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Development of Benedictine values a social responsibility

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 last of three parts.

Finally, Oblate programs seen as both consumers of the tradition and as part of its present carriers, as well, enable both its body of oblates and the religious community itself to strengthen the gifts of the other and to learn from the gifts of the other at the same time.

As Abba Arsenius and the old peasant knew, it is the wisdom we seek together that will be most likely true.

Oblates bring to the monastery the gift of immersion in another whole dimension of life with all its insights, all its understandings, all its muddy, complex complications, and its cry for our awareness our understanding, our involvement, and our voice.

Monastics bring to Oblates the lived experience and real witness of a long-standing spiritual tradition that has withstood the test of time over centuries of challenge, stabilized whole layers of people in the midst of grave dangers and given direction to whole bodies of seekers at times of great darkness.

In the fifth century, when the Roman Empire broke down and Europe lay in ruin, Benedictinism was there to give both spiritual meaning and social organization to a people left without either political centre or spiritual guidance.

It is a cry to us to continue to bring Benedictine values to the centre of every system.

When the emerging mercantile society began to consume the lives of the poor for the sake of a new economic system that robbed the poor of land and paid nothing for their labour, monastics educated the poor to prepare them to make the leap from serfdom to self-direction.

It is a cry to us to participate in the renewal of our own societies still caught in the materialism that dries out the soul and to engage ourselves, as well, in modelling other, deeper, longer lasting values

When religion failed itself and spawned national divisions instead of peace, Benedictines struggled to create rule for war and sought to bring spiritual discernment to the intricacy of human relationships.

That model is a cry to us to see the development of Benedictine values as our social responsibility - not an excuse to withdraw from society in the name of false and fruitless piety in the face of the Jesus who says clearly: "By their fruits you will know them."

When family industries broke down, and family farms disappeared, when the new industrialization herded men into factories giving men money but women nothing, women monastics opened schools for girls and boys alike so that the seeds of a world without sexism would someday be not only possible but imperative. They began to provide women, too, with the education, and the child care, and the health care and the status their lives would depend on in coming generations.

It is a call to us, too, to gather up the forgotten again, to speak for the muted again, to paint across the sky again with our own lives the vision of a brighter, more just and equal world once more.

It is the depth of those spiritual traditions, the courage of those spiritual histories, the commitment of those monastics who brought us to this day, that monastic communities hold in trust for those who seek to find.

How can we fail, then, if we are truly forming strong Oblate programs, if we are truly seeking to be part of the spiritual tradition we treasure, to form justice-seeking people, strong and independent women and men, holy and spiritual laity for our own time?

Otherwise, how can we hide in our spiritual jacuzzis, our pious spas and say that we carry the charisms of those before us? Oblate programs are not simply there for monastics to strengthen an OblateÕs special gifts but for the monastery to learn from the wisdom and knowledge that single life and married life of our oblates are offering us, as well.

And Oblates for their part must learn the pervasive power of age-old spiritual traditions and truisms for the quality of life today.

Monastics, who are accustomed to the security of group projects, must learn the breathtaking impact of the kind of independent and individual actions that lay associates, in their isolated lives, risk every day, take for granted every day, brave without end every day.

We must look to one another for the wisdom of experience each of us brings to the table from a different part of life, another facet of living, a completely distinct perspective on being Christian, on being whole.

There are challenges, of course; it is an adjustment period for us all. In the first place, monastics and religious at large are just learning to learn from the laity. Religious are coming to a sense of a wisdom beyond the conventional.

We are also rediscovering their own role to pass on a spiritual tradition as well as a set of institutional ministries or spiritual practices from another day.

We are discovering that with the open door that characterized the foundresses of our mission monasteries goes their own sense of perfect privacy and antiseptic control of circumstances and physical environments and regular schedules and sanctifying seclusion.

We are learning that life itself is not neat and that neat can be a trap that swallows us into the middle of ourselves where nothing grows but narcissism.

Religious are finding that what the lay seeker, and most often lay women lack most, is space. They need space for the quiet that a clinging child does not give for one moment a day. They need space to talk about their own dreams and hopes and questions.

And they need someone to talk to. They need connectedness - a sense of being part of something larger than themselves, something that enables them to know that on the wide stage of the planet, they too count on the issues that make the Gospel real and the beatitudes true and the resurrection possible for everyone.

They are finding out that lay men need a sanctuary where being macho and tough, where inflicting pain and taking pain are not the measure of a man. They are coming to realize that lay men need a place where the spiritual life is nurtured in them, not derided or considered weak.

They are beginning to understand that there are lay men out there who want to learn from the spiritual wisdom of women for whom force and power, money and profit are not the goals of life.

They are coming to understand that both women and men need to be invited, to be companioned into the soup kitchens and peace vigils and social justice groups that confront the state on behalf of the poor and cry out to the church on behalf of women and contradict the powers that chain the oppressed, and so renew the world with the message of the Christ.

