On January 5, 2005, I stood in a private chapel in the crypt underneath the St. John’s Abbey Church and took vows as an Oblate of St. Benedict. These vows include “Stability, Obedience, and Conversatio Morum” (usually translated as “fidelity to the monastic way of life,” implying an openness to lifelong conversation and spiritual growth).
An oblate is a Christian who seeks God through a formal relationship with a particular monastic community. Oblates are men or women, lay or ordained, married or single,– St. John’s Abbey Oblate Website
who seek to integrate the spirit of Saint Benedict in their daily lives.
Recently, I was invited to present a lecture at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX, on “The Theology of an Oblate Charism, Vocation, and Ministry.” The Oblate School is run by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (O.M.I.), founded by St. Eugene de Mazenod in the 19th century.
Oblates offer “a kind of ‘reckless’ [and unreserved] giving of ourselves to the glory and service of God, to the ministry and his infinite love and mercy.”– Emilien Lamirande, OMI
It was the first time I had really stepped back to think theologically on the significance of these vows. I hadn’t thought about them beyond my desire to maintain a spiritual connection to St. John’s Abbey. In this post, I reflect in particular on the vow to “Stability” – especially in a world and a life marked by rapid change.
If I were living out Benedictine vows as a monk, then stability becomes literal. It would mean living as a member of a monastery in a particular place. As an Oblate, it has a different meaning. There is stability – if one knows where to look – but it’s not quite so literal, at least not in the sense of stability to place.
Many of Jesus’ parables take on a depth of richness once we reflect on them for a while in order to understand their interior meaning. I find the same thing true with regard to the vow to stability.
On the face of it, there’s not much “stability” in my life – I’ve moved across the country 4 times in the last decade, and changed jobs 3 times. Most recently, I accepted a new position as Regional Director of Mission Integration with SSM Health in St. Louis, MO.
So, where do I find stability amid constant change? For me, the vow itself represents a point of stability, even as my location and career have moved in directions that I never would have imagined. There’s stability in knowing that I maintain a spiritual kinship with St. John’s, the monks, and the monastic life of prayer. This is reinforced by occasional visits – as life allows. There is always a little piece of my soul that remains tethered to the land, the people, and the memory of St. John’s.
Second, there’s stability in commitment to my family, in relationships. Here, stability is linked with the vow of obedience. “Obedience” comes from the Latin oboedire – to listen. It’s the first word Benedict uses in his Rule:
– Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue
Listen carefully…to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.
Or, for those of us who require a less subtle invitation to listening, there’s this little gem from 12-step recovery:
Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.– Common 12-Step Slogan
Listening is the most basic contemplative attitude. It moves the focus of our attention from the self and its petty needs, to the person (or animal, or planet) making the noise. It changes the meaning of obedience from a slave-like attitude to one of deep receptivity and openness. So, stability is enhanced by listening. Because our “point of stability” is now something bigger than ourselves; in the Transcendent silence that anchors our being to the present moment.
I (try to) listen to the needs of my spouse, my children, my friends, and others in my community – especially the most poor and vulnerable. And I (try to) remain flexible enough to respond in ways that meet their needs; rather than in ways that reinforce my own ego’s desires. (On any given day, you can ask my wife how I’m doing with that good intention:).)
And of course, there’s stability in commitment to prayer, to daily contemplative practice. I (try to) carve out moments for listening throughout my day. In Centering Prayer, in yoga practice, in Lectio Divina and the Welcoming Prayer, and in small contemplative moments throughout my day. But also in meetings. In listening to the people who drive me crazy and annoy me. In welcoming the “guest” who stops into my office and needs my attention.
These become like an anchor dropped into the stormy seas of each day. Practice becomes a harbor of interior stillness, stability, and receptivity – even when things outside are stormy and loud.