Saturday, January 17, 2009

Four Year Assessment

Twenty months ago I made my Act of Final Oblation as an Oblate of St. Benedict at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama. Before this act I spent a year as a novice or candidate for Oblation. Before this I spent a number of months reading and pondering this direction before picking up the phone to schedule a personal retreat and make an appointment to meet with the Director of Oblates at the monastery.

The basic foundation of Oblation is a life of prayer and work. That’s Benedict’s Rule for brothers, cloistered or lay. It’s close to four years since I started in this direction, long enough now to make some assessments and draw some conclusions based on experience over time.

Monastic spirituality is not a world all its own. But it’s not far from it. It has its own routine, its own demands, its own rewards, its own challenges. It calls us to separateness, to standing apart from the world. This, in itself, is not easy at the outset but grows easier as we go about living out the ideology presented in St. Benedict’s Rule.

I’ve come to believe too, and this is my own perception, that honestly living out the ideology of the Rule of St. Benedict can also place a person in something of an adversarial position in the greater community of the Church.

I find this to be particularly true in a busy mega-church environment where programs abound and people to carry out the programs are few. There’s always something else that needs doing to keep the machine performing. In such an environment it’s easy to get so stretched out doing good things that I don’t have the time or energy to invest in the pursuit and development of the promissory note that I signed in front of the Tabernacle at the abbey.

I’ve discovered that Oblation, in certain respects, is a “no man’s land” where one travels great distances without seeing another kindred soul. It is a lonely row to hoe especially when life is lived several hundred miles from the monastery and an annual Oblate Retreat is the best I can do.

I’m a lay brother and not a cloistered monk. I live in the world and make my way through it as best I can without becoming too tainted by it. My housing, vehicles, bed, food, healthcare, and clothing are not provided for me by the monastery. Through personal industry, most of it manual labor, I earn an income to help support me and my wife in an economic and moral climate that is growing more vicious by the day. A large percentage of our food comes from our garden, fish that we catch, or meat that I hunt.

Although I have a cenobitical relationship with the monastery I live more of a semi-eremitical life. Except for my wife, our children, and a few (very few) close family members and friends I’d rather be left alone to focus on living simply and close to the earth. It’s not that I’m inhospitable. That would be contrary to the Rule. Most people, however, have a way of complicating life for me, a way of destroying the peace and solitude that I desperately need in order to maintain my spiritual and emotional equilibrium.

I no longer try to meet people where they are and then try to lure them to where I am. Some may see this as a betrayal of the great commission to evangelize. I don’t. I live in Christ and when the timing is appropriate I vocally speak for him.

There was a day when I thrived on being the center of attention. I wouldn’t have admitted it then as a Protestant pastor. I can admit it now. It really stroked my ego when people prefaced my name with the “pastor” title. I’m glad that is now something that is becoming more distant, in the past, a former life that always seemed so unnatural for me.

I’ve come to the point that I no longer measure my spirituality in terms of success or failure. Do I always practice Benedict’s ideology perfectly? No. I never have. None of us do or ever will. It sets an extremely high standard. I’d much rather admit and face my own inabilities than to take too much liberty in watering down the Rule to make it comfortably suit me.

I also sometimes fall into a major funk that takes some time to work through and come out of. It usually happens when I get too involved with other people and agendas that don’t run parallel to what I know I need to do to live simply, peacefully, prayerfully.

When I honestly consider all that’s going on in the world I think the best thing I can do for the world is to leave it alone. Let it run its course. Put more distance between me and it. Perhaps this is a fault that I have. More likely, I think I’ve discovered my limitations. More, I think I’m also rediscovering my truest ambitions, those that were inherent within me when I was still too young to understand them.

Four years. I can see some changes.

Ora et Labora. I want to stick with this formula.