Stability in the world: an oblate’s reflections

Benedictine oblates are people who are not monks but who dedicate themselves, in communion with a particular monastic community, to the service of God and neighbor according to the Rule of St. Benedict, insofar as their state in life permits.[1] Specific commitments include the practice of lectio divina, praying the Psalms through some portion of the daily liturgy of hours, and working in the world as unto God. Benedictine values are ones my own Mennonite community has shared since its beginnings in the sixteenth-century Anabaptist movement: simplicity, hospitality, and peace.[2]

To reflect on what the Rule of St. Benedict might mean for one’s busy, non-monastic juggling of family, career, service, and solitude in the midst of a highly mobile society, is to look at juggling and mobility in the mirror. For although there is nothing inherently place-bound about monastic life generally, Benedict’s rule requires a “vow of stability” — a uniquely Benedictine commitment to live in a particular monastic community for life. At first, this may seem to be the monastic vow that is least likely to apply amid other ways of life. Yet precisely because it contrasts so sharply with the fragility of most commitments in our highly mobile society, the Benedictine vow of stability may speak more directly to our hypermodern age, and to our churches’ challenge within that age, than anything else in the Rule.

Application must be by analogy. And one cannot understand the vow of stability apart from the Benedictines’ two other vows of conversion of life and of obedience. Still, To live any kind of serious Christian life in our age may require the subtle but stubborn form of countercultural resistance that Benedictines know as stability.

As one Christian leader remarked to me concerning the impact of constant mobility on our parishes and congregations: “It’s getting so the Abrahamic thing to do is to stay put.”[3] Much of what is currently being called postmodernism seems to thrive on the problem of instability, not confront it. Yet a few of the most incisive voices on the contemporary scene are calling us to decompress, slow down, stay in place, and commit ourselves to places for the long haul, precisely so that the planet can provide a human home over a long haul.

Essayist Scott Russell Sanders of Indiana University in Bloomington has written about “staying put.” In an essay in a book that is only ostensibly about home ownership, Sanders challenged the voices in his own head, in American culture, and from the admittedly eloquent emigrant writer Salman Rushdie — all of which urge us “to deal with difficulties by pulling up stakes and heading for new territory.” U.S. culture is wrong when it tells us that “the worst fate is to be trapped on a farm, in a village, in the sticks, in some dead-end job or unglamourous marriage or played-out game,” and Rushdie is wrong to tell us that uprooted “migrant sensibility” brings tolerance while rootedness breeds intolerance.

“People who root themselves in places are likelier to know and care for those places,” insisted Sanders, “than are people who root themselves in ideas” as Rushdie would have his permanent migrants do. In our hemisphere, people rooted in ideas rather than places have been the ones who have committed the worst abuses against land, forests, animals and human communities — and hardly without shedding their bigotry. “To become intimate with your home region, to know the territory as well as you can, to understand your life as woven into the local life does not prevent you from recognizing and honoring the diversity of other places, cultures, ways.” After all, those who do not value their own places are unlikely to value others’. Unless one is “placed” one merely collects sensations as a sightseer, lacking the local knowledge that grounds and measures global knowledge. “Those who care about nothing beyond the confines of their parish are in truth parochial, and are at least mildly dangerous to their parish; on the other hand, those who have no parish, those who navigate ceaselessly among postal zones and area codes, those for whom the world is only a smear of highways and bank accounts and stores, are a danger not just to their parish but to the planet.”[4]

By its very existence, monasticism already constitutes a form of countercultural resistance.[5] But as Benedictines give a gift to the Church and to the world through the formation of oblates, oblates who struggle prayerfully to apply the Rule to their own lives have the opportunity to mediate analogues to stability and other vows in both fresh and ordinary ways. In an obsessively mobile society, one wonders whether Christians can be the body of Christ together at all if we will not slow down, stay longer even if we can’t stay put indefinitely, and take something like a vow of stability. Slow down — because what many call postmodernism may really be hypermodernism. Stay longer — because there is no way to discern God’s will together without commitment to sit long together in the first place. A vow of stability — because it is no use discerning appropriate ways to be Christian disciples in our age if we do not embody them through time, testing, and the patience with one another that transform good ideas and intentions into communal practices.

