I’ve just read Mother Maire Hickey (OSB)’s reflections at the 2009 World Oblate Congress, “The Religious Challenges of Today–the Benedictine answer.” (You can find her text at http://www.benedictine-oblates.org/2009/testi-en.php) A number of sentences popped out at me as something to chew on for a reflection here, but I’ll pick just one section–one that touches on themes that have preoccupied me, and clearly have given Mother Maire pause as well.
She begins by describing the experience of monastics at an ecumenical gathering of European Christians at Graz in 1997, aimed at “trying to articulate a Christian response to the challenges of our time.” She remembers the monastics asking themselves: “Where did the monks fit in to this movement? Should we be involved? We did feel that the Benedictine community had a great deal to offer. . . . But the people we were meeting were clearly much more serious about global issues of war and peace, of social justice, and of care of creation than our communities at home would be.”
Her response to this experience of dissonance is nuanced and subtle. The gist of it: “Humanity’s participation in God’s creative act, including the aspirations to heal the world and make it a better place, requires contemplation as a mode of being: undivided attention of the creature to the creator, listening, answering in praise, adoration, thanks, intercession, all overflowing into creative and fruitful action and life as participation in the ongoing work of the Creator.” Benedictines can offer this way of being to movements for peace and justice.
In short: emphasize first contemplative prayer, and let the fruits of this find expression in all the meetings, planning, and actions related to social justice projects.
I think many of us who are oblates are drawn to connecting with Benedictine communities and traditions for two reasons: a hunger for a lifelong intentional spiritual community, and a hunger for shared contemplative prayer. Community plus contemplation is what makes an oblate community different from many (though not all) “emerging church” groups that arise in evangelical, non-denominational environments.
But I find myself continuing to worry like a dog with a bone over the question of the nature of community for oblates. Many of Mother Maire’s comments assumed the kind of nitty-gritty community found only in monastic or nuclear families. A monastic community can combine contemplative prayer, growth through the irritants and joys of daily interaction, and reflection about social action in the world. They can call one another to account for the DYNAMICS of their group processes in a way we cannot do so readily-as -monks OR oblates–when we are single voices working within a peace and justice group, which may include a mix of secular and religious folks, and which may include strident voices that turn off many.
I am growing increasingly troubled by the failure of many of us drawn to contemplative prayer and community to stick with these messier communities that would never sit down to pray together. While I deeply share the value of walking through life with prayer as a constant touchstone, I see it as a flight from responsibility to the body of Christ and to God’s new creation when we withdraw from participating in any group that has those difficult, angry, unreflective voices. Sometimes indeed small groups will self-destruct because of such voices. But surely there is an alternative to retreating. Contemplation ought to draw us into a greater capacity for being with the difficult, not become a subtle justification for retreating to a more comfortable zone and staying there. But perhaps this is something I am failing to see?
This year–when I am on sabbatical–I have in fact withdrawn from many of my usual obligations, to rethink how I feel most called to use my ecclesial and community-minded energies, and in what ways. I long for a group of simultaneously prayer and justice-minded folks who gather regularly to tend to God and think towards shared action together. Oblates pray together, but they do not act together–though many of us are involved in other community groups that we richly discuss in our meetings. I do not know that oblates need to become that combination of prayer-and-action group; indeed, I think something more ecumenical is needed here. But I think as oblates we have more to discern about the nature of the communities and how we will bring Benedictine values to bear in them–especially when those communities do not share a Rule like Benedict’s to hold them mutually accountable in a wise way of envisioning and acting together.