Ha Jolly Ha

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Catholic Understanding of Conversion

Last evening I attended a most interesting lecture on "conversion" in the Rule of Benedict. It was very edifying, particularly as I - quite coincidentally - returned to that text this month for my first entirely non-academic reading. By entirely non-academic, I mean that I approached it primarily as a spiritual work, rather than as a spiritual work which was fodder for exams and papers.

The speaker, a professor of Classics and a Benedictine oblate, compared the Protestant notion of conversion with St. Benedict's use of the term conversatio in his Rule. We began with readings from Luther, Calvin and Wesley, whose "conversion" accounts are characterized by a sudden, interior perception (or feeling at least) of complete change wrought in their soul, a change which anoints them for holy work. In contrast, St. Benedict uses conversatio to describe a program for holiness, the ongoing journey of the soul, the great reditus to God. The Rule is a collection of recommendations for those who embark upon that pursuit of holiness. As such, it has significance for the laymen as well as the monk.

Our speaker identified four key aspects of the program:

A) Peace through strife. The tranquility of order(Augustine) is achieved through battle - both a physical struggle with the world and a spiritual violence within our fallen souls.

B) A sound understanding of human nature. The Rule provides very thorough, practical guidelines for a life of strident discipline and prayer, yet it makes merciful provision for human weakness, and recommends a prudent flexibility. The goal of the Benedictine program is charity and wisdom, and at times it must adapt to serve them better.

C) The importance of enclosure, of self-sufficiency. If you wish to escape the distractions of the world but you are not yet fit to do battle alone (as a hermit), you should live in a community which can provide for your needs while sheltering you from the world. [Our speaker pointed out the dangers of the internet in this regard - it is an infinite breach in the wall, a limitless opportunity for distraction from the world, if you do not take strong measures to place limits on yourself.]

The 2nd and 3rd aspects, especially, reveal the wisdom of the Benedictine tradition concerning the spiritual life - grace builds upon nature. We must be attentive to the physical arrangement of our lives before we can hope to achieve success ordering ourselves spiritually.

D) Most importantly, the clear governing role of the Abbot. To give up your will is fruitless, unless you subject it to a higher authority.


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