Benedictine Oblates have a commitment to a specific monastery to live out their spirituality in the world according to the Rule of St. Benedict. But what is the future of Benedictine monasticism? As monastic vocations decrease, monasteries have been forced to consider their future, either merging with other monasteries or closing altogether. How might Oblates respond to this uncertain future?
Sister Joan Chittister addressed this theme at the World Congress of Benedictine Oblates in Rome in November 2017. She asks, “The question of the day is a simple one but potentially life-changing one: the question is why would anyone even bother to get attached to a Benedictine monastery?”
He begins: “We can ask ourselves why we are raising this question or topic in the first place. What prompts us to raise it? It is certainly not because the Oblate community is diminishing! Is it because the some of the communities to which Oblates belong are diminishing and Oblates might be left high and dry? Or perhaps it is a concern about Oblate communities in lands where Benedictine life is new, communities are young and the Oblate experience has no precedence? Or is there something about our culture, our American culture that makes the question of the future so important?
While I do not consider myself a prophet in the sense of predicting a future for Benedictine life let alone Oblate life, I can fall back on the Prophet Joel. The best future I can invite you to consider is to listen to the word of God through the prophet Joel who simply says: “It shall come to pass (code words for the future) I will pour out my spirit on all flesh…” It is clear enough. The future lies with the Spirit and our willingness and readiness to recognize its presence. According to the prophet, old and young, sons and daughters, male and female, servants and slaves will receive this gift of the spirit. The Spirit is God’s future or plan. When we can trust that Spirit, we are standing in God. And being in God is the future for ourselves, as well as humanity and our created world. If we co-opt God’s Spirit or start writing God’s plan, then theologically, we have no future. Any threads of the future will have to have the deep and inexhaustible richness of color of the Spirit. The future of anything Christian, including the Benedictine monastic way, lies with the Spirit. It is assumed that the Benedictine way is itself a gift of the Spirit and so holds within it the Spirit’s creative power.
This is all grounded in the Gospel, especially John’s Gospel. At the final meal described there, Jesus addresses those at the table, his disciples. The atmosphere is filled with sadness and fear, fear of the unknown of what will happen as Jesus is about to leave them. The atmosphere in the room is saturated with a sense of loss. They will lose something, someone and they just might lose the community they had around that person. Jesus is aware that the future for the fledgling community looks bleak. How will they manage without him? They feel that a relationship is about to be broken. It will not be the same. That it will not be the same Jesus affirms, that it will be broken is not so. In this context what does Jesus offer his young community but the Spirit, the Advocate. “He will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you,” says Jesus. The Spirit will take what is Jesus, what Jesus says and does, and come with it to wherever you are and whatever age you are in. It is the Spirit that makes the gospel way of life move from one generation to the next, from one world to the next, from one culture to another, from age to age. And each time the Spirit moves from one generation to the next, it works so that the Spirit of Jesus finds its expression in that age and in that historical context. But it is only because Jesus leaves us and returns to the Father that this can happen. He can only send the Spirit from the heart of the Father, from that loving relationship.
I find that Pope Francis is very much aware that the Spirit is working in the Church and famously blowing where he/she wills. He frequently issues admonitions to watch where the Spirit is working now. Don’t crowd out the Spirit, don’t damper it down. Why? Precisely because the future is the Spirit’s work. The Spirit was something of a surprise for the original community, whether it was Jesus coming through locked doors on Easter Sunday evening or Pentecost with all its drama of sound, fire and speech. It might be something of a surprise for us always.
In Sr. Joan’s address to the Oblates she makes the initial point that Benedictine life is a charism. This is important because a charism is a gift and it is precisely a gift of the Spirit. It is not something we come up with. It is something that we receive and when receiving it, it can be transforming. This is especially true when the charism is a whole way of life as Benedictine monasticism is. In some way, it catches fire in someone and a community and it burns with ardor. It is naturally attractive and I would say that is what led some of you to a Benedictine community as oblates. But when a charism is truly a gift of the Spirit, then it becomes something that is handed on; the fire is passed from one generation to another.
Monastic life did not begin with Benedict. He is part of the charism of monastic life and he carries its flame forward at his time in 6th century Italy. A turbulent time by all accounts. And so that the charism is passed on, he writes it down so that, as best as words and structures can do with the vibrancy of the Spirit, it goes on. In fact, he assumes that it will be passed on. It will become a tradition in the root meaning of the word. Of course, it is human vessels that carry on the Benedictine Way. Sometimes we humans do it well and other times rather poorly.
