A point of clarification
Whereas it is absolutely obvious to the members of our Order, we nevertheless want to stress the point that we have at no time ever referred to ourselves as ‘monks’. We are not monks. This has been very clear to us from the very early beginnings, as far back as 2006. Apart from the fact that it would be inconceivable for a married man to be a monk, we simply have far too much respect and admiration for those who are genuine monks (and nuns). Their sacrifice and subsequent holy commitment to live a celibate life under a common purse, living a life of geographical stability is in response to a vocational call that is totally outside our reach. We have, from the outset, always referred to ourselves as ‘Brothers’.
What we understand these vows to mean
1. Stability: We mean, living a dispersed existence, living with what God has given to us. Where we are, what we do, and with whom we are at any given time; it means the importance of ‘the moment’. It means not to crave to be somewhere else, with someone else, doing something else. Our vow of stability is therefore not absolutely literal. Rather, it is a total surrendering to where, and with whom, God has placed us. The grass may be greener over the hedge, but that is not where God has asked us to be. It is to resist the temptation to keep changing in order to satisfy our every whim. It is about the ‘here and now’. Stability means there where God is Emmanuel, with us. ’Wherever you go, I will go, wherever you live I shall live.’ [Ruth 1:16]. Our stability also means loyalty to our community and our brothers. Stability is sometimes presented as a state of mind, but there is also the importance of stability in another sense. We identify with our community by participating in its common life: that is, its common prayer and one’s service to the community. Other common elements contribute to this identification, as does our common dress, schedule and rank. Our Rule also calls us to certain community virtues. In addition, for individuals to be stable members of our community, they must be able to support with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour.
2. Conversion of Life: This means constantly to be open to being turned and changed by God. It is first of all about turning, or conversion of Baptism; and it is then deeply invested in the second and lifelong turning of daily conversion to Christ. Conversion of Life (Character) has been a hot topic among scholars who have been anxious to distinguish it from conversio = conversion. RB 1980 translates the term as ‘fidelity to the monastic way of life.’ However, in our presentation we have contrasted conversatio with stabilitas and emphasized the sense of change and becoming which lies at the root of the word convertere which means ‘to turn,’ ‘to turn with.’ If stabilitas means standing still and being rooted, conversatio is about movement and change, about becoming, about giving oneself more and more to the monastic vocation. We point to humility as the foundation of change because humility is the ability to acknowledge and face the truth about oneself and the truth about others. By doing so, one is able to climb the way of humility that leads to that love which casts out fear. The other side of changing oneself is allowing others change. Too often we need others to remain as they are, and so we become obstacles to their changing.
3. Obedience: The first word of the Rule of St Benedict is well known: ‘Listen!’ The Latin word for ‘listen’, which is ’obsculta’, has the same root, and indeed almost the same meaning, as the Latin word ’ob+audire’, from which the English word ‘obedience’ comes. Like humility, obedience, the third vow, is a necessary virtue. It is necessary because obedience is grounded in listening, and we must listen to know whether we should stand still or change. The relationship between listening and obedience transcends cultures. In Hebrew the word ’amac can mean both ‘hear’ and ‘obey’ שמע ישראל [amac y’srael, ‘Hear, O Israel’]. Obedience is not just passive listening. If you truly listen, then you will know how to respond. To obey is to respond to what one hears. The sense of autonomy in our culture makes this virtue difficult, yet there is no real learning without obedience and humility. There is a very important connection between true listening and deep obedience; both suggest a turning in order to receive more fully that which is being given. Turning is really what the whole Rule is about. The Latin root-words upon which our word ‘obedience’ is based, mean hearing in a way that involves meeting and encounter. The foundation of true obedience is deep attention in order to receive more fully that which is being spoken or given. The whole point of the Benedictine life is to train our hearts to listen for the Word that matters, and when it is heard, to respond with all our being, so that life springs forth. To be obedient is to listen to our life contexts in such a way, that we develop sensitivity to this call. It is essential to the Rule, that obedience be rooted within the specific, limited, and incarnational setting given to each life. We practice obedience by giving ourselves humbly ‘ not just to the uncreated God ‘ but also to the specific superiors and teachers God gives us. The key is holding nothing dearer than Christ(*). Therefore it is Christ and our love for him that motivates our obedience.
What we understand these vows NOT to mean
It is often assumed that the Benedictine Vows include (or imply) the three evangelical counsels. We do however not share such assumption. By the vows we have made we only committed ourselves to the vows as expressed in our formula (see above). We do, as they say, ‘What it says on the tin’. Nothing less and nothing more. Our vows do literally exclude such ingredients as Chastity and Poverty. Perhaps these two parts that form part of the evangelical counsels ought to be unpacked a little.
In doing so we must again stress that we were never minded nor are we now committing ourselves to the evangelical counsels, as traditionally understood.
1. Chastity: The vow of chastity would need to be given additional values not commonly and traditionally understood. Whereas those members of our community who are celibate are expected to adhere to a life of chastity; for the married members of our community this chastity could only be interpreted as their commitment to be utterly faithful to their marriage vows, i.e., to be faithful to their spouse by forsaking all others. As those married members of our community already have made such a vow during the service of Holy Matrimony, this vow does not need repeating since this does not add any currency to the marriage vow(s) already professed.
2. Poverty: It would be impossible to make a vow of poverty, because we do not share our purse (our ‘wealth’) in common. Rather, each of us retains his individual ‘wealth’, and none of us would regard ourselves as financially dependable on each other or the community. We do, however, commit ourselves to simplicity and to a life of solidarity with the poor and oppressed (see A13 in our Rule)
(*) The Christocentric character of the Rule of Saint Benedict comes to the fore in such statements as ’Prefer nothing to the love of Christ.’ [RB 4:21, 72:11]