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!