There is also time-boundedness to a charism. And history has shown that some charisms are for a specific time in the church’s life and then they perhaps are handed on in a very different form. History also confirms that monastic life is time bound. By the beginning of the 19th century, the early 1800s there were about 40 or less Benedictine monasteries in all of Europe (not sure whether that figure includes both men and women). A rather low point. The number peaked again in the mid-20th century but never recovered to anything like the peak in the 10-15th centuries. But there is something else history confirms in the charism of monastic life. This and the element of charism may relate directly to the Benedictine Oblate Community.
History reveals that monasticism and the monastic person is not the property of Christianity. There are Buddhist monks, Hindu Monks, Islamic monastics. How can this be? Monasticism is a quality of being human. It is a quality of humanity somehow before it surfaces in a specific tradition of monasticism. The monk (not gender specific) is constituent of being a human person. It is inherent in each human person. Monasticism is also religious because religion is a constituent dimension of being human. The monastic journey is a journey to the center of self and hence the center of all life. St. Benedict says it clearly, to truly seek God.
Monasticism will take on an organizational form, a structure of some kind. Benedict’s Rule sets out a Christian structure for the monk. But the motivation is the search for God and for Benedict the tool to enable that search he calls humility. I would suggest that an Oblate is someone who by coming close to a monastic, here Benedictine, structure has in some way awakened the monk within him or herself. The Oblate has rubbed with the monastics in such a way that their own journey toward the inner self has surfaced. Being an Oblate is a way of continually nurturing the monk within you. Now there are many facets to the monk within and each Oblate can identify which facet of the monk is dear to him or her. But I think that consciously or not, the Oblate way is a way of being faithful to a part of one’s humanity. The monastic in a monastery immerses themselves in many structural elements to support the inner journey to the “heart”, the biblical word for “center” or “being.” The Oblate, on the other hand, lives their monkhood in the world, which in some ways can be more difficult than those living it within a support system.
It could happen that the organized Benedictine community to which an Oblate is affiliated slowly fades away. But that does not mean that monasticism or one’s inner monk is over. The monk is part of ones being human; it is essentially personal. One carries it and lives it and remains faithful to it. In fact, the more one is faithful to it, the more one is human. Monastic life is a way of integration of self. In Christian monasticism, our integration is offered to us through the person of Christ and his body.
In this sense, the future of the Oblate lies in being faithful to the monk within you. It does not need to collapse if a structure or organizational element of being a monastic is taken away. The journey continues…You carry the charism of Benedictine monasticism into the world. You carry the monk that is Benedictine out into daily life. In doing this the charism of the Benedictine monastic is continued and still alive…
To conclude, let me repeat that monasticism is part of the human and religious dimension of the person. There is a place beyond the organizational structures of monasticism. If a Benedictine community closes or can no longer function fully, monasticism as such does not die, not even Benedictine monasticism. There is a built-in resilience to the Rule of Benedict. History has given us that legacy. Is it a sign that the Spirit is behind the Rule? I say yes! But the Spirit blows in each stage of human history and animates what might otherwise be a dead letter or a frozen form. It is the Spirit we must listen to, and, remember, listening is core to Benedictine life, listening to God’s word in the Scriptures, in the community, listening to the words we speak to one another, listening to the signs of the times as Vatican II expressed it. It is the Spirit that discerns in all this.
And if you are an Oblate of a community that is growing old in age, do not thereby presume that its Spirit is old. The members may well have a strong spirit even as it is no longer able to maintain all structures of community life. It may well be that the community will end its communal life. But it may also very well be that Oblates can midwife that community through this process. Don’t forget that rather well-known line of Benedict “Keep death daily before your eyes” (RB 4:47). It works for communities as well as individuals. Who’s to say that maybe one immediate element of the future of Oblates is to be a part of one community’s passing from this world to the Father. Staying close to a community in its weakest moment may be part of the stability of the Oblate promise. Perhaps it is a way of standing by the cross of Jesus. Is it meant to be that the Spirit of the community will be carried on in a new form by those who surrounded it in death?
Stand firm, be stable, in the tradition, and all that the tradition has will open up before you. What matters is being faithful now, and hope in God’s mercy will take care of the rest.”
You can read Fr. Joel Macul’s complete speech HERE.