The following was my contribution to a Buddhist-Catholic dialogue hosted by the Ch’an Buddhist community at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, near Ukiah, CA.
A VOW OF CONVERSATION
Thomas Merton always kept diaries. The reason was, I think, that he was a very fast reader; he would finish his obligatory, monastic lectio divina early in the day, and having nothing else to read, he would turn to writing a book for himself (Merton was also a fast writer).
Your diary is a lectio divina on your soul, but if you are a gifted writer, you will create a pagina (page) for others, a spin-off of the sacra pagina, the canonical Scriptures or the liturgy; you will also insert a page of your soul in between these sacred pages. A great diarist, having read the soul, writes about this self-lectio in such a way that intimate thoughts and feelings show their universal side and empower readers to read themselves while reading the diarist’s book.
The last, edited diary manuscript that Thomas Merton sent to his literary agent, Naomi Burton Stone, was entitled A Vow of Conversation. Merton wanted the manuscript to be published no earlier than 1971, but when that year came, his voice had already been silenced by his untimely, accidental death in Bangkok, Thailand, on the 10th of December, 1968.
Looking through the Index of A Vow of Conversation, you find that references to Buddha or Buddhism are on only five of its 212 pages, but then, when you reach the end of the alphabet, you discover 21 pages that have to do with Zen or the great Zen scholar, D. T. Suzuki. Beyond these explicit references, Merton’s ongoing conversation with Buddhism is constantly implied in everything he says about his day-to-day life in the monastery.
In the opening entry of Merton’s diary, we can listen in on this implicit conversation with Buddhist monastic life.
January 1, 1964
Yesterday the year drew to a quiet curious end with an eclipse of the moon. The novices and I went out into the fierce zero cold and stood in the darkness of the garden while a last flake of light resisted for a long time the swallowing globe of dark. Then I went back to read Karl Jaspers’ book about Plato.
We have a Japanese fish kite made of red paper and Brother Dunstan stuck up some bamboo poles in the Zen garden. We will fly fish and streamers to celebrate the New Year.
The year of the dragon came in with sleet crackling on all the quiet windows. The year of the hare went out yesterday with our red fish kite twisting and flopping in the wind over the Zen garden. Today, a cold gray afternoon. Much snow. Woods, bright with snow, loom out of the dark. Totally new vision of the Vineyard Knob. Dark, etched out with snow, standing in obscurity and in a kind of strange spaciousness that I had never observed before.
The wide sweep of snow on St. Benedict’s field. I climbed the Lake Knob. Wonderful woods. Slid down the steep hillside in the snow. Tore my pants on barbed wire. Came back through the vast fields and drifts of snow. Peace!
A few days before Merton’s departure on his fateful voyage to Asia, Mrs. Stone sent him a letter about the manuscript; the letter contains a significant, Freudian slip, where she refers to the diary with the title “Vow of Silence,” rather than “Vow of Conversation.”
It is often said that Trappist monks — Merton was a Trappist — take a vow of silence. This is not exactly true, but in Merton’s day Trappists were required to communicate with each other, outside of confessions or chapter meetings, only by means of an elaborate system of manual signs. Monks like Merton, of a loquacious and jovial nature, acquired great skill in sign language and could indeed carry on conversations, obeying the letter of the law of silence but not its spirit, or rather, obeying the spirit of a higher law, in accordance with which, monks are to live in a constant act of conversation.
We all know from experience, even the most loquacious of us, that conversation means more than just talking. It is first of all a relationship between two or more talkers, who agree on the tacit terms of a shared belonging and a shared process of living. I cannot converse with a person who, although perhaps physically present or on the other end of a telephone or Skype connection, does not share my mental and/or spiritual space and process. If the other is mentally somewhere else, or heading in a direction opposite or tangential to mine, we cannot engage in conversation. At most, we either talk at each other or past each other.
