The Oratory of the Heart, Part Three: The Vows
In the first part of this series, I wrote about how the common practice of prayer as viewed through the lens of The Rule of St. Benedict can provide a bridge between Christians of different communions. In part two, I considered another great treasure held in common by all Christians, and surely the most significant of them all: Holy Scripture. Now I want to talk about the ways in which both daily prayer and the regular reading of scripture can transform each of us in our daily lives: namely, Benedictine living, and any discussion of Benedictine living must begin with the Benedictine Vows.
I am not—nor will I ever be—a vowed monastic. I took up a different vocation; marriage and family. I may become an oblate someday, but I haven’t fully discerned that path yet, and I’m not rushing into it either. For now, I am using the rule as a guide to adapting Benedictine Spirituality into my life and thus following the vows not as vows but as guides. I believe that each one of the three Benedictine Vows can serve as guides to living a Christ-centered life.
The vows are stability, obedience, and conversion of life. I’d like to describe how I strive to live each of these in my day-to day life.
Stability: This is the one vow I’ve actually taken in the Church. I took it the day I married my wife Julia, when I promised to be faithful to her—forsaking all others—as long as we both shall live. This is a vow of stability. In it, I am saying “I’m not going anywhere. No matter what happens, we are in this together.” Not everyone choses the married life or is called at this particular moment to make a life-long commitment, but even so we can live out a call to stability by sticking to the commitments we do make for as long as they last, by always being dependable to those who depend on us. Let us remember God’s faithfulness and try to image that in each of our lives.
Obedience: This is a tricky one. Most of us aren’t called to enlist in a monastery under a superior. The idea of obedience in our contemporary society—with its emphasis on rights, liberties, and personal autonomy—seems at best old-fashioned, and at worst an invitation to abuse. But none of us would deny that we are called to be obedient to God. So how do we live out this “Godly obedience” in contemporary relationships that are more egalitarian? The key is in the root of the word “obedience:” the Latin word obedienta, which in turn is derived from a stronger form of the word audiere: to listen.
Obedience in the Benedictine sense is before all else a vow to listen, which is the first word of The Rule of Saint Benedict. In the rule, monks are of course expected to obey their superiors as they would obey God, but the superiors are also expected to listen to their subordinates and fully understand their needs. Perhaps, in our day to day lives we can live out the Benedictine call to obedience by truly listening to those we encounter each day and then subordinating our desires to theirs thus serving them even though—or perhaps because—we don’t have to.
Conversion of Life: This is the hardest of the vows to translate from Latin and thus hardest to understand , but to me it means continuous life-long growth in Christ. Here’s where the parts of Benedictine Spirituality I have already discussed, as well as those I still have to address, all come together. Through a regular routine of daily prayer we grow in Christ, through a regular practice of reading scripture we grow in Christ, though stability and obedience—especially in listening and service—we grow in Christ, through dedicating ourselves selflessly to our vocation—whatever it may be—we grow in Christ, and through humility and hospitality to others we grow in Christ. This third vow is the focus not just of the other two vows, but of the whole of the Benedictine way.
It can be summarized in the following prayer, based on Chapter 72 of the Rule:
Almighty God and ever-loving Father, grant us that good zeal that separates from death and leads to life.
Grant us always to be first to love and serve, always last to think of ourselves.
Grant us grace to love all those we meet with your chaste and humble love.
Grant that we may come to love your will in all the ways you make it known to us,
so that, putting nothing whatever before the love of Christ, we may come at last to everlasting life.
Amen. (The Benedictine Handbook, p. 213)
Derkse, Will. The Rule of St. Benedict for Beginners: Spirituality for Daily Life. Translated by Martin Kessler. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2003.
Marrett-Crosby, Anthony, O.S.B., ed. The Benedictine Handbook. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2003.
Tomaine, Jane. St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Life. New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2005.
Earlier posts in the series.