Conversion of manners and green coffins

“Conversion of manners” is a term from the world of Benedictine monks. What does it have to do with green burial and coffins?

At Melleray Farmstead, the cottage industrial home of Piedmont Pine Coffins, we like to say we take inspiration from monks and monasteries — primarily the Benedictine tradition. Benedict’s monks down the ages have taken a vow called “conversion of manners” — or in Latin, conversatio morum. What does it mean, and what could it mean here at the farmstead?

Conversion of Manners, a monk's vowFor the monks, conversatio means fidelity to the monastic way of life with all its practices.  All its practices — the study, the prayer, the community living — are aimed at one goal, the quest for the Divine. Note that this conversion and this fidelity are continuing and dynamic, something to be chosen day by day. Every day, moment by moment, situation by situation, the choice is made to keep one’s heart open to brothers and sisters and to God. Moment by moment, the option for service is preferenced over the option for ego and self. Conversion of manners is not once-and-done. If it were, the vow would surely stale. Other vow-takers, like married people, face the same challenge of freshening their commitment over and over.

So conversion of manners ends up being something like a “kaizen” of the human heart. Continuous improvement — like at Toyota — but on a spiritual path. Constant acceleration, no resting in place. What a demanding ideal!

Mind you, in such a scenario, you never reach the goal. It’s like the old paradox from Greek mathematician Zeno. Achilles and the Tortoise: though Achilles may be fast, the tortoise is ahead of him, and no matter how Achilles may run, the Tortoise always advances just a bit and stays ahead. And it gets harder and harder, in the monastic context, to improve that last little bit, to keep running, to keep your heart open to conversion of manners.

The monks say it’s at that point, there on the threshold of success, where they experience a capitulation or surrender. Their ego is whipped and they realize they can’t do it. Though they have run farther than most, though their discipline and spiritual athleticism are great, still there will be no perfection by effort alone. The last step is too much. Even Brother John of Mepkin Abbey — a successful and holy monk, judging by appearances and descriptions by others — would surely say the same. You remain broken and imperfect till the end.

Turning to the world of Melleray Farmstead and Piedmont Pine Coffins, what about a conversion of manners towards sustainability? For what kind of lifestyle is a green burial like a golden clasp on a closed book? What would continuous improvement mean in this context? Is living in a tiny house or choosing a green burial the cure for affluenza, or is consumerism, like a parasitical virus, resident within the human form for once and for all? Stay tuned.