Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Latest Stop on my Journey of Faith

This Sunday on the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, I will be at a local diocesan Shrine, becoming a Benedictine oblate candidate of the St. Benet Biscop Chapter of the St. John Oblates, who are from a Benedictine monastery in Collegeville, Minnesota. This is the latest stop in my journey of faith and I praise God for the blessed opportunity.

Of course, my faith journey began at home, where my Christ-loving family would take me to the Presbyterian church, which I attended Sunday School for over 12 years, and would eventually be baptized into the Body of Christ in 1991. I entered full communion with the Catholic Church in 2007, receiving the Sacraments of First Confession, Confirmation, and First Eucharist. I was blessed with the Sacrament of Matrimony in 2008, even though that sadly did not work out. I became an altar server of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass in 2009, serving at least once a week for six years. Out of curiosity, for ecumenical reasons, and to open my heart up to the various customs of the Church, in 2010 I experienced my first Divine Liturgy at a local Byzantine Catholic parish (I continue to worship here once a month). Thanks to EWTN and other really good, orthodox, Catholic media, I continued to grow in faith over the years. Wanting to dig deeper into the faith, to grow in my faith, and to seek the guidance of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I consecrated my life to her in 2011, following the method of St. Maximilian Kolbe through the Militia Immaculata. Around the same time, seeking to deepen my relationship with Christ and to help people learn the faith, I enrolled in the BA in Theology program at Catholic Distance University. Never truly wanting to abandon my time in the Episcopal church, but needing to come to the fullness of the faith, I felt led by God in 2012 to join the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, which is the US name for the Anglican Ordinariate, a group of former Episcopalians/Anglicans who wish to be Catholic, but still keeping many aspects of their Anglican heritage, such as the way the Mass is offered.

Throughout all this time, since around 2010 or 2011, I had been seeking a deeper relationship with God and wanting to find a new way to live out my faith. At first I had explored Opus Dei, but even though I greatly respect them and thank God for them, I felt that this would be too much of a demand on my life, regardless of if I were single or married. I had often looked into becoming a Benedictine Oblate, but didn't know which monastery I had wanted to align with; also, sometimes I'd be tempted by secular orders of other Religious, like the Franciscans. So, I kept pushing it off and pushing it off. A big reason why I waited was because of the fact that I was in the Ordinariate; to become an oblate, it seemed like I had to abandon the Ordinariate (for instance, I pray the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the same version my grandparents had used, but part of being an oblate is to pray the Liturgy of the Hours or the 1960 Divine Office instead of the BCP - beautiful prayer books, to be sure, but not what I was looking for).

In late 2015 I visited a blog that offers news and views about the Ordinariate and I saw that for the first time (I think in the world), there would be a group of Benedictine oblates specifically designed for Anglicans/Episcopalians and members of the Anglican Ordinariate. I contacted the monk in charge and we chatted back and forth over a few days. After praying on it and asking God to lead me in the right direction, I felt the inner peace to agree to become a candidate. After a one-year candidacy, if I feel compelled to continue on as a "full-blown" oblate, I will travel to the monastery in Minnesota in 2017 for the ceremony.

For those who are unfamiliar, what does this actually mean? Am I saying I'm becoming a monk? No, that's not it. What I'm saying is that I am choosing to follow the ancient Rule of St. Benedict (written in the 500s AD) in my personal life. In aligning myself with St. John's Abbey, I am being allowed to do this in a uniquely Anglican way, being allowed to keep my Book of Common Prayer, for instance.

I think we should go over two things very quickly: 1) Who are the Benedictines, and 2) What does it mean to be an oblate?

A very short history of the Benedictines

The Order of St. Benedict was founded in Italy around 529 AD by Benedict of the town of Nursia. He was influenced by the monastic orders of the deserts of the Middle East and crafted his Rule (way of life) on what he learned from the great desert saints and hermits; he and his sister St. Scholastica would start convents and monasteries around Europe that would continue to expand through the centuries. As the Western Roman Empire collapsed into disarray, anarchy, and violence at the hands of barbarians, it was the monasteries and convents - mainly, if not exclusively, the Benedictines - who would preserve Christianity, as well as Western history and knowledge. It was at the monasteries where you'd find the Sacraments being offered. In the Scriptoriums of the monasteries you'd find monks hard at work copying and translating the Bible by hand, as well as books of science, philosophy, and history. When the Holy Roman Empire was established, Charlemagne had the Rule of St. Benedict copied and sent all over his empire, and the Order continued to spread.