I have said that monastics are mandated to observe a higher law, in accordance with which they are to live in a constant act of conversation. Keep in mind that when speaking of ‘conversation’, the phrase ‘constant act’ is redundant. ‘Conversation’ comes from the Latin verbal noun conversatio and ultimately from the verb conversari, which is what they call a ‘frequentative verb’, one that denotes a repeated action. In everyday use, conversatio meant going about in the same place and with the same company. You can tell how easy it was to move from this Latin usage to that of the French and English word: you keep company with a certain group of people and you frequently engage in conversation with them.
In monastic usage, conversatio meant associating with monks and interacting with them in the monastery. Actually the word meant more than this, and on account of its larger meaning, it became the central vow of monastics in the Rule of Saint Benedict. I shall quote the Rule from the translation given in the volume, Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict.
Here is the key text from chapter 58, paragraph 4: “When the decision is made that novices are to be accepted, then they come before the whole community in the oratory [the place of daily community prayer and of silent, individual prayer] to make solemn promise of stability, fidelity to monastic life and obedience.” Here you have the three Benedictine vows, the first and the third each being expressed with a single word, which in English is a cognate of the Latin: stabilitas and oboedientia. The middle vow is a phrase that includes our key term, ‘conversation’: promittat de… conversatione morum suorum. I give you a literal rendering: “Let the novices make a promise about… conversation of their own mores.”
The meaning of the vow is not immediately clear. My translation of it is surely more arcane than the original Latin, but actually I am following the principle of strict ‘formal equivalence’ that the Holy See is now imposing on translators of Roman Catholic liturgies and papal instructions, perhaps with the intent of making the translations suitably arcane. What about the word ‘mores’? This is a straight-out Latin word, actually a plural, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as follows: “1. The accepted traditional customs and usages of a particular social group. 2. Moral attitudes. 3. Manners; ways.” Which of these three definitions is applicable here depends on how you interpret the other term, ‘conversation’. But first it depends on that possessive pronoun, ‘their own’, referring to the novice or novices, and so we are pointed toward definitions 2. and 3.
It seems, from the formula of monastic promises, that each novice is bringing his or her own moral attitudes, manners, and ways into conformity with the accepted customs and traditional usages of the monastic social group. The Benedict’s Dharma translation of the Rule seems to convey this idea in its phrase, “fidelity to monastic life.” The only problem is, the Latin conversatio, like the French-English ‘conversation’, does not mean ‘fidelity’. Monastics in Saint Benedict’s day (the early sixth century of the Common Era) always understood conversatio in connection with the verb it ultimately derived from, which is convertere, ‘turn round, turn in the opposite direction, turn back, whirl around’, and then, in Christian writers, ‘change, alter, refresh,’ and of course, ‘convert’. The frequentative form of the verb, conversari, suggested the idea of continuing to do, over and over again, what the root verb was about. Keep on turning, keep on changing, refresh every day, and so on.
I think the abbot who did the translation for Benedict’s Dharma wanted to give the same meaning to the second vow as to the first and the third. Certainly, the vow of stability suggests lifelong fidelity to the traditional customs and usages of the persons living in this particular monastery; you could say that its meaning is static and horizontal. ‘Obedience’ also seems static (do what you’re told, no more and no less) and vertical (the abbot gives the orders, and the monks carry them out without delay). The middle vow, however, has to mean something dynamic, not static, and horizontal, not vertical, or in other words, “Change and refresh your moral attitudes, your manners, and your ways in a lifelong conversation with your fellow monastics’ customs and usages.”
This same chapter 58 of the Rule opens with the phrase, Noviter veniens quis ad conversationem (there’s that key word again), which you can translate, “When someone newly arrives to join in the conversation, don’t make it too easy for them to get in.” Not only the abbot but also the elder monk who is put in charge of the novices should use careful discernment; they should also be good at “winning souls,” that is, gaining the novices’ attention and confidence.
