|The Monastery of Christ in the Desert|
In the older versions of our Anglican Book of Common Prayer, when Christ sacrifices himself on the cross he is said to be performing an “oblation.” That means that he is pouring himself out.
Since the very beginning of Benedictine monasticism, there have been men and women who offered themselves as “oblates” to monasteries. They “poured themselves out” for the sake of Christ, his Kingdom, and these communities. Often they provided service to the monasteries--sometimes menial service, sometimes professional.
In the past few decades, becoming an oblate has become increasingly popular. Christian men and women are looking for ways to order their lives in the way of Christ. Their oblations, their self offerings, are done to Christ in the context of a ordered communities. These are people who feel called to follow Jesus in a way that incorporates the Rule of St. Benedict as much as their non-monastic lives will allow. They are connected to a specific monastery for mutual prayer, support, and fellowship. When they come to the monastery, they are not “guests" because they are at home in the monastery. They are not “benefactors,” because their primary role is not financial or material support (though they are free to offer this help as well).
I have been spending about a week a year at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert for over a decade. I am currently writing from the Monastery on my eleventh annual visit (though I won’t be able to post this from here, as there is no internet access). This monastery has had an important impact on my life. I have grown to love the Rule of St. Benedict. I strive, poorly, to live out his admonitions of listening, prayer, work, community, love, conversion, obedience and stability. I feel connected to this place. Each week I make it a point to read the Abbot’s e-mails, which are part newsletter and part sermon. There is a sense in which he pastors me, though he barely knows me.
Over the years, I have thought it would be “cool” to be an Oblate of this monastery. However, I never heard of any oblates, so I assumed they did not have any. Several months ago I was reading the monastery’s newsletter and saw an item on a man who had become an Oblate. “They have Oblates?” I thought. I wrote an e-mail to the general e-mail address. No answer. After a few weeks, I e-mailed the Abbot himself. He got back to me, telling me that he would pass on my request to Brother Christian, the sub-Prior and, apparently, Oblate Director. Brother Christian travels a great deal, so I was not surprised when he did not get back to me.
While preparing to visit this time, I wondered if Brother Christian would be here. I wondered if I should speak to him about becoming an Oblate. What would it take, what would it mean in this context, what are the requirements? I just didn’t know. By the time I got here, I was thinking I wouldn’t bother, that it would be too much for me.
At Sunday mass during the prayers, they prayed for their Oblates. I don’t remember ever hearing that before. My thoughts turned again to speaking to Brother Christian during the “coffee hour” after Mass, the one time a week that guests are officially allowed to talk to the monks (though we actually talk more often then that).
I felt nervous about it. Awkward, really. I thought, since I’m not a Roman Catholic, he would say no. I would be embarrassed. I made a childish decision. I decided that if someone else brought it up, then I would ask. That behavior, by the way, is passive and gross. But that’s what I did.
At coffee hour, I spoke to Brother Christian, the Abbot, and some other monks. Then I got into a conversation with a couple of guys who have only been here for two months. They are trying out this whole monastic thing. We were talking about my numerous visits when one of them asked me “have you considered becoming an Oblate?” No one had ever used that word with me before, as far as I remember. I told him, “actually, I’m going to talk to Brother Christian about it right now.”
That’s what I did. He said we could talk more tomorrow, and he gave me some literature about Benedictine Oblates. I really liked what it said. I called Laura (you can now drive just a few miles from the monastery and use a cell phone!) She was, as always, so supporting and loving. She encouraged me to pursue it.
The next day I spoke with Br. Christian. Apparently not being Roman Catholic is no problem. Benedictine monasticism predates Roman Catholicism. He offered to let me become an Oblate Novice. Next year I can come back and, if I wish, make my "final oblation." He told me that there were two other guests who were about to become Oblates today. I went and called Laura, and then told him “yes.”
The four of us sat around a table in a private room. We talked about why we want to be Oblates, and Br. Christian gave us some good direction. Then we had the ceremony. He asked me if I wanted to enter this Novice period, and I said yes. He prayed for me, and then blessed a St. Benedict metal and gave me a small copy of the Rule. That was it. Then the other two had a longer ceremony, simply sitting around the table. It was completely centered on Christ, his giving of himself for us, and our call to give ourselves to him.
The day I departed, Br. Christian found me at breakfast. He gave me an official certificate proclaiming me an Oblate Novice. We talked about where I was headed next. When I told him I was going to Orcas Island, he told me that there is a monastery on the next island over. He went into the gift shop (of course they have a gift shop) and got a few things. He asked me to pass them on to the nuns there, and to bring greetings on behalf of Christ in the Desert. Then he hugged me and called me "brother." I felt humbled and honored to serve in this small way.
At the end of every service (other than Mass) at the Monastery, the monks and visitors chant “May God’s help remain with us always, and with our brothers and sisters who are away.” As a newly minted Novice Oblate, I would like to think that this prayer is for me. I see myself as one of those brothers who is often away. I have always felt a deep sense of connection to Christ through this community, and now I am moving towards formalizing that connection. I am very happy.
--Thomas McKenzie, Obl. S.B.