Ah, it’s that time of year. Time for some introspection and decisions regarding appropriate conversatio morum for the New Year—though only Benedictines would call it that! Most folks would recognize it better as making New Year resolutions. St. Benedict doesn’t mention custom specifically, of course, because the holiday-with-resolution project hadn’t been invented yet. He presumed that conversatio went on all year long, with particular emphasis during Lent. His idea is probably less fraught with tension than gritting our teeth, putting past flops out of our mind, and drawing up that list many of us make at this season, and sometimes keep for a few days.
There is an approach to decisions about conversatio that is relevant every year and every season. It draws upon St. Benedict’s ever-fresh urge to listen with the ears of the heart. I have found that Psalm 1 supplies excellent and challenging guidance here.
who follows not the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stands in the path with sinners,
nor abides in the company of scorners,
But whose delight is the law of the Lord,
and who ponders his law day and night.
He is like a tree that is planted
beside the flowing waters,
That yields its fruit in due season,
and whose leaves shall never fade;
and all that he does shall prosper.
Not so are the wicked, not so!
For they, like winnowed chaff,
shall be driven away by the wind.
When the wicked are judged they shall not rise,
nor shall sinners in the council of the just;
For the Lord knows the way of the just,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
The psalmist challenges us not merely to listen but to listen with discernment—another staple quality in the monastic tradition. Not all the voices that bounce around in our environment or in our hearts are life-giving. Some would qualify as the wicked, the sinner, the scorners whom St. Benedict, with the psalmist, would call destructive. They might come from our past—the voices of family or teachers or coaches who harped so constantly on our failures that we gave up trying; the voices of video or printed fiction that convince readers that violence is the only way to confront evil (Jesus might beg to disagree); the endless ads that try to persuade us that we are entitled to remain young, beautiful (whether we ever were or not), and successful at any price; the self-help books that teach us how to compete successfully at our chosen work or leisure activities by stepping on the competition on our way up the ladder. These voices conjure up for me a picture of barkers in a bad carnival, hawking dubious pleasures if only we would just step inside into their tent. Obey them, the psalmist says, and stability flies out the window. Instead of being rooted and growing beside the living waters traditionally interpreted as the Scriptures themselves but equally applicable to St. Benedict’s scripture-studded Rule, the indiscriminate listener risks drying up into mere chaff. Chaff is the dry husks that are separated from the grains of good wheat in the threshing process. Chaff serves no useful purpose, feeds no one, and blows away in the wind, leaving nothing but dusty scraps on the ground. This is probably not the goal we are hoping to accomplish as we confront the new year.
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