Thursday, October 23, 2008

Conversatio Morum

One day, none of us have the option of choosing when that day will appear, the most significant of all rites of passage will occur. We will, by one means or another, cease to live in this present natural form. All physical realities will cease to deceive and betray, cease to have an effect on our affections. Money and homes, everything we’ve accumulated, even family and friends, will no longer hold our interest. Only one thing will matter.

Eternity will no longer be some ethereal idea, myth, or vague concept. Eternity will become pure reality with no “time” to prepare, make reparation, or amend our life. Death, judgment, heaven or hell. The time that we have now is the time for preparation, reparation, and amendment. Here, in our modern world so filled with conveniences and pleasures, we don’t like to think in such terms. It’s much easier to delude ourselves and pretend that time is on our side, that there is no such thing as eternal consequences.

Ultima Forsan Hora.[1] It will be for someone, perhaps even me.

My first encounter with monastic spirituality began a number of years ago in reading about the Celtic hermits. I was searching for a Christian experience that was much more genuine than what I had known and these folks really caught my interest. They left everything behind. Some crawled into coracles and allowed the wind to carry them to an unknown destination. When it came to rest on some remote, rocky shore they called that place their home, built a crude hermitage, and lived the rest of their lives in prayer. Some wandered on foot until they came to an unknown, remote destination where they built a hermitage and invested their lives in prayer. That initial encounter led me to the Desert hermits and to the development of monasticism in the East. St. Benedict knocked on my heart’s door a few years ago, invited me into the Order of St. Benedict as an Oblate, and I accepted the invitation.

There is a common thread of fidelity that I find foundationally in these expressions of monastic spirituality. It is a wholehearted focus on getting ready to meet God face to face, an encounter where thoughts and motives, actions and deeds, desires and wills will all be laid open, weighed, and judged. There will be no wiggle room, no opportunity for limp excuses or human rationalizations.[2] The whole of Christendom assents to this. I find, however, for all the talk about it, that assentation doesn’t always become life’s aim and goal in the whole of Christendom. The kingdom of the world remains too much within us, often presiding over the Kingdom of God which also resides within us.

“Fidelity to monastic life is an attempt to translate the Latin words conversatio morum. The meaning of this term has foxed scholars and commentators for years. One way of approaching it is to see it as the core element in the monastic commitment, and to examine what that commitment is. Cassian tells us that the monk’s ultimate aim is to come to the Kingdom of God, and that his immediate goal is purity of heart, without which we shall never attain our ultimate aim. A good way of describing conversatio morum is that it is the monk’s commitment to pursuing this goal, through adopting the monastic program of asceticism and prayer, as well as the monastic structure of life which is designed to support that program.”[3]

A program of asceticism, prayer, and a structure of life that supports that program, although it is not easily accomplished outside the monastic enclosure, is nonetheless something that is very attainable. It may require some flexibility but it is certainly not impossible. It is the life of the monk. It is the life of those examples that we are wise to emulate. After all, monks aren’t the only ones scheduled for an appointment to meet God.


[1] Perhaps Last Hour
[2] Hebrews 9:27
[3] The Benedictine Handbook, p. 123