The laypeople seeking a monastic life in the modern world
Are oblates the future of monastic orders?
The adobe Abbey of Our Lady of Guadalupe sits in the mountainous high desert of New Mexico, some 25 miles from Santa Fe. It is a popular destination for retreatants, an oasis of prayer and peace alongside the Pecos River. Only eight monks reside at Our Lady of Guadalupe. The abbey, however, has 270 lay associates—men and women who live and work in the secular world but seek to follow the Benedictine values of community, hospitality, humility, simplicity, prayer, and praise in their daily lives.
Halfway across the country, the red brick bell tower of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery rises on a hill in Atchison, Kansas, not far from the Missouri River. With 111 sisters in residence, “the Mount” is one of the largest Benedictine women’s monasteries in the country. Still, it has three times as many lay associates as sisters.
Monasteries across the country are experiencing a similar trend. As the ranks of monks and women religious dwindle and age, the decline is more than offset by an increasing number of laypeople yearning to replicate within their secular lives the kind of prayer and contemplation they’ve experienced inside monasteries. Benedictines call these lay associates oblates, a word that means “offering.” Other orders, such as the Franciscans, Carmelites, and Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, have witnessed a similar influx of lay associates, which are also sometimes called Third Order or secular members.
While oblates have been around in one form or another almost as long as the Rule of St. Benedict itself, for the first time in the order’s 1,500-year history lay oblates now outnumber monks and women religious. This trend marks both an opportunity and a challenge for the Benedictine way of life. And, as the order with one of the longest histories accepting lay associates (including Dorothy Day and novelist Walker Percy), how Benedictines adapt to the growing number of oblates will serve as a model for other orders.
An ancient vocation
Oblates have existed in some form for centuries. Often they were persons of limited means who shared in the manual labor of a monastic community. Only in recent decades have professional men and women seized the oblate role as a way of sharing in the life of a monastery while still living outside of it.
In 2008, the most recent year that statistics are available, there were 25,400 oblates worldwide, according to International Benedictine Oblates, a website that tracks oblates across the globe. The number includes nearly 11,000 in the United States. By contrast, there were 22,000 monks and women religious worldwide, according to the 2014 and 2015 Catalogus Monasteriorum OSB. The number of oblates has likely increased in the ensuing years, while the number of monks and sisters has declined, as few who die are replaced with new vocations.
Like monks and sisters, oblates follow the Rule of St. Benedict, the classic guide for seeking God through prayer, work, hospitality, humility, community, and quietude. Oblates take vows similar to those of professed members, including vows of stability (promising to remain affiliated with one particular monastery) and conversatio morum, a commitment to seek constant conversion through a life of service and holiness.
Oblates can be married. Most work. They include members of other Christian denominations as well as Catholics. Many strive to follow the daily monastic prayer regimen of the Liturgy of the Hours, either on their own or with their monastic communities. They regularly practice lectio divina, a method of praying slowly and meditatively with scripture that monks and women religious have used for centuries.
Jodi Kileup, an oblate of Mount Angel Abbey outside of Portland, Oregon, says oblates aren’t “another club or social group.” Nor are they “monastic groupies,” but rather people with a vocation “connected but not the same” as professed monastics. “We have the same spiritual yearning,” Kileup says.
A new challenge
Behold I am doing something new. Do you not see it? Sister Teresa Jackson, membership director at the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood, Idaho, uses these lines from Isaiah to describe both the opportunities and challenges oblates represent.
“Can we who are professed Benedictines humbly embrace the great new wave of vocations that are coming to us in the form of Benedictine oblates?” Sister Teresa asked last fall at a forum called “Oblates for the Future,” held in Cottonwood. “Are we failing to see the new life, new energy and longing for monastic life?”
Several monasteries are experimenting with ways to better integrate oblates into their religious communities. Mount St. Benedict in Erie, Pennsylvania and Our Lady of Guadalupe in New Mexico have invited their lay associates to live and work full time within the monastery, sharing in the community’s prayer life as well as the day-to-day responsibilities.
