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Benedictine spirituality: the second vow, conversion of life

Lynne Baab • Thursday February 18 2016

Benedictine spirituality: the second vow, conversion of life

Benedict’s second vow nicely balances his first vow, stability. We are called, according to the Rule, to embrace conversion of life. While we commit ourselves to look faithfully for God in the places and routines we are committed to (the vow of stability), we also must allow God to open us to change and growth (the vow of conversion of life).

We often use the word “conversion” to refer to the specific point when a person turns away from their former way of life and turns toward God. Benedict used it differently. Benedict saw “conversion” both as a moment in time when we turn towards God and also as a continual process of growth. He believed that movement toward God may begin with one turning, but it must continue with the many small choices of daily living.

Paul Wilkes defines conversion of life as “a continuing and unsparing assessment and reassessment of one’s self and what is important and valuable in life.” Benedict, Wilkes writes, “saw conversion as a continuing process, one punctuated with more failures than successes.”

Conversion of life involves listening to the people around us and truly hearing what they see in us that needs changing. Conversion of life includes embracing conflict as a way in which God teaches us about the parts of ourselves that need to be changed. It involves honestly facing our own faults that hurt others, and constantly turning to God for healing and forgiveness.

Esther de Waal, inLiving with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, affirms the value of Benedict’s “very simple message that we all need to hear: being committed to God is not about being nice. It is about being real.” Conversion of life calls us to rigorous self-honesty, which involves a humility and openness that listens hard to the people around us as they help us see ourselves more clearly. The same humility and openness enables us to listen to God.

De Waal points out the amazing balance in Benedictine spirituality between time in community and time spent alone. Monks and sisters in most orders work and worship in community, yet also spend time each day in the discipline of meditation on scripture. The daily prayer services also provide a healthy balance of communal prayer and time to reflect. The services involve the singing and reading of lots of Scripture, particularly the Psalms. The repetition of Psalms, week in and week out, provides a rhythm that allows for personal reflection during the daily services. The variety of emotions presented in the Psalms also encourages personal honesty.

Several writers on Benedictine spirituality liken the repetition of the psalms in the liturgy of the hours to the waves on a beach, a constant background rhythm that encourages people to go deeper inside their own thoughts, bathed in the presence of God. Conversion of life is simply not possible without reflection and prayer.

Being open to inward repentance, growth and change while being faithful in this place with these people  . . . that’s the balance provided by the partner vows of stability and conversion of life. Many busy Christians articulate that same challenge, perhaps using different words, but facing the same issues: “How can I grow and develop as a person in the midst of all the commitments of my life? I’ve got a house, a family, a job, a dog, a garden, and aging parents. Yet I want to go deeper in my faith. I want to find more meaning and significance in my faith. Can I do that?” Benedict would answer, “Yes, you can.”

In order to experience conversion of life, we must first believe that God desires that we grow and develop throughout our life, in all stages, even if we feel inundated with responsibilities and commitments. We must take place sufficient emphasis on conversion of life to make time for at least some of the aspects of the balanced life that Benedict recommends: prayer, work, study, and rest. We must understand that growth will certainly be challenging and may even be painful. We will have to let go of our culture’s emphasis that everything should be easy. Aswe long for meaning, we will have to understand that it doesn’t come without some degree of discipline. Benedict’s third vow, obedience, helps us understand some of the discipline required.

This is the sixth post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. The earlier posts were

     Embracing Structure
     John's Story    
     Who was Benedict?   
     Monastic living in ordinary life    
     The first vow, stability

(Next week focuses on the third vow in Benedict's Rule: obedience. Excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, InterVarsity Press, 2002, copyright © Lynne Baab. I love getting new subscribers. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" below.)

My short book on holding grief and gratitude in two hands helps us cope in hard times. Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Life guides us into experiencing both the brokenness and abundance of God's world with authenticity and hope, drawing on the Psalms, Jesus, Paul, and personal experience. It is available for kindle and in paperback (80 pages). 

For further reading:

Paul Wilkes, Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

Timothy Fry, OSB, editor, The Rule of St. Benedict in English (Collegeville, Minn,: The Liturgical Press, 1981).

Elizabeth Canham, Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Nashville: Upper Room, 1999).

Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1989, 1997).

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).

Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids: MI: Brazos Press, 2007).

Gifts of Freedom: The Sabbath and Fasting, article by Lynne Baab that draws on her monastery visits.

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