AS WE PROGRESS IN OUR CONVERSATIO AND IN FAITH WE SHALL RUN ON THE PATH OF GOD’S COMMANDMENTS (‘Processu vero conversationis et fidei, dilatato corde inenarrabili dilectionis dulcedine curritur via mandatorum Dei’, Fry, Timothy; O.S.B., Regula Sancti Benedicti, [Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press] 1981). St. Benedict makes this statement as he ends the Prologue to his Rule for Monasteries. There is a great deal more implied by these words than appears upon a casual reading. We should not be surprised to learn that a number of modern scholars have been able to detect a level of significant meaning in this text that has been lost even to those familiar with it by frequent contact with this document, have overlooked. For it happened that during many centuries monks and even commentators on the Rule had failed to perceive the background that alone reveals the depth of meaning Benedict had intended in his choice of language here. 

That the Western Patriarch of monks was quite deliberate in selecting his words as he came to the end of this Prologue appears from the fact that, though he follows the Rule of the Master so literally in the early chapters of his work, including these pages of his Prologue, yet here he departs from his model in this passage. He uses the term ‘conversatio’ whereas The Master neither uses this term nor does he have any equivalent expression in his text. ‘Processu conversationis’, ‘As we progress in this way of life’ distinctly conveys the conviction that monastic living is an ongoing process; perfection is not achieved by the fact of leaving the world behind and entering the monastery. It requires persevering in fidelity to the manner of life the community of fellow monks practices with those interior dispositions that allow one to be profoundly altered in his character. Benedict is too modest to consider that his Rule brings its adherents to the heights of perfection; he merely claims that it represents a good beginning of monastic life, but it does bring the monk to a deeply spiritual love that characterizes the whole of his inner life and his dealings with others as well. A true monk is the fruit of a process of practicing the Rule over a lifetime in a stable community in a spirit of trusting openess to the work of the Holy Spirit within..  

While it is evident that The Master also stresses the need for perseverance in ascetic effort throughout life, he does not develop in any explicit form the consideration that the work of an inner transformation results from a way of monastic living that radically alters the very being of the monk. In fact the term ‘conversatio’which occurs ten times in Benedict’s Rule does not appear at all in the  Rule of the Master. This earlier author conceives of monastic life more as the consequence of a single decision to quit the world and seek God in the monastery. Accordingly, he often uses the term ‘conversio’, which, as such, looks more to a decisive single event. Though he stresses the need for perseverance he does not evoke awarenesss of the monastic way as a lifelong process of inner change that is the heart of the monastic project, as Benedict, who employs the term conversatio nine times, expressly describes it.  

When the abbot of Monte Cassino details the vows the monk pronounces upon making his profession he avoided the term ‘conversio’ and rather used ‘conversatio morum’. It has not proved possible in the course of the centuries to do justice to this expression. Since it is one of the three vows explicitly mentioned by the abbot, we do well to attempt to grasp the content of this solemn promise and its significance on this occasion, my brother, when you enter upon the novitiate to prepare yourself for the day when you will pronounce this and the other two vows that monks have promised to God ever since the sixth century when this Rule was written. 

Thomas Merton, just wo years before his untimely death, considered this topic sufficiently weighty to deserve a serious treatment in a detailed article. His opening sentence states the case strikingly: ‘The vow of conversatio morum is the essential monastic vow, and monstic renewal is only really comprehensible in the light of it.’ (‘Conversatio Morum’, Cistercian Studies 1 (1966), 130. I make use of this article in the following paragraphs.) There are any number of indications that give support to the difficulty of grasping the sense intended by Benedict in thus denominating one of the monastic vows. The  most obvious one is that rather early on the scribe copying the text did not understand the signification of conversatio and in consequence felt justified in substituting a term he considered more comprehensible, conversio, for the expression used by the author of the Rule. The result was that, until the researches of Dom Christopher Butler in 1924, the original wording was unknown for over a thousand years by unsuspecting readers.  

Already by the time of Benedict of Aniane (750-821 AD) the formula for the third vow named by St.Benedict was disappearing in the form he intended it and in some rites only two vows, stability and obedience, were pronounced. Sometimes quite original expressions were designed, such a stabilitas conversationis. Consequent to the change of the text, when the third vow was made for many centuries it was designated as not as Benedict had named it, conversatio morum. Conversio morum was still the form of this third vow as late as 1955 when I made my solemn profession., and remained in use until after the Council of Vatican II. Evidence of this usage is found in the early commentators of the Rule who read conversio morum and exegeted that version as best they could. The definition that seems to come closest to the author’s intent is that of Bernard of Monte Cassino who maintained it means that the monk ‘will not live in a worldly manner but, by virtue of a conversion, cultivate ways distinct from persons living in the world.’ Those who commented the Rule in later centuries, after Trent, viewed this vow in a more legalistic perspective that saw it as a promise to keep the Rule, so that any ofence against the Rule is a sin against this vow. Such was the view held at La Trape and expressed in its Usages.      

