Taking It With You: Living the Oblate Life

In my previous post, Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey Stuff, I wrote about my first experience visiting a Benedictine monastery: St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers.

Today, I would like to write more about my ongoing experience with the monastery and how it continues to affect my life today.

During my first visit to St. Gregory’s, I discovered a new (to me) conception of time as a spiral, instead of a line. Life, according to this vision, is less about success and more about fidelity to the daily round of prayer and work (Ora et Labora) that takes place at work and in the home.

Within the monastic rhythm of life, I discovered a deep peace that I had never experienced before. My primary question to myself as I left the abbey after that first visit was, How do I take something of this experience with me into the rest of my life?

Obviously, as one who is already bound by marriage vows and responsibilities toward children, becoming a monk was out of the question for me. But I refused to believe that the stable heartbeat of the Spirit is available only to those who live in a monastery. Every monk and nun I have ever met would tell me that the monastic life is only one path to holiness within the larger Christian way. Any person, in any station of life, who lives with an open heart to God can take part in the blessed peace “that passeth all understanding” (Phil 4:7). For some, the Benedictine monastic tradition is a helpful tool for achieving spiritual growth in their life outside the cloister. I have come to believe that I am one such person.

But how does one do that?

As I looked around the abbey grounds during my first visit, I saw a word that I had not encountered before: Oblate.

I asked one of the monks, Br. Abraham, what it meant. He told me, “An oblate is someone who would be a monk, but is prevented from doing so by some other life commitment (like marriage).” Intrigued, I went into the monastery library and looked up everything I could find on the subject. Benedictine oblates are people “in the world” (i.e. outside a monastery) who live according to the Rule of St. Benedict in a way that is adapted to their particular station in life. They affiliate with a particular monastery that becomes their home abbey for life. They support the work of the monks with their prayers and finances. They visit as often as they are able.

One author writes that oblates are “the arms of the monastery into the world.” By embodying the spirit of the Rule in their lives, oblates are able to demonstrate the gentle power of Benedictine spirituality to those who never have (or perhaps never will) visit a monastery. Br. Benet Tvedten OSB humorously describes oblation as “how to be a monastic and not leave your day job.”

Well-known Benedictine oblates include authors Walker Percy and Kathleen Norris, famous actor Sir Alec Guinness (who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars), and social activist Dorothy Day.

Someone asked me today what benefits come with being an oblate. Does one receive special privileges at the abbey? None that I know of. Does one receive a plaque to hang on the wall? No. Does oblature certify one to work in a particular career? No. Why then would a person go through the trouble of becoming a Benedictine oblate?

I cannot answer this question for everyone. I can only speak for myself.

And all I can say is that this is the life I want to live.

I have found through St. Benedict a way of life that is grounded and balanced, built on moderation and flexibility. People like me, who throw themselves into new things with gleeful abandon (and subsequently beat themselves up when they are unable to attain the heights to which they had aspired), need someone like St. Benedict to come along and remind us, “Easy does it,” and “Slow and steady wins the race.” Growth is about progress, not perfection.

St. Benedict sums up his Rule by declaring that it is written for “beginners” who are “who are hastening to the heavenly homeland” and want to “show that we have attained some degree of virtue and the rudiments of the religious life” (RB 73). In other words, Benedictine spirituality is for regular people on the journey, not superheroes who want assurances that they have already arrived. I heard a story about a monk who, when asked what one does in a monastery, replied, “We fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up.”

That kind of patience and perseverance have been noticeably lacking in my life up to this point, but I believe I began to experience them when I first visited the monastery. Since then, I have tried to get back every month or so. I try to carve out a week each year for a longer retreat in relative silence. When I leave, I make every effort to take the monastery with me and apply what I have learned there in my life at work and at home. The effort is incomplete and faltering. Like the monk said, “I fall down and I get up, I fall down and I get up, I fall down and I get up.” But I keep going, which I guess is the point of the whole thing.

