I recently came across a Manual for Oblates written by Dom Gueranger, the founder of the Monastery of Solesmes in the nineteenth century, so I thought I'd put up some extracts from it. It was translated into English and published by Burns and Oates.
Today, the introduction by 'a secular priest'. The headings are mine.
The value of associations
"This is pre-eminently an age in which the principle of association and co-operation is thoroughly appreciated in all that concerns civil life and secular affairs. Throughout the world we see on all sides the rapid rise and growth of industrial, political, and literary societies... As we know, also, only too well, this is an age that has felt the power of association, not only in its beneficial and useful effects, but also in the working of evil and the spread of error...
But social perfection, or the highest form of association, is only possible in the Catholic Church through the means of the Communion of Saints, by which we participate in the life of the Mystical Body of Christ, and are made “fellow-citizens of the Saints and domestics of God, built up on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, JESUS CHRIST Himself being the chief corner-stone.”...
The object of the little work to the English translation of which these few words serve as an introduction, is to set before the Faithful a practical and, at the same time, a most ancient and well-established means of consciously and intelligently entering into and participating in the spiritual life of the Church.
The means proposed is no other than that of aggregation to the Monastic Order by the reception of the Benedictine scapular. This time honoured religious custom takes its rise and has its origin in the very cradle of the Monastic life of the West; for we find that St. Benedict himself admitted Tertullus, the father of St. Placid, to a participation in the prayers and good works of his Order; and that King Theoderet desired the same favour from St. Maurus. As early as the eighth century we find traces of this practice throughout Europe; and in the eleventh century it had become so common that whole villages might be found whose inhabitants were all aggregated to one of the great Monasteries, and even, sometimes, leading a life resembling that of the first Christians, as described in the Acts of the Apostles.
History of oblates
Persons thus aggregated to the Monastic Order were known as Oblates of St. Benedict - a name recognised by the Canon law of the Church. In the thirteenth century there sprang up the Third Order of St. Dominic and St. Francis, especially intended for persons living in the world, but constituting in themselves distinct Orders, as their name implies, with a distinct rule different from that of the First and Second Orders: whereas, amongst the Benedictines there is no Third Order, inasmuch as there is no Second; and those persons invested with the Benedictine scapular are simply aggregated to the Monastic Order of the Patriarch of the Monks of the West.
The custom, therefore, of investing persons living in the world, whether ecclesiastics or Laity, with the scapular of a monk, took its rise in the Order of St. Benedict; and the special Confraternities of the Scapulars of other Religious Orders of more recent date are but an extension of this ancient practice...
Purpose of monasticism
The chief end of the monastic institute is prayer, the prayer of the Church, which St. Benedict has called in his rule “Opus Dei,” “the work of God.” Everything else in the monk’s life must be subservient to prayer; nothing is to be preferred before it. “Opus Dei nihil praeponatur” - “Let nothing be preferred to the work of God,” writes the Saint in his rule. Prayer is the keynote, the touchstone, and the very essence of this life; and its whole spirit might be summed up in the words of the Canticle of Ezechias: “Psalmos Nostros cantabimus cunctis diebus vitae Nostrae in domo Domini” - “ We will sing our psalms all the days of our lives in the house of the Lord.”
“Wherever men believe in prayer,” wrote Father Dalgairns, in his essay on “The Spiritual Life of Mediaeval England,” “you are sure to have the monastic life in some shape or other. If they have none, they will soon cease to believe in prayer, as is fast becoming the case in all Protestant countries. Wherever the Christian idea is strong, men who are by their position necessarily involved in the strife of the world, will be glad to know that men and women who are separated from its turmoils and its sins are offering prayers to God for them.”
A real appreciation of the value of prayer is surely a need of the present age, when a veiled Pelagianism seems to have invaded the minds of so many Christians, making them trust too much to human means and natural activity, and not enough to the help that comes from God. The spirit of the age is opposed to the supernatural, and tends to exalt and make much of the natural aspects of Christianity...
Monasticism in the English tradition
For the Anglo-Saxon race, Christianity is coeval with Monasticism and the Benedictine life. The Benedictine Order has a special historical claim upon the affections and gratitude of the English people. St. Gregory the Great, the Apostle of England, was a Benedictine monk, and the first Archbishop of Canterbury was the Prior of the Benedictine Monastery of St. Andrew, founded by St. Gregory in his own paternal home, called in after times the Church of SS. Andrew and Gregory on the Coelian Hill.
The first companions of St. Augustine of Canterbury, who became the first English bishops, were all monks from that Roman Monastery; so that the great English Church was not only, in the first instance, an “Italian Mission” sent by an Italian Pope, but a Benedictine Mission also sent by a Benedictine Pope.
Moreover, in no other country, perhaps, has the monastic life entered into the Hierarchical life of the Church so completely as it did in England, from the first introduction of Christianity to the overthrow of the true religion in the land under Henry VIII. and Elizabeth. All the Cathedral Chapters (save five served by secular clergy, and one by Augustinian Canons) were composed of Benedictine monks, to whom the Bishop stood in place of Abbot, there being a Cathedral Prior to rule the Monastery attached to the Cathedral.
All the Archbishops of Canterbury were professed monks except three, of whom one was the glorious Martyr to the liberties of the Church - St. Thomas a Beckett, the patron Saint of the English secular clergy who, though not a professed monk, was aggregated to the Order on his nomination to the See of Canterbury, and who always wore the Benedictine habit, which was found on his dead body under his Archiepiscopal vestments, after the scene of his martyrdom in the Chapel of St. Benedict in Canterbury Cathedral.
Monasticism as the bulwark of the Church
The monasteries have ever been the citadels and strongholds of the Christian life, as well as the cities of refuge for the people of God in Christian times. The names of the great saviours of the Christian Commonwealth during the Early and Middle Ages are the names of monks, such as St. Gregory the Great, St. Gregory VII. (better known as Hildebrand), St. Peter Damian, and that host of illustrious Saints, the list of whose names alone would fill a page. It was the corruption of worldly society that gave rise to the monastic life, and led great Saints like St. Benedict to fly for protection and safety in the first instance to the monasteries as to “the mountains whence help cometh.”
It is for the same reason that the Institute of the Oblates of St. Benedict is proposed to the Faithful living in the world, as an antidote to the evil communications of the world, with their lowering and corrupting influences, and as a powerful means by which the tone and atmosphere of the Gospel of Jesus Christ may be diffused, and make itself felt in our lives. It is, in fact, a practical way of helping ourselves anew to that “salt of the earth” which constitutes the main social characteristic and distinction of the Christian life."
You can find Part II in this series here.