Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle: March 2010 Archives

Benedictine Oblates

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Oratory of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle

Our First Meeting

On Sunday afternoon a group of four men and three women participated in the first meeting of the Benedictine Oblates of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle. Two other men living in the far off states of Pennsylvania and Colorado were unable to be present. (I was also mindful of Jane in France and of Vincent in Texas.) I gave an historical overview of the Benedictine oblateship, directing my remarks principally to Chapters 58 and 59 of the Rule of Saint Benedict. I then presented Article I of the Statutes of the Oblates and offered a modest commentary on the text.

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CHAPTER I: THE OBLATE

1. The Benedictine tradition sees Oblation as an act intimately tied to the altar of the monastery and to the mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist (cf. RB 58:20-21; 59: 1-2). Oblation is a free act of self-offering to God, patterned after the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Priest and Victim, from the altar of the Cross.

Fundamentally the call to oblation springs from the injunctions of Saint Paul: "I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (Rom 12:1); and again, "Walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath delivered Himself for us, an oblation and a sacrifice to God for an odour of sweetness" (Eph 5:2).

The Benedictine Oblate, drawn to the altar of Christ's Sacrifice by the Holy Spirit, lives from the altar, in communion with a particular monastic community, for the glory of the Father and for the sake of the whole Body of Christ, that is the Church.

The Church recognizes Oblation as a special bond expressing communion between individual Christians and a particular monastery (cf. CCL, can. 303; can. 677 §2).

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A Eucharistic Vocation

The Eucharistic character of the oblateship is grounded in Saint Benedict's rite of monastic profession (RB 58) and in the analogous rite that he prescribes for the offering of a boy, by his parents, to God in the monastery (RB 59). The adult monk making profession and the young lad being offered to God by his parents are identified with the Eucharistic oblation. Symbolically, they are placed alongside the bread and wine (oblata) on the altar, becoming part of the Holy Sacrifice.

The adult monk places the handwritten petition of his offering on the altar, while the hand of the little oblate is wrapped in the altar linen together with the petition drawn up by his parents.

United to Christ, Priest and Victim

By offering himself in the context of the Holy Sacrifice, the monk participates in the eternal priesthood and victimhood of Our Lord Jesus Christ; like Jesus Crucified, he is both the offerer and the offering. Similarly, in the time of Saint Benedict he child oblate, offered by his parents, who exercised a certain natural priesthood over him, became with Christ a single offering to the Father.

Abbot Delatte, in his Commentary on the Holy Rule, speaks of the newly-professed monk as, "a living victim, 'a pure, holy, and unspotted victim,' reunited to the victim on the altar, offered and accepted with that victim, and enwrapped by the deacon in the fragrance of the same incense."

Interior Priesthood

Mother Mary of Saint Peter (Adèle Garnier, 1838-1924), the foundress of the Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Tyburn, was graced with stunning insights into the interior grace of a priestly and victimal life. She writes:

He made me understand that there is an intimate and universal priesthood, absolutely and necessarily united to His, which should be the portion of all souls, but which is so of only very few. This priesthood is wholly interior, and is only granted to a soul who consents to it, who has desired it, and who to obtain it wills to immolate itself at all times with Jesus; that even so, in reality it is not the soul who immolates itself but Jesus who immolates it with Himself. But as the soul wills to be immolated and abandons itself for that purpose, Jesus makes it participate in His state of victim and priesthood at one and the same time. He consecrates it and ordains it to an interior priesthood which conforms it to His Eucharistic life more than any other gift it has received. . . . This grace of interior priesthood does not imprint on the soul an indelible character, for the soul can lose it by infidelity. But if it is constantly faithful to this grace of choice, it will receive through all eternity the reflection of the sacerdotal glory emanating from the Heart of Jesus and spreading over all souls who are priests and victims with Him.

The Altar

The Benedictine Oblate, like the monk, consummates his mystical offering on the altar of the oratory of the monastery. Oblation communicates to one's whole life the character and virtue of a holocaust; it makes of one's life a perpetual sacrifice. All who are offered from the same altar constitute a single priestly and victimal body: one monastic family. A monastery, then, is born at the altar, and lives from the altar.

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The vocation of the Benedictine Oblate is, then, profoundly Eucharistic. Blessed Dom Marmion says:

Let us unite our sacrifice with that of Christ Jesus. Let us offer ourselves with Him "in the spirit of humility, and with a contrite heart that our sacrifice may be pleasing in the sight of the Lord."
O Eternal Father, receive not only Thy Divine Son, but ourselves with Him of Whom say that He is " a pure Victim, a holy Victim, an immaculate Victim." Of ourselves, we are only poor creatures, but, miserable as we are, Thou wilt not reject us, for the sake of Thy Son Jesus Who is our Propitiation, and to Whom we would be united, so that through Him, and with Him, and in Him, all honour and glory be to Thee, O Father Almighty, in the unity of the Holy Ghost." (Christ, the Ideal of the Monk, p. 119)

Ut sanentur

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End of the Penal Code

This morning at Chapter we concluded the eight chapters of the Holy Rule (XXII-XXX) that comprise Saint Benedict's so-called "penal code." The Holy Patriarch reserves the last of these chapters for his treatment of how boys are to be corrected. It was not unusual in Saint Benedict's time for parents to entrust their sons to the monks for a period of intellectual and spiritual education. The lads in question probably ranged in age from five to sixteen. Some of these, but not all, would have been destined for monastic profession. One can only imagine the challenges presented by a troop of boisterous youngsters in the cloister.

