Benedictine Vows

Benedictines take three vows: obedience, stability and conversatio morum. These are solemn promises, made in the presence, not only of the Abbess and community, but as St Benedict reminds us of God and his Saints. The vows are the monk’s  and nun’s way to God; when Benedictines embrace the vows and seek to make them their own, we believe that they work as channels for grace so that, over a lifetime of monastic observance, the Benedictine is “with the help of God” transformed into the image of Christ.

Obedience is a key virtue, for  monks and nuns as for any Christian.  We embrace the vow of obedience so that we can become like Christ, who came not to do his own will but the will of the Father who sent him. In preferring to seek the good of others before our own good, we aim to share in the love of Christ, who gave himself up as a ransom for many.  Our vow of obedience binds us in the first place to accept the tasks the Abbess assigns to us, but, as St Benedict reminds us, our obedience will be perfect when we freely choose to obey not merely the Abbess or other superiors, but all our sisters, for the love of Christ.

The vow of stability is a characteristically monastic vow. Unlike some other religious, Benedictine monks and nuns generally do not join an Order; rather, they join a particular community. By their vow of stability, they promise to remain in the community they join for the rest of their lives.  In the flux and change of contemporary life many find such stability a source of strength and peace. The Lord is my rock and my fortress, we pray in the psalms.  And it is ultimately on the Lord that our stability depends.  As we strive to know God more and more, we also come to know ourselves better. This can be hard, especially as the life is designed to reveal the truth about ourselves. The monastic tradition teaches us that the most fruitful response to difficulties involves staying with them, and trying to work through them in the battle line of the brethren; it is by our perseverance that we win our lives.  The more we root ourselves in God’s stability, the more he imparts  to us over the years something of his own quality of stability, steady, firm, unshakable.  This vow expresses our faith in the God who, we believe, has called us to be monks and nuns.

Conversatio morum is a Latin expression, which is difficult to translate, but it really means something like ‘fidelity to monastic life’. By this vow, monks and nuns promise to observe all that monastic tradition has shown leads to God. This includes a commitment to chastity, individual poverty and communal simplicity of life. The vow of conversatio morum expresses our hope that, after a lifetime of learning to die to ourselves so as to live for God, we will be truly “converted”, transformed into the image of Christ, so that we too may dwell in the presence of God, in the company of all the Saints.  Our vow of conversatio morum is really a commitment to pursue holiness.

We can sum up the vows by saying that they are a total gift of self to God .  The enable the religious to give herself  totally to God for the sake of His Church. The vows do not imply  so much a series of obligations as they do a total  dedication of one’s life.  Lumen Gentium says that in profession religious give themselves “completely to God who is loved above all” (44,1); they have “handed over their entire lives to his service” (Perfectae Caritatis 5,1). The vows presuppose this self-giving love, they indicate the content of the self-gift. And this total gift of self is a sign for others.

The consecrated  person’s radical embracing of the Christian life is a reminder  to others of what we are all called to, namely eternal life.  It is a living memorial of Christ’s own way of living  and an invitation to others to follow Christ in their state of life.  It is a reminder of the universal call to holiness.  And this radical gift of self is, paradoxically, not a loss, but a gain.  Consecrated life is a pearl of great price.

At our solemn or perpetual profession, we commit ourselves to God, singing three times before the altar the verse, “Suscipe me Domine secundum eloquium tuum et vivam, et non confundas me in expectatione mea!” (Uphold me, Lord, according to your word, and do not disappoint me in my hope). And these words are sung again for us by our sisters at the end of our lives. The vowed life begins and ends with trust in God.