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Benedictine Oblates, monastics: raise voices together

By Joan Chittister


Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister delivered a keynote address at the Fourth International Oblate Congress, which took place Nov. 4 - 10 in Rome. The following is Chittister’s address, “Let the call be heard.” It was published on National Catholic Reporter ( Jan. 9, 2018, and is reprinted with permission.

This is the first of three parts.

The question of the day is a simple one but potentially life-changing: The question is, why would anyone even bother to get attached to a Benedictine monastery? What is the purpose of doing something like that?

The truth is that both of us — both you and I, I as a vowed monastic, you, as committed Oblates — are in the process of discovering again in new and vibrant ways what it means to hold a charism in trust for the church.

First, the purpose of a charism — the purpose of the gifts given to us by the Spirit in order to maintain the spirit of Jesus in the church today — is not to horde it and hide it for ourselves. No, the purpose of a charism — the purpose of this charism we call Benedictinism — is to share it, to give it away! We do not come to a monastery to hold this great charism captive to some kind of ecclesiastical elitism, by the less than one per cent of the Christian community who claims to own it.

And there are several ancient stories that indicate best, I think, both the purpose and the spirituality of what it means to be a Benedictine Oblate.

The first of those stories is from the tales of the desert monastics: One day Abbot Arsenius was asking an old Egyptian man for advice on something. Someone who saw this said to him: “Abba Arsenius, why is a person like you, who has such great knowledge of Greek and Latin, asking a peasant like this for advice?”

And Arsenius replied, “Indeed I have learned the knowledge of Latin and Greek, yet I have not learned even the alphabet of this peasant.”

Each of us — lay as well as religious — carries within us a piece of the truth — but only a piece.

Abba Arsenius knew what as religious communities, as church, and as people we have forgotten for centuries: Life is the world’s greatest spiritual director. And each of us learns from it. Each of us — lay as well as religious — carries within us a piece of the truth — but only a piece.

A measure of the wisdom toward which we all strive lies in learning the language of life around us, and, most of all perhaps, being willing to hear the wisdom, of the other. It is by absorbing the wisdom of others, The Rule of Benedict is clear, that we ourselves become wise. You from us, yes, but we from you, as well.

The second story comes from the tales of the Hasidim: A seeker travelled miles every week to learn from the holy one on the other side of the mountains. “What does the holy one preach about,” some friends asked, “that would cause you to make such an arduous journey so often?”

“Preach? Why, the holy one never preaches to me at all,” the seeker said.

“Well, then,” the friends asked, “what rituals does the holy one do that are so important to your soul?” And the seeker answered: “The holy one doesn’t do any rituals for me whatsoever.”

“Well, in that case,” the friends persisted, “what potions are you given there that seem to make life holier for you?” And the seeker answered, “I’m not given any potions at all.”

“But if the holy one doesn’t preach to you, and the holy one doesn’t do rituals for you, and the holy one doesn’t provide you with potions, why do you go there?” 

And the seeker said, “To watch the holy one build the fire.”

Clearly, the Zen masters know what we know: Witness, not theory, is the measure of the spirituality we profess. 

That seeker knows what every truly spiritual seeker everywhere knows: there are some spiritual truths we come to understand only by seeing them in another — only by doing what others do who have already gone before us and know the value of going this way. It is the link to holy tradition that keeps us on the path.

Finally, the Zen masters tell the story of the monk Tetsugen, the goal of whose life was the printing of 7,000 copies of the Buddha’s sutras — till then only available in Chinese — in Japanese wood blocks. It was an enormous undertaking.

Tetsugen travelled the length and breadth of Japan to collect funds for this project. But after long years of begging — and just as he collected the last of the funds — the river Uji overflowed and thousands were left homeless. So Tetsugen spent all the money he’d collected to print the Scriptures into Japanese on the homeless and began his fundraising again.

But the very year he managed to raise the money for the second time, an epidemic spread over the country. This time Tetsugen gave the money away to help the suffering.

Finally, once again, he set out on another fundraising journey and, 20 years later, sure enough, a coin at a time, he finally raised enough money for the third time to see his dream come true: the Scriptures would finally be able to be printed in Japanese.

The printing blocks from that first edition of Buddhist sutras into Japanese are still on display at the Obaku monastery in Kyoto.

But the Japanese tell their children to this day that Tetsugen actually produced three editions of the sutra and that the first two editions — the care of the homeless, and the comfort of the suffering — are invisible but far superior to the third.

Vowed Benedictines and committed Oblates need one another.

Clearly, the Zen masters know what we know: Witness, not theory, is the measure of the spirituality we profess. What we do because of what we say we believe, is the real mark of genuine spirituality.

From the desert master who listened to the laity, to the seeker who recognized holiness of life in the faithful dailiness of the holy one, to Tetsugen who knew that no spiritual book is equal to one spiritual act, the link between deep spiritual development and a profound spiritual life has been a constant.

The ancients are clear: there is a common bond between the carriers of the great spiritual traditions and seekers of the spiritual life in every age. One enlightens the other. One energizes the other. One empowers the other. The tradition enlightens the times, yes, but seekers re-energize a tradition, as well.

Point: vowed Benedictines and committed Oblates need one another.

The questions then are simple ones: “Why do you exist as an oblate?” “Where did you come from?” “Who are you in this great Benedictine story?” “What must you do for the charism to thrive?”

Question 1: Why do you exist? is a question of purpose.

Lay-religious programs — by whatever name they’ve been called through time — Oblates, a Benedictine term as old as the sixth century; or confraters in medieval monasteries; lay preacher tertiaries of 13th century France; Franciscan, Dominican and Carmelite third orders of the later Middle Ages; or the Jesuit volunteers; or Maryknoll Lay Missioners of today.

Whatever they are called they are all meant to give new life, wider space, new depth and stretch to the charisms of the religious communities whose task it was to converge those gifts into one great flame so the rest of the world can see it and so themselves envision another way to be alive. 

Question 2: Where do you come from? is a question of legitimacy that goes back to the roots of the church and the tradition itself.

Paul is very clear about it in Corinthians: “To each one,” he teaches, “the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. . . . To one is given wisdom, to another knowledge, to one faith, to another healing, to one power, to another prophecy. . . . All these are the work of one and the same Spirit and given to each one as the Spirit determines for the sake of the body, the whole.”

Those charisms are gifts given to each of us for the sake of the whole Christian community. And so they must be given away for the sake of the whole Christian community! 

The day we keep our charism to ourselves — either as individuals or as religious communities — that very day the charism dies in us and the Holy Spirit goes seeking for softer sand through which to run.

Clearly, the spiritual channel of religious charisms or gifts is meant to be an unbroken one — through the keepers of the wells of those traditions, us, to you, the keepers of the byways of the world. 

And it has clearly been forever thus.

Scripture itself is full of companionship models of spirituality: Ruth and Naomi, Judith and her maidservant, Elisha and Elija, Paul and Timothy. In every case it is the blend of differences, the meld of diverse gifts, that makes possible the final miracle of faith.

In every case, it is the listening, the learning, the loving attachment of their spirits that take two weaknesses and makes it strong.

In every case, these companions, who come from different perspectives in life and spirit, make it possible for themselves to do together what neither of them could possibly do alone.

There are not some of us who embody the gifts of the Spirit and some of us who do not.

Thanks to Ruth, the Moabite, the foreigner, the outsider, Naomi, the Israelite, can return to Bethlehem. And so the line of David stays intact and Jesus is born to that line by — of all things — the foreigner, Ruth.

Thanks to the maidservant who risks her own life to accompany her, Judith can plot the end of the one who holds Israel under siege.

Thanks to the prophet Elija, Elisha is recognized — as the one who will carry on the prophetic work itself and gives it stage for its own message.

Together Benedictine monasteries and Benedictine oblates must do the same to liberate the oppressed today.

You and I must do that same thing for the voiceless of our own time. Thanks to Paul himself who recognized in Timothy’s youth and his Greek ancestry the bridge Paul himself needed to preach Jesus to a whole new non-Jewish population, the work of the early church was able to thrive in regions far beyond the sound of Paul’s own voice.

Now, we — you and I — must raise our voices together — where the Gospel is seldom heard. You in your world, we in ours.

Indeed, it was Jesus himself who said to many, everywhere and anywhere, come and see. And then sent them out together — no apostles in sight — to be the disciples of his own life.

Indeed, Oblate programs share a proud history, a broad scope. They also embody a bold theology: They demonstrate in a period of clericalism and a closed ecclesiology that the charisms of Jesus — all the gifts of which Paul speaks — are not for the keeping by a few.

They are not for the desert alone; they are to be given in the city as well.

There are not some of us who are holy and some of us who are not.

There are not some of us who embody the gifts of the Spirit and some of us who do not.

There are not some of us who are gift to the church and some of us who are not. 

The charisms of Jesus that the Spirit gives to each of us are not for sequestering by professional religious types.

Chittister is a Benedictine sister of Erie, Pennsylvania.