By Fr. Dwight Longenecker
After the vows of stability and obedience is the third vow of Conversion of Life. This is the part where the spiritual life gets some kick and zing. Obedience and stability seem dull and pedestrian, but conversion of life is what it is all about.
Conversion of life is not just that a person seeks to be converted the way an Evangelical ‘gets saved.’ Its certainly a good thing to repent and accept Christ’s saving work, but for the Catholic ‘conversion of life’ means much more. First of all, it means a life that is constantly, every moment seeking to be converted. ‘Converted’ means changed, and the Benedictine way is always alive, always alert to change and growth–always looking for new ways the Spirit is seeking to convert the soul.
There is a larger dimension to it still: we seek conversion not just of our own individual life, but of Life–meaning the transformation of our entire existence. We work with the Spirit to change our family, transform our communities, transform our world through the conversion of our own lives. We are all interconnected and the best thing I can do therefore for the conversion of the world is to be truly and completely converted myself.
Conversion of Life is the central, driving goal of the whole spiritual life. Everything else–the liturgy, the prayer, the discipline, the service and the self denial–all are focussed on this greater goal of conversion of life. We pray and read and work so that we may be totally transformed into the image of Christ. For the Catholic this is a constant opportunity and reality. We do not believe that sanctification is accomplished for us like magic, or that it is a legal fiction the way some Protestants do. Instead it is a work of grace, through which we participate in the great adventure of becoming saints. We work with God to complete this work so that in the end we live the life of grace in joyous freedom–then as St Benedict says, “we will run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with an inexpressible delight of love.”
Conversion of Life is the wild-eyed and grace filled, unpredictable part of the spiritual way. Conversion of life means ‘change of life’ and real change entails risk, uncertainty and the adventure of going into the unknown. In the spiritual life it means accepting the work of the Holy Spirit–who may be doing things his way not our way. It means being open to the new and unfamiliar aspects of the faith, and being alert to all the wonderful ways that God may want to bring us to the fullness of our faith.
Conversion of Life in the Benedictine way is not an event, but a condition. Those who seek conversion of life are looking for it to take place in every moment of every day, and in every aspect of our lives. Each day we wait with Elijah in the cave–listening for the voice of God in the earthquake wind and fire–and finding it in the still small voice. Every day we look for the new and exciting, the strange and disturbing way of God in our little lives.
Those who seek conversion of life without the other two vows of stability and obedience will be ‘tossed about by every wind of doctrine.’ Stability and obedience provide a rock to build on and a star to steer by. Only with the other two can conversion of life really take place authentically and positively and certainly. Without them, how can we be sure that conversion of life is not really just our latest religious whim, the latest spiritual gimmick or the latest liturgical fad? Stability and obedience create the atmosphere for conversion of life to take place.
Benedict called the monastery a ‘school for the Lord’s service.’ Like any school, obedience and stability are necessary for education and growth to take place. In the monastery the education is an education in the ways of the spirit, and the growth is growth into ‘the likeness of the full humanity of Jesus Christ.”
Check out my two books on Benedictine spirituality – Listen My Son-St Benedict for Fathers includes the entire Rule of St Benedict in daily readings. St Benedict and St Therese-The Little Rule and the Little Way is a study of the lives and spiritualities of these two great saints. Donor Subscribers, don’t forget to visit Suburban Hermit – the monastic spirituality channel on the blog.