Readers of the Holy Rule are sometimes shocked to discover that, where reason fails to bring a brother to mend his ways, Saint Benedict recommends corporal punishment. He even mentions severe fasts (to bed without pudding?) and sharp stripes (a judicious application of the rod).

Adaptability

I am, however, far more impressed by the brilliant first and last sentences of Chapter XXX. "Every age and understanding," says Saint Benedict, "should have its appropriate measure of discipline." What a wise principle! Saint Benedict fosters adaptability, reflection, and due consideration of a brother's age and of his intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development. There is in the Rule of Saint Benedict nothing of the rigid "one size fits all" approach that one sometimes finds in other ascetical systems.

Healing

The last sentence of Chapter XXX sums up the inspiration and justification for all the precedes it in the "penal code": ut sanentur, "that they may be healed." The monastery is, in the end, an infirmary for weak and wounded souls, a place of healing, of purification, and of transformation. Weaknesses, be they physical or moral, are not shocking in a monastic community. They are expected, diagnosed, and, by the all-sufficient grace of Christ, changed into strengths. The Apostles says, "He (Christ) told me, My grace is enough for you; my strength finds its full scope in your weakness. More than ever, then, I delight to boast of the weaknesses that humiliate me . . . when I am weakest, then I am strongest of all."

An Abbot's Prayer

Saint Aelred's splendid Pastoral Prayer might even have been inspired by elements in Saint Benedict's "penal code." I have always loved this particular section of it:

See me, sweet Lord, see me.
My hope, most Merciful, is in your loving kindness;
for you will see me, either as a good physician sees, intent upon my healing,
or else as a kind master, anxious to correct,
or a forbearing father, longing to forgive.

This, then, is what I ask, O font of pity,
trusting in your mighty mercy and merciful might:
I ask you, by the power of your most sweet name,
and by your holy manhood's mystery,
to put away my sins and heal the languors of my soul,
mindful only of your goodness, not of my ingratitude.

Further, against the vices and evil passuions which still assault my soul,
(whether they come from past bad habit, or from my immeasurable daily negligence,
whether their source is in the weakness of my corrupt and vitiated nature,
or in the secret tempting of malignant spirits)
against these vices, Lord, may your sweet grace afford me strength and courage;
that I may not consent thereto, nor let them reign in this my mortal body,
nor yield my members to be instruments of wickedness.

And as I thus resist,
do you all the while heal all my weakness perfectly,
cure all my wounds, and put back into shape all my deformities.

Saint Aelred (1110-1167), the Bernard of the North, was abbot of Rievaulx in England from 1146 until his death. His Pastoral Prayer reveals how profoundly the Rule of Saint Benedict had shaped his ideal and led him to prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

Confirmetur in eo caritas

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Chapter

This morning at Chapter (a daily reflection on a chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict) we read one of my favourite passages: "That the Abbot Be Solicitous for the Excommunicated" (Chapter XXVII).

Let the Abbot show all care and concern towards erring brethren because "they that are in health need not a physician, but they that are sick" (Mt 9:12). Therefore, like a wise physician he ought to use every opportunity to send consolers, namely, wise elderly brethren, to comfort the troubled brother, as it were, in secret, and induce him to make humble satisfaction; and let them console him "lest he be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow" (2 Cor 2:7); but, as the same Apostle saith, "let your charity towards him be strengthened" (2 Cor 2:8); and let everyone pray for him.

The Excommunicated Brother

First of all, what does Saint Benedict mean by "an excommunicated brother"? Saint Benedict so cherishes life together that he can think of no better corrective measure than depriving a brother, in whole or in part, of participation in the daily round of community activities and, in particular, of meals and of the solemn choral prayer. One might think of it as an adult version of the very effective "time out" that my brother, the father of three, uses with his sometimes obstreperous children.

Toward Repentance and Healing

Saint Benedict is not so much concerned with punishing offences as he is with bringing the offending brother to repentance and to healing. The measures prescribed in the so called "penal code" of the Holy Rule are medicinal and therapeutic, not punitive. Saint Benedict presents them as remedies for the variety of spiritual infirmities that can and do affect even the most fervent monastic communities.

Sapiens Medicus

The brothers in question are not iniquitous criminals; they are weak men who have fallen short of the ideal, frail sinners who keep on missing the mark, even after repeated admonitions and interventions. The first biblical passage that Saint Benedict quotes in this chapter is Matthew 9:12: "They that are in health need not a physician, but they that are ill." He describes the abbot (the father of the monastery) as a sapiens medicus, wise physician. He would have him use "every remedy in his power" to restore an ailing brother to spiritual health.