After the discovery of the true reading of the original text it remained a considerable challenge even for the expert commentators, not to mention the average monk, to appreciate the nuance that reveals the living reality intended by this expression. The fact is that this expression is so intermingled with the reality it refers to that it does not admit of that precision of definition that academics are so fond of, as Merton points out. And in practice various scholars have come up with differing explanations of its signification. According to Merton what Benedict intends with this vow is that the novice makes ‘a formal commitment to live until death as a fervent monk’ with a view to taking on the attitudes and dispositions of Christ. This entails making use of the practices inculcated by the Rule and the monastic tradition such as living in solitude, observing silence, fasting and other denials of selfish satisfactions, labor, lectio divina and prayer as his way of following Christ. Another consequence is that the monk patiently endure all the trials that come his way in a spirit of faith.  One early commentator, Smaragdus, in fact, in his explanation of the Rule considers the three promises to be in effect a single vow made in view of pleasing God by the monk’s acts of virtue.  

Merton arrives at a practical and helpful position at the end of his reflections on conversatio morum which is based on a distinction he makes between this expression and conversio. He puts it in the following terms.   

Coversatio is rather a more precise view of conversio with emphasis on the monastic ascesis or the monastic way of life. Conversio may be the result of monastic conversatio but it is first of all the cause of conversatio. The two go together, they influence each other, they are so to speak two sides of the same coin.  One is converted from the conversatio of the world to that of the monastery, and by the conversatio of monastic life one is gradually ‘converted’ or ‘transformed’ in the likeness of Christ. (‘Conversatio Morum’, 142) 

What is added to the concept of conversion by the word conversatio, then, is the significant nuance that really to be a monk a man must constantly be on the way to becoming one by his manner of living. The process is determinative; monastic life is a movement into a new way of being, a progress in faith, as Benedict indicates in his Prologue.  At the same time, our lawgiver also uses this word in its more passive sense of a given way of life, that is to say, the patterns of life following which a novice becomes a monk. Monastic conversatio is used also with reference to the form of life found in a given monastery; it has reference to the social aspect of the ascetic life, stressing the interpersonal dimension of the cenobium.  .  

St. Benedict, in using this terminology, was not as idiosyncratic as might appear from an examination of the Rule of the Master alone. Benedict would have found conversatio already employed in the monastic tradition by one of its most reliable of witnesses, St. Jerome, who makes use of this term several times in his translation of the Pachomian literature. A careful analysis of his usage by Ambrose Watham (cf. ‘Conversatio and Stability’ Monastic Studies 11 (1975), 14ff.) reveals that the verb conversari from which the noun conversatio is derived, provides a broad view of what is contained in the concept of monastic conversatio. He details three significant aspects that gives to this expression its specific color. 

To conversari in God’s house, i.e. in the monastery, is to (1) live according to tradition as handed down by the elders and Scripture, i.e. to live according to the tradition of the apostles and prophets; (2) and this life style will include the synaxis or liturgical assembly (collecta), listening to the word of God in conferences and reading, prayer and fasting, (3) and the result or goal of this is freedom from error which will enable one to glorify God, for one will not be enslaved to the passions.  

He adds that there are two further characteristics attaching to this terminology, namely that it  refers to experience in community and, secondly, the concept of ‘standing firm in the measure of truth and the traditions of the apostles and prophets. . . imitating their fellowship in God’s house’, as Jerome states the case. Moreover, St. Benedict, who associates progress in faith with conversatio, had found this same correlation in the Latin version of the Pachomian Praecepts and Laws 14. In Benedict’s Prologue as in the Pachomian legislation: ‘Proven faith  is shown by action; conversatio is the external manifestation of faith’(Watham, 16).  

This usage is found elsewhere in the Latin Pachomian literature and demonstrates how deeply rooted in the Gospels is the monastic tradition that refuses to separate observance from belief. Central to this way of living is charity, expressed in the form of mutual support within the ‘holy Koinonia’ (Watham, 18). In this way monastic life is imitation of the People of God and of the primitive Church of the Apostlic Age. Whereas conversatio has this fullness of significance in the Coptic tradition, the term conversio ‘has the simple meaning of a turning, a change (Watham, 20). There is reason to think that Benedict was aware of this distinction and so deliberatly chose to employ the expression 

conversatio morum in naming the third monastic vow. He wished to include this richer concept of living together   in charity within an observant monastic community as the matter of the monastic commitment. 

This perspective has application not only for you, my brother John Baptist, as you enter upon the way that opens out into a lifelong commitment to seek God within this monastic community. It applies also to all of us who are members of the Koinonia here. All of us together are called upon to create and maintain an environment, both of spirit and of observance, that is faithful to this vision of monastic life. For this manner of living in the monastery is derived from the Gospel, Evanglio ducente, as the Rule has it. As such it is our response to our Lord’s person and his revelation. Each of us, in welcoming you into the novitiate, undertakes to support and encourage you in your call, not only in your first formative years, but throughout your life. We accept this responsibility willingly, confident that the Lord will sustain us, and you with us, by his grace. And may our Blessed Mother’s prayer obtain this grace for you and all of us here.

 Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

Return to Index.

Go to Archive.