I haven’t done much. I haven’t won a Pulitzer Prize, escorted a beautiful woman to the Oscars, or won an Olympic medal. I haven’t swum, scaled, or walked anything. But I am an Oblate of the Order of Saint Benedict—and that ranks right up there. I had always wanted to be a monk, but I knew I couldn’t take the scratchy robes and scratchy rules.
I asked my priest if there was a way I could pray, meditate, do good works, and then punch out when I wanted beer and pizza. He suggested I contact the Oblates of Saint Benedict and read Benedict’s book, Rule of Saint Benedict. I did. And so begins my tale.
We Walk among You
Although there are more than 25,000 Benedictine Oblates worldwide, we are little-known. When I told my friends about my new beginning as an Oblate, the usual questions were: “You’re going to join a monastery?” or “Does that mean you have to be celibate?” No and no. Oblates are lay men and women, members of a monastery, sharing a spiritual union and friendship with the monastery—like adopted children. We search for more fulfillment in our everyday lives and a spiritual life deeply rooted in God.
We Oblates live ordinary lives, eating, sleeping, working, praying, meeting people, and interacting. We have tasks and chores just like everyone else. But through Saint Benedict, Oblates strive to do these things in extraordinary ways. We strive to find the holiness in ordinary life.
We are not a Bible-thumping crowd. Being Roman Catholic for the most part—with some Episcopalians and Presbyterians thrown in for spice and variety—we go quietly about our business doing God’s business.
A few years back, I walked along the hillside to the Church at the Saint Meinrad Monastery and Archabbey in southwestern Indiana. I stood before the altar and signed my name in a book. I “promised before God and all the saints, as my state in life permits, stability of heart, fidelity to the spirit of the monastic life, and obedience to the will of God.” I became Oblate Andrew.
I’ve made promises before: to eat all the food on my plate, never tell a lie, go to church every Sunday, and so on. But this promise is different.
Strong Backs, Strong Hearts
What do Oblates do? I like to think we pray more often and perform more good works than other people. We don’t, but I bet we think about it more often. Both men’s and women’s monasteries have Oblates.
A few years ago, Mary Alice, a friend of mine who was discerning becoming an Oblate, led a weekly prayer service and praying of the rosary for the residents of a nearby nursing home. Mary Alice used Saint Benedict’s Prayer Book.
A fellow Oblate, Joy (Oblate Scholastica, Benedict’s twin sister), puts the Benedictine motto ora et labora (“pray and work”) into action. She works with a team, building houses for Habitat for Humanity. At the beginning of the workday, after the communal prayer, she prays silently, thanking God for giving her the strength and the will to do God’s work. She prays that the work she does will be the help the new owners need.
“I’ve learned to caulk,” she says. “Very messy. And how to toenail 2-by-4s—not easy. And climb scaffolding—scary at first. And when I get hot and tired and dirty, I like to think of myself as building a little Benedictine monastery—a place that will soon be filled with love and warmth and grace for the new family.”
Mrs. Abel (Oblate Hildegard) tells me, “Although I only get to Saint Meinrad about once a year, every time I feel like I’m coming home. I know God is everywhere, but I know he is more ‘everywhere’ at my monastery—a place made more sacred by the prayers said there.
“Since I became an Oblate,” she continues, “I am aware of my promise of obedience to the will of God. And every time I can tell people about Benedict, my faith grows a little stronger.”
Recently I met Oblate Anselm who picks up trash. “At my age,” he says, “I don’t get out much. But I don’t stop trying.”
Three or four times a week, he and his dog, Shane, walk to a nearby park and playground. Oblate Anselm carries a trash bag and a longhanded grabber and picks up cans, bottles, paper, and plastic. Anselm does not receive any money, awards, or thanks.
“Benedictine hospitality included washing the feet of guests,” he says. “This is my little way to show that hospitality—showing kindness and thoughtfulness to all of God’s creation.”
And I take the spirit of Benedict from the scriptorium to the computer. Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, a Benedictine scholar, produces a website called “Monasteries of the Heart.” She invites readers to begin their own “online monasteries”—a kind of blog—using Benedict’s Rule as the spiritual center.
I began a “monastery” titled “Benedictine Spirituality and Addiction Recovery.” In my commentaries I interpret the lessons of Benedict—humility, obedience, silence, prayer, hospitality, and stability—and how they apply to addiction healing of all sorts.
With shared comments from the members of the monastery, we receive hope and encouragement. We gain the Benedictine tools to learn to lead an addiction-free, God-filled life.
Agents of Change
There are opportunities for us to leave the splendid isolation of oblation. I belong to the Cincinnati Chapter of Oblates. We meet monthly. A brother from Saint Meinrad visits and leads a discussion of an aspect of the Rule. We pray lectio divina and end with the fellowship of punch and cookies.
Annually, local chapters gather for a day of recollection at a monastery retreat for renewal of the Benedictine spirit. The Saint Meinrad Archabbey and local chapters conduct several three- and four-day retreats throughout the year. We promise to follow the lives of Benedictine brothers as our station in life permits. Each monastery designates a monk as director of Oblates.
Saint Benedict’s monks memorized all the psalms in order—and in Latin! We promise to read one or two each day and, perhaps, memorize a few that have a special meaning for us.
We promise stability of heart, commitment to one monastic community, and conversion. Conversion means that we know what we are going to be doing tomorrow and the day after and all the years to come: preferring nothing whatsoever to Christ. We don’t let changes make us. We make changes. Saint Benedict said, “What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace.” We promise fidelity to the spirit of monastic life. We listen to the monasteries of our hearts for the life everlasting that Benedict wants for his brothers. Living and coping are balanced with praying and praising.
Finding My Place
Sixty years ago, when I was in grade school, my family made annual trips to Santa Claus Land, Indiana. Our tour included the nearby French Lick Resort, Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, and Saint Meinrad Archabbey.
I never asked my father to stop the car as we drove through the monastery grounds. I would have had to explain to him, “I don’t know. I just want to walk around.” Sixty years later, I can walk around anytime I want. I own the place. The place owns me.
And The UnStable—a hangout for seminarians at Saint Meinrad’s School of Theology—serves beer and pizza.
Saint Benedict: Father of Western Monasticism
Saint Benedict is called the father of Western Monasticism. If you have to be put in a pigeonhole, you could do worse.
Born to well-off, well-educated parents around 480 in Nursia, high in the mountains northeast of Rome, the young Benedict was sent to Rome for a classical education. He didn’t like it. At that time, Rome was the Las Vegas of the world. The Tiber ran red with wine, thieves stole from prostitutes, learning was rare, and heaven knows how many gods played their dissipated roles.
Benedict escaped the wine-stained toga crowd to the countryside and became a hermit for three years. His spirituality became known and respected, and a group of monks asked him to become their spiritual leader. Sometime later, the monks, more prone to pleasure than prayer, wanted their new mentor out. They offered Benedict a pitcher of poisoned wine. When Benedict blessed the pitcher, it broke, and he decided it was time to leave.
Around 529, Benedict moved to Monte Cassino, a few miles southeast of Rome. He tore down the ancient stones of a temple dedicated to Apollo, built his monastery, gathered together his brothers, and wrote the Rule.
Benedict’s only biographer, Pope Gregory the Great, defines Benedict’s life: “If anyone wishes to grasp his character and life better, that person will find in the Rule a complete statement of the abbot’s way of life, for the holy man cannot have taught otherwise than as he lived.”
This post first appeared in St. Anthony Messenger.