I'm stealing the next section nearly word-for-word from the Oblate Blog because he did such a good job highlighting how Western civilization owes so much to the Benedictines:

...The Benedictines preserved ancient texts...The Benedictines were pioneers in all forms of agriculture. A modern expert noted that "every Benedictine monastery was an agricultural college for the whole region in which it was located." Benedictine monks developed Sweden's commerce in corn, Ireland's salmon fisheries, and Para, Italy's cheese making. "Please pass the Parmesan cheese. Thank you, monks."

It was the Benedictines who first improved cattle breeding by other than random means...The Benedictines fostered the production of great wine. In 1531 Benedictine monks in the Abbey of Saint Hilaire near Carcassonne, in southern France produced sparkling wine. Although Dom Perignon (late 1600s) of Saint Peter's Abbey, Hautvilliers-on-the-Marne, did not invent champagne, his deserved fame as the father of champagne comes from the fact that Dom Perignon did develop many of the modern techniques used in the effective production of champagne, including the use of wire to hold the cork in place.

The Benedictines made technological advancements in architecture and buildings. They expanded the use of water power and directed spring waters to Paris. A Benedictine monk made the first modern clock in about 996 AD. About 1200 AD, a Benedictine monk built and tested a glider that went 600 feet. The English Benedictines developed advanced furnaces for the production of metals — specifically the extraction of iron from ore. Within the last 20 years an archeometallurgist discovered that the slag (a byproduct of smelting) from an early 1500s English Benedictine smelting furnace showed a level of technological sophistication that was not achieved until much later by other inventors.

When it came to using modern means of communication virtually no one surpassed the Benedictine monks — I am speaking of those like Abbot Fredegise at Saint Martin’s Abbey (early 800s AD) who helped develop the Carolingian minuscule — a better form of writing...After the work of Abbot Fredegise, Europe and its future had a form of writing with lower case letters, spaces between the words, and punctuation.

By the 1500s the Benedictines had given the Church 24 popes, 200 cardinals, 7,000 archbishops, 15,000 bishops, 1,500 canonized saints, 20 emperors, 10 empresses, 47 kings, and 50 queens. At its pinnacle, Benedictine Europe had 37,000 Benedictine monasteries. Many cities of today trace their origins to such monastic houses.

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote: "St. Benedict found the world, physical and social, in ruins, and his mission was to restore it in the way, not of science, but of nature, not as if setting about to do it, not professing to do it by any set time or by any rare specific or by any series of strokes, but so quietly, patiently, gradually, that often, till the work was done, it was not known to be doing. It was a restoration, rather than a visitation, correction, or conversion. The new world which he helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully deciphered and copied and re-copied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one that 'contended or cried out,' or drew attention to what was going on; but by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning, and a city. Roads and bridges connected it with other abbeys and cities, which had similarly grown up; and what the haughty Alaric or fierce Attila had broken to pieces, these patient meditative men had brought together and made to live again.

What is an oblate?

A simple, quick answer is that I'll be trying to apply the Rule of St. Benedict to my life. Based on guidance from my monastery, as well as guidance from Benedictine authors, I'll be trying to improve my life by living out the Gospel in a more authentic way, following the method devised by St. Benedict of Nursia. Through the prayerful reading of Scripture, frequent reception of the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, the occasional religious retreat, service to my community, the praying of the opus Dei (the work of God, the Daily Office), and meditation on the Rule of St. Benedict, trying my best to live by its standards, I hope to love the Lord my God with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind, and with all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself.

