Oblates of Saint Benedict at Prinknash Abbey
Along with many Benedictine monasteries, Prinknash enjoys the privilege of accepting external oblates, that is to say, men and women, married or single, living outside the monastery, who wish to offer themselves to God in the Benedictine way, and conform their lives to the spirit of the Rule of Saint Benedict as lived at Prinknash, insofar as it is possible for them to do so in their circumstances.
Chapter 59 of the Rule of Saint Benedict speaks of the offering of the sons of the rich and poor, who become monks in the monastery right from their infant years, and seemingly without having any choice in the matter. The parents are to offer the child cum oblatione – with the oblation or offering, that is, at the Offertory or Preparation of the bread and wine to be consecrated for the Eucharist. It is thought that the word “oblate” derives from this Latin phrase. There have been Benedictine external oblates for centuries.
After at least a year of probation as a novice oblate, all being well and with the assent of the Oblate Master, the oblate makes his or her oblation, that is, they offer themselves to God and to the monastery of Prinknash, in the spirit of the Rule of Saint Benedict. This very often takes place at the summer meeting on a Sunday in early July each year, in the presence of the Abbot and community. The Abbot then assures them that henceforth they will have a share in the spiritual goods of the monastery. They are usually given some sign of their oblation, such as a small scapular or piece of cloth over the shoulders, a medal of Saint Benedict, or a copy of his Rule.
Oblates have a spiritual father or guide in the Oblate Master and his assistants, who offer them advice as to how they are to live the spirit of the Rule in their daily life, about times of retreat (in the monastery when possible, or elsewhere), prayer, and spiritual reading, and about any other matters about which the Oblate may require help. Most oblates try to say some part at least of the Divine Office, that is, the Church’s official daily prayer, but this is not an obligation. But contact with the sacred scriptures and other spiritual authors is essential if the life of Christ, given to us by our Baptism, is to deepen and fructify in our hearts.
Many Paths to God
Many oblates are busy in their own home parishes, helping out in the pastoral work or in administration. Others are involved in careers such as academia, teaching, law, medicine, and the nursing profession. A few oblates are in the ordained ministry.
"Robert on the Roof"
Keeping in Touch
Oblates, from the time of their becoming novices, receive the community’s review, PAX, through the post. There is also a regular letter from the Oblate Master giving news, spiritual advice, and reporting any changes in the oblate community, such as clothings, oblations, illnesses and death.
Both the monks themselves and the oblates often have difficulty in expressing exactly why they chose Prinknash, rather than any other Benedictine monastery. There is a certain “something”, an attraction that cannot be put into words. One simply knows that “this is the right place for me”. Oblates enter into a relationship with the monastery that lasts for the rest of their lives, often through many decades.
What to do if interested
Please click the following link to download Is the Oblate Way for Me?
Those who are interested in joining should contact Abbot Francis, the Oblate Master at firstname.lastname@example.org. You will normally be invited to come for an interview, and perhaps thereafter be invited to the monthly meetings, if you live fairly close to the monastery.
What Kind Of Person An Oblate Should Be
I have given this talk a title, as if it were a chapter of the Holy Rule. For many of you, what I say will be a restatement of the obvious. But it can be useful, occasionally, to do just that. Sometimes the obvious is easily overlooked.
I am aware too, as many of you that are teachers will be aware, that 3pm, after a good lunch, is a soporific time, when the kids are likely to fall asleep, if not misbehave. So I will try to keep this short and pithy. At the end of this talk, I will ask Stephen Day to give you an update about the Oblates’ forthcoming Congress in Rome, and about the Kornelimunster visit. Pamela Morey, secretary of the Oblates wishes to greet you all, and sends her apologies for not being able to be with us today.
I think the first and fundamental point about an Oblate, about all of us, is that we believe we are called by God. It is a vocation. When I say “believe”, I mean just that. We did not become an Oblate because of a warm, fuzzy feeling about belonging to the community. We may have no felt response whatsoever. But we believed we were called. We still believe we are called. And so did the community, or it would not have accepted us for Oblation.
In other words, joining the Oblates is not just like joining the Golf Club or even the Mother’s Union. There is a theological perspective to it. As Newman put it, there is some kind of service we have to do, which we may not realise fully until we die; but only each of us, individually, can do that particular service.
Our vocation is a Benedictine one, and therefore we would expect that some of the qualities that St Benedict requires from the monk would also be seen in the Oblate. There are four main tests: “Does he truly seek God? Is he eager for the Work of God, for obedience and for trials or opprobria?”
