This week we will give a consideration of what consecrated life teaches about poverty, chastity and obedience — how all can live these no matter their vocation.
By: Rev. Paul Scalia
The evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience are at the heart of consecrated life. But they have not been, and are not, always explicitly vowed. The Rule of Saint Benedict requires not the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but a different three: obedience, conversion of life, and stability. Now, we already know that first vow. It is the other two Benedictine vows – conversion of life and stability – that have something more to tell us about consecrated life…and family life.
First, conversion of life. With this vow, Benedictines clarify the purpose of their presence in the monastery and their entire common life together. They are there for a common purpose: to heed the Gospel call to conversion. This creates unity in the house. All are engaged in the same enterprise. No one is exempt from this pursuit, because no one has completed the process of conversion. The community is not for the perfect, but for those who desire to be perfect, to be fully converted.
Of course, such conversion is required of all of us. We cannot claim that we do not need to convert or that we have finished converting. Looked at one way, this could be discouraging: I have been at this for years and I am still not converted. But looked at another way, it is encouraging: God asks not that we achieve perfect conversion in this life, but that we always be converting to Him – every morning, every day, and throughout the day. At the end of their long lives the desert fathers would often lament that they had only just started to be converted. No saint ever claimed to be done with his or her conversion.
Second, stability. Saint Benedict observed the phenomenon of the “landloper”: that monk who bounced from one monastery to another, always claiming at each transfer that the monastery he left was not good enough, not a good fit, unsuitable… Obviously, the problem was not so much the monastery but the monk. He could not persevere in the monastery’s demands. When the going got tough…the weak got going! To address this abuse, Benedict required of his monks the vow of stability. They had to remain at one monastery…until death: to stick it out…no matter how difficult the work of conversion.
In writing stability into his rule, Saint Benedict highlighted an essential norm for the Christian life in general. To persevere in the conversion of life we need stability. When things become difficult in our lives, we all tend to look for an escape hatch, a way out of the challenges. We need something – or someone – to help us stay put, persevere, and continue the difficult work of conversion.
Saint Benedict tried to fashion his monastic life on the family. Conversely, his Rule has something to teach the family. So, first, the family should have that same common purpose: conversion of life. Every member of the family is a work in progress (as we say), still needing to be sanctified. Now, what establishes unity among people is a common purpose, a shared goal of striving. The same holds true for the family. Without that, the family quickly becomes loosely connected individuals…the home becomes a boarding house. Striving after the life of Christ brings unity to the family. We are not together without purpose…we have a goal that brings meaning and unity to our life and work. We are all pilgrims to the same place, not strangers on the way.
This means that mom and dad have to structure the family’s life around that goal, and to do so deliberately. It does not happen by wishful thinking. A good gauge of this commitment is the family’s observance of the Sabbath: Is Sunday organized and structured around Mass? Or is Mass shoe-horned into the rest of the day’s activities? If Mass is squeezed in at the end of the day’s sporting events, then the family’s principle of unity has become the passing phenomenon of sports and not the lasting truth of Christ. Finally, the common goal of conversion of life fosters a sense of forgiveness and patience within the family. We are all sinners in need of conversion…and in need of one another’s mercy.
Second, the family needs stability. Sociological studies indicate a correlation between a stable family life and a child’s academic success. Saint Benedict intuited this truth centuries ago: stability enables spiritual growth. The stable home provides children the confidence necessary for risks and growth. And nothing is riskier than facing one’s own sinfulness and daring the life of Christ. This requires that home is headquarters. Again, it cannot be just a boarding house or bed and breakfast. It must be the placed where life is lived together.
In short, living the life of Christ requires us to be unmoved movers. Movers, because we are constantly converting, always reforming our lives, forever conforming our lives to His. Unmoved, because we need stability in order to dare the difficult work of conversion. Saint Benedict codified these insights for his religious family; today’s families can benefit from the same.
This concludes Fr. Scalia’s 5-part series on the consecrated life during this Year of Consecrated Life.
Follow the Catholic Diocese of Arlington on our platforms: