An Ordinary Life Meets an Extraordinary Rule

Month: January 2023

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.

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