For one year I remain as a candidate, meditating on the Rule and depending on the prayers and guidance of my monastery. In the book they've given me to read and use in order to develop as an oblate, I am encouraged to grow in the following areas and ways:

Seeking God in all things: Seeking God is foundational to the monastic vocation and is the cornerstone of which Benedictine spirituality is built...Seeking God is a lifelong journey for the longing human heart and continues whether at prayer, reading, or work, and whether in silence or relating in community...As we seek God daily and find him we grow in self-knowledge, as well. Eventually the ultimate goal is then reached: growth into a deeper love of Christ and transformation into a Christlike presence/person.

Conversion: Conversion is a vow for the Benedictine monastic, a call to change attitudes and behaviours into those more closely aligned with Christ...To be able to change implies an openness of mind and heart, even an openness to change, so we can be what God calls us to be.

Stability and Fidelity: Stability is an aid to those who seek to persevere in their search for God...[S]tability relates to being grounded in the where and the now. Stability means that I will persevere and endure; that I am at home with who I am and where I am and will cease my restlessness and wandering...Once I am at home with myself I can more easily move forward into the transformation called for by conversion.

Listening and Loving Obedience: For Benedict, obedience is selflessness, the good of the other, and love, with its generous giving. He wants us to obey out of love for God. Benedict wants Benedictines to think of the needs of others rather than their own...Obedience for Benedict means letting God and service in love to others be the motivating factors of our actions.

Balancing Prayer and Work: Benedictine prayer is Bible-centered. The Word, for Benedict, meant pre-eminently Christ, the Divine Word speaking through the Scriptures and met in other people...Prayer is at the heart of not only Benedictine life, but also Christian life...Prayer is a must if I am to connect with God, open myself up to my communion with God, deepen my relationship with God...we can pray while walking, exercising, sitting still, or while in the car or shower...The oblate's spiritual goal is union with God and it is fueled by consistent and daily prayers in order to connect to that God in all of life's experiences, relationships, and situations...For Benedict, idleness is an enemy of the soul and work is dignified, even holy. Work is using the talents God gave us, developing them, and giving them back to God through our service to others as we help to build God's kingdom here on earth. In Benedictine spirituality, work and prayer are partners.

Through being an Oblate, I will continue to grow and find a Benedictine way of serving my community, developing a better way of offering hospitality, growing in humility, finding God in more frequent moments of silence, growing into a more authentic person, learning more reverence for God and respect for others, living a life of joy and inner peace; to find humor in life and to not take myself so seriously, to find God in beauty in the arts, in the liturgy, in the world; to learn moderation in all things (one of my great weaknesses), and to grow in compassion for others. I will grow in a Benedictine way of spirituality, learning or growing in things like lectio divina, the Divine Office, greater devotion to the Eucharist, fighting for societal and social justice, working to protect Creation, fighting to protect life from conception to natural death, remembering the importance of wholesome leisure, growing in appreciation for the arts and beauty in life, and living a life of service to others.

None of this is saying that other people aren't good Christians because they aren't doing what I'm doing, and I'm not saying that because I'm doing all of this that I'm somehow a better Christian than others - no, I'm basically writing this to evangelize, to explain to people how many different options there are out there in the pursuit of trying to grow closer to Jesus Christ. I do want to be a better Christian, but not better than the next guy - I want to be better than I am now. Everyone who knows me knows that I am just as vulnerable to sin as the next person, not always living my faith with fidelity. I believe that God has led me to this point as a way to better love him and love my neighbor, that this is the path he wants me to take; God has a plan for our lives, and we just have to be willing to repeat the words of the prophet Samuel: "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." To me, this is no different than a person who wants to live a spirituality like the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the Neocatechumenal Way, Opus Dei, the Focolare Movement, and so on. So, I'm not exactly trying to become a monk or anything; I'm just trying to find a way in which to live my faith and this is a method that appeals to me. It is a method that I believe God has brought to me as the next step in a life-long journey of faith, and it is by no means the last step on my journey (unless God calls me home sooner than I thought).

