The Unbalanced Benedictine

An Ordinary Life Meets an Extraordinary Rule

Fidelity to the Monastic Way of Life for Oblates

Fidelity to the monastic way of life on my reading table at home

In a post last month I mentioned that Benedictine monastics vow stability, fidelity to the monastic way of life, and obedience. I also mentioned that even though Oblates don’t make those vows, I try to live as though I have. But how can a married Protestant mother-of-two live as though she has vowed fidelity to the monastic way of life? I’ve already written quite a bit about how different my daily life is from that of professed monastics. So how can this work?

Fidelity to the Monastic Way of Life is Not Fidelity to the Monastery

The vows of stability, fidelity to the monastic way of life, and obedience come from Chapter 58 in St. Benedict’s Rule. Of course, this is an English translation. The original Latin words for stability and obedience are relatively straightforward: stabilitas and oboedientia. The second vow, however, is more difficult to translate. Conversatio morum is often translated as “fidelity to the monastic way of life.” That holds true both for Sr. Judith Sutera’s translation and commentary (which I prefer) as well as the RB 1980 that is commonly used. It has also been translated as “conversion” or “conversion of life.” The problem with this rendering, as Sr. Judith points out in her commentary, is that “conversion” suggests a once-and-done event. “Fidelity to the monastic way of life” does a better job of conveying the ongoing nature of the vow. But it also seems irrelevant to those who are not monastics.

Except it’s not irrelevant. Fidelity to the monastic way of life is not the same as fidelity to the monastery. It’s true that St. Benedict wrote his Rule for monks and/or nuns living together in a monastic community, but much of his advice extends beyond the walls of that community. And just as Oblates need to be a little more creative in defining our communities, we also need to be a little more creative in defining the monastic way of life.

Living this Vow as an Oblate

I pledge stability within my communities, and that stability changes depending on the community. My community with my husband is a lifelong commitment, but my workplace community or even worshipping community may be more temporary in nature. While those temporary communities exist, however, I endeavor to practice Benedictine stability.

Fidelity to the monastic way of life is a different kind of stability. It’s also a commitment, but not to a person or group of people. The phrase “way of life” is key here. The Rule provides instruction for how to live that life, but obedience to the Rule is its own thing. That’s the third vow monastics take, and I’ll write more about that in my next post two weeks from now. Today, we’re still talking about that confusing second vow.

How can non-monastics commit themselves to the monastic way of life?

It all goes back to St. Benedict’s assumption about who is reading his Rule. Towards the end of the Prologue he writes:

Now that we have asked who it is that shall dwell in God’s tent, we have heard the conditions for dwelling there, but only if we fulfill the obligations of those who would live there. Then we must prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to these instructions. Let us ask God to supply by the help of grace what is impossible to us by nature. If we want to reach life everlasting, even as we flee the torments of hell, then while there is still time, while we are still in this body and are able to do these things by the light of life, we must run now and do what will profit us forever.”

St. Benedict’s Rule, Prologue (quoted from St. Benedict’s rule: an inclusive transation and commentary by judith sutera, osb)

St. Benedict’s Rule is for those who have already expressed a desire (even if only to themselves) to “dwell in God’s tent.” Therefore, committing oneself to conversatio morum means, essentially, committing oneself to God. St. Benedict understood the monastery as a “school for the Lord’s service.” Oblates are affiliated with such a school, but, as I’ve said repeatedly, our primary context is different.

As an Oblate, I live my commitment to God in my family, in my work, in my volunteer commitments, in my friendships, and in every moment of every day. Benedictine monasteries may have been established as schools for the Lord’s service, but they are not the only places where one can serve the Lord. (To be fair, St. Benedict never suggested they were.) Conversatio morum is a commitment to remember this commitment regardless of my context. And not just remember it in an intellectual sense. It’s a commitment to act on it.

The Commitment Is the Same

Our contexts are different, but the need to remember and act on our commitment to the Lord is the same for monastics and laity alike. Conversatio is conversation, an open sharing and receiving of words and experiences. We communicate with the people around us (both within and outside of our communities), and that ongoing communication eventually changes us.