“It’s important to recognize that our oblates are not a program. Oblates are a community,” Sister Teresa of St. Gertrude says. “A program is something that is staffed, that is offered. A community indicates mutuality and responsibility. There’s a deeper connection.”
Oblates already play many key roles that would have been unlikely just 50 years ago. When the sisters of Red Plains Monastery in Piedmont, Oklahoma left several years ago to join the monastic community in Atchison, Kansas, they left behind a number of oblates they had trained to become spiritual directors. One of the oblates established a retreat center in the area, and another is the pastoral associate of one of Oklahoma City’s largest parishes.
At the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Idaho, the chief financial officer is an oblate. And Kileup, the oblate from Mount Angel Abbey, serves as her monastery’s development director.
A deepening vocation
Marilyn Payer is an oblate of Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey. She entered a religious community after high school but decided “it wasn’t the right fit.” She eventually married and worked in nursing. About 20 years ago, Payer walked into Our Lady of Guadalupe for the first time.
“I immediately felt at home,” she recalls. Payer now spends extended periods at the abbey (sometimes with her husband) and serves as Our Lady of Guadalupe’s assistant oblate director. While there, she wears a simple white dress that serves as a kind of habit. (Most oblates wear a pin or oblate medal on a chain.) Visitors to the abbey know her as “Sister Scholastica,” a name she took with the abbot’s permission in honor of St. Benedict’s sister and her patron saint. Payer’s time at the monastery, she says, “fills a void in my heart for community and a more disciplined prayer life.”
Occasionally an oblate vocation will develop into a religious profession. Camille Wooden was working as a public school teacher when she became one of the 50 oblates at St. Placid Monastery in Lacey, Washington, a community with only 11 sisters. Wooden says she was drawn to Benedictine spirituality because of its emphasis on balance, moderation, and contemplation.
“But in the end, there is something I can’t explain exactly,” she says. “It is a call or invitation that I wasn’t able and still can’t quite put into words.”
In the classroom, Wooden says, she always wore her oblate pin. “It reminded me of what I was about,” she recalls. “I remember thinking if one of my students sees this pin or a Benedictine cross in the future, what will they associate it with? A cranky, unkind sixth grade teacher, or a teacher they remember with fondness and affection?”
After a period of discernment Wooden decided to enter St. Placid as a novice. The monastery currently has four women in formation to become professed members, a number most monasteries can only wish for. Still, those in formation bring the total number of sisters to only 15. Oblates represent an important part of St. Placid’s future.
“The St. Placid community is by and large a very forward-thinking one,” Wooden says. The sisters have made rooms available for oblate “affiliates,” people who want to spend extended periods within the monastery. There is also an option to become a “claustral oblate,” a choice not much in use since the Middle Ages, which allows a layperson to engage in the same formation as a religious sister but without the aim of a lifetime profession of vows.
Not just for Catholics
The oblate life is attracting a growing number of Protestants as well as Catholics. Gregory Peters was raised in an evangelical Baptist church and is now an Anglican priest. He is also an oblate of St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California and teaches monastic history at Biola University. Peters says he believes there is a place for monasticism in the evangelical Protestant tradition. “I think it is important to bring the richness of monastic history and spirituality to a largely untapped audience,” he says.
Peters is also vice president of the American Benedictine Academy, an organization that fosters monastic scholarship and research. He sees correspondences between his evangelical roots and Benedictine spirituality, such as a “strong para-church element” that inspires many in the evangelical tradition to look beyond “the four walls of the church for things that will enhance their spiritual life and commitment to Jesus Christ,” he says.
Peters regularly brings his evangelical university students to visit monasteries in Rome. “Lacking their own monastic tradition, there’s something mysterious about monasticism that calls people to it,” he says. “There’s the sense that the monks have figured something out.”
For some Protestant oblates, their oblate vocation unfolds in the context of work and ordinary secular life. Alysa Hilton, for example, says her oblate vocation informs her work as a nurse practitioner. “Before I open the clinic, I bless the space with prayers of gratitude and petitions for anyone that walks through the door, that they will find a refuge of help and hope,” she says.
