A Rule for cenobites...

OK this is a bit of a rant, but I think an important one.

One of the problems in the Church today is the subversion of the idea that religious life represents a higher state of life. Under the guise of the "new monasticism" even married people today like to describe themselves as monks, or consider themselves as bound by the Rules of their Order as monks are.

To the extent that this movement encourages piety and spiritual growth it is obviously a good thing. But to the extent that it undermines the idea that religious life - even in the watered down form so often practiced in these confused and troubled times - is an objectively higher state of life, we should reject it as a dangerous subversion of the Church's traditions.

The Benedictine Rule is first and foremost a Rule for monks and nuns...

A widely disseminated commentary on the Rule for December 2 laudably encourages the saying of the hours of the Office. But in making his arguments for doing so the author gets carried away, claiming:

"the Holy Rule was written by a layman for laymen. The early men (and later, women) were lay-folk when they joined St. Benedict, not vowed Religious but beginners..."

Well no.

First, St Benedict himself was a monk not a layman: the story of his acceptance of the habit from a monk of a monastery near Subiaco appears in the Life of the saint written by St Gregory. And, leaving aside the question of whether or not St Benedict was actually a deacon, is the author of the commentary really claiming that St Benedict didn't make the vows he prescribes for his own monks in Chapter 58 of the Rule? Surely he was indeed a vowed religious!

Secondly, the Rule makes it clear several times that he is writing for "the strong race of cenobites" (ch 1), that is for those "practicising it in monasteries" (ch 73), "in the enclosure of the monastery and stability in community" (ch 4), under the authority of an abbot (ch 1).

When the postulant arrives at the gates of the monastery he is indeed a layperson and beginner. But he is seeking to become a monk or nun (and by the way, women were not later in this but contemporaneous, as St Scholastica, as well as the communities of women referred to in the Life, make clear), not seeking to continue living in the world.

The Rule of St Benedict is a great spiritual document, filled with wisdom for all. And the laity have been called to adopt the spirituality taught by St Benedict from its very beginnings as his Life makes clear: the saint provided spiritual direction to many from his cave at Subiaco; converted those living near Monte Cassino by his preaching; and attracted lay donors who provided land for new monasteries, and entrusted their sons to him for the monastery. Those early oblates often followed an exemplary asceticism too, as the story of the lay follower of St Benedict who fasted on his annual journey to visit the monastery (until tempted otherwise and called on it by the saint) demonstrates. But the call of an oblate is different to that of a monk, and we shouldn't confuse the two.

What is a monk or nun?

The profession of the evangelical counsels by a religious means poverty, chastity and obedience not just in the sense we are all required to adopt, but that special consecration which renounces all goods and all sexual activity, and promises obedience to a superior who stands in the place of Christ. In the case of Benedictines, the form of the vows is 'stability and conversion of morals' and a commitment to live' according to the Rule': "stabilitate...et conversatione morum...et obedientia...secundum Regulam Sancti Patris nostri Benedicti..."

In Vita Consecrata, Pope John Paul II stated that the superiority of the state reflects the fact that religious voluntarily gave up good things, making a total holocaust of themselves, in favor of a greater good, the pure service of God. It is this special commitment that justifies the status of religious life as a higher calling: “As a way of showing forth the Church’s holiness, it is to be recognized that the consecrated life, which mirrors Christ’s own way of life, has an objective superiority.”

Oblates

We are all called to holiness. And the promises made by a Benedictine Oblate for example represent a particularly good way of pursuing that holiness.

But an oblate is not a monk.

Canonically, the situation of an oblate is quite different to that of either a monk, or a third order member of one of the mendicant orders such as the Carmelites, Franciscans or Dominicans.

The traditional promises (not vows) made by a Benedictine oblate living in the world are to live "according to the spirit of the Rule of our Holy Father Benedict, and observe the Statutes of Oblates" (conversationem morum...ad mentem Regulae..."

In the prayers and admonitions of the American-Cassinese Congregation leading up to the promises, for example, the prospective oblate was asked if he was willing to "observe the salutary teachings of our Holy Father Benedict, according as your state of life permits..."

Religious life is, amonst its other purposes, meant to help and support the practice of the laity by providing an exemplar of holiness. Oblates are meant to share in the spiritual benefits produced by their monastery, and learn from the religious life. But oblation is not to meant to be a substitute for religious life, even in times where that religious life seems often poorly observed.

Be fervent followers of St Benedict by all means, but according to your state in life...

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