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?