The great benefit I can see to being a Benedictine oblate is that I get to live the life of a Benedictine oblate. I find peace in it, even when life is chaotic and the feeling of “inner peace” is absent.

After reading several books on oblature, speaking with others who are taking the journey, and trying little by little to incorporate the practices into my daily routine, I came to the decision that this is the kind of life I want to live, whether I am clothed as an oblate or not. According to St. Benedict, a person ought “not to wish to be called holy before one is holy; but first to be holy, that one may be truly so called” (RB 4).

Having official standing as an oblate is not essential in itself, but living the oblate life with the support and accountability of more experienced members of a monastic community would certainly be conducive to doing it well.

Larger monasteries, like St. Meinrad Archabbey and St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, have sizable oblate programs with chapters meeting all over the world. I have gotten to know people from several other fine monastic communities in the United States, especially the ecumenical Benedictines of Holy Wisdom Monastery (home to this country’s only Presbyterian nun) and the Order of St. Helena, a Benedictine-inspired order of women in the Episcopal Church. In addition to these, there are numerous “dispersed” (non-residential) Benedictine communities of lay brothers and sisters all over the world. All of these are wonderful communities and I feel privileged to call their members friends, but St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers is home to me.

My particular relationship is with these brothers, in this place, living the Rule in this way. In seeking oblation, there was no question in my mind that St. Gregory’s should have the right of first refusal.

St. Gregory’s is small, with only seven monks, including one novice. They prefer to keep their oblate program limited to those who have demonstrated a sustained commitment to Benedictine spirituality in relationship with this community over a period of several years. With that in mind, I didn’t want to rush things. I spoke with the abbot about my interest and continue to keep him apprised of my progress. While remaining hopeful that the day may come, I have made my peace with patience. In the meantime, the main thing for me has been to continue to live the life.

A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting the abbey with a friend from Grand Haven, who informed me that the date of his clothing as an oblate novice has been set for this November. I know that he has been working toward this diligently for several years and was delighted for him. I told my friend that I would certainly be there to support him on the big day.

Besides, I thought to myself, I’ve never been to a clothing ceremony of an oblate novice before; this could be helpful to me as I prepare to possibly take this step myself one day, if and when Father Abbot thinks I’m ready.

This was great news.

And then, last week, I got an email from the abbot, asking if I would like to be clothed as an oblate novice on the same day as my friend. I nearly fell over when I read the message. Naturally, I said Yes. Abbot Andrew asked if I wanted to take a saint’s name at my clothing.

On Saturday, November 19, I will be clothed as an oblate novice and given the oblate name Odo (after St. Odo of Cluny… more on him later) during 8am Mass at St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers.

I appreciate your prayers on that day, for my novitiate and for St. Gregory’s extended community of monks, oblates, and confraters.

PAX.

5 thoughts on “Taking It With You: Living the Oblate Life

  1. James G Ward

    Thank you for this wonderful essay. I was clothed as an oblate novice at St. Gregory’s Abbey eleven years ago on the Commemoration of Lancelot Andrewes, September 26, taking the name of Br. Bede. For me, it has been the pure grace of transformation of life. I have come to understand the meaning of life as giving the gifts I have received to others. Now retired from my profession, I have been able to live a life of contemplative prayer and teaching religion to adults. I ask God’s blessings for you, your friend, all of the oblates, and to my brothers at Three Rivers.
    Br. Bede Ward

  2. chaplain hutcheson

    John I will be with you in prayer that day. Let me know what approximate time.

    Partnering In Ministry With You,

    Uncle Hutch

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  3. Greg K Herr

    Loved your essay. We in SoCal have a small group of Benedictine Oblate Candidates, with hopes of final oblation in January through St John’s Collegeville. Being in the Anglican Ordinariate, I cheekily refer to it as the Oblinariate. Blessings.

  4. Pingback: Learning to Live a ‘Regular Life’ – Hopping Hadrian's Wall

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