If you have any evangelical Christian friends, I bet you’ve heard that question. I’m no theologian, even worse, I’m a former Presbyterian (I’ll share a story on that, below) but I think one of the key tenants evangelical Christians hold to is the idea of being “born again.” It is so important, many of them will be able to tell you the day and even the time they first accepted Christ.
It might surprise many Catholics, but St. Benedict also emphasized the importance of conversion, although in the Rule, he phrased it in a slightly different way. He called it conversatio. Conversatio is one of the three vows stipulated in Benedict’s Rule for the monk to take on final profession. The exact meaning of the word is difficult to translate in English, but the gist of it is that the monk vows to conform his life to that of the monastery. It means, as Fr. Michael Casey puts it:
By the vow of . . . (conversatio morum) the monk embraces all the traditional observances that contribute to the building up of the monastic spirit: participation in the Liturgy of the Hours, personal prayer, lectio divina, work, poverty, chastity, solitude and silence, and the whole range of communal activities.This may seem a slightly different idea than that expressed by our evangelical friends, but it is no less a description of conversion – giving up one’s self-will, one’s independence so to speak, to follow the direction of an abbot and according to the traditions of the community, all to conform oneself, finally, to Christ.
Where there is a difference, it’s in the fact that Benedict seems to see conversion as an on-going, life long process. We would not agree at all that conversion is a one time event that, once experienced, is left in the past. Of all the saints in the Church, he seems to have recognized, even emphasized, the weakness that being human entails. That’s why he points up the need for moderation in all aspects of a monk’s life.
Still, this isn’t to say that conversion, expressed either way, is not a painful and difficult process. Many of us have experienced the fact that, once we experience a major change in our lives, it affects most of who we are and what we do. It can cost friendships that previously seemed unbendable; it can mean change or loss of profession, a whole range of things can happen. The key, as Benedict also pointed out, is courage and perseverance. We won’t earn heaven in an instant, but if we do our best to be unwavering in our commitment, there will indeed come an instant when we are truly born again. It’s sometimes hard to be mindful of this, but well worth the effort.
A very staid and proper Presbyterian minister was invited to attend a conference of Christians on evangelization. Being somewhat innocent of these matters, he accepted. As it turned out, the conference was put on by a particularly charismatic group of evangelical Christians, and the experience was much more lively than he had expected it to be. At the end, the leader of the conference asked the Presbyterian what exactly was the contribution of the Presbyterian church to the history of evangelization. The pastor thought for a moment and said, “Restraint.”