The necessity of true conversion

Most people immediately recognize the vows associated with religious life: poverty, chastity and obedience. It’s surprising to discover that the vows of the Benedictine order (and orders derived from the Rule of Benedict, such as the Cistercians) are different. The first vow a Benedictine takes is of obedience, but the other two are startling: one is to the stability of the community, the other is of conversio — translated loosely as “conversion of manners” or “conversion of one’s behavior.”

As a Protestant, I thought of conversion as a beginning and an end all at once. One accepted Christ as Savior and Lord, experiencing the New Birth; the rest would follow without need of deliberation or effort on my part, as a baby naturally and without deliberate choice progresses through stages of infancy to creeping about on all fours to standing, walking, running, learning to climb….

That’s a good starting point, but it’s not enough. We aren’t talking about simple physical maturation in the religious life, but of this other, abstract dimension of emotion and spirit, and those are matters that we have to choose to bring into submission to Christ.

A man might be in the habit of loose and careless sexual behavior prior to his accepting Christ. When he comes to Christ, he knows that sex outside marriage is wrong, so he resolves to follow Christ in a chaste life. But that decision is not enough. He is habituated to certain pleasures and behaviors, perhaps to the point that they have become compulsions. He craves the intimacy and the pleasure he derived from his relationships. It becomes an obsessive craving for him — not unlike, I suppose, the cravings I’ve been told a recovering alcoholic faces. What is he to do? Simply give up and give in, trusting “grace” to force God to turn a blind eye to what he himself knows is sin and offensive to God?

If I am long accustomed to thinking I know it all, and feeling arrogant pride in my quick mind, or in my various abilities, then when I come against a superior at work who wants a task approached in a way that is contrary to my own perception in the matter… If I have become habituated in any sin — pride and self-sufficiency, a too-long indulged quick and violent temper, sloth, love of luxury and carnal (not necessarily sexual) gratification, love of idleness, inordinate desire for things beyond my reasonable reach… — then am I allowed to continue to wallow in these sins?

St. Paul said absolutely not! We are not to “sin, so that grace may abound.” That is the way to death and damnation. Instead, we are to pursue the life of holiness.

St. Paul used a compelling metaphor to describe this process, of the athlete training for a competition, then running his race. An athlete doesn’t get a gold medal for stepping out onto the track, and we don’t win the Kingdom of Heaven simply because we become Christians on some semi-intellectual level. The athlete — and the Christian — make a life commitment to disciplines and habits that go utterly against our basic human nature, in order to achieve a goal. The athlete adopts a lifestyle that goes against every assumption non-athletes consider “normal,” a lifestyle we would consider unnatural in order to fully prepare his body and his mind for achieving his ambition of winning the prizes associated with his chosen sport.

So the Christian is compelled, if indeed we are Christians, to re-order our lives in unnatural ways to train for Heaven. We get up early to pray before undertaking the day’s labors, when it would be quite natural to sleep in. We plan our meals based on principles of stewardship rather than the natural considerations of pleasure and status. We deal with even the most difficult people in our lives in the principles taught by Christ to His disciples, with Charity as our focal rule, when the natural tendency would be impatience, criticism, and temper. We unnaturally deprive ourselves of superficial gratification in order to devote ourselves to reaching the level of excellence we are called — and as bold and brash as it still seems to me, I’ll say it:

We are called to be Saints.

And a saint is not merely a camp follower or a “groupie” of a church or a pastor or even of Christ Himself; a saint is someone who has achieved a high degree of holiness, of Christlikeness in his or her life. The Scriptures distinguish between believers and saints. Believers are on the track: saints have demonstrably won the prize. Not everyone competitor wins the prize, Paul reminds us.

That’s why it appeals so strongly to me, after some 48 years of self-indulgent living that has brought only frustration and failure, to look at an Order that acknowledges openly that the “natural” life is diametrically opposed to the victorious Christian life. I need to be converted — changed over from my old ways of thinking and living to ways that are fully consistent and reflective of God’s.

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