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March 15, 2006:

“When in April the sweet showers fall…people long to go on pilgrimages…”

by Jon M. Sweeney

Geoffrey Chaucer began the Prologue to his Canterbury Tales with these lines more than six hundred years ago. It is still true today that springtime causes something in us to rekindle; spiritual yearnings that have lain dormant over the darker winter months begin to stir—and we turn our eyes toward pilgrimages.

Or, at least, a growing number of Americans do. Abbeys and monasteries (the two words are actually synonymous) around North America are doing spring cleaning, preparing for the influx of visitors who will come for an overnight, a weekend, or week-long retreat. If you are planning on visiting places such as The Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky or St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, be sure to call ahead; they are sometimes booked as far as six months in advance.

Also on the rise today is the number of oblates. An oblate is usually a layperson (not ordained), single or married, Catholic or not, who is formally associated with a particular monastery, having decided to live in harmony with the spiritual practices, goals, and work of an established religious community. To be an oblate is akin to making a permanent pilgrimage.

In his new book, How to be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job: An Invitation to Oblate Life, Brother Benet Tvedten explains many aspects of being a Benedictine oblate. Among them: “Benedict’s way of life is designed for ordinary people. No heroics are required. Just balance, moderation, and a lot of humanity…. St. Benedict teaches us how to get along with one another. We go to God not in isolation from other people but with a community, a family” (p. 19). That is perhaps what draws people more than anything else to become oblates: a need for spiritual family.

The Benedictine tradition is the largest among the monastic orders and it is the largest group of oblates in the States today. However, there are others. Here are some Web resources about oblates:

  • The Order of St. Benedict Web site has a good introduction to what it means to be a Benedictine oblate.
  • You can find a good example of how oblates can participate in the hands-on work of a religious order in the program from the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales in the Philadelphia area.
  • Oblates of all Christian backgrounds who desire to live lives modeled after St. Francis of Assisi can visit the Web site for the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans.
  • For those who are drawn to the Cistercian way of contemplative living and prayer; the Cistercians do not refer to “oblates” but to Lay Cistercians.
  • And for more information about How to be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job, Br. Benet Tvedten’s book quoted above, visit amazon.com.

Oblate programs at monasteries are aimed at helping spiritual seekers to better understand who they are. For a variety of reasons, churches are not always the best places for people to figure this out. Oblates do not become permanent members of the religious community and they do not take vows, but they usually prepare what is called a “Plan of Life,” a process that requires them to be deliberate about how spiritual practice and growth will become the center of daily life and bring balance and strength to their family, church, and community life.

Oblate life is not for all people, but it is a path that will lead many to monasteries this coming spring.

—Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. He is the author of several books, including THE LURE OF SAINTS: A PROTESTANT EXPERIENCE OF CATHOLIC TRADITION.

More by Jon Sweeney.



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