They need monasteries that will lead them to take a monastic heart into a world in chaos.

They need, most of all, an opportunity to make a faith-journey that is regular and deep and tried and true - and they need someone to walk the journey with them. To teach them the way, to point out the path, to monitor the going, to applaud the efforts, and to care about both them and the tradition enough to walk the way with them.

Oblate programs are not meant to be this decadeÕs substitute for ladies aid societies or monastery guilds or alumnae programs or community auxiliaries.

Oblate programs need to be the spiritual ripple, the life companion, and the support of the monasteries to which they belong - a call to community that is so rare in a world of isolates.

They need to extend the outreach, the depth, and the breadth of monasteries that built the last era and, now smaller, must begin to build again.

They are the hope that in this century, too, the life and values and spirituality of the Benedictine vision - now centuries tried and true - can be born in us again, anew and always.

And most of all, if our Oblate programs are to be authentic, let there be Oblates who will carry these values beyond the monastery to city hall and Congress, to corporate offices and city streets - even, if necessary, into monasteries themselves that have become too quiet, too comfortable with the world as it is, rather than committed to shaping a world as it must become.

In this most violent of centuries, the blood of our children runs in our streets because we have taught them violence well.

If our Oblate programs are to be authentic, let there be peacemaking Oblates, with the peacemaking charism of a Benedict of Nursia who put down weapons in order to do battle for Christ the King.

In this most sexist of worlds, women to this day are raped, beaten, bought and sold around the world, left to face widowhood without adequate resources, invisible in all the major decision-making arenas of both church and state, deprived of both equal pay and meaningful promotions.

If our Oblate programs are to be authentic, let there be associates with the spirituality of a Benedicta Riepp and Hildegard of Bingen who call the men of the world to conscience and accountability in both church and state.

Oblate programs are not meant to be pious additions to a string of private devotions. Benedictinism is a journey into the depths and demands of the contemplative life, into a prayer life that is real not simply ritualistic.

Benedictines stand on a mountain top of prayer immersed in the cries of the psalmist, challenged daily by the prophets, touched to the core by the demands of the Gospel and called by Jesus - liberator, redeemer, healer, and lover - to "Come follow me!"

And so Benedictine prayer leaves us with the questions: As a Benedictine, who are you struggling to liberate from the chains of rejection, poverty and greed? What have you redeemed in a world full of its own destruction? Who do you love? Only the self or also the other and how would we know it if we ever saw it?

Now is our time to carry these vibrant and world-changing charisms back into a world that needs them so badly now.

For many, the pious image of Cluny and its 24-hour prayer schedule remains. But the Cluny who refused starving peasants the harvest in their barns is an aberration of a great tradition of care and service, education and healing, justice and peace. And so the peasants of the day tore it down.

Cluny is at best a warning of what happens when a religious order goes sour.

Instead we are at a common table, you and I, called the church. We are called to share a common feast, with the world around us. We bear a common responsibility to bring the bread of life to every dying thing we see. We owe to the world now the cup of blood that is our own.

We are companions on the way and keepers of a great spiritual tradition, born in times of stress and discord, inheritors of merciless war and death, healers of spiritual poverty and physical pain, rampant oppression and great human need.

This is not a time to mistake the first great cenobitic tradition of history for some kind of spiritual spa, where we can burrow in and ignore the call of Jesus to hear the call of the poor.

Now is our time to carry these vibrant and world-changing charisms back into a world that needs them so badly now.

Let us then with Ruth and Naomi, Elisha and Elija, Judith and her maidservant, Timothy and Paul, as Oblates and monastics companion one another again to prophetic truth, to gospel voice, to brave witness, to contemplative courage to risk the new life everywhere.

Let us, in other words, be true to the tradition we hold in common.

Once upon a time a disciple asked the holy one, "Holy one, what is the difference between knowledge and enlightenment?" And the holy one said, "When you have knowledge, you use a torch to illuminate the way. When you are enlightened, you become the torch to lead the way."

Where do you come from? You come from the heart of the Spirit.

Who are you? You are monastic gifts given by God for today.

What must you do? You must embody and extend the charisms or gifts of the Spirit long embedded in this great monastic tradition in new and even richer ways.

So, why do you exist? For one reason, and one reason only: to become, like the great monastics before you, the blazing, flaming, searing light to others that you are really meant to be.

Finally, the truth is that the call to wisdom, to witness, and to oneness in community is common to us both: Oblate and monastic alike, and the call must be heard. Together you and I must make it happen.

May you, I, our monasteries and our Oblate programs everywhere companion one another, listen to one anotherÕs wisdom and so become even a stronger part of the tradition - both of us - than we can ever be alone.

Chittister is a Benedictine sister of Erie, Pennsylvania.


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