Other than Christian, husband, grandfather, and brother, I wear several different hats. I am rector of an ACNA parish, I work part-time for a Catholic hospice service and I lead a Benedictine community dedicated to praying each day for the bishops of our province. As Abbot, I have worked with several people on their journey to a more historic life of prayer. Perhaps 30% of the folks who approach our order make their final vows and even some of those break their vows and leave the order. The traditional vows of the Benedictines are obedience, stability, and conversion. These are not complicated vows, but like the Law of God, these vows help to reveal our true nature as fallen creatures. They show our weakness and rebellious hearts. These vows show how self-centered we are and how often we will forsake others for ourselves.
Each of these three parts of the Benedictine vows obedience, stability, and conversion, work in tension with and against each other to help the vowed walk with Jesus toward a deeper communion with the Father. In this article, we will look at these three Benedictine norms and how they might help the chaplain in his or her ministry. Obedience is hard, but we all obey someone or something. As Anglicans, we all have ecclesiastical authorities to obey, Archbishops, Bishops, Abbots or Priests guide and help us direct our spiritual lives toward a deeper union with Christ. But sooner or later we all find ourselves in a situation where we are bothered by our leadership, or we may think they are wrong, or we do not like their “style” of leadership, what then do we do? This is where we find out what type of person we really are. In the Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 68 we find the wisdom of the rule teaching us how to handle difficult or seeming impossible orders.
If it happens that some very difficult or even impossible things be enjoined upon any brother, let him none the less receive with all gentleness and obedience the command of him who gives the order. But if the burden should seem altogether to exceed his powers, let him patiently and opportunely lay the reason of its being impossible for him to obey before him who is over him, but not in a spirit of pride, rebellion or argumentativeness. But if after this his representation of the matter the senior decides that his order shall still hold good, let the junior thereupon know that it is expedient for him; and of his charity let him obey, trusting in the help of God.
Modern humanity is filled with excuses and rationalities on the how’s and why’s one should launch out on their own. But the Rule, reflecting Holy Scripture understands that we trust God and find out how he works when we are pushed to our limits. The Rule also reflects Scripture by revealing that all governing authorities are instituted and put into place by God. Obedience requires at least two virtues, humility and trust.
For St. Benedict, humility was fundamental. Humility is by far the most contemplated topic in the Rule. Humility is the virtue or ability to forget oneself and serve another. But the human person kicks against humility because we think we are king; we think we know better. Obedience and humility are remarkably Christian notions. The Christian knows that they are not king, there is another. Humility understands this as well.
For St. Benedict, obedience is due to Christ because he is both creator and redeemer. This is the starting place for obedience. Secondly, to obey one must first turn and renounce self and turn toward the will of the King. Obedience is a work, a labor of action. It is a weapon against our sinful nature, which will lead us astray. Obedience is also a holy and sacred thing, which will be a tool to bestow grace upon us as we do God’s will.
But obedience is not obedience if delayed. This is a truth taught to children but also to religious in the Rule. “The first degree of humility is obedience without delay. This is becoming to those who value nothing as more dear to them than Christ, on account of the holy servitude they have professed, whether through fear of hell or on account of the glory of life eternal.”
But obedience is not left by itself, obedience is accompanied by stability. We see Benedict deal with stability when he warns against a certain kind of monk who spins from one abbey to the next. And in their wake, they leave chaos and turmoil. I know in my life I have the temptation of “Greener Grass”. As a minister who was ordained in 1996, I have had numerous situation where I just wanted to move, leave the mess I found myself in and go to a new church, a new opportunity. The problem with this kind of thinking is that many of the big problems I face in my life and ministry have nothing to do with the place I live, or the church I serve. Many, if not most of my problems are because I am there. I can be my biggest problem. Moving does not solve this problem.
The root of stability is learning to be content with what you have and where you are. “Instability is pandemic in our culture and it has harmed our families, our communities, our parishes, and likely our nation. Almost no one stays anywhere for long. The idea of a “hometown” is more of an abstraction or a mere euphemism for the “town of one’s birth.” A lack of stability causes us to want to move to new wives or husbands, new towns, new church, new employers, all the while not seeing the real issue, self. The vow of stability forces us to stop looking around to find our problems, but to looking to the mirror. It causes us to look at ourselves. Stability is the killer of narcissism, the killer of a victim mentality.
As a hospice chaplain, one of the hardest things for me is to sit and just be with a patient. To stay with them in silence and hold their hand. In my mind, I am thinking, “I could be doing something important!” But with stability as a vow, I am challenged to look at self and ask “why do you really want to leave?”
And as we stare into the deep depth of the mirror of our broken souls, our desire to leave, we enter the third vow of conversion. Conversion is the vow to change. Obey, stay and change. But merely change to change, but to change to prefer Christ above all else. Conversion for St. Benedict is to change more and more into the image of Jesus.
The clearest reference to conversion in the Rule of St. Benedict is found in chapter 58 where St. Benedict talks of how to receive a novice into the monastery. The promise is general, not specific; the novice simply commits himself to follow the way of life observed in the monastery, with all that it entails “the word actually means a lifestyle, a ‘turning around’ in a given milieu. For monks, it means the external behavior befitting that calling.”
As a hospice chaplain, this can have two applications. First, that push aside my selfish desires and put on Christ for my patient. This can be very hard, but I need to assess and ask, “what does this patient need from Jesus and what does Jesus have to offer them?” As an Anglican chaplain, I have hundreds of years of tradition and practice to tap into to minister to the patient.
The second application is to ask, “what changes in myself do I need to make to be what this patient needs?” Recently a long-time patient of mine died from his struggle with cancer. He was an inventor, business owner, and bad-assed Harley Davidson bike rider. When I first met him he was filled with pride in what he had accomplished and how much impact his invention had had in his industry. But as time passed my relationship with him changed. The hubris vanished. And I found myself holding this man’s hand as he became skin and bones. I attempted to give him comfort in the Christ he had heard about, but not known. And he responded by telling me that he loved me and wish he had met me earlier in life.
As Anglican chaplains, we are all very aware of our blessed heritage, but many of us may have not been aware that our Anglican heritage itself had a Benedictine heritage. And the Benedictine life is based upon three simple, yet profound vows to obey, stay and convert for Christ’s sake.
- Rule of St. Benedict; Translated by W.K. Lowther Clarke. London: S.P.C.K., 1931 ↑
- Chapter 7, Rule of St. Benedict; Translated by W.K. Lowther Clarke. London: S.P.C.K., 1931 ↑
- Prologue, Rule of St. Benedict; Translated by W.K. Lowther Clarke. London: S.P.C.K., 1931 ↑
- Chapter 5, The Rule… ↑
- http://blog.adw.org/2012/07/a-reflection-on-the-benedictine-vow-of-stability/ As found on 04/08/19 ↑
- https://www.idahomonks.org/sect805.htm as found on 04/08/19 ↑