Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Benedictine Values: Community

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"...he comes before the whole community in the oratory and promises stability, fidelity to the monastic life, and obedience." Rule of St. Benedict 58.17

When I first entered the monastery as a novice, I was 28 years old. I had been a seminarian preparing to be a diocesan priest for two years. I thought I knew what religious vows were supposed to be about. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it states regarding religious (consecrated) life that this form of Christian discipleship entails "the obligation of practicing chastity in celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, poverty and obedience"   (CCC 915). So I knew that celibate chastity, poverty, and obedience, called the three "evangelical counsels," are essential to religious life, but what I didn't know was that Benedictine life entails so much more than what I could learn by reading about it.   

Foremost in the mind of St. Benedict is community. The Christian model for Benedictine life is reflected in the Book of Acts where we read: "The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common" (Acts 4:32).

Members of the early Church in Jerusalem shared with one another their possessions, their presence, indeed their very selves - each belongs to all - and by so doing they experienced something of Christ! St. Paul said it this way: "So in Christ we who are many are one body, and each member belongs to one another" (Rom 12:5).

Having all things in common (community) is so essential to Benedictine monastic life that our monastic vows put community at the forefront of our commitment. I had to learn what it really meant to practice "stability in community" and "fidelity to the monastic way of life" by actually living the monastic life for a time, which is why monks must "try" their vocation as novices (beginners) before they are able to make a free and intelligent commitment to this way of life.

When a novice makes his first vows, his commitment is only for a further trial period of three years; after these initial four years of experience,  he is better prepared to solemnize his vows for life (this is what we mean by first or "temporary" vows, and by  solemn or "final" vows). 

The Benedictine vow called "fidelity to the monastic way of life," which is rendered in Latin as conversatio morum, is sometimes called the vow of conversion - which is apt, since it really takes the grace of conversion to practice it. What this vow entails is surrender. Letting go of one's preferred ways of doing things and accepting the community's ways instead; allowing oneself to accept correction in order to conform one's behavior to a standard that differs from that learned in the secular world; adopting a way of thinking that is inherently monastic and not the usual way of thinking I was used to - these are examples of what is generally meant by conversatio  (the shortened term for this vow). 

Each novice is a unique person with a distinct background and set of experiences, so for each new monk learning what conversatio will entail is a personal experience of letting go, or surrendering. In the concrete, this may entail for a monk learning to value listening more than speaking; doing without rather than obtaining more; making do with what I have rather than always wanting the latest or the newest; working fewer hours so I can pray more each day; spending time helping a brother rather than rushing off to do what I'd rather do; and so forth.

These are ways we bend, or unite, our will to God's will as expressed in the dynamics of community living, and they are practical ways to experience what Jesus meant by "denying oneself" (cf. Matt. 16:24) for the sake of enhancing the bonds of community. 

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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.


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