How to Translate Conversatio Morum?

This weekend I was privileged to attend a happy and beautiful event: a friend made his simple profession as a Benedictine monk of Ealing Abbey, near London. The community at Ealing is known for expertise in liturgy and in Latin.

The candidate made three promises before the abbot and the monks: stability (to the particular house of monks), obedience, and conversatio morum. That’s how it was recited, repeatedly: two promises in English, one in Latin.

The abbot gave a sort of lesson to the candidate – though it also functioned as a homily – a large part of which was an explication of conversatio morum. It was clear that this wasn’t something that happened once, but an ongoing transformation of the heart, and also a “conversation”, as we might use the term in English – with God, and with the other monks.

But conversatio morum was never rendered in English.

“Conversion of manners” was how I had seen it translated before, for example in some of Thomas Merton’s work. The expression always struck me as clumsy, focused on things like how to fold the napkin in the refectory or how to wear the cowl, though I can see that these small things could also be part of conversatio morum.

This essay, from some monks in Idaho, struck me as very sensible. And from it I learned, first, that the three promises aren’t really separate promises at all, but an iterative, almost pleonastic phrase; also that the Latin text of St Benedict’s Rule had been misread until about 1912, when Abbot Cuthbert Butler, after extensive manuscript study, corrected conversio to conversatio.

Conversio has more of the sense of a “U-turn”, an inverting, a single event in time. Conversatio, in contrast, conveys “frequency”, and also “conversation” in the modern English sense.

The essay adds that

… a request to explain the promise of conversatio morum often elicits an initial moment of silence, followed with a mumbled response about ‘being faithful to living a monastic life’, or ‘being open to constant conversion in our life,’ or ‘well, that’s really hard to answer’

So why couldn’t these learned and reflective monks find a way to translate conversatio morum? Surely the concept doesn’t require Latin to be intelligible.

So I would ask the Benedictines reading this, and those knowledgeable about matters monastic and Benedictine: what is a simple way, in not too many words, to translate conversatio morum?

14 comments

  1. “Conversion of life” was the phrase I encountered many time over the years in a Benedictine context. I always understood morum to be related to customs or usages, and in that sense “changing one’s ways” might be another equivalent.

    But if conversatio has undertones of iteration and dialogue, my mind moves to the related word “convergence”, which ties in well with one gradually moving to more closely conforming oneself to the person of Christ. I don’t think, though, that “convergence of life” would be well understood, even if it is an apt description of what a monk or nun strives to achieve in their relationship with the rest of the community to which they have vowed stability.

  2. Thanks, Paul – your note points out that mos (whence morum) is as challenging to translate as conversatio. I believe that in classical Latin, mos refers not only to customs and usages (mos graecorum, “the way the Greeks do things”) but also to character, will, conduct, behaviour, one’s way of acting, perhaps in contrast to the law. I’m reminded of the saying to the effect that the true test of one’s character is what she or he does when nobody is watching.

    Cicero, whom St Benedict surely studied, wrote a short note to Quintus Cornificius, praising one Sextus Aufidius: “His character (mos) is so well balanced and temperate that he combines great humanity with the strictest decorum.” (Ad Familiares 12.27).

    So: “convergence of character”? “Formation of character”? “Willingness to be formed”? Words like “being conformed” (Romans 8.29) come to mind, though to avoid more modern connotations of “conformity” you have to add a comment about the etymology, which somewhat defeats the purpose of a translation.

  3. I think “monastic manner of life” is good – but maybe I think this because it’s what we use at St. John’s. “Lifestyle” seems accurate but totally the wrong register.

    I sometimes think – this this is heretical and not permitted in our community! – that the monastic manner of life is all about conversion, and so “(ongoing) conversion of life” isn’t that far off. But I get it that the great manuscript discovery about “conversio” makes everyone want to avoid “conversion.”

    awr

  4. I have suggested to students, based on pretty much nothing but my own intuition, that the three vows might be correlated with the three non-cenobitic types of monks:
    Conversatio morum distinguishes you from the anchorites.
    Obedience distinguishes you from the sarabites.
    Stability distinguishes you from the gyrovagues.
    Of course, this proves nothing except that I have a truly medieval mind that seeks out correlations everywhere.

  5. I think it’s also really interesting to notice that in the Vulgate at least, Paul’s comment, “but our citizenship is in heaven . . . ” (Phil 3:20a) is rendered “nostra autem *conversatio* in caelis est.”

