by Norvene Vest OblOSB
The 1984 Congress of Benedictine Abbots sent a remarkable message to oblates, expressing appreciation for oblates as Christians united with them in prayer and aspiring to a form of life inspired by Benedict's Rule. The abbots noted that oblates are not only recipients of blessings from the monastery, but are also are a source of blessings and help for the monastery. This essay explores how oblates and monastics might most fruitfully be mutual blessings at the turn of the millennium, faithful to God's special intentions for us today.
The current situation with oblates
If we look at the current situation in the United States, we observe that the number of oblates affiliated with monasteries normally substantially exceeds the number of monastics at that monastery. In my home monastery, around 25 monks support and are supported by about 300 oblates, and the numbers of oblates has been growing rapidly in the last ten years. Given the number of contacts I receive from oblate directors and people interested in oblation all over the country, I presume this is generally the pattern.
The person interested in oblation today seems to have somewhat different interests than the oblate of 30+ years ago. In former days, the laity wanted to help the monastery physically -- growing monasteries needed so much and physical labor was a tremendous gift. Even today, many oblates offer essential support to their monasteries by volunteering in a gift shop or office, cooking meals occasionally, living on site in exchange for keeping the plumbing operable, and participating in fundraising events. In this older model of oblation, lay people offered what they had and knew -- their "secular gifts" -- in exchange for the prayers and spiritual support of monastics. Oblate formation was largely a matter of periodic meetings at the monastery where "Father" gave a presentation to admiring oblates.
But there is a new element in the hunger for oblation these days, a desire to share the spiritual life and the spiritual aspirations of the monks. There has always been a sense that monastics "have" something important, a peace of mind or a connection to the something More. And today, oblates are no longer willing to let the monks live the spiritual life on our behalf: oblates now want to share the ongoing dynamics of the spiritual life ourselves.
A new sort of problem emerges with this "success", the question of how best to form oblates into Benedictine spirituality. Traditionally, when asked about the essence of the Benedictine life, Benedictines have offered in answer the words of Jesus, "Come and see." (John 1:39) "Come," Benedictines say, "live with us and learn, as you are among us." This is a sound and Biblical answer, but it doesn't quite work anymore, because oblate inquirers are unlikely to become monastics in the traditional sense. For oblates, the cloister and the vows are insufficient pointers to the underlying center of Benedictine experience. So, how do we form oblates? How do monastics share with oblates what Benedictine life is all about? Indeed, is there anything left of substance to Benedictine spirituality, if we bracket the cloister and the vows?
If we believe, as I think we do, that Benedictine spirituality has value for non-monastics, then we need to endeavor to articulate that value. If we believe, as I think we do, that oblates are not second-class Benedictines, but do actually live Benedictine life "insofar as their state in life permits," then we must consider inviting oblates themselves into the conversation about core Benedictine values.
The current situation with monastics
If these thoughts are a general description of what's happening with oblates, meanwhile, what is happening with monastics? (These are not unrelated questions, though we often imagine that the issues and concerns of the monastic communities themselves are quite separate from what is happening with oblates.) In general, monasteries are aging and vocations to the life are declining. A number of sources could be cited, but whatever our source of data, we will find that overall, although the number of Catholics are increasing as a proportion of the church-affiliated in the United States, the number of men and women religious is declining. As Fr. Dan Ward OSB observed in a 1998 issue of the ABA newsletter, declining numbers are forcing monasteries to evaluate not only the ownership and use of buildings, but also to re-focus on the most effective ministries which can be carried out by fewer people. We could cite a number of potential reasons and a number of potential remedies for this situation, but this is not the place. Our interest here is simply to contrast the decline in vocations to monastic life with the increase in oblate vocations.
Signs of the Times
When we look at these two trends in relation to each other, how do we read these signs of the times? It does not seem fruitful to blame or judge; all of us accept that sheer numbers is not a significant measure of divine blessing. It is folly to suggest a straight-line extrapolation that monasteries will disappear while oblates will prosper, since clearly oblates are attracted toward something which monastics are living out. What, then, do the signs suggest? In particular, let us frame the question this way:
What might Benedictines now be invited to do or be, that can (only) be accomplished by the swelling of their ranks with oblates, that is, with "Benedictines" intentionally in the midst of the world?
One Reading of these Signs
I offer the following thoughts as one oblate's lectio on these signs.
First, Benedictine life is clearly influenced by the culture at large. We have only to look at the Rule itself to realize that Benedict expected monastics to bring their biases with them into the cloister, and, that Benedict specifically sets forth ways (such as daily scripture and prayer, communal relations, etc) to make certain that cultural and personal values are routinely challenged by the Gospel.
But second, Benedict himself (and many of his sons and daughters) manages to be relatively free of cultural baggage; that's why the Rule continues to be fruitful across so many places and times. So often throughout history, it is Benedictines who seem similarly timeless, who speak with remarkable clarity in any age. In a certain sense, these voices stand as an ongoing witness to the truths which last when surface things change. They stand as challenge to the presumptions of any age.
