I’m not a monastic. I’m not even a Christian, although I still honor Jesus. So when I look at my religious practice, I am not interested in vowing poverty, chastity, or obedience. As a self-supporting individual employed full-time, I’m uncomfortably close to poverty at times, anyway (but that’s another story). I obey my supervisors when I’m at work; when I’m at home, I wish I weren’t quite so celibate.
St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, did not ask his monks to vow poverty, chastity, and obedience. He required, instead, that they promise stability, obedience, and “conversatio morum”. Stability meant that their vow was not to the Benedictine Order–I don’t think he had any conception of forming an Order–but rather to the community in which they lived, to that particular monastery or abbey. It meant staying put, committing to a particular group of people in a particular place.
Obedience meant obedience to the Abbot, or Abbess, to other superiors in the community, and to the Rule. “Conversatio morum”, often translated as “conversion of manners”, could also be rendered “changing one’s way of life”. Commentators on the Rule generally have a lot to say about conversatio; I feel reasonably confident in saying that it’s about being open to the change of heart, the change of values, the shaping of the self that is going to occur as a result of stability, obedience, and living by the Rule.
There’s a lot to be gained in Christian spirituality from studying and pondering what St. Benedict teaches about stability, obedience, and conversatio morum. But there’s another triad or tripod of values in his Rule that I think can apply to devotees of any religion or deity. It emerges from (frankly) some of the most tedious parts of the Rule, the details of the daily schedule and what should be done at the seven periods of prayer that punctuate the monks’ day.
Benedict schedules his monks for periods of prayer, study, and work. Prayer, for the monastic community, includes the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours, seven periods of prayer in common; the Eucharist, weekly and on holy days in his time; and private prayer and meditation. Study primarily means studying (and memorizing) the Scriptures and writers who were already recognized as authoritative, but by the Middle Ages Benedictines were scholars in a wide variety of disciplines; Hildegard of Bingen, for example, practiced and wrote about medicine. Work included everything that a self-supporting pre-industrial community had to do: farming, cooking, housekeeping, making shoes and clothing, selling the community’s surplus and buying what it couldn’t produce.
Benedict’s schedule of prayer, study, and work, rather than the monastic vows, can best form a useful model for a monastic or quasi-monastic approach to polytheism. Acts of devotion, whether rituals, offerings, prayers, meditations, contemplation, form the basis of the relationship between deity and devotee. Study encompasses anything one can do to better understand the gods, their historic worship, philosophy, magic, or whatever else is important; I don’t know a pagan or polytheist who doesn’t love to read, anyway. And work can include anything specifically done in honor of or dedication to a deity, such as this blog in my case, or any kind of work at all, offered to an appropriate deity; I sometimes offer my dish-washing to the house spirits and to my ancestors, in memory of all the foremothers who washed dishes in their day.
Devotion, study, and work is the tripod I seek to balance on as I frame my religious practice on a monastic model. I don’t have to quit my job, cover my head, wear a special outfit, or stick out in any way (unless I want to). I just have to be grounded, attentive, and anchored.