Hilton grew up in the Episcopal Church where her father was a priest. She describes herself as a spiritual seeker “from about the age of 4 on.” She sought to become an oblate after attending several retreats at Queen of Angels Monastery outside of Portland, Oregon.
Hilton’s monastery has 25 sisters living in it, most over the age of 65. Like many oblates, she fears her monastery will not be able to sustain itself in the future. The sisters of Queen of Angels have discussed creating some living quarters within the monastery for oblates. But there is little hope that other professed members will join the community. For as long as possible, Hilton says, “I want to be with the sisters, to honor this time, and make the most of it.”
The question of what will happen to the oblate community when a monastery closes remains a common concern. “The near future will almost assuredly be a crucible moment for oblates,” says Dan Johnston, a former mediator who now serves as director of operations and finance for the Benedictine sisters in Idaho.
“Oblates will likely face a diaspora of sorts,” he says. “The oblate vow of stability will undergo significant change, shifting from being community-centered with a strong sense of place to perhaps a more practice-centered focus and nomadic orientation.”
Johnston likens the situation to that of Ezekiel, the prophet who “with packed bag digs a hole in the wall of certitude and climbs through it, entering the unknown.” Johnston says oblates, like the prophet, “may have to resort to carrying their Benedictine spirituality on their shoulders, like exiles.”
There is also the question of the aging of the oblate community itself. Though no official statistics exist, those familiar with oblate communities say their demographic is only slightly younger than that of professed monastics, whose median age at many monasteries is 75.
“I know there are some who believe oblates are the answer to a declining number of vowed members,” says Sister Linda Romey, a Benedictine from Erie who works with “Monasteries of the Heart,” an online community started by Sister Joan Chittister to connect people across the globe interested in Benedictine spirituality. “Oblates are very similar to vowed members in terms of demographics. There may be more of them, but that doesn’t matter if we’re not drawing in younger seekers, some of whom will eventually choose to be vowed or oblate,” she adds.
“I’d probably say seeker is what we most need to cultivate now, especially seekers who are Gen X and Millennial,” Romey says.
Those willing to “sign on the dotted line” for a lifetime commitment will remain essential to Benedictine life, Romey contends. “Oblates are necessary too, but their first commitment isn’t to the monastery. Their first commitment is to their family, their spouse, their own lives, and rightly so. There are some single oblates, but even they have not given their life over to the monastery. I believe that the full commitment is necessary to keep the tradition alive.”
Romey is the driving force behind “Being Benedictine in the 21st Century: Spiritual Seekers in Conversation,” a conference planned for June 2020 at Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison. The event will bring together sisters, monks, oblates, and Benedictine staff, as well as nonreligiously affiliated Millennials interested in contemplative spirituality. The aim is to ask tough questions about the future.
Romey says that one question that needs to be answered is: “Did Benedict found a movement and over the centuries we turned it into an institution and now it is moving back to being a movement?”
Benedictine oblates believe the tradition will endure. It has for 1,500 years by adapting to the needs of every age. Johnston of the Monastery of St. Gertrude describes the Benedictine Rule as timeless wisdom—a spirituality that engraves itself on the hearts of those who discover it.
“Twenty or so years ago, I found myself in this Odyssean situation of longing to return home to the Christ at the ground of my very being, and yet time and again being pushed off course and spun outward. Becoming an oblate made the homeward journey possible for me . . . and helped me navigate the fierce landscape from exile to return,” Johnston says.
Sister Teresa of the Monastery of St. Gertrude says she is confident an increasing number of people will be drawn to that same journey, whether or not there is a physical monastery nearby to ground them. “We have seen a situation where oblates have been drinking from the monastic well,” she says. “Now oblates are going to have to start digging their own well, which they are fully capable of doing.”
This article also appears in the June 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 6, pages 28–32).
Image: Unsplash cc via Ludovic Charlet