Monks take three vows: obedience, stability and conversatio morum. These are solemn promises, made in the presence, not only of the Abbot and community, but – as St Benedict reminds us – of God and his Saints. The vows are the monk’s way to God; when a monk embraces the vows and seeks to make them his own, we believe that they work as channels for grace so that, over a lifetime of monastic observance, the monk is – with the help of God – transformed into the image of Christ.
Obedience is a key virtue, for a monk 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 Abbot assigns to us, but, as St Benedict reminds us, our obedience will be perfect when we freely choose to obey not merely the Abbot or other superiors, but all of our brethren, for the love of Christ.
The vow of stability is a characteristically monastic vow. Unlike some other religious, Benedictine monks 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. The monastic life consists principally in getting to know God more and more, but, in the process, 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. This vow expresses our faith in the God who, we believe, has called us to be monks.
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 promise to observe all that monastic tradition has shown leads to God. This includes a commitment to celibate 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 transformed into the image of Christ, so that we too may dwell in the presence of God, in the company of all the saints.
Monks spend the first year of their monastic life as novices, learning from the Novice Master and community about the life, and about the vows they may later take. After this time, if the novice asks to persevere, and the Abbot and community agree that he seems to show signs of a monastic vocation, he takes Simple Vows, which means he promises to live by the monastic vows for a trial period of three years or so. After this longer period of testing, the junior monk can choose to take Solemn Vows. The vows are the same ones the monk embraced at his Simple Profession, but this time he promises to keep them for the whole of his life.
At his solemn profession, the monk commits himself 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 him by his brothers during his burial. The vowed life begins and ends with trust in God.