Magazine article The Christian Century

Shared Solitude

Magazine article The Christian Century

Shared Solitude

Article excerpt

BECOMING AN OBLATE--literally "one who is offered"--means joining a particular Christian monastic community as a kind of lay associate. An oblate takes no vows but does affirm the intention to live by a modified version of the order's rule, while continuing one's "ordinary life."

Oblature is a tradition that dates back to the ninth century. In 2000 Catholic News Service reported that there were more than 25,000 lay associates of U.S. Catholic religious orders which represented a 75 percent increase in five years.

The community in which I am an oblate, New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, is made up of some 20 monks and more than 500 oblates. Perhaps in a time of steadily declining monastic vocations, oblature will be a way for the Rule of St. Benedict to flourish.

The increasing interest in oblature suggests that many Christians--Episcopahan, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Mennonite as well as Catholic--are finding in a relationship with monks and nuns, and in an adapted fidelity to monastic practices, a depth of prayer and a strength of support for social witness that is unavailable elsewhere.

All oblates have their own stories about how they made their way to the particular community that feels like home to them. In The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris recounts her experience at St. John's Benedictine Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Others have been drawn to the Dominicans, with their characteristic gifts for scholarship and preaching; to the Franciscans, for their joy in God's creation and identification with the poor; or to the Carmelites, for their insight into suffering and salvation. For many, the Benedictine charism of stability, hospitality and conversion of life is key. The Camaldolese Benedictines seem to attract those drawn not only to Benedictine values but also to contemplative prayer.

My own road to New Camaldoli, while apparently as winding as the drive that connects the hermitage to California's spectacular coastal Highway 1, in retrospect seems straight and clear. As a young wife and mother, I read Esther de Waal's seminal Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, which opened the treasure chest of Benedictine wisdom for laypeople. For more than 20 years, first as a Presbyterian and then as an Episcopalian, I have made annual silent retreats in many different settings in North America and Britain, usually among Benedictines. So when I first visited New Camaldoli several years ago, I had already acquired a taste for silence and solitude, and had long practiced an attenuated form of Benedictine spirituality.

In choosing New Camaldoli, I was hoping only for the familiar grace of a week's retreat, with the added bonus of a view of the Pacific. I had no idea what "Camaldolese" implied, or what a difference it would make to me.

Though I had a nodding acquaintance with St. Benedict, I had never heard of St. Romuald, the founder of the Camaldolese branch of the Benedictine family tree, begun early in the 11th century (some five centuries after Benedict). As a Benedictine abbot with a singular gift for solitude, Romuald valued not only the communal life of the monastery, but also the greater solitude and freedom of the hermit. Honoring both the Rule of St. Benedict and the ancient tradition of Egyptian anchorites, Romuald devised a way for hermits to live a monastic life, alone together, under the Rule and in obedience to a superior.

This respect for solitude and silence permeates the hermitage in California's remote Santa Lucia Mountains. Even the architecture reflects it. …

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