St Benedict’s first criterion seems to some rather woolly and vague. After all, what does “seeking God” mean? It does have the advantage, however, of leaving a vast plain for us to operate in. We are not too confined by specifics—as if to say, our job is to run a hospital, a school, a retreat centre, or whatever. No, our job is none of these things, but it may also be all of them, seen as a spin-off from the central movement of seeking God. And this is an important point. In a world where commerce dominates, where everyone is concerned with the economy, or with foreign exploits to ensure the economy succeeds, a group of people who seek God do by that very fact refocus our attention on the thing that will last for ever, the City of God, rather than the City of this world. So, to use the hackneyed phrase, there is something prophetic about what we do.
WORK OF GOD
An Oblate has to have a liturgical life, and our spirituality is essentially liturgical, rather than devotional. When Saint Benedict speaks of the Work of God, he means, of course, the Divine Office, spread through the day, which is a kind of proclamation of the Gospel (since it consists mainly of the Bible texts). But the work of God is also, and perhaps principally, the work that God is doing, or wants to do, in us, in our innermost selves. We are invited into an intimacy with him, an intimacy that springs from his word but also from the fact that God dwells within us as in a Temple. We feed the word within us with the Word without us. And the word is not just words, but also actions, also suffering, also relating to one another in love, or simply bouncing off one another when we get on one another’s nerves and thus purify one another. All is grist to our mill.
In the Prologue, Benedict puts it thus, operantem in se Dominum magnificant, they magnify the Lord who is working within them. It is all God’s work, in the end.
Is he eager for obedience? Is he, in other words, tuned enough OUT of his own noise—a very important point—and empty enough, to be able to “hear what the Lord God has to say, a voice that speaks of peace”, as Psalm 84 puts it. People go astray when they think of Obedience as merely “keeping the rules”: going to Mass, the Sacraments, doing the customs of the community, doing what we’re told, etc etc. People go astray, too, when they think that Obedience is merely taking a written text of the Bible, or of anything, and mechanically putting it into practice. Rules are important, the Bible is important, the Church’s laws are important--but it is possible to do all the rules, and NOT be obedient, because you are not listening, in any fundamental sense. You can find good religious who, in many ways, are models of observance and virtue, and yet are not really in any true sense obedient. We can make an idol of rules, and Bible texts, just as much as we can of statues or of silver and gold. The sacred idols are the worst, in fact.
As I said, obedience involves tuning OUT as much as it involves tuning IN: tuning out of our own “noise”. This can be just our own sacred projects, our own agenda, the things we absolutely must have done in our own way (we all have plenty of those; we are all tyrannical in at least one or two areas). Watch yourself in your next conversation, and if you find yourself butting in, or cutting across someone before they have finished, you’ll begin to see a bit of your own “noise”. Or the kind of tight feeling that you get when someone is treading on one of your sacrosanct areas...
Then there is the noise of negativity, the relics of old sin, those voices that tell me I am so bad that God won’t want anything to do with me, or, conversely, so good, that I just don’t need God; I can do it on my own.
One of the ways of combatting this “noise” is the opprobria Benedict speaks of. God sends us difficulties—to use no stronger word. He sends us situations that simply should not happen, that are unjust, that are unbearable, etc. Or there is the daily version of this, which is the impossibility of putting up with people, because they are just such a nuisance. All of this leads us to the fourth degree of humility: “meeting in this obedience with humiliations, and even injustice, he should with a quiet mind hold fast to patience”—some hope! you may be thinking. To be fair, I have met very few people in my life who are able to do this. But the way of purification is the way of not obeying the voice of the passions, which urge us to react, or which even urge us to do what, in purely secular terms, is perfectly reasonable to do: why should we be a doormat for Jesus? we might say. Should we not rather stand up for our rights, etc. etc. And there are all kinds of secular voices that would support us in this.
But this is not the way of Benedict. The Fathers of the Desert even taught that it is always wrong to be angry, even when the anger could in some sense be justified, because anger, like any of the passions—including the forgotten one of fear—pollutes the soul. We are used to thinking of lust as polluting; but have you ever thought that you might have an unhealthy fear, which is also a passion, or an unhealthy spiritual pride, which looks very ascetic; or just an unhealthy way of getting your own way?