Our challenge is to translate Benedictine stability into the world through forms of Christian life and community that are analogous to the monastic one that Benedict laid out, yet adapted in ways appropriate to non-monastic lifestyles. Oblates already provide the first test case here, for our commitment as oblates — to live according to the Rule insofar as our station in life permits — already constitutes a commitment to discover analogies and make translations. Oblates and oblate directors would do well, however, to reflect on the challenge systematically and give their gift in witness to the world concretely.

Though the commitment required of oblates is deliberately vague and thus properly flexible, the down-to-earth practicality of the Rule should in every case call us beyond either merely sentimental piety or the “cafeteria” religion that too often passes for spirituality today, but does not fundamentally transform lives. In order to appropriate the Rule concretely, oblates might need to create fresh models by which to gather together as lay Benedictine “base communities” dedicated to prayer, reflection, discernment, simplicity, peacemaking, and service. Likewise, they might be instrumental in helping gather others within their parishes and churches for this purpose, without or without attaching the name “Benedictine.”

Even while seeking fresh models for living out these Benedictine values, we should expect that oblate stability will always, also, take shape in quite ordinary ways. Inside or outside a monastery, it is of the very nature of stability that it opens us to God’s presence in the ordinary. Whatever the corrosiveness of our mobile and noncommittal society, the hypermodern predicament at least allows Christians to relearn how precious are the most ordinary human commitments, if only we pay attention. Marriage, local church life, neighborhood life, good work, and better kinds of mobility when God does call us to move — all are opportunities to live out Benedictine stability, obedience and conversion of life in the world. But then, the challenge of the ordinary may finally be why we need fresh models.

Marriage. On my very first reading of the Rule, as I first read Benedict’s call to accept “the labor of obedience” and abandon “the sloth of disobedience” by attending to a master’s instructions, I sensed a problem. The note I wrote in the margin of the prologue went something like this: “But where to find an abbot? What if they’ve all been abdicating?” The answer that soon came to me was that in all of the most important ways, my wife — to whom I have made my most stable vow — is my abbess. I do not mean to suggest that this can or must be the case for every marriage.[6] In good marriages, however, and in marriages where spouses are struggling toward authentic mutuality, a case such as my own should be anything but exceptional. After eighteen years of a marriage that we dedicated to Christ’s service, my wife is the one person in the world who is best positioned to confront my illusions, test my hopes, call me to hospitality, remind me to “regard all the utensils and goods of [our household] as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected” (RB 31.10-11) — and generally, gently, nudge my life unto the Lord. To imagine any stability that neglects obedience to this relationship would invite self-deception, that most tenacious obstacle to conversion of life. And this suggests the larger pattern that oblate stability must take — probably not in formal obedience to one abbot or spiritual director, but in attentive, discerning obedience to the web of primary commitments one discovers through life in Christ.

Local church. Since the publication of her book Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris may have become one of the best known oblates alive. In her more recent book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Norris makes clear in a hundred ways, however, why she could not become a Christian by drawing cafeteria-style on Benedictine spirituality alone. “It is the people we live and work among who can teach us who God is, and who we really are,” along with God’s grace, and “what it means to … live in the real world.” What she most needed was an ordinary small town congregation that is decidedly not an enclave of the like-minded. On the day she joined her Presbyterian congregation, an ill-tempered elder whom she did not really like was the one who muttered her welcome into the body of Christ — and strengthened her “shaky legs.” In turn, she now reminds herself that we do not go to church for ourselves, but because someone might be there who needs us. Here is the mystery of the incarnation. Union of human and divine means that faith always must express itself in specific, local, particular ways. Though incarnation has always been a “shaky proposition,” Norris discerns the unity of the body of Christ in the very turmoil of Christians who stick together despite years of bitter contention. Though “organized religion” is hardly as organized as its detractors say, ordinary Christians do manage to organize soup kitchens, AIDS support groups, domestic violence hotlines, and the Eucharist itself even in places where few other institutions remain to serve others. Old women in churches who hold their ground, Norris imagines, may even hold the world itself together.[7]