Being open to that change is the point. Whether you live in a monastery, in a family, with roommates, or by yourself, the goal is to become closer to God. God is bigger than any of us, and God works in many ways that are outside our own personal experiences. Too often we take our own experiences as the rule and norm and expect others to abide by that. We get offended when they don’t, and they get offended when we don’t abide by their personal rules and norms. But God won’t be held by the confines of our limited experiences and understanding. And it’s not about us.

God works inside and outside the monastery. Some of us live inside, and some of us live outside, and we all have the opportunity to see God at work. The question is, are we willing to not only witness that work, but engage in it and be changed by it as well?

If the answer is ‘yes,’ than you’re beginning to understand conversatio morum. Because one doesn’t have to be in a monastery to embrace fidelity to the monastic way of life.

I suggest reading the section called ‘Conversatio or Conversio’ in the Monastery of the Ascension Oblate Handbook, found here, for an excellent treatment of this topic that goes well beyond the scope of my post.

What is Community for an Oblate?

Illustration 163232830 / Monks © Patrick Guenette |

Oblates Are Not Monastics

St. Benedict wrote his Rule for monastics who chose to live in community with one another. Every aspect of the Rule assumes that environment. But what is community for an Oblate?

Like vowed monastics, Oblates are attached to a specific community. I offered myself as an Oblate of Our Lady of Glastonbury Abbey and promised to dedicate myself to the service of God and to all people according to the Rule of St. Benedict. After that, I considered the monks and the Oblates of Glastonbury Abbey to be my community.

Except most of my life is lived away from the monks and Oblates of Glastonbury Abbey. I visit there, on average, once a month for just over 24 hours. For a long time I struggled with how to live as an Oblate of my community without actually being with my community most of the time.

Chapter 1 of the Rule talks about the different kinds of monastics. Anchorites or hermits are described as sort of super-monastics who are self-reliant and need no one’s help but God’s to grapple with the vices of body and mind. I felt like that was what I needed to be, because I didn’t have my community’s help in my daily life.

Except anchorites and hermits have been trained by the help and guidance of many people, for many years, in the context of community. That wasn’t my experience. I wasn’t an anchorite or hermit. I wasn’t even a monastic.

Needless to say, it didn’t go well.

Redefining Community

It took me a while to realize it, but I have multiple communities. Glastonbury Abbey is my community. My household is another community. So is my children’s school where I volunteer and where I used to teach. The church where I worship is my community. I have a few close friends who can be considered a community. Should I also count the people I see regularly at the grocery store? At the gym? In the school pick-up line? Depending on how far I want to pull back that lens, I can say that every person in this world is my community.

Except that’s not very helpful, either. The Rule has a lot to say about how to live harmoniously within a community of very different people, but that advice can be unhelpful or even potentially dangerous in a world where not everyone lives according to the same rules, let alone the Rule of St. Benedict.

I needed a better definition.

What I finally settled on is this:

  • There are at least two of us
  • We interact regularly
  • All parties have a responsibility to each other (meaning I am both expected to give to the relationship and can reasonably expect to receive something from it) OR
  • We are working together towards an agreed-upon goal

Identifying My Communities

My primary community is my immediate family/household. I spend the vast majority of my time with my husband and children. We have very different personalities, strengths, and needs, and we all have to be mindful of each other. Even though I’m the only Benedictine in the house, everything St. Benedict has to say about living in community applies in this context.

My secondary community is Glastonbury Abbey. They received me as an Oblate, and they encourage and affirm my faith. It takes very little adaptation on my part to apply the Rule to my relationships with the monks and other Oblates.

I’m also a member of several micro-communities. These are personal friendships I have with various individuals. Each one is different. Some are Benedictine Christians while others are Christians but not Benedictine. I also enjoy friendships with people who don’t believe in God at all. Yet each friendship has aspects of community.

I don’t consider the rest of the examples I gave earlier to actually be communities. The pandemic changed my relationship with my church, and I’m now looking for a new worshiping community. I volunteer at my kids’ school regularly, but I can’t honestly say any of the people who work there and I have a responsibility to each other. It was a different situation last year, when they hired me as their middle school Aerospace and Space Science teacher. Then I interacted with many staff and faculty members regularly, and we all needed each other’s support. But now, as a parent volunteer, there is no mutual responsibility or goal.

