The three standard vows, also known as the “evangelical counsels”, taken in most Catholic religious orders are poverty, chastity and obedience. However, while basically retaining the same elements, the Benedictine monastic vows have more to them as prescribed by St. Benedict himself in the 58th chapter of his Rule.
The vow of obedience goes beyond just doing what you’re told as one obeys a boss in a secular job. It’s more than just necessary to preserve order in the community. As St. Benedict teaches, “obedience given to Superiors is given to God” (Rule ch. 5). The monk obeys in imitation of Christ’s obedience to his Father, even when that obedience entails obeying “unto death, even death on a cross”, or at least what may at first seem that way! This means that the monk regards any task assigned to him as a call to participate in the obedience of Jesus, and hence perform it with the conviction that he is obeying God who his Superior represents. It is a childlike abandonment of one’s own judgment and will to God through the representatives he has placed over us. However, St. Benedict was well aware of the daunting nature of this abandonment. The Rule allows a monk, when given a task which he believes is beyond his ability, to respectfully make his case to the Superior. However, if the Superior persists, the monk is to accept the task as St. Benedict bids, “out of love, confident of God’s help” (Rule ch. 68). There’s strength in obedience, the assurance of God’s grace, and Scripture and history show that God often calls his servants to accomplish works which to them seem impossible. Another positive aspect to obedience is that it renders every task, however boring or mundane, spiritually fruitful, since any task done for the love of God, and in humility, brings about good fruits for us and others as the hidden life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph at Nazareth attests.
This vow binds the monk to remain in the community which he is entering for life. Other religious orders have several houses, schools, or missions spread over the world, and a member is assigned to various locations over the course of his life. The Benedictine monk, however, stays in the same monastery all his life. In rare cases, stability can be transferred, for example if a monastery establishes another monastery, the monk may be assigned to relocate to the new foundation as long as his service is needed there. This vow should also preclude the temptation for one to think that he’d be better off in some other monastery, or better off leaving monastic life altogether, if difficulties are encountered. It is a commitment of love to the community for God’s sake, to be of service to the brothers who God has brought together in a particular place to perform his work.
This vow has been translated over the centuries as “conversion of manners”, or “conversion of life”, each having its own particular meaning. Nowadays, this vow is understood as incorporating both meanings, that is, to continually strive for conversion in one’s own personal behavior and to faithfully persevere in living the monastic observance as it is lived within the monastery. The monk vows to never become complacent or slothful in his efforts to grow in holiness, or careless or lazy in performing his religious duties in community life. This vow contains the evangelical counsels of poverty and chastity.
Voluntary poverty is embraced in response to Jesus’ invitation once made to the rich young man: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). It means we own no personal property, emulating the Christian community assembled around the Apostles who held everything in common (Acts 4:32). We receive and use goods only with permission from the Superior. More important than the material renunciation is the spiritual dimension. The monk strives to detach himself from possessions which can distract him in his search for God and impede his quickness in obedient service, as reflected in the young man’s unwillingness to accept Jesus’ invitation (Matthew 19:22).
The community itself, although necessarily possessing funds and seeking income to sustain itself, also embraces poverty in that we as a community renounce luxuries and practice frugality and simplicity whenever possible.
Chastity is also willingly embraced as part of our monastic vocation. As men constantly focused on “adherence to the Lord without distraction” (1 Corinthians 7:35), seeking a deeper relationship with Christ, and being ever available for service to the community, we give up marriage “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12).