Thursday, December 30, 2010

Thomas Merton and Conversion of Manners

Fr. Dale Matson
The three vows of the Benedictine Monks are obedience, stability, and conversion of manners. Poverty and chastity are included in conversion of manners. Having read many of Thomas Merton’s books, I have an admiration for him. He was spiritually brilliant and insightful. I am blessed to have known him through his books and have known a couple of other men who influenced me through their lives. Although they did not shine with his brightness and were not as articulate, they lived the life he discussed in his writings and remain an inspiration for me. I will discuss them further in a short while.

Why does one become a monastic? It is accepting the call of Christ to follow Him. The vows of the monastics are an attempt to live out the beatitudes listed by Christ in His Sermon on the Mount. “Therefore we can conclude that we come to the monastery to seek Christ—desiring that we may find Him and know Him, and thus come to live in Him and by Him.” (Thomas Merton, Basic Principles of Monastic Spirituality, 1996, Templegate Publishers, p.21).

“By conversion of manners we definitely consecrate our whole life to the service of God as monks, men who have turned their backs on the world, who have substituted the humility, chastity, poverty, renunciation of the cloister for the ambitions, comforts, pleasures, riches and self-satisfaction of the world.” (Ibid, p.86).

The two other men I knew were not monks or oblates by intention but they were monks in their unspoken permanent vow of conversion of manners. Merton stated, “The vow of conversatio morum is a vow to live in the Spirit”. It is aimed at spiritual virginity which is purity of heart. The point here is that the goal of monastic living is not seeking personal perfection. It is as Merton noted. “Christ is the center of monastic living. He is the source and the end. He is the way of the monk as well as his goal.”(Ibid, p.9).

There is no reason to think that the intentionality of monastic living is a less distracted search for the face of God than a life where one is married, raising a family, serving in a parish church, living a disciplined and virtuous life, working in a vocation that provides meaning and seeing sacredness in ordinary existence. These two men were what I would call deacon monks. They took the church into the streets and into the workplace. They were Christ for their families. They were contemplatives who were also active. They were courageous leaders of others and helped form Christ in the novices. Their hearts were pure and their speech was unguarded. It didn’t have to be guarded because they loved the people they spoke to. They only saw the good in others because their own hearts were pure. They brought out the best in others and gave them a hand up. They were innocent as doves and surprised at the moral failures in others. They were quick to forgive and easily brought to laughter. And why is this? It is because they had at a critical junction in their lives decided that Christ was the pearl of great price. He would be their head and they would live a life worthy of His unmerited grace to them. They were in holy orders and unaware of it. Their conversion of manners took place outside the walls of a monastery. Amen

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