Place and neighborhood. Gary Gunderson, a Baptist social activist, has also written of the unsung strengths of ordinary congregations. As believers join together in congregations, one of these is that, in a way that transcends “simplistic rationality” and defies “consumer choosing,” they commit themselves to be present in their neighborhoods through demographic changes and passing decades: “Against the tide of individualism and private spirituality, God calls people together into a physical place, on a real corner amid sheetrock and lumber and plumbing.” Gunderson began to reflect on this when he found himself, despite his sixties idealism, on a congregational building committee and needed a theology of place. “A congregation’s building tends to slow down change like ballast slows a ship at sea,” he eventually concluded. However much this may impose limits and restrict the flow of resources, there is a good side. After all, “once the congregation is committed to a particular corner of the universe, it should be difficult to leave, to change one’s mind. Because it is hard to move, a congregation may be willing to deal with the homeless, the poor, immigrants, elders, those living with HIV whose needs they might otherwise overlook.”[8] St. Andrew’s Abbey in Cleveland, where I made my oblation, has done this by staying in place and adapting its ministry as the city grew around it. But whenever Christians combine Norris’s stubborn commitment to live her faith in a jagged local church, with the tenacity by which Gunderson’s church has stayed in its neighborhood, they give a very Benedictine gift to the world — with or without the name.

Care for the earth. Oblate or monastic, Benedictines who practice stability may also offer signs pointing toward the healing of the earth — and though those signs be small and local it is the nature of the case that only such signs may count. Near the end of the essay that I cited earlier, Scott Russell Sanders told of the sound in the distance that had convinced him he could use no word short of “holocaust” to describe the damage that modern mobile society is doing to the earth. While writing, “I hear the snarl of earthmovers and chain saws a mile away destroying a farm to make way for another shopping strip.” The devastation was particularly tragic because its most recent owners were two out-of-state sisters who had inherited the farm from their mother on the condition that they preserve it. “The machines work around the clock…. The earth is being pillaged, and every one of us willingly or grudgingly, is taking part.” Just as we ask how seemingly upright people could tolerate slavery or the Jewish holocaust, predicted Sanders, our descendents “will demand to know how we could have been party to such waste and ruin.” In such an era, stability that is deliberate and not grudging, attentive not lazy, can at least begin the process of healing the earth: “We can begin that work by learning how to abide in a place,” wrote Sanders. “Strength comes, healing comes, from aligning yourself with the grain of your place and answering to its needs.” And this must mean the needs of “the land itself, with its creeks and rivers, its weather, seasons, stone outcroppings, and all the plants and animals I share with it.” Sanders’ confession could have been a Benedictine one: “I cannot have a spiritual center without having a geographical one; I cannot live a grounded life without being grounded in a place.[9]

Rightly moving. Only in this age, though, may staying put have become quite such an Abrahamic thing to do. Hebrew faith was born in flight from the stasis of ancient civilizations, while Christian faith grew out of and beyond even the Jewish Diaspora. Monastic communities themselves have often played a critical role in the migratory missionary spread of Christian faith and practice. No reflection on Benedictine stability, then, should imply that God never calls Christians to move. Rather, we should expect authentic stability to nurture the virtues that allow Christians to become mobile in the best of ways — ready to hear an Abrahamic call, to live among the poor by both giving and receiving hospitality, and thus to nurture the newly deepened commitments by which God’s people make Christ present in new communities and cultures. After all, the conversion of life we learn through stability and obedience is still conversion to following Christ — this Jesus who was of Nazareth yet finally had no place to lay his head.

Good work and the common good. Commitment to employers and workplace relationships is so tricky in our age that it may be best not to elevate workplace loyalty into a rubric for the practice of stability and obedience. One business ethicist, Michael Goldberg, has noted that corporate culture increasingly demands such quasi-religious devotion that we might do better to speak of corporate cults.[10] Joanne Ciulla, another business ethicist, explains that many corporations have been using the mystique of team-building and “empowerment” simply to manipulate employees in new ways — sometimes trying deliberately to erase the distinction between work and family.[11] Thus, when Christians find the workplace demanding more and more of their time, defining their social life, and claiming to offer them “meaning,” work becomes an idolatrous competitor to discipleship rather than a stable site to heed the Benedictine call, ora et labora, in service to God and neigbor. The tragedy is that good work, ordered to the common good, should be a primary location for learning obedience to Christ in the web of commitments that together may rightly constitute an abbot-like word of guidance for Christians who gather to discern Christ’s way for them in the world. Martin Luther recognized this when he corrected narrowly monastic notions of Christian vocation in order to make clear that every ordinary work in service of neighbor and the common good can, when done in grateful faith, be a good work that makes Christ present to others.[12]

