Awakening at 4:30 a.m., we emerged from darkness into darkness, our solitary tents dotting the plateau in northern New Mexico. In silence our small group of pilgrims drove forty-five minutes to the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert, marveling at the brilliant colors of dawn welcoming the new day into the desert stillness.
We arrived in time for Lauds at 5:45 a.m., the second office of the day, followed by the mass. My senses were heightened in the silence, solitude and mystery of this magnificent desert setting. “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” If we were sleepy, the monks were, too. One of the monks was struggling to stay awake.
I could easily have become a monk, having always been fascinated by the monastic tradition, with its disciplined spiritual life of prayer, simplicity and balance. Introduced to the Order of Saint Benedict in recent years, I’ve discovered a treasure of wisdom that is easily accessible to all disciples of Jesus Christ.
St. Benedict was the father of western monasticism and is also considered the Co-patron of Europe along with Saints Cyrus and Methodius. Why? Because the monasteries he established in the sixth century helped to preserve the culture of ancient Greece and Rome after the Roman Empire crumbled.
As a young man, Benedict went to Rome to study. After dedicating his life to God, however, Benedict lived three years in solitude in a cave near the ruins of Emperor Nero’s summer villa fifty miles outside of Rome. After emerging from the cave, Benedict became the superior of a group of renegade monks. Unhappy with his leadership, the monks attempted to poison Benedict, who withdrew to the cave again. Eventually, Benedict established twelve small monasteries in the area.
Later, Benedict wrote his Rule for monks, which is known today as the Rule of Saint Benedict. The Rule was not only instrumental in the development of Christianity in Europe but is still followed today by Benedictine monks who choose a life of prayer, study and work in community. The principles of this Rule are also practiced by Catholic laymen and women and other Christians who desire to deepen their spiritual life.
St. Benedict taught the simple virtues of hospitality, respect, simplicity and holiness.
His rules for a good and balanced life are contained in the three vows that Benedictine monks take: obedience, stability, and conversion.
Monastic obedience is the relationship between a monk and the monastic leader, which extends to a connection of the entire monastic community in mutual obedience. The object of monastic obedience is the seeking of God. The monastic leader is a “director of souls,” not a manger or boss. The role of the superior’s commands is to help the monk’s search for God.
The word “obedience” comes from the Latin root word audire, which means “to hear.” Contrary to our society’s promotion of anything goes and seeking our own pleasure, biblical obedience focuses on listening to the call of God by responding to the needs of others and our world. How that call is lived out may change over the course of our lives, but we must always focus on that call and not be continually diverted by other voices clamoring to be heard.
Isaiah 48:6b-7 says, “From this time forward I make you hear new things, hidden things that you have not known. They are created now, not long ago; before today you have never heard of them, so that you could not say, ‘I already knew them.’” Obedience is a continuous process of listening to the new things God reveals to us every day, responding with faith and action to that which beckons us and saying “no” to that which does not further our call.
Monks in the Benedictine tradition make a commitment to live their entire lives in the monastery they join. But this vow of stability extends beyond stability of place to stability of community and stability of heart. By committing to community, just as with marriage vows, monks promise to work through issues and improve relationships rather than simply run away.
Stability is an antidote to the restlessness of much of our world today, where we love to escape by avoiding problems. If our jobs, family bonds and friendships don’t satisfy, we pick up and move somewhere else or find new relationships. Stability is a vow to pay attention to the movement of God in every moment and not always be seeking more excitement, more stimulation, more toys. Stability counters the unceasing search for the new and extravagant.
Stability of heart is perhaps the greatest challenge of monastic wisdom today. What our world needs more than anything else is disciples of Jesus Christ who display stability of mercy, stability of justice, stability of grace, stability of forgiveness and stability of reconciliation. The world needs to know that Christians will live out what they say and will practice what they preach. Stability is a vow to be consistent in our commitments and in our desire to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
At first glance conversion may seem to contradict stability. Conversion is a dynamic vow that encourages us to be continuous learners, always seeking new ways to grow in our faith and practice. Conversion implies transformation, as we become aware of our deepest longings and risk change of heart, mind, and life.
Many Christians groups use “conversion” to explain how a person comes to faith. Often they experience a surprising and even spectacular change of heart where Jesus suddenly becomes real in their life, and they go from having no religion to claiming a personal relationship with Christ. People who are converted in this way can remember the day and hour of their religious experience and cannot understand the long, slow work of God in the lives of other disciples who were brought up in the faith since childhood. Not everyone is “born again” in the twinkling of an eye. Nor is faith always the result of a long process of cultivation.
In the Benedictine sense every person who seeks conversion is always looking for a new way to see life. Every day becomes an opportunity for transformation. Conversion is not a one-time experience but a continuous process of death and rebirth. It’s a way of looking at life that is creative, optimistic, positive and open.
Conversion sees possibilities, not problems. It gives people the benefit of the doubt, always seeking to convert the difficulties of life into opportunities for growth. The person who vows to follow conversion of life wants to transform the whole world from death and despair to new life and hope. He or she is not dogmatic but is always seeking and open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Each one of these vows, obedience, stability and conversion, is counter-cultural and challenges the status quo as well as the way we often about our lives. Every day is filled with profound experiences when we practice these three disciplines.
Whenever I think of that monk who couldn’t stay awake at 5:45 a.m., it reminds me of a story from the desert fathers. Some old men went to Abba Poemen and asked, “If we see brothers sleeping during the common prayer, should we wake them?” Abba Poemen answered, “If I see my brother sleeping, I put his head on my knees and let him rest.” Then one old man spoke up, “And how do you explain yourself before God?” Abba Poemen replied, “I say to God: You have said, ‘First take the beam out of your own eye and then you will be able to remove the splinter from the eye of your brother.’”
I could have easily become a monk, living a solitary life in the desert. Instead, I follow the monk’s life of obedience, stability and conversion in the city, eager to live out the long, slow work of God where I am called to serve.