Communities Change

This is another difference between Oblates and monastics. Monastics vow stability within a specific community and are expected to stay there indefinitely. I accepted the teaching job at my kids’ school for one year, with the option to renew. Towards the end of that year the director invited me to renew my contract. I chose not to. No broken agreements and no hard feelings. It was time to move on. I still have a relationship with the school and with many of the people there, but it’s different now. It was a community for me, and now it’s not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important.

My relationship with my church was always voluntary and mutually beneficial. Sadly, the pandemic changed them and it changed me, and the changes were not complimentary. The church I joined over a decade ago doesn’t exist anymore. It had evolved somewhat over the years before the pandemic, but as long as I was going regularly I was able to evolve with it. Then the pandemic forced a two-year separation. Despite the church’s efforts to pivot to an electronic format, I wasn’t able to maintain my connection to them. I’ve tried to reconnect since they’ve reopened, but despite months of trying, I just can’t. It’s time to move on. Hopefully I’ll find another church that will eventually become a community.

My husband and I made a lifelong commitment to each other, yet together we make up only half of my household community. But my household will change. The kids will grow up and move out. We’ll sell the house and move to a new location. There will be a lot of change over the course of our marriage. Weathering those changes requires stability, as I posted a few weeks ago. Why didn’t that happen with my church? Because not all communities are equal.

Always an Oblate

All this is to say that Oblates need to be more creative about identifying their communities than monastics do. Our communities are also more liable to change. I am an Oblate of Glastonbury Abbey, but I’m an Oblate even when I’m not with that community. I’m an Oblate living under the Rule when I’m home, or talking with a friend.

And even when I’m not with one of my communities, I’m still an Oblate living under the Rule. Because although St. Benedict assumed a specific context when he wrote his Rule, much of the Rule has nothing to do with that context. Rather, it’s intended to help the reader engage in a constant conversion of how they live their life, regardless of context.

But that is a post for another time.

A Christmas Poem for Hope

My kids always decorate the Christmas tree.

Here’s my confession: I don’t feel like it’s Christmas. I caught the flu almost two weeks ago and have been feeling miserable ever since. This holiday is generally a low-key affair in my house anyway, but I usually try to celebrate Advent and attend Christmas Eve services. I listen to sacred choir music in the car while running errands and enjoy seeing the light displays others put up.

I didn’t get to do much of that this year. I’ve spent most of the last week in bed or in the comfy chair in the living room reading or playing computer games. And now it’s Christmas morning and I feel like I’ve missed it. I’ll still cook the stuffed crown roast of lamb that I make every year, plus the apple pie, but aside from that it could be any other day. I’m currently sitting in the comfy chair typing on my computer, my kids are playing computer games, and my husband is trying to put his office back together. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas.

Some of it’s because I’m still sick. Some of it’s because I’m prone to depression and perfectionism anyway, and I hate that I’ve been minimally functional for over a week. Life has also been particularly hard for my family recently. But I refuse to give in. One of the blessings of the Benedictine life is its constancy. St. Benedict wrote his rule for us to be closer to God, but he also highlights the fact that God is constantly trying to be closer to us. God never ceases to open the way to us. It’s that promise that I’m clinging to today.

So without further ado, here is my Christmas Poem for Hope:

C ome, O Lord, into my heart
H eavy with fear and despair
R estore my hope for love and peace
I n the face of doubt and menace
S ave your people from our desolate longings
T ransform us into your vessels
M ake us whole and connect us all
A ssured of your love and grace
S aved by your Son, the infant Christ

D ignity incarnate
A bsent the trappings of power
Y et all we need to reclaim creaton's goodness.

May Christ be your light this Christmas Day and every day.

Stability in the Day-to-Day

Benedictine monastics vow stability, fidelity to the monastic way of life, and obedience. As an Oblate, I don’t make those vows. However, as a Benedictine, I try to live as though I have. But what does stability in the day-to-day life of an Oblate look like?