Admittedly, in Luther’s day talk like this emptied out monasteries and convents across Germany.[13] That may only indicate that too much late medieval monasticism had lost a sense of its own vocation to invigorate not displace the faithfulness of all Christian people. Nonetheless, it should remind us even now of just how critical is the question at hand — how shall we offer fully Christian lives to God in the world? One only need read the Shepherd of Hermas from the turn of the second century to realize how abiding this question has been; we find there the early anguish of a layman seeking to keep his loyalties straight and his family dedicated to God amid the pressures of society and commerce, while Christ tarries and time goes on. (The discipline of Christian ethics virtually begins in that anguish.) In providing one kind of answer, monasticism has helped keep the question alive, not solved it altogether. So in their very attention to the ordinary, oblates and other Christians who translate Benedict’s biblical lectio into non-monastic lifestyles must continue to seek fresh models of Benedictine community for their age. If Luther represents a careening between monastic and non-monastic models of Christian faithfulness, let that stand as a warning, or better, a sign: One of the greatest gifts that monks can give to the larger Church is a conversation between such models, or even their fusion. From the long view of Christian history and moral reflection, the contemporary oblate movement could have greater import than even Benedictines may recognize.

Notes

1. For historical background, see Derek G. Smith, “Oblates in Western Monasticism,” Monastic Studies 13 (Autumn 1982): 47-72.

2. For introductions to Anabaptist-Mennonite history and thought, see Cornelius J. Dyck, ed., An Introduction to Mennonite History: A Popular History of the Anabaptists and the Mennonites (Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1981); C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 1995); Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic Nor Protestant (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Conrad Press, 1981); Walter Klassen, ed., Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, Classics of the Radical Reformation (Kitchener, Ontario: Herald Press, 1981); Harold S. Bender, “The Anabaptist Vision,” Church History 13 (March 1944): 3-24; John D. Roth, ed., Refocusing a Vision: Shaping Anabaptist Character in the 21st Century (Goshen, Ind.: Mennonite Historical Society, 1995); Daniel Liechty, ed. and trans., Early Anabaptist Spirituality: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), 304 pp; Franklin Hamlin Littell, The Free Church (Boston: Starr King Press, 1957).

3. Sherman Kauffman, executive secretary of the Indiana-Michigan Conference of the Mennonite Church, and a former pastor.

4. Scott Russell Sanders, “Settling Down,” in Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 102-06, 114. More recently, Sanders has cited Benedictine stability as a model in the chapter on “Fidelity,” in Hunting for Hope: A Father’s Journey (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), 88.

5. Cf. Hanna-Renata Lauerien, “The Benedictine Monastery — a Challenge for Society?” in As We Seek God: International Reflections on Contemporary Benedictine Monasticism, edited by Staphanie Campbell, OSB, Cistercian Studies Series, no. 70 (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1983), 62-76 [incl. responses].

6. In troubled and tragic marriages among fundamentalist Christians, for example, rigid theologies of obedience and submission to male “headship” as onto Christ have exacerbated domestic abuse. Such situations require all the best efforts of moral and pastoral theology to adjudicate.

7. Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 93, 135, 192, 203-4, 238, 258-61, 268-76, 309-10.

8. Gary Gunderson, Deeply Woven Roots: Improving the Quality of Life in Your Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 86-90.

9. Sanders, “Settling Down,” 119-20. Emphasis sic.

10. Michael Goldberg, “Corporate Culture and Corporate Cult,” in Against the Grain: New Approaches to Professional Ethics, edited by Michael Goldberg (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993), 13-36.

11. Joanne B. Ciulla, “Leadership and the Problem of Bogus Empowerment,” in Ethics, the Heart of Leadership, edited by Joanne B. Ciulla (Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books, 1998), 63-86.

12. Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” 1520, translated by W. A. Lambert, revised by Harold J. Grimm in Luther’s Works, vol. 31, edited by Harold J. Grimm, Helmut T. Lehmann, gen. ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), 364-71; Martin Luther, “Treatise on Good Works,” 1520, translated by W. A. Lambert, revised by James Atkinson in The Christian in Society I, vol. 44 of Luther’s Works, edited by James Atkinson, Helmut T. Lehmann, gen. ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 23-26.

13. Cf. Martin Luther, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” translated by Charles M. Jacobs, revised by James Atkinson, in Three Treatises, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 198-203.