Benedictine Father Edward Seton Fittin
[Editor’s note: This is one in a continuing series on religious life during the celebration of the Year of Consecrated Life.]
MOUNTAIN LAKES This Lent, the laity at St. Catherine of Siena Parish here discovered how to live a life more centered on God from perhaps an unlikely source: the vows of stability, obedience and conversion of life taken by a Benedictine monk or sister.
Benedictine Father Edward Seton Fittin, a weekend assistant at St. Catherine’s, explained the vows and how lay men and woman can apply them to their own spirituality during “A Lenten Mission: the Three Vows of a Benedictine Monk” from March 23-25.
“Although we all share the same faith in Christ, each religious order has its own spirituality and charism. I wanted to share the spirituality of the Benedictines with the parish. It’s nice for people to know, who we are and where I come from,” said Father Fittin, a counselor to the abbot and liturgy director at St. Mary’s Abbey in Mendham, and chairman of religious studies at Delbarton School there. “Monastic spirituality has become popular and can help lay people in their walk with God.”
The founder of the religious order, St. Benedict, wrote these vows as part of his Rule of St. Benedict, which he compiled for St. Benedict’s monastery at Monte Cassino south of Rome. After his death in 547, the Rule quickly spread across Europe.
“Today the Rule is lived everywhere in the world except on Antarctica. I’ve met monks from nearly every corner of the world, and we all share this marvelous tradition. What binds us together is the Rule itself and the three vows we take,” said Father Fittin.
What follows are summaries of Father Fittin’s presentations about the Benedictine vows of stability, obedience and conversion of life.
In life, we are all lost souls, who need God. But the Lord searches for us until he finds us, watching on the horizon, as we “come to ourselves”: endeavoring to forge a closer relationship with him. That requires that we rid ourselves of our vices and grow in charity — the sacrificial love of Christ. Every day, Benedictine monks undergo that process in keeping their vow of Conversatio Morum, or “Conversion of Life,” said Father Fittin, in “Conversatio Morum: Get Low,” in his first presentation.
“Conversatio Morum is fidelity to monastic life. Through this, the monk shares in the Passion of Christ and journeys with him to glory,” said Father Fittin. “It’s the vow that monks make to keep them on the straight and narrow. It’s a daily dynamic — a continuous conversion away from sin toward the Passion and Resurrection,” he said.
For the monk and all Christians, Conversatio is about faith in the living God, who calls us to himself in Jesus. It is about hope in the unchartered life ahead, where we meet the Lord with all his incalculable mercy, Father Fittin said. “Conversatio also is about love as a giving of one’s self to God and neighbor as Christ did. Thus do we proclaim by our witness the love of God. It’s the realization that we can and must change, and be open to the many and varied ways God reveals himself to us,” he said. “We all need Conversatio.”
Vow of obedience
Benedictine monks need look no further that Abraham in the Old Testament to find the inspiration they need in keeping their vow of obedience to God.
Abraham demonstrated total obedience to God that led him to be willing to sacrifice his own son, Isaac, which convinced the Lord of his deep commitment. So God blessed Abraham with a promise, that later, was fulfilled in the appearance of Rebecca, who become the wife of Isaac, whose life the Lord spared. Catholics can take a cue from the trusting example of Abraham, said Father Fittin in “Obedience: the Love Story of Isaac and Rebekah,” at his second presentation.
“Abraham and Sarah [his wife] had every reason to doubt God,” said Father Fittin, who noted that God fulfilled many improbable promises for them, including that the barren Sarah would bear a son in her old age and that the Lord would establish a covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him (Gen 17:19). “All they were asked to do made no sense from a human perspective. In their obedience, we learn to see things from a new perspective: God’s. When we yield our will and freedom to God, we truly find both, emanating from the infinite and incomprehensible love of God. Obedience is our response to God’s gift that keeps on giving, our gift of self,” he said.
“Monastic obedience isn’t a mere carry-out of orders. Rather it is our grateful response and openness due to God’s blessings of salvation,” Father Fittin said. “Obedience finds a home within the love story of God and his people. It’s a vocation — an invitation — to growth and self-transcendence. St. Benedict suggests that we obey out of love, because we know that God won’t disappoint,” he said.
At Mass, we can more effectively hear what God wants to tell us by listening to the Word. Perhaps we can close our eyes and contemplate the Gospel in monastic silence — as Abraham did — and let the Word penetrate our ears and hearts. We can ask, What is God telling me today, right now?” Father Fittin said.
“When we abandon ourselves to God’s will, we let go. Abandonment to God’s will, in a radical way, will yield growth, freedom and love,” said Father Fittin.
Vow of stability
The troubles that plague the world can make any Catholic weary — but they can find encouragement in a powerful image: that of the resilience of St. Benedict’s Monastery at Monte Cassino, that has been destroyed four times over the centuries. Each time, the Benedictines rebuilt the structure, putting into action their vow of stability — their commitment to live in a specific community; to persevere, armed with faith the God will help them overcome any difficulty; and to live the Paschal Mystery in the reality that Jesus has risen from the dead, said Father Fittin in “Stability: the Four Seasons,” his last presentation.
“Monte Cassino is for Benedictines and many others a symbol of hope, determination and perseverance,” said Father Fittin. “Benedictine monks cultivate patience, enduring without growing weary. Thanks to stability, they hold on as things will get better…someday, but they will,” he said.
“As Christians we must be people of hope and remain steadfast in the ‘Good News’ of Christ Jesus. We can offer hope to one another, especially those among us most vulnerable and suffering,” said Father Fittin.