The Long View of Stability

It’s easiest to view stability through the wide-angle lens of time. Stability means faithfulness over the long haul. It means endurance and reliability, showing up and being present and active on a regular, on-going basis. Stability is a monastic who has been in their community for decades, or a marriage that has lasted decades, or a teacher, volunteer, or any other worker who has served in their capacity for a good number of years (usually–you guessed it!–decades).

It sounds romantic. It sounds comforting. In some ways, it seems almost magical.

But it’s a lot of freaking work.

Each Moment a Decision

Decades are made up of years. Years are made up of months. Months are made up of days, and days are made up of moments. Hundreds of them. And moments are decision points.

Every single moment is a decision point. Each decision involves not only the person’s values, but also how the person feels right then. It involves their environment, and whom they’re interacting with, and what just happened thirty seconds ago.

We’re not always at our best in those moments. In fact, we’re not at our best during most moments. But those moments define our stability.

The Basement Remodel

Photo 39085553 / Couple Painting Room © Igor Mojzes | (Definitely NOT my husband and me.)

This reality has been on my mind a lot this week.

I have been married to my husband for fifteen years. I dream of us being together for decades: a couple that has weathered the storms of life together. In that view fifteen years is a good start, but it’s just the beginning.

And we still have to weather the basement remodel.

Let me be clear: we both want this basement remodel. We’ve been using the semi-finished basement as our shared office for most of our married life. I like silence. He likes music. I like curtains and decorations. He likes minimalism and utility. We both work from home. Stability in the day-to-day has been a challenge in this situation. So remodeling it to give us each our own distinct, individual space is definitely a good idea.

Have you ever seen those pictures of happy young couples repainting a room, or working together to lay pristine drop cloths over spotless furniture or gleaming floors? You know the ones who smile at each other over their electric drills?

That’s not us.

Challenging Environment

The ceiling and the lights are finished in what used to be my part of the office.

We’re stressed. We’re under a time constraint. This basement needs to be finished before my husband’s vacation time ends. I’m coming down with my son’s flu and not feeling great, but I have to paint. The paint fumes are not helping. Neither is the incessant hammering my husband is doing a few feet away. Because he needs to install the lighting. He needs to interrupt my painting so I can help him with the drop ceiling. He’s got to get as much done as possible before he comes down sick, because we all know he’s next.

Not sure where we’ll put all this when the new carpet gets installed.

The boxes containing our desk areas dominate the family room. We stored our office furniture in the garage. Random books, files, and test equipment have relocated to the living room and even my bedroom. The house is chaos.

The family room is here somewhere.

I hate chaos. I don’t do well in chaos.

My husband can ignore the chaos, but he gets so hyper-focused on a goal that he forgets how to “people.”

Ideally, we wouldn’t snap at each other. We wouldn’t resent the interruptions we both cause. Instead, we’d graciously help each other and recognize each other’s needs. Especially me, since I’m a Benedictine.

I’m also human.

Fortunately, the two are not mutually exclusive.

Small Moments, Important Decisions

It’s these moments that will determine our stability. I can try to not resent the interruptions. And when I fail, I can forgive the interruptions. I can forgive the snappish comments rather than shutting down in anger or sadness. And so can he. My husband may not be a Benedictine, but our marriage vows included a vow to forgive each other, and we both take care to remember that.

Eventually this will be my new, private office.

We will weather this basement remodel. Just as we weathered the six moves in the first six years of our marriage. Those moves involved a lot of small moments in chaotic situations, and plenty of opportunities to forgive each other. They also provided plenty of opportunities to choose compassion and kindness. Not all of our choices required forgiveness.

We look back on those moves now as something we got through, and someday we’ll look at this basement remodel the same way. It may not feel like choosing compassion and forgiveness in the midst of drywall dust and paint fumes and drop ceilings is a spiritual endeavor, but it is. In fact, according to St. Benedict, it’s the core of spirituality. My husband and I are living in community together. Every moment of every day, we’re in community. Our stability in the day-to-day ordinariness of our lives will build those decades. There’s no other way to do it.

Think about your own community, whether it’s at home or at work or within another context. When can you choose compassion or forgiveness? What choices can you make, even in the midst of challenging circumstances, that will add up to a long view of stability?

