Even if you can’t be a monk, you can still benefit from monastic life. Here’s how
July 28, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – A couple of weeks ago, I spoke of how repeated visits to Benedictine monasteries convinced me, finally, to join the Benedictine order as an “oblate” of the community of Norcia. Over the years, many people — some out of simple curiosity, others from an openness to discerning the same call — have asked me what exactly it means to be an oblate.
To put it simply, an oblate is someone who “offers” himself (oblatio = an offering) more fully to God in the context of a particular monastic community and under the guidance of the Rule of St. Benedict, duly adapted to the life of a layman. Historically, some oblates have lived in or near the monastery in question, but that is not absolutely necessary. What matters most is that they strive to share in the spiritual goods and discipline of the monks (or nuns! — I shall write with men in mind, but all of this applies to monasteries of Benedictine nuns) by embracing something of their way of life, praying for them, and benefiting from their prayers. Where the Lord has provided the means, an oblate will often also support the community in its material needs.
Oblates have a long history in Benedictine monasticism, much longer than the “tertiaries” or “Third Orders” that are more familiar from the later Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and other medieval or post-medieval orders. The concept is, however, similar: as a Dominican tertiary lives out his baptismal vocation within the context of Dominican spirituality and guided by Dominicans past and present, so a Benedictine oblate lives out his baptismal vocation in a Benedictine spirit, with occasional retreats at his “home monastery” and, often enough, with advice from a monastic spiritual guide or spiritual director.
Since God draws souls with great freedom and delicacy, and for all sorts of reasons, I hesitate to speak of a telltale sign of when one should consider becoming an oblate. But this much seems obvious: if you relish the writings of monastic authors (e.g., among older authors, St. Gregory the Great, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Guigo the Carthusian, St. Hildegard of Bingen, or St. Anselm of Canterbury; among more recent, Abbot Prosper Guéranger, Dom Hubert van Zeller, Bd. Columba Marmion); if you love praying the Psalms in the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours; if the visit you made to a monastery was a highlight in your life and something you look forward to doing again — these would be reliable indications that a closer association is worth looking into and praying about.
Becoming an oblate was just the right step for me, to formalize what I was already trying to do in my spiritual life as a traditional Catholic. Here is the essence of it, as understood by nearly all who write about oblate life.
1. It is a “vocation within a vocation.” Whatever one’s calling or state in life is — whether one is a married person, a single person, a widow or widower, a priest or deacon — as an oblate, one strives to live it better with the help of monastic spiritual practices and the support of the prayers of one’s extended monastic family. One prays in turn for the monks, who, being on the front lines of spiritual combat, need the support of our prayers.
2. Each day, one prays some portion of the Divine Office. This could be Lauds or Prime, Vespers or Compline — whatever and however much fits into one’s schedule. A layman is not “bound” to it in the same way as a monk is; he offers it as a free-will offering. (A priest, who is already bound to recite the office, still gains from being an oblate, however, since he is now united in a special bond of prayer with the monks who are his spiritual family.) An oblate today may use either the Monastic Office, the old Roman Breviary, or the Liturgy of the Hours. Prime and Compline take about 10 minutes each if one recites them. Lauds or Vespers would be more like 20 minutes for recitation. Some oblates pray these hours aloud with other members of their families.
3. Each day, one reads a small portion of the Rule — available in editions that (like this portable one) conveniently divide the text into one or a few paragraphs per day — and one does some lectio divina or prayerful reading of Scripture. Again, this can be just a few minutes, or it can be longer, depending on one’s schedule.
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The point of the daily routine is to ground a person in these rich, objective, traditional practices that have a stabilizing and sanctifying effect, as testified by the thousands of canonized and beatified Benedictine monks and nuns. The Order of St. Benedict has, in fact, more saints than any other order — and it is not simply because they have been around the longest!
The above is only a sketch. Most monasteries have something like “Oblate Statutes” that spell out what is required and expected of an oblate. Typically, a monastery asks that those who wish to be oblates should first visit the monastery and spend some days there.
The next question that arises is, how important is it to be connected to a community that is nearby (or at least easily accessible by car)? Or to put it negatively, how great a disadvantage is it to be far away from one’s home monastery? This question inevitably arises because, especially in the period since the Second Vatican Council, religious life in general — and Benedictine monasticism in particular — has suffered grievous blows: there are just not that many vibrant Rule-abiding monasteries left, particularly if one is looking for traditional Catholic liturgy. The monasteries that would be worth considering might well be hours away by car or airplane, as in the case of my home community, which is in Umbria, Italy.
One can, nevertheless, be a Benedictine oblate of any monastery, even if it is across the world. There are obvious benefits to being able to visit a monastery at least once a year, and this is why some American traditionalists have chosen to be affiliated with Clear Creek. For me, Oklahoma was about as hard to get to as Norcia, and I’d rather be eating wild boar, truffles, and gelato in the off hours. Joking aside, I have longstanding friendships in Norcia from the years I lived in Europe that made it the right choice for me.
Plus, there is the subtle but important question of the “spirit” of a given community. Unlike the Dominicans or Franciscans, who broadly speaking are one family, each Benedictine monastery is an “autonomous” community, like a family in its own right, and as families differ a lot, so do monasteries. Some seem to be more heavily invested in divine worship, while others make more of a place for the intellectual and cultural pursuits of the monks; some offer spiritual direction, while others are “hands off” when it comes to oblates. Also, the manner in which hospitality is exercised can vary quite a bit.
In the end, the only way to know is to visit a monastery and see firsthand how it goes, how it works out. Visit more than one if you can. There’s no rush; let God speak to you in His good time. If you are meant to become an oblate, He will tug at your heart about it.
Recommended further reading
- Canon G.A. Simon, Commentary for Benedictine Oblates on the Rule of St. Benedict
- William Fahey, ed., The Foundations of Western Monasticism (this book contains three classics: St. Athanasius’s Life of St. Antony, the Rule of St. Benedict, and St. Bernard’s Twelve Degrees of Humility and Pride)
- Dwight Longenecker, Listen My Son: St. Benedict for Fathers and St. Benedict and St. Thérèse: The Little Rule and the Little Way
- Dom Pius Mary Noonan, OSB, The Grace to Desire It: Meditations on St Benedict's Twelve Degrees of Humility