These photos were taken by my parishioner, Larry Palmer-Braak, at my clothing as an oblate novice at St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers. He attended the clothing with his wife Marion. I am fond of telling Larry that he is the finest contemplative photographer I have ever seen. Included also are some striking photos of Br. John Mark (my fellow oblate novice), the monastery, and the monks themselves.
Clothing of oblate novices at St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers, a Benedictine community of men in the Episcopal Church.
I ask your prayers for Br. John Mark and me (Br. Odo), during our novitiate, as we seek to live the spirit of the Rule of St. Benedict in work, prayer, peace, and hospitality. Pray also for our brothers the monks in this amazing community.
And if you haven’t made it out to St. Gregory’s for a visit, I highly recommend it!
Photos by Br. Abraham Newsom, OSB
“Indeed, let nothing be preferred to the Work of God.”
-Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 43
The heart of Benedictine spirituality is the Divine Office. Also called the ‘Liturgy of the Hours’ or the Opus Dei (Latin: ‘Work of God’). The Office is the daily cycle of prayer, centering on the chanting of Psalms and the reading of Scripture. The purpose of this exercise is, as monks have called it, ‘the sanctification of time.’ We frame our days and pause periodically from our work to reset our lives in the context of eternity. All of life is sacred; the Office is how we remember that.
There are many good breviaries and prayer books available to assist this process in an orderly way. Most famous among Anglicans and Episcopalians is The Book of Common Prayer. This is a fantastic resource, even for Protestants of other denominations. Presbyterians have their own version in The Book of Common Worship: Daily Prayer. Roman Catholics have the four-volume Liturgy of the Hours. The breviary I use is Benedictine Daily Prayer (abbreviated BDP), edited by Dr. Maxwell Johnson and published by Liturgical Press. What I like best about this one is its similarity to the practice of the Office at St. Gregory’s. When I pray, I like to feel connected to my brothers in the cloister, even though I can only visit the monastery once a month or so.
At St. Gregory’s, the monks say seven offices daily. They rise at 4am for Matins (also called Vigils in BDP), followed by Lauds at 6. During the day, they pause from their work every two or three hours for the “Little Hours” of Terce, Sext, and None. Vespers concludes the work day at 5pm, followed by Compline before bed. They recite the entire Psalter each week, as prescribed in the Rule of St. Benedict.
Naturally, it is difficult for someone outside the cloister to keep this kind of schedule (in point of fact, it’s not easy for monks themselves). In my own practice, I get up between 6 and 7 for a combined service of Vigils and Lauds. During the day, I try to say as many of the Little Hours as possible. Vespers is a non-negotiable. Compline is usually the last thing I do before lying down at night.
BDP uses a four-week cycle of Psalms at Vigils (with an option to do it in two weeks), a two-week cycle at Lauds, weekly at Vespers, and daily at the Little Hours and Compline. Most of the Psalter is said during this time, with perhaps a half-dozen omissions for the imprecatory (cursing) Psalms that are also omitted in the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours.
My schedule requires a certain flexibility with the time at which the hours are said. Traditionally the hours were said at the “crosspoints” of the old analogue clocks (12, 3, 6, and 9; am and pm). I usually use these as a base-point and leave myself a window of an hour before or after, in which to recite that office. It ends up looking roughly thus:
6am (5-7): Vigils and Lauds (approx. 30-35 minutes)
9am (8-10): Terce (5 mins.)
12pm (11-1): Sext (5 mins.)
3pm (2-4): None (5 mins.)
6pm (5-7): Vespers (15-20 mins.)
9pm (8-10): Compline (10 mins.)
On busy days, I say a combined Vigils and Lauds, at least one of the Little Hours, Vespers, and Compline. My bare minimum is Lauds and Vespers, inserting the longer Scripture readings from Vigils. I only do this as a last resort, since it causes me to miss much of the Psalter at Vigils.
Work meetings and family commitments don’t always allow for me to say all three of the Little Hours, but I keep the goal of saying all three before my eyes. This provides a helpful framework for my day. It might seem like a lot, but each of these offices can be recited in as little as 5 minutes. If you think about it, that’s no longer than the average coffee or cigarette break at work (and without the added risk of lung cancer). The benefits are as psychological as they are spiritual. As a person who lives with ADHD, this helps me to stay on-task and organized. If I am working on a large project at work, I find that I often return to it with mind refreshed and renewed perspective. I keep an older edition of BDP in my car for this purpose, should I need to say an office on the run. The best days are when I manage to say all three.
The Divine Office is meant to be sung, rather than said. At Vigils and Lauds, I typically sing the hymn and say the rest. At the Little Hours and Compline, I sing the hymn, the Psalms, the Gospel Canticle, and the Marian Antiphon. At Vespers, I sing the entire office, except for the reading and responsory.
I have written several posts recently about my forthcoming clothing as an oblate novice at St. Gregory’s Abbey, an Episcopal Benedictine monastery in Three Rivers, Michigan. Click here to read about my experience at the abbey and how it is that oblates ‘take the monastery with them’ into the world.
Oblates, while not monks or nuns themselves, live in the world according to a version of the Rule of St. Benedict that is adapted to their station in life.
The Latin for ‘Rule’ is Regula. Many will note its similarity to the English ‘regular’, which we often take to mean ‘average’ or ‘mundane’. In point of fact, ‘regular’ technically means ‘according to the rule’. I rather appreciate this coincidence.
I have spent much of my life trying to be exceptional in one sense or another. In high school, I prided myself on being a nonconformist who refused to dress, talk, or think like my peers. Much of this, I think, came from a deep fear of inferiority. I was an anxious and socially awkward teenager. So, I tried to justify this awkwardness by believing that I must be special, set aside for some higher purpose.
Coming into contact with the charismatic fundamentalist movement at church, my sense of exceptionalism found a religious basis. There was a praise and worship chorus I used to sing at church that went, “I’m gonna be a history-maker in this land!” I would pray things like, “God, I’ll do anything; just don’t let me be normal.”
At the same time, there were certain passages in the Bible that terrified me. One of these was 1 Thessalonians 4:11 (NIV):
make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you.
At nineteen years old, I wanted to do anything but that!
But now, at thirty-six, my feelings on the matter are beginning to change. A “quiet life” is beginning to sound pretty good. As I wrote last week, my impulse toward heroic exceptionalism eventually thrust me into a psychosomatic health crisis. The Rule (Regula) of St. Benedict and the brothers at St. Gregory’s showed me another way to live. After running away from it for so many years, I began to want a regular life.
But what does a Benedictine life actually look like for a married person with kids and a job?
The answer to that question will probably remain a ‘work-in-progress’ for the rest of my life. In the following posts, I will outline my personal Regula or ‘Rule of Life’ that I will be practicing as an oblate. This draft Rule is subject to amendment and approval by the abbot, whose guidance I rely on.
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.