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.
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.
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.