Now to come down to some practical points. An Oblate should try to practise as much of the Rule as he or she can. That means they will try to get to daily Mass; they will try to say some part of the Divine Office every day; they will do some spiritual reading, and some mental prayer (i.e. prayer without words); they will have some kind of work or service towards the local church, even if that service is the service of armchair prayer and intercession. This said, we also need to remember our limitations. No one is obliged to do the impossible, an old Canon Law tag says. If you genuinely can’t do something, don’t even try. Do something else instead, and don’t luxuriate in guilt.
Spiritual reading covers a wide spectrum, of which lectio divina, the slow pondering on the word of God, is the highest form. Lectio Divina is spiritual reading, but not all spiritual reading is lectio divina. Reading the life of a saint, say, or even reading about the Papal visit, might fill you with spiritual information, might even encourage you to prayer, but is not quite the same thing as actually encountering a word of scripture, slowly. Just take a verse and chew it: “My body thirsts for you, like a dry weary land without water” Ps 62, and meditate on it. Keep repeating it. Get the marrow out of it. Above all, remember that in lectio, you never have to “get through” a text and get on to the next. It doesn’t matter if you spend the rest of your life on one word or one verse, like a desert father who was given the text, “I said I will be watchful of my ways, for fear that I sin with my tongue”, and meditated on it alone for thirty-eight years! You can never exhaust scripture.
You should try to sit and soak each day. It is better to do five minutes each day, than five hours every month. Just sit there. Let the mind be full of whatever it is full of, but just try not to attend to it. And simply, wordlessly, invite God into your heart. You will probably end up thinking about Tesco and the shopping list, or whether or not you switched the light off in the next room, but that doesn’t matter. Just sit there until your allotted time is up. Sometimes you may feel wonderful. Sometimes you will feel down in the dumps. Most times, you will probably feel a dull, grey feeling. But it matters not. Just do it. Prayer is not ultimately about experiences or about feelings, but about willing to be with God.
Many of you are in regular contact with the community. That is very good. In general, we should all be in touch, at least once a year, with the Oblate Master or one of the deputies, just to review how our life is going on. There has to be a realistic link with the life of the monastic community, or being an Oblate starts to lose its sense. Actually to make a physical visit is the best thing, but, when that is not possible, there is always correspondence by letter or e-mail, or even a chat on the phone.
DAILY MANUAL LABOUR
Your daily work, whatever it may be, can be seen as an extension of the community’s duty of hospitality. For some of you, perhaps in earlier days, being an Oblate meant being a good husband or wife, being a good mother or father. By being an Oblate, and living that life, you make Prinknash present in your locality. For many of you, that will involve service in the local parish. But for all of us, we have to develop an attitude of hospitality, which is a costly thing to do, remembering that Christ is received in every person that we meet. Often Christ is wearing a heavy, and not very attractive, disguise, and it takes a real conversion of heart to be able to engage effectively with people who are not “our sort of people”.
DUTY OF PRAYER FOR THE COMMUNITY
An Oblate can perform a very special service by praying for the Prinknash community. Some of you, I know, pray for each monk individually, on a regular basis, and for new recruits to the monastery. Certainly, those prayers do seem to be beginning to bear fruit, and we are very grateful for them. However, it is important not to get locked into an “if only” attitude: “if only things were as they were seventy years ago, when we had seventy monks, wouldn’t it be wonderful?!” It might be, and it might NOT be too; because God has NOT given us seventy, at the moment, but only fourteen. The question is, what are we doing, all of us, with what we’ve got? You might like to be a monk—but you are a married person? What are you doing about your consecrated marriage? You might like to be twenty, but you’re eighty-five: what are you doing about it? In other words, am I accepting the reality of my situation, or am I always beefing about it? Do I see what I have as a gift from God, or a bit of a nuisance? Most of us struggle in this area, don’t we.
I think I can speak for Father Abbot and the community when I say that we are all immensely grateful for who you are in the sight of God, as Oblates, and for the generous services you perform. Clearly, there is something still very attractive about the Prinknash family, that people still want to become Oblates. Part of it, I suspect, is the pursuit of peace in an ambience of peace, which this place offers. Nearly every secular visitor remarks on this. Where God is at the centre, as he is of course, explicitly in a monastery, then there is going to be some kind of palpable peace—even if, as individuals, we struggle with the difficulties of our own temperament and our sinfulness, etc. And I think that this peace is not merely a kind of emotional state, but the result of real sacrifice, and real consecration to God. It would not be too much to say that it is a peace that the world cannot give, but which the world so much wants and needs.
To the extent that you and I pursue this peace and seek after it, each day, to that extent we will flourish.
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