Ancient monk, modern call
Oblates of St. Benedict apply sixth-century Rule to today's life, faith, foodstuffs
By Ron Beathard for Episcopal Life, May 22, 2007
My friends are dull -- good people; I love them all -- but dull as dishwater. Sometimes they surprise, and this is one of those times.
Buddy, a friend from our Air Force days, was in town on business a few months ago. During one of our conversations, he said he thought it would be cool to be a monk. But he couldn't take it all the time.
"I asked my priest," Buddy started, "the Rev. Dave Halt, if there was a religious organization where by day I could be a monk and pray and meditate and do good works, then, when I punched out at five, go home and read the sports page and eat pizza, watch Seinfeld and eat pizza, then turn on a classic Rocky or Terminator flick and eat cold pizza?
"He suggested I contact the oblates of St. Benedict and read Benedict's book, The Rule. I did and was hooked. It is the world's first international, best-selling, self-help book. It is used in monasteries throughout the world and by people just like you and me. If Benedict could have changed his name to Dr. Benny, he would have a highly rated television show. But he wrote The Rule around 540 -- that is 1,500 years ago."
Oblates are lay members of a monastery, sharing a spiritual union and friendship -- like an adopted child. They search for more fulfillment in their everyday lives and a spiritual life deeply rooted in God. When Buddy started his monologue, I thought he was becoming a Bible-thumping, stand-up-and-clap-your-hands, hug-your-neighbor-and-praise-the-Lord person. He is. But he's doing it quietly. He's an Episcopalian.
"For more than a year, I read and studied and talked to myself and decided to become an oblate of St. Benedict. Last winter, Rev. Dave and I drove to the St. Meinrad Archabbey (it's Benedictine) in southwestern Indiana. I remember walking along the hillside through a cool and cloudless night, that for one brief shining moment all this -- Benedict, the Archabbey, the monks and brothers, and my priest -- were there just for me.
"I took it as a sign. In the church before the altar I made my Rite of Final Oblation. I 'promised before God and all the saints, as my state in life permits, stability of heart, fidelity to the spirit of the monastic life and obedience to the will of God.'
"And Ron, what I learned, you should learn also."
Out of ItalyIn his best professorial tone Buddy gave me a history lesson. There was little order in sixth-century Italy when Benedict lived. Few people remembered the glory days of Rome. Lombars, Saxons, Huns, Picts, Franks and more broad-axed their way through Europe. Fine cities became collections of hovels and garbage. Reading, writing and the arts were rare. Famine and disease were common. The Tiber ran red with wine, thieves stole from prostitutes, and heaven knows how many gods played their dissipated roles. Bored Romans sat in their baths waiting for their Gibbon.
"Who me? Read a scroll?"
Benedict came to this bankrupt Rome to study. And left. He left it for the hills near Rome and built quiet monasteries for quiet men to have the order and stability, to have the serenity and harmony needed to praise and seek God in body and spirit.
Buddy continued, "Here he wrote The Rule -- a short, no-fluff, no-puff guide to life for the brothers. And us. I wish I could have known him. I'll bet if today I saw him at a distance walking through the gardens or praying in the dim candle-glow of the chapel, I would know it was him. Benedict had an ineffable love for life, man and God. He shows me that there are no moments too small to share with God."
Buddy was becoming excited as if he had just discovered something for the first time.
"And," he continued without pause, "Benedictine spirituality neatly dovetails into my Episcopalian spirituality. It's a fit — hand and glove. It's in An Episcopal Dictionary. Look it up."
I did. The Dictionary, in its definition of Benedictine spirituality, states: "The shape of this spirituality was formative for the Daily Office of the BCP."
I've never known Buddy to talk at length about spirituality. "Towards the end of The Rule, Benedictine tells his monks, and us, to 'prefer nothing whatsoever to Christ.' And I realized with a sudden two-by-four to the side of the head that he was not talking about the Christ of miracles and journeys and parables that I was taught and know.
"Benedict is writing about the Christ in my mind and spirit, the dynamic Christ living in the center of my self who, by the grace of God, allows me all the love and freedom I need for myself -- and more than enough to pass along to people I reach. That is the Christ I want to know.
"I pray. Did you know, Ron, there are more ways to pray than there are pizza toppings? I work -- at the office and whenever and wherever I can be God's hands and feet. I study oblates who have walked the journey I am on. And I play. I have a new plasma TV and a freezer full of pizzas."
Buddy has won, and he wasn't even in a contest.
-- Ron Beathard attends St. James Episcopal Church in Cincinnati and is an oblate of St. Benedict, St. Meinrad Archabbey, in Indiana. To respond to this column, e-mail email@example.com. We welcome your own "In practice" columns.