An Ordinary Life Meets an Extraordinary Rule

Category: Stability

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.

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?

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