Salutary Intervention

In my own long experience of religious life, I have, more than once, witnessed situations in which a brother gave clear signs of delinquency; in which there was evidence of patterns of unhealthy and perhaps sinful behaviour; in which a brother by "acting out" was, in fact, crying out for help. Also, more than once, I have witnessed superiors turn a blind eye to the problem, refusing to intervene, even in cases where a wise and compassionate intervention could have brought about a real conversion of life and avoided scandal.

I know of one instance in which a student brother residing in a community other than his own was giving unmistakable signs of moral distress, unhealthy personal choices, and depression. The brother in question kept strange hours, failed to participate in community prayer and meals, and avoided the companionship of the religious residing in the same house. Although the superior of the host community had no canonical authority over this brother (who belonged to another religious Order), he certainly had an evangelical obligation to offer him the ministrations of mercy and of healing. Instead, like the priest and the levite of the parable of the Good Samaritan, the superior passed the brother by; he never sought out the brother for a personal conversation, and never attempted to intervene in a situation that had become a question to many. At the very least, he could have approached the brother in difficulty as a priest to a brother priest and said, "I sense -- or I know -- that you are in difficulty, brother. How can I help?"

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Over a decade later, this same superior, denounced the brother whom he had virtually ignored in the throes of a grave spiritual and emotional crisis. He destroyed the brother's reputation, causing untold anguish and grief. All of this happened long after the brother had recognized the error of his ways, sincerely repented, and begun to strive for holiness of life and emotional health. The superior, although a son of the Seraphic Father Saint Francis, would have done well to take a lesson from the Rule of Saint Benedict.

Consolers

Even when Saint Benedict is obliged to separate a wayward monk from the rest of the community to give him time to reflect, and also to prevent the spread of his spiritual malady to others, the wise abbot sends trustworthy elders to "secretly comfort the troubled brother, to induce him to make humble satisfaction, and to console him lest he be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow." Here one sees the magnanimity and resourcefulness of Saint Benedict; the abbot shares the duties of his spiritual paternity with chosen elders in the community. They are, as it were, the envoys of his mercy and paternal tenderness.

Charity and Prayer

When a brother shows signs of spiritual distress by disobedience, possessiveness, disregard for the Rule, or aggressive behaviour, that brother should not be judged, condemned, and forsaken. "Let charity be strengthened toward him," says Saint Benedict. The remedy is more love, not less. And, he adds, "let everyone pray for him." Charity and prayer can melt even the most hardened hearts, provided that those loving and praying, persevere and not lose heart.

The Care of Weakly Souls

The next section of Chapter XXVII reveals the Heart of Jesus living in the heart of Saint Benedict:

For the Abbot is bound to use the greatest solicitude, and to strive with all prudence and diligence, that none of the flock entrusted to him perish. For the Abbot must know that he has taken upon himself the care of weakly souls, not a tyranny over the strong; and let him fear the threat of the Prophet wherein God saith: "What ye saw to be fat, that ye took to yourselves, and what was diseased you threw away" (Ezek 34:3-4). And let him follow the tender example of the Good Shepherd, who, leaving the ninety-nine sheep on the mountains, went to seek the one that had gone astray, on whose weakness He had such pity, that He was pleased to place it on His sacred shoulders and thus carry it back to the fold (cf Lk 15:5).

Paternal Solicitude

In dealing with the wayward sheep of his flock, the abbot is to manifest the greatest solicitude, that is, an almost maternal devotedness. For an abbot after the heart of Saint Benedict there can be no greater tragedy than the loss of a brother. I am reminded of the words of the Apostle Saint Paul: "I speak the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I have great sadness, and continual sorrow in my heart. For I wished myself to be anathema from Christ, for my brethren. . . ." (Rom 9:1-2).

Father and Physician of Souls

The abbot is above all a father and a physician of souls. He is entrusted with the care of those bearing the burden of moral infirmities, and of weaknesses of soul and body. The abbot is not a tyrant driving the strong with threats and inspiring fear; he is a shepherd tending the flock with love and inspiring confidence. Saint Benedict warns the abbot of the sin of preferring "the fat" -- the gifted, the charming, the virtuous, the intelligent, and the comely -- and of throwing away "the diseased" -- the not-so-gifted, the trying, those caught in webs of vice, the unintelligent, and the unattractive.

The Lost Sheep

Saint Benedict enjoins the abbot to follow the tender example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who leaves the ninety-nine well-behaved and observant sheep, so as to search for the one who, deceived by the world, the flesh, and the devil, has lost his way in the mists of temptation. If that one sheep cannot walk, the abbot is bound to carry him on his shoulders and, perhaps, to keep him by his side until, at length, he recovers health and begins to give signs of newness of life.

Not Just for Monks

In reflecting on this chapter of the Holy Rule, it occurred to me that it could just as well apply to bishops and to their priests as to abbots and their monks. It might even apply to fathers and to their children. At the end of Chapter every morning I pray, "Stir Thou up, O Lord, in our hearts, the Spirit to whom our holy father Saint Benedict was obedient, that filled with tht same Spirit, we might love what he loved and put into practice what he taught. Through Christ our Lord." Would that all priests had a share in the spirit of the Holy Patriarch of Monks: self-sacrificing love, mercy, wisdom, patience, and zeal for souls.


About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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