he said: “This is the way by which Benedict, beloved of the Lord, has gone to heaven.”

The origin of the path leading between two rows of candles is actually an ancient Eastern baptismal rite, in which the newly baptized were escorted from the baptistery to the altar along just such a path, but the significance for St. Benedict and Benedictines lies deeper.  In a book entitled Abide, Sister Macrina Wiederkehr says of God’s commandments, “Like a torch, they light up our path.”  St. Benedict and his followers would have understood that image.  The psalmist says, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105).  St. Benedict certainly walked by the light of that lamp throughout his life and taught those who would follow his Rule to do the same.  Every paragraph of the Rule is peppered with Scriptural quotations or references because St. Benedict saw the Rule as a translation of Scripture into a practical guide for holy living in the monastic tradition. The monks’ vision shows us where that road takes a faithful follower in the end.

One of the three traditional works of Lent is prayer.  This is an appropriate season for renewing our commitment to lectio divina so that the lamp of God’s word may guide us more and more clearly in the footsteps of St. Benedict.

Copyright 2019 Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Random Thoughts #1

From time to time, I will post odd thoughts as they occur to me.  For those of you who haven't read the general introduction to Lent, you'll find it in the previous post.

The calendar year invites us to treat January 1 as the time for fresh starts.  However, it occurs to me that Lent is really the season of fresh starts.  The men and women of the early Christian desert were noted for the cultivation of “compunction,” which they understood as being “punctured” by a sharp sense of regret for their sins.  St. Benedict summons up that tradition when he invites us during Lent to devote “ourselves to prayer with tears, …[and to]  compunction of heart” (RB 49:4). Compunction is a painful virtue not very popular these days.  The picture of the ancients of our monastic tradition weeping constantly over their sins is not very attractive.

However, it’s all too common for us nowadays to pack all our own faults and failings—to say nothing of the faults and failings of other people—into that bag of miseries we sometimes tote around with us day by day. Remember “decluttering”?  The same ancients who valued compunction saw it not as a virtuous tote bag but as a tool for freedom.  They reminded their disciples that every day is a fresh start.  Leave yesterday’s sins and failings in yesterday, they said.  Forgive and forget your own ill doings, failures, unkindnesses, insensitivies, etc.—as God does when we ask sincerely and do our best, with divine help, to mend our ways.  (For those of you who are Catholic, Lent is a good time for the sacrament of penance.)

The desert elders’ advice reminds me of a favorite passage from the biblical Book of Lamentations: “The Lord’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, is compassion is not spent.  They are renewed each morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23).

Copyright 2019 Abbey of St. Walburga

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Invitation to Lent 2019

Lent 2019
Suggested Reading:  Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 49

The season of Lent was clearly very important to St. Benedict.  And of course it is to us too because, as St. Benedict says, “The monk’s life [and the oblate’s!] ought to  be a continuous Lent” (RB 49:1)  It must be, because as Benedictines, we commit ourselves especially to the life-long work of conversion proper to all Christians.  Conversion is at the heart of Lent, as the season prepares us once again to renew the resurrection life many of us promise every year in the renewal of baptismal vows at Easter.

As usual, St. Benedict’s approach has nothing ethereal about it.  It offers concrete, down-to-earth, practical "to do's". In other words, don’t just stand there wearing purple mourning and wringing your hands with cries of repentance.  Do something!  St. Benedict lists several “somethings” in the way of both inward and outward activity, because Lent has both an inward and an outward face.

This year, I notice especially that the outward recommendations all seem to regard some sort of decluttering.  (If you could see my office, you’d understand why that strikes me.)  Cut down on inessentials, even those that look essential at first glance:  eat less, drink less,  sleep less, cut out the chatter, Since St. Benedict is known for moderation in all things ascetical, he clearly doesn’t mean that we should starve ourselves, cultivate dehydration (those of you who live here in Colorado can understand that one!), practice insomnia, and zip your lips in pious silence even when someone badly needs to talk with you. He's asking us to weigh honestly how much we really need, as opposed to what we have a habit of choosing even if we don't need it all. (Well, he is also asking us to make choices that will cause us to feel the pinch during Lent, even if we resume some of them after Easter, because the pinch draws our attention to what we choose.)

It strikes me that, apart from refraining reasonably in various forms of what can easily become self-indulgence, St. Benedict may be suggesting what Jesus said to his disciples, but on an interior plane:  “Take nothing for the journey," he told them. "No staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no second tunic.” (Luke 9:3).  In other words, look at all that baggage you’re packing and declutter it!  As someone who always packed too much in my suitcase in the days when I traveled a lot, I could appreciate the wisdom of that instruction, though I never managed to practice it.  But it seems to me now, that the Lenten journey and the Lenten life require not just dumping excess baggage by the door but also decluttering the inner world into which Lent takes us.  Look at that heavy interior bag you’re carrying with you into Lent:  depending on your personality, it may include every sin you can ever remember committing and now hope desperately to be forgiven for; or it may include a list of firmly established resentments; or perhaps it’s all those criticisms you have stored to aim at someone who irritates you;  or maybe it’s your collection of worries, your memories of failed Lenten resolutions in the past, or any of the other inner stuff we tend to carry down the road, wondering why we keep getting so tired.  Without fasting from those, it’s hard to pursue the richer life of prayer Lent invites us to and offers. 

Jesus got it.  St. Benedict got it.  We get it.  Now, let’s try to do it!  And remember that Christ travels with us as we go and is more than willing to carry some of our stuff on his strong shoulders.  But my experience is that he can’t be trusted to return it to us intact at Easter because he has usually disposed of bits of it quietly along the way when we weren’t looking!

As you "look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing" (RB 49:7), may your Lent be rich in blessings—including the blessing of lightened load!

Readings for Lent:
When I sent you the list of suggested books for your Lenten reading, I failed to mention a very rich source of reading that I take too much for granted.  The daily second readings in the Office of Readings for Lent taken from classic writers  are often well worth pondering.  If you don’t have access to them in the very expensive four-volume set of the (Roman Catholic) Liturgy of the Hours, don’t worry.  They’re available online at sites like and  As time allows, I’ll try to provide snippets and/or comments on them here on the blog.

Copyright 2019 Abbey of St. Walburga