The Church is incredibly diverse, with a home and spirituality for everybody. As a member of the laity, the Church depends on us to be faithful bringers of Christ's light to the world. It is up to us, as we leave Mass, to bring Christ to others by the way we live our lives and by the way we love one another. The priests guide us, but it is up to us to go to the ends of the earth, bringing the good news to others. The Second Vatican Council reminds us, "a true apostle looks for opportunities to announce Christ by words addressed either to non-believers with a view to leading them to faith, or to the faithful with a view to instructing, strengthening, and encouraging them to a more fervent life...Since, in our own times, new problems are arising and very serious errors are circulating which tend to undermine the foundations of religion, the moral order, and human society itself, this sacred synod earnestly exhorts laymen - each according to his own gifts of intelligence and learning - to be more diligent in doing what they can to explain, defend, and properly apply Christian principles to the problems of our era in accordance with the mind of the Church" (AA, 6). St. John Paul II said, "It is no exaggeration to say that the entire existence of the lay faithful has as its purpose to lead a person to a knowledge of the radical newness of the Christian life that comes from Baptism, the sacrament of faith, so that this knowledge can help that person live the responsibilities which arise from that vocation received from God" (CL,10). Benedict XVI encouraged, "May you feel as your own the commitment to working for the Church’s mission: with prayers, study and active participation in ecclesial life, with an attentive and positive gaze at the world, in the constant search for the signs of the times. Through a serious and daily commitment to formation never tire of increasingly refining the aspects of your specific vocation as lay faithful called to be courageous and credible witnesses in all social milieus so that the Gospel may be a light that brings hope to the problematic, difficult and dark situations which people today often encounter in their journey through life." Pope Francis recently tweeted, "The laity are called to become a leaven of Christian living within society."

So, taking into account the glory of Christ in his Church, and the responsibility that we have as lay people to live and proclaim the faith, this is why I've been so focused on "religion" since entering full communion with Peter in 2007. I learned a lot about Christ and the Bible, thanks to my family and the many years I spent in the Presbyterian church. Thanks to my time worshiping at the local Episcopal church, God opened my heart up to the Catholic aspects of his Church. And in becoming a Catholic, I haven't felt more complete, more at peace with my religious life, more in love with the Bible, or more conscious of God in my life. When I became a Catholic, I remember promising my RCIA team that receiving the Eucharist at that Easter Vigil wasn't going to be the end of my faith journey, but that the journey would last me a lifetime. I believe that my spiritual life was suffering, partly on hold until 2010, when the Lord's great blessings and graces opened my eyes and heart to the truth of the Church's teachings on sexuality and contraception; from that moment, my spiritual life has been on the move, with the Lord continuing to open my heart and mind to new challenges and new ways of seeing things. Instead of seeing life through the eyes of political party platforms, he brought me to the social teachings of the Church. Instead of being a blind idolater of unbridled capitalism, I learned of the wisdom and practicality of distributism and the wisdom of people like Belloc, Chesterton, and M├ędaille. Instead of being a war hawk, wanting to make America's enemies regret looking at us cock-eyed, I learned about Just War and have become a conscientious objector to our unending wars. I learned that being anti-abortion didn't necessarily mean that I was pro-life; I've since become more consistent, calling for the end of capital punishment, the decriminalization of drugs (and treating addiction as a health issue instead of a crime), and understanding that there's nothing pro-life in calling for the end of the government's social programs for the poor and elderly. Instead of striving for the materialism and gains of this life, I've learned the beauty and simplicity of the Catholic Land Movement, contemplating whether or not God has called me to that lifestyle. Since for the Catholic there can be no conflict between faith and science, I have never enjoyed science as much as I do now. I'm not the same man I was in 2007; I'm probably not the same man I was in 2014!

The Lord continues to lead me and, despite digging in my heels much of the time, I eventually learn to follow his lead. Becoming an Oblate is one of those things, something that I've delayed and changed my mind about several times, but now here I am - and who knows where else God is going to lead me? May the Lord guide every one of us on our journey of faith; through his great blessings and grace, may we all find each other at the end of our journey, sitting at the Lord's Table at that great Wedding Feast at the end of time. God bless you. Please pray for me.