Of Monks, Nuns, and the Religious Life

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It may surprise you