Monday, June 23, 2008

Privileged Opportunity

The old manual[1] includes a section of daily readings from the Rule of St. Benedict that is tailored for Oblates. In it it’s interesting how the Oblate Directors at that time approached Chapters 8-18 where the observance of the Rule for Oblates is concerned. They didn’t. They simply entitled these chapters ON THE ARRANGEMENT OF THE DIVINE OFFICE and moved on to Chapter 19. Although not a manual, a more modern publication[2] includes these chapters as part of the daily readings for “the friends of monasteries wanting to seek God with the sons and daughters of St. Benedict”.[3]

Adalbert de Vogue tells us, “After the spiritual chapters we have just read, those we now come to carry us into another world. Instead of describing individual virtues, they regulate community observance. This new character, while marking almost everything that will follow up to the end of the Rule, is particularly visible in the liturgical section which begins here. True, it will end with two spiritual surveys on psalmody and personal prayer (19-20), but until then we will come hardly across anything besides dry rubrics.”[4]

There are rubrics involved in these chapters. The liturgical rubrics are, however, important rubrics based on a historical understanding of the seven normal appointed hours of daily prayer[5], a regimen that is much more realistic for life in a well ordered cloistered environment than it is for Oblates living and working in the world with its multitude of variables that can change daily or even hourly. It’s not that we take these chapters with a grain of salt and never visit them again. The rubrics contained in them are an integral part of what it means to be Benedictine and one should have at least a historical understanding of what St. Benedict intended and outlined for his monks as the normal way a monk prayerfully went about his days in a Benedictine monastery.

I’ll not, at this point, spend a lot of time belaboring the points involved in these chapters of liturgical rubrics and offer rather these few comments before moving on in this exploration. It would be fair, though, to say that the foundation laid by Benedict has gone through reforms over the centuries, some more austere than others. C. H. Lawrence, Professor of Medieval History at the University of London, does a better job explaining the centuries of transitions in medieval monasticism in his book[6] than I could possibly attempt. Suffice it to say that more than a few quite pointed words were lofted back and forth over the monastic walls during these reforms. Beyond that, I defer to Mr. Lawrence as a notable authority on this subject.

The closing paragraph of these liturgical chapters offers some flexibility in regard to how the distribution of the Psalms are to be arranged. It also cautions against indolence and lack of devotion to the Psalter citing the example of our early predecessors who, “energetic as they were, did all this in a single day.”[7] Benedict points out the daily standard kept by those who came before him and insisted that the minimum standard in praying the entire Psalter should be no less than a weekly one.

Although we don’t have a universally accepted manual that prescribes rudiments for our daily lives as Oblates, we have been given guidelines by our Directors[8] that are endorsed by the American Cassinese Federation. These guidelines, although not precise rubrics, do point us in a direction that involves adopting certain rubrics in order to achieve a more complete and balanced spiritual being. While it is not insisted that Oblates adhere to performing all the Hours, Oblates are to strive each day to pray some part of the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours, as the circumstances of their lives permit.[9]

This section of the Guidelines also emphasizes the importance of esteeming the holy sacrifice of the Mass, taking an active part in the celebrations of the sacred mysteries of the altar, striving to appreciate the beauty and spiritual wealth contained in the Psalms which form the core of the Church’s prayer, and harmonizing our prayers and devotions in accord with the liturgical seasons and feasts of the year as Vatican II recommends. We are not left on our own to independently plough our own furrows and exercise our own wills after the manner of the third and fourth classifications of monks that Benedict so pointedly reproves.[10]

While some, especially those unfamiliar with monastic spirituality, may see all this as cumbersome and unnecessary religious motion, this, to me, all speaks of privileged opportunity. As an Oblate of St. Benedict I am privileged to share in the long, rich heritage that St. Benedict has given us. I am also privileged to share in the prayers of the Church that are celebrated in the sacred mysteries of the altar. I have, in these privileges and the many privileges associated with them, passed out of a lot of confusion and interior turmoil, offspring generated by so much of my own misguided and protesting self-will and self-direction.

Far from cumbersome and unnecessary, these motions in rubrics, paltry as mine are in comparison to my brothers living in monasteries, offers to God at least a small portion of the honor, respect, and praise due to one who is Almighty, creates an atmosphere that assists in identifying all that is false in life while accentuating all that is true, and continues to slowly hew out the contemplative pathway that I somehow managed to stumble upon during a time of intense spiritual and emotional duress in my life.
[Photo: Altar in the cemetary chapel, St. Bernard Abbey]

[1] Manual For Oblates, St. John’s Abbey Press, 1955
[2] The Benedictine Handbook, Liturgical Press, © 2003 includes a modern translation of the Rule of St. Benedict, sections of articles on the Tools of Benedictine Spirituality, The Benedictine Experience of God, Living The Rule, and the Benedictine Family.
[3] Ibid, p. viii
[4] Reading St. Benedict, p. 101
[5] Mattins, Prime, Tierce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, and Compline
[6] C. H. Lawrence, MEDIEVAL MONASTICISM, Forms of religions life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, ©1984
[7] RB 18:22-25
[8] Guidelines For Oblates of St. Benedict
[9] ibid, Section D
[10] RB 1:6-11