Saint Benedict gives the novices plenty of time to decide whether and when to make their solemn promises of monastic vows. The actual duration of the time is immaterial; in the sixth century, life was short and a full year was enough, while in the twenty-first, at least five years are needed. Whoever the novice is, and whatever the larger context of his or her petition to enter the monastery, the monastic elders must be discreet, and both the elders and the novices must exercise discernment.
With these two virtues, ‘discretion’ and “discernment’, I come to another important term in the monastic vocabulary: discretio, which translates both English words. The opposite of this is praesumptio, which means presumption or taking things for granted. This is the vice of those who are indiscreet and undiscerning, who take for granted their own understanding of how things are or ought to be. Discretio is enormously important for monastics: it governs their practice of other monastic virtues, like humility and silence, and it guides even their practice of the vows of obedience and stability. Over the course of many years in the monastery, one’s practice of these static vows may degenerate into rigidity; against this degeneration, discretio brings into play the dynamic virtue of the middle vow, conversatio, making it the key to authentic monastic practice.
Within the Benedictine tradition, we have a rich treasure of hagiographical texts that elaborate on Scriptural themes and re-narrate Bible stories through the events and inner experiences of monastic saints. One of these is Romuald of Ravenna, the patron saint of the Camaldolese. His story was told, with parsimony although not with much historical accuracy, by Peter Damian, doctor of the Church, also a Benedictine hermit born in Ravenna. For Peter Damian, Romuald was to be considered the ‘adoptive father’ of the monks of his community at Fonte Avellana, an austere brotherhood that combined the Benedictine Rule with a return to the spirit of the Desert Elders of Egypt.
Peter Damian’s narrative is a study in contrasts and a call to growth for both individual monks and communities small and great; commentators often see in his hagiographical writings (i.e., lives of saints) a project for reforming the whole church. His story of Romuald’s growth in virtue and spiritual realization begins with an image of him as a novice.
[After a few months in the monastery, the abbey of Sant’Apollinare in Classe,] Romuald began to realize that some of the monks were strolling down the broad path to perdition, while his heart was set on the narrow gate that leads to life. Romuald knew he had to follow his heart, but this did not seem possible at Sant’Apollinare. “What should I do?” he asked himself, and a thousand thoughts beat upon his soul like the waves of a winter storm.
With hard words Romuald presumed to denounce the easy ways of the monks, and he exposed their faults through repeated references to the Rule. But the more he insisted, the less attention they paid to him. “After all, he is only a young novice,” they said. In the end their tolerance was exhausted, and they could bear his reproofs no longer. They set about plotting to kill him.
Romuald was accustomed to rise early, before the monks got up for their nightly vigil, and when he found the doors of the church locked, he would say his prayers in the dormitory. Now the dormitory was on the second floor of the abbey and looked out over the cloister. At the devil’s prompting, these sons of Cain decided that the next time Romuald started reciting his prayers in the dormitory, they would throw him headlong over the railing to the pavement below.
Hearing them discuss this plot, one of the brothers warned Romuald. So he shut the door of his mouth and began to pray to his Father in silence, in the secret chamber of his heart. And thus he was safe; he avoided being cast down bodily into the cloister garth, and he kept the monks’ souls from falling into the abyss of mortal sin.
A later chapter in Peter Damian’s story shows us another Romuald, no longer a presumptuous novice but a discreet and discerning elder, an ex-abbot, for he was briefly forced by the teen-age emperor Otto III to accept the crozier of his home abbey. He renounced the office, and from then on he was just Master Romuald, exercising no ecclesiastical jurisdiction but rather instructing monastics and lay people with his gentle and disconcerting charism.
Once, while he was reading the Lives of the Desert Elders, Romuald came upon the passage about the brothers who used to fast in their hermitage from Monday through Friday, and then on Saturday and Sunday would come together for common meals, at which a greater variety and quantity of food was served. So from then on, for fifteen years or so, Romuald followed this practice without interruption.
