Friday, September 28, 2007

Gone Fishing--Part 1

y vow or oblation, Benedictines make a commitment of conversatio morum (see note below).This Latin phrase has long given scholars headaches and Benedictine candidates much food for thought. It means literally “change of ways”. St. Benedict says, in the sixth-century rule of life which Benedictine men and women have followed ever since, that conversatio morum is what one does when one enters a monastery: one changes one’s way of life. More broadly, the phrase includes the basic Christian commitment to lifelong conversion, not only of one’s ways of daily schedule and activities, but, more fundamentally, of one’s ways of being, seeing, understanding and believing. Conversion is an in-depth makeover that does not end until we have passed through the transforming gates of death into the fullness of life in Jesus Christ.

Good preacher that he is, Jesus often uses a pattern of “tell and show” in the gospels. In Mark’s gospel, he inaugurates his mission with a single dramatic announcement: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15 [RSV]) That says it all, as we will discover when the gospel unfolds. But it says too much for us to take in. We get a first glimpse of what it means in the next few lines, when Jesus says to the fishermen Simon and Andrew, "Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men." (Mark 1:17 [RSV]). And, quite literally, they do: “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mark 1:18[RSV). And, just as literally, he does: slowly he turns them into “fishers” who trawl not for sardines and telapia but for human beings.

Their story gives us an interesting insight into conversion. We sometimes thinks it means becoming a different human being entirely: the lazy become type-A achievers, the sloppy become neat freaks, the 98-pound weaklings become Olympic gold medalists, those for whom school is one of the punishments for original sin become rocket scientists, and so on. In other words, we identify conversion’s end product with our own dreams of a perfect self, that is, whatever self we are not but would like to be.

Jesus seems to have a different picture. Simon (Peter) and Andrew apparently fished for a living, a lucrative profession in those days. They seem to have given it up rather dramatically to take up discipleship instead. Consider, however, the odd wording of Jesus’ call to them: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” The call implies that they are not being asked to give up their interests, their skills and their experience but simply to apply them to a new trade. Their weather sense, their eye for a promising catch, their patient cunning as hunters of the sea, their physical strength and stamina, their willingness to work long hard hours under difficult or even dangerous –remember those storms on the Sea of Galilee!—will all stand them in good stead. They will need to judge the figurative climate of places they had never dreamed of; they will need to look over a crowd and spot likely friends and followers; they will need to create innovative strategies to attract their hearers and await with patience the moment when the hearers take the gospel bait; as we learn from St. Paul’s accounts of his own adventures, they will have to travel far, live under duress, endure physical dangers of all kinds, and, ultimately face the certainty of a cruel death.

Perhaps conversion does not make us into impossibly different characters after all. Perhaps conversion makes the very best of what we already are. My experience of life in a monastery suggests to me that God wastes nothing. Whatever interests or skills or experiences we bring with us come in handy somewhere along the line, usually in the most unexpected ways. When one of our newcomers mentioned that she had apprenticed as a plumber’s mate, the nun in charge of maintenance lit up like a Christmas tree. When another admitted that tailoring had been a favorite hobby while she pursued a business career, she found herself making habits as well as balancing checkbooks. A third who majored in fine arts but worked in an office to make a living became an iconographer and, oh, by the way, typed the pages for revisions in our prayer books. The stories go on and on.

If God doesn’t waste simple work skills, why would God waste anything else about us? In fact, God appears to treasure the very personalities we are so eager to shed for some alien skin. What they require is conversion, not annihilation. Simon Peter’s impetuosity, forged under the harsh hammer of failure, guilt, and forgiveness, became the steely but humble courage that enabled him to face all comers for the sake of the gospel. In the end, he was able to stare down even death itself as he perished on the cross, upside down, so legend says, because he felt unworthy to imitate his Lord. Once his bold self-reliance was transformed into reliance on God, he became a truly memorable “fisher of men”. Even our worst flaws can be made into greatness by the alchemy of God’s creative love.

The conversatio morum of the Benedictine, like the conversion of every Christian, can fly in the face of conventional wisdom. We might not be able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as the saying goes. But God can. And does. Or, better said, God makes saints out of the most unlikely of sinners.
©2007, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO

Benedictine men and women follow the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-ca. 547). Monks and Sisters or nuns make perpetual vows of obedience, stability and conversatio morum. Laymen and women may commit themselves by oblation, whose root meaning is “offering”, to live according to the spirit of St. Benedict’s Rule in whatever walk of life they are called to. They make that commitment in affiliation with a Benedictine monastic community, but they do not live in monasteries. For more information: or .

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