    If citizenship is part of what’s being promised, then “monastic manner of life” is probably not a bad translation, and it relates to both obedience and stability in important ways.

    1. That example wasn’t on the tip of my tongue, but I did think of an old lexicon entry of “frequent abode” that a quick check confirms is found in Pliny and Justinian. Maybe (bringing out a Johannine echo in English), “dwelling in the monastic way of life.”

  6. “Conversation” implies that the inner conversion (formation) is always carried out in relation to others, and to God; a (Benedictine) listening as well as acting/speaking. So the presence of the two meanings is appropriate.

    Perhaps ‘inner disposition’ might play a part in the sense of the phrase.

  7. Fritz’s set of distinctions makes sense to me, and seems to echo St Benedict’s early chapter of the Rule on the different types of monks.

    I’m struck that Latin has at least as many “false friends” as French. So even if St Benedict had used conversio, the Latin word doesn’t exactly translate into English “conversion”; and conversatio is not really “conversation”.

    Grateful to all for interesting and enlightening comments.

  8. This post reminds me of the first talk given by the chaplain/speaker at a Catholic People’s Week — see http://www.catholicpeoplesweeks.org.uk for more information on this ofrganization — in Oxford at Easter 1981. The theme was the Sacraments and their development through history. The speaker (Fr Thomas Cooper, at that time a regular contributor to Catholic publications) began by citing a letter from a popular Catholic paper, where the writer described attending a Benedictine First profession and had been shocked at the vows taken: “I was always taught that religious took vows of Poverty, Chastity, & Obedience.” Fr Cooper briefly explained that these “traditional” vows were in fact new-fangled medieval vows for the new mendicant orders, and went on to indicate that a lot of what cradle Catholics grew up being taught as coming from time immemorial were actually innovations, often hotly contested at the time. He illustrated in a learned but accessible way how the sacraments had come to take their present form, in many ways quite foreign to the current practice.
    The false friends are legion. I still recall being stumped as a child hearing the sentence from Philippians 3:20 in the Douay-Rheims translation: “But our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ”. Knox translated “But our true home is in heaven…”, which certainly mades sense.

  9. I don’t know the hermeneutical or grammatical terms, but in some passages there’s a sense of continuance. “Ask, Seek, Knock” is actually “Ask…and keep on asking…” and “Don’t be drunk with wine but instead be filled with the Spirit” is actually “…be continually being filled with the Spirit”

    And so I see “conversatio morum” (which I have as a tattoo, misspelled as “morem”) as meaning “Be continually being transformed” into the image of Christ.

  10. As a medievalist by advanced degree training and as a teacher of comparative religion and a Benedictine Olbate since 2000, I ponder the merits of “conversio” vs. “conversatio”. In keeping with the religious literature of the early middle ages “conversio” seems to express what the desert fathers had in mind. “Conversio” as “conversion of the heart” is the first step in the spiritual life and corresponds to the stage of spirituality in the path to union with God, the “via purgatorio” or “Umkehr”, as it is called in German. As “Seekers of God” we are called to “conversion of heart” daily or even hourly. In this sense each waking and each preparation for sleep is a call to self examination of one’s day or disposition and new beginning. In the prayer of the heart this is an ongoing process. Connected with “Beginners Mind” we renew our faithfulness to the Benedictine path to God, repent our failings, ask for God’s mercy and support. In this sense “conversio morum” or “conversatio morum” is a call to renewal closely connected with humility and the desire for union with God.

    I am aware that this is just my perspective on the term and that, as a Benedictine Oblate, those in full monastic life take precedence. And yet, it might — in the context of medieval thought on union with God and the practice of the Orthodox Christian Fathers — be worth considering.

  11. From Jean Ritzke Rutherford

    Please change “via purgatorio” to “via purgatio”.

    Thank you for your consideration

  12. Is there a comparison between becoming a religious, and becoming a Christian? The introductory notes to the RCIA (sorry can’t cite as I have no copy to hand) say that The Three Sacraments of Initiation are: Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. What immediately struck me was that, while Baptism and Confirmation are non-repeatable, we can partake in Eucharist daily, The text does not imply one-off ‘First Communion’. So it seems to asssert that Eucharist is continually ushering us in. Which makes sense to me.

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