The way of conversion:
humility, self-knowledge and good zeal

M. Benedict THISSEN - Berkel


S. Benedict mentions as a symbol for the way of conversion, the ladder on which Jacob in a dream saw angels descending and ascending. This ladder is our life on earth; the sides of the ladder are our body and soul. (RB 7: 5,6,8,9).

In chapter two I am often struck by the fact that S. Benedict emphasizes the main task of the abbot, namely: directing souls and serving a variety of temperaments; i.e. so accommodating and adapting himself to each one's character and intelligence that he will not only keep the flock entrusted to his care from dwindling, but will rejoice in the increase of a good flock. While always fearful to submit a reckoning of their souls, he becomes also concerned about his own soul, when that one is added as well. In eight verses 'directing of souls' occurs six times.

S. Benedict draws our attention to the whole person.

When someone enters he brings along with him his own story: his genesis up till that moment, his character. He brings along his emotions and feelings, which are strongly influenced by the household he belonged to, by his family and social background. He brings along his desires, his ideals and woundedness, there where he is alienated from himself. He brings along with him everything of his innermost unconscious, good and evil, cherished and forgotten matters, traumas and the inability not having adequately reacted towards those traumas.

All this substance enters the monastery with the candidate, nothing remains at the gate. This substance qualifies his behaviour in the community, his relations in the community, his reactions to the community. This is the life on earth of this particular person, the ladder of S. Benedict, that keeps its shape by the body and the soul.

This is the material and the subject of the way of conversion.

The one who enters is unconsciously looking for the lost paradise, the ideal family and the place which was his in that dream family. Father and mother are projected on the community. One takes the defence of traumas out on the relations with the brothers and sisters.

How many are there in our communities who suffer from a negative self-image, who suppress or deny their feelings, who refuse to develop their gifts and talents and flee in a spirituality, which is purely intellectualistic and not in touch with their feelings and inner reality. Who cling to the observances, which don't bring them to the gates of their inner world, but precisely block those very gates.

How much anxiety exists in our communities, which is hidden in every possible way or let go against the others, because the others trigger that very anxiety?

This is all subject and material for conversion.

The way of conversion is not situated on the moral level, which is a correction of behavior from outside and has no relationship with our real feelings and emotions, no relationship with our soul.

The way of conversion is not merely situated on the psychological level, where problems are tried to be solved and behavior is approached intellectually.

The way of conversion is not situated on the socializing level, which demands an external adaptation, which fosters strongly individualism, because a well-functioning group matters and the inner life is not taken into account.

What then is the way of conversion? Conversion asks a turn-about, a turn to inner self, to all that is going on in there and that is stored in there, a very patient and attentive listening. Conversion is a steady listening to how we experience life really, a becoming aware of our real feelings and desires, a descent to that extensive space, that palace of my memories, which leads me to Him, who created me, as S. Augustine says in his Confessions (8:12). It is the way of becoming really incarnated, to be and to become this unique person I am called to be and to become. It is to pull out of oblivion the moments and periods in my life, where I started to react out of my false self, where I started to repress my feelings and my opinion to survive and where I became alienated from myself. Where I lost my contact with my soul, with the image of God in me. This is a way of deep humility.

I can only go this way in the light of the faith, of the fragile confidence that God asks this from me and that there is no other way. The light of the intuition, that tells me it will lead me beyond despondency and uncertainty to the image of God in myself, to the love of God poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

It is only possible to go this way of conversion when there exists a strong affective relation with the spiritual guide. An affective relation which is a gift and can never be made. Since there proves to be overcome so much shame, so much hesitation, so much fear and distrust in oneself before someone dares to admit and surrender those painful memories, that negativity towards oneself, those madmaking obsessive thoughts and fantasies, but also the experiences of light and the invitations of the soul and of God. They are only in reality admitted to the eyes of the soul when confided to somebody else.

The language of the body is here very important. Many of the physical complaints and problems are expressions of the soul to be heard, signals from the inner world that want to give up something which is hidden away. Can we again understand the language of the body? Jesus understood the signs in the body, He healed the soul and the body was to be again. Or, He maintained the infirmity like the thorn in S.Paul's flesh, in order that in this way Gods grace would be revealed. Can the prevalent somatizing in our communities not be an invitation to richer self-knowledge in stead of feeling condemned to stand it as inevitable or to consult the many physicians ans treatments?

Can it be that the invitation of S. Benedict to support with the greatest patience one another's weaknesses of body and behavior, just be intended to let grow the wheat and the darnel in the field of the soul?

The growth in humility consists in gradually and increasingly dwelling with oneself, with everything that lives in the inner self and so to become reconciled with all this. In this way the transformation-process takes place on every level of personality, also of the unconscious. Then it will happen what Jesus said to Nicodemus, that a person has to be reborn. Self-knowledge goes even further. It recognizes the talents, the invitations to full human life and to glorify God in this way. It assumes responsibility to be actually that unique person.

The good zeal applies itself to restore the link with everything the inner self wants to reveal. It uses lectio as a reading of its own life, it admits to be touched in the lectio in body and soul, open for what God touches in the inner self and reveals about ourselves and about Himself. It applies itself to the relations in the community and all that is happening there, to hear as messages of the Lord, as invitations to self-knowledge. It will give elbow-room to the others in the community, it will mention limits and bring them up, appealing to the real inner experience.

The bad zeal abuses the life in community, the relations, the observances by repressing everything that is coming up and by being deaf for it. It remains at the outward and the order of it, in order not to be appealed by the inner emptiness and chaos, which want to be touched by the outward matters. It abuses the monastic life to resist the inner-self and to hold out the alienation from oneself. To prevent the conversion and the Breath of God to hover the chaos calling forth new life.

The way of conversion insists on an integration of everything living in our inner-self. Also on an integration of lectio, prayer, work, speaking and keeping silent, to foster that listening to the soul with the ear of the heart.

Couldn't we be occupied in liturgy, symbols and arts in a more sensual and physical way to understand the signs (Cf. S. John). Couldn't we give a real place in our lives to creativity in earthly things, colour, material and nature to escape our cerebral reflections about monastic life and escape our speculative constructions, which only alienate us from ourselves and prevent us to hear the will of God. Our first Cistercian Fathers may teach us a lot about this and we should rediscover their writings on this point. I finish with a word of William of S. Thierry: the schola caritatis gives its solutions not by reasoning, but by the intuitive knowledge, by the very truth of the matters and by experience itself.(Haec est specialis caritatis schola;...[hic] solutiones non ratiocinationibus tantum, quantum ratione et ipsa rerum veritate et experientia terminantur. {De natura et dignitate amoris, n.31}).