Why Be a Benedictine Christian?

Photo 148198568 / Parent Child Religious © Christinlola |

Benedictine Christian? Evangelical Christian? Lutheran Christian?

Shortly after I embraced a Benedictine Christian identity, I found myself at a weekend retreat at Camp Calumet in Freedom, NH. It was the Mother’s Day weekend retreat, which I’d been attending with my two children for years. We were one of several returning families, and it was nice to see familiar faces.

There was one woman in particular I’d become friends with over the years. She had four children who were in the same general age bracket as my two, and we were both homeschooling moms. Her Evangelical Christian beliefs were more conservative than my ELCA Lutheran beliefs, but we had enough in common and enough respect for each other that our doctrinal differences were never really a problem.

That is, they weren’t a problem until she found me reading St. Benedict’s Rule.

I’m sure I didn’t explain the role the Rule played in my life very well. I was very new to the whole thing, and I’d never tried to articulate it to another person before. In her view, obedience to anything except God alone was idolatry. A good Christian shouldn’t need any more instruction than can be found in the bible itself.

Our relationship ended that weekend.

Christian Living for Dummies

Since then I’ve wrestled with the question: Why be a Benedictine Christian? Isn’t just being a Christian enough? If not, isn’t being a Lutheran Christian enough? How many labels or qualifiers do I need?

When I first attempted to live according the Rule, I did so because I wanted a deeper spirituality. The competitive part of my brain thought I was trying for a more advanced spirituality than regular, ordinary Christians.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In the very first line of the Prologue, St. Benedict addresses the reader of his Rule as “my child.” In the second line he refers to himself as a “loving parent” giving “advice” to help the reader return to God. The Prologue ends with St. Benedict stating his intent to “establish a school for the Lord’s service,” which would “introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.” In Chapter 73, the final chapter of the Rule, he describes the whole thing as “this modest rule we have written for beginners.”*

I’ll be honest, I laughed out loud the first time I read that line.

Except he wasn’t kidding.

As I’ve tried to live according to St. Benedict’s Rule, I’ve come to realize that it is a rule for beginners. It distills the entire wisdom of the bible into a simple set of instructions. It’s Christianity 101. It’s Christian Living for Dummies.

“Simple” Does Not Mean “Easy”

By the time I sought spiritual depth as a Benedictine Christian, I knew what I believed. My struggle was figuring out how to live those beliefs. Yes, the bible gives a lot of instruction. My friend wasn’t wrong about that. But it was not written as an instruction manual, even for its original audience.

Despite what my friend at Calumet may have believed, it’s not that easy to find relevant, concrete guidance in the bible. It’s there, but it’s not easy to find.

St. Benedict found it and based his entire Rule on it.

The Rule is an instruction manual, helpful for people like myself who couldn’t figure it out on our own. In it he gives practical advice that applied to the real environment of his day.

The environment has changed, but the wisdom he based his advice on has not. St. Benedict’s Rule is still a helpful instruction manual for those who need a step-by-step guide on how to live their Christian faith in their real-world environments. The steps are simple; as promised he did not introduce anything harsh or burdensome.

But simple doesn’t mean easy. “Love your neighbor” is a simple statement, one that most Christians understand regardless of denomination. But understanding a simple statement and putting it into practice are two very different things. There are a lot of people who seem to go out of their way to make it difficult for others to love them. We’re called to love them anyway. St. Benedict gives simple advice on how to do that, but putting that advice into practice is a daily challenge.

So that’s why I’ve added another label to my faith life. “Christian” identifies my religion. “Lutheran Christian” helps to define how I interpret my religion. “Benedictine Christian” demonstrates how I live my religious beliefs in my daily life. But who I am is much simpler than any of those labels.

Before anything else, I am a beloved child of God. And that is an identity I share with all of humanity. No exceptions. For God it is that simple. And that easy.

* All quotations from the Rule are taken from St. Benedict’s Rule: An Inclusive Translation and Daily Commentary by Sr. Judith Sutera, OSB. (Please note that I do receive a tiny percentage of sales made through links on this page. This is with, which also benefits local and independent bookstores.)

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