I believe this witness is the essence of the Benedictine value of being "on the margins." Benedictines at best avoid the whirlpool, the seductive center of society's fads, not primarily by being "separate," but by their commitment to be a witness. And they do this with the clarity of vision brought through their regular disciplines of vulnerable presence to God. I would suggest that this witness is strengthened in the respectful interaction of oblates who live daily directly in the pressures presented by the world, with monastics, who live daily directly with the challenges offered by their center in God. If both learn to speak with each other with humble self-awareness, their mutual discoveries can be of inestimable benefit to the world.
Though we share our commitment to Christ through Benedict, we know that we speak with great diversity. In a 1996 editorial in the ABA Newsletter, Fr. Joel Rippinger OSB observed that though we have many voices, many opinions, we also have incredible staying power. He attributes our continuity to the tradition of conversatio.
Conversatio morum suorum is that strange, untranslatable vow so central to Benedictine life that we simply take it to mean, "living as a Benedictine." Above all, conversatio is about the paschal mystery of death and life as it is lived out daily for a lifetime. Conversatio is about being broken and renewed, being overwhelmed and being raised up. It is willingness to suffer and be utterly confused, because we have learned that is one way God leads us into the encounter with brand new life. Conversatio is about being in the hands of the living God, the God who always surprises us, always shatters our expectations, the God who surpasses our imaginations.
In his book, Blessed Simplicity (Seabury, 1982), Raimundo Panikkar reminds us that, if we would see and love the Real, there must first be a rupture, a break, a conversion of the tissues of the heart. Although we know by faith that this rupture is always a response to God's initiative in our lives, we must still suffer the painful losses involved. Such theoretical language takes an all-too-real shape when we find ourselves confronted with circumstances that seem likely to fragment our very identity, isolate us from our brothers and sisters, call us to unpopular witness, and/or topple all we have held dear in the past. Dare we begin to share, one with another, monk to monk and oblate to oblate, these painful and disrupting fires of our hearts, so that together we begin to discern the shape of the Spirit working among us all?
Let me share a personal story. Several years after I became a "regular" retreatant at Valyermo, I began to hear the "stories" of the monks -- not so much the stories of their history and vocational call, but the stories of their lives together in community. At that time, I was surprised to hear that cenobitic life is so difficult; yet now I know that many monastics have observed that the most difficult aspect of the life is "my brothers/sisters." Joan Chittister's observation in Fire in these Ashes, rings true: that any monastery is a cauldron of the very issues that touch our society as a whole -- of jealousies, of old hurts unforgiven, of angers and slights. Any unfinished psychological business will come up sooner or later, and all the variety of human issues play themselves out in a monastery -- the more intensely for being concentrated in the monastic environment.
But at first when I became aware of this in my home monastery, I was really disappointed. After all, I went to the monastery to get away from just those issues in my own life. The monastery was my place of peace and tranquillity, the place where I could be "holy without disruption". I much preferred being a casual guest, ignorant of all the goings-on.
And then, I thought about it. And I realized that if the monks could seek God, even in the midst of their neurotic and sinful inclinations, then so could I. If their home was holy (as I knew it was), even though it contained so much strife and struggle, then my home too could be holy.
Over time, I have come to appreciate the true gift of the monastery to me. It is not primarily as a getaway, a respite from my own struggles. Rather, the Benedictine gift is the persistent aspiration toward God even and especially in the face of daily struggles. God meets me most reliably at the point of my temptations and self-doubts and discomforts. So reminders of my creatureliness are not causes of discouragement and despair, but are instead signs of deepening invitation to live in Christ's own life, just here and now. By the witness of their own commitment to ongoing conversatio, the monks encourage me to believe in my own yearning for God. And sometimes I can return this gift to them, by reminding them of the deep longing of their own hearts.
The call which emerges from the unique Benedictine commitment to witness and conversatio is to be people not of perfection, but ones in progress. Our call is not to tranquillity, but to willingness to be sorely tried and passionately caring. Our call is not to certainty, and not even to "success," but rather to be foolish for Christ, for we are a people willing to rely (or at least seeking to rely) on the living God for yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And that in itself is a glorious witness to the world in which we live.
I am suggesting that monastics and oblates can be mutual blessings, not just to provide mutual support and encouragement, though that is certainly important. But the mutual blessing may also be a shared vocation to help to one another in the crucial task which God gives to Benedictines in this time: that together, monastics and oblates are to be a witness and challenge to our society as a whole. By our willingness to be open to and transformed by the living God, we model for our society the essential work of moving into the next millennium with health & wisdom.
Together we take up those so-precious Benedictine tools of:
- Being in but not of the world: a stance on the margins that coupled with prayer, gives us the ability to see what really is;
- Risking the personal pain and inner deaths that come with seeing the real;
- In hope and confidence that God is always able to bring new life out of all loss;
- Witness to what we are seeing, sometimes in a diverse witness, but always in a community of love; and
- Practice and advocate this way of being in all our relations.
I invite your responsive ideas.
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