But [his disciple] Peter, [the former doge of Venice,] long accustomed as he was to a rich diet, found this regime of fasting too heavy, and his health was failing. So he went and humbly cast himself at Romuald’s feet. Romuald made him stand, and Peter, with great embarrassment, revealed his need for a more generous diet. “Father,” he said, “I do want to do penance for my sins, but with my heavy build, I can’t get by with half a loaf of dry bread.” Romuald, moved by paternal compassion toward Peter, gave him another quarter loaf from his own supply of bread.
Thus he held out a hand of mercy to a brother who was failing on the way, so that with renewed strength, he might more easily follow the path he had chosen.…
Regarding total fasting—eating nothing all day—although he himself often practiced it, he absolutely forbade it to his disciples. “If you want to grow continually in your monastic commitment,” he said, “then the best kind of fasting means eating every day and feeling hungry every day. If you practice fasting with discretion, what seems hard at first will become easier.” Romuald had no use for monks who started out doing heavy penance, and then weren’t able to keep it up.
About staying up at night to pray he was very cautious. What he did not want anyone to do was to stay up and then fall asleep at dawn, after the night vigil. He had no patience for those who couldn’t stay awake in the morning. If someone confessed he had gone back to sleep after the Vigil of Twelve Psalms or worse yet at sunup, Romuald would not let him sing Mass that day.
“Better to sing one Psalm with feeling,” he said, “than to recite a hundred with a wandering mind. But if you haven’t yet received the grace of singing from your heart, do not give up hope. Be constant in your practice, and one day He who gave you the desire for the prayer of the heart will give you that prayer itself.
“When your heart’s intention is fixed on God, it will keep lit the incense of your prayer, and the wind of distraction will not put it out. Do not worry about stray thoughts; they may come and go, but they will not take your attention away from God.”
So Romuald is now the very model of Benedictine discretio, for he sees spiritual practice in terms of quality, not quantity, centered above all in the heart. This is also the Middle Way, on which Buddha Dharma invites us to walk.
By way of conclusion: Romuald enacts the central Benedictine vow in a dynamic way, through conversation with his fellow monastics. His presumptuous fault-finding while a novice at Sant’Apollinare in Classe was not a genuine conversation: Romuald was talking at the monks, not with them. By experience, especially by the experience of his own and others’ weaknesses, he becomes a compassionate teacher. The skill that he learned over many years as a monk is what Saint Benedict called “The good zeal that monks ought to have,” the title of Benedict’s next-to-last chapter in his Rule. In earlier chapters he has warned against what here he calls the “zeal of bitterness,” the harshness of zealots who presume to judge others and set themselves up as superior in virtue to them. Let me quote the whole chapter:
Just as there is a bad zeal of bitterness that separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal that separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. This, then, is the good zeal that monastics must foster with fervent love: They should try to be the first to show respect to the other (Romans 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or mores, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. You are not to pursue what you judge better for yourself, but instead, what you judge better for someone else. To your fellow monastics show the pure love of siblings; to God, reverence and love; to your abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.
1. New York: Farrar-Strauss-Giroux, 1988.
2. Ibid., p. 3.
3. Quoted in her preface to the published diary, p. vii.
4. Edited by Patrick Henry (New York: Riverhead Books, 2001); the translation of the Rule is the work of Abbot Patrick Barry, OSB. My citations of the original Latin text will be from RB 1980: The Rule of Saint Benedict In Latin and English with Notes, edited by Timothy Fry OSB (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1981.
5. Benedict‘s Dharma, p. 204.
6. Fourth Edition, 2006.
7. I have translated this and other texts and commented upon them in Thomas Matus, The Mystery of Romuald and the Five Brothers: Stories from the Benedictines & Camaldolese (Big Sur: Hermitage Books, 1994).
8. Matus, op.cit, p. 177.
9. Ibid., pp. 185-186.
10. Ibid., pp. 187-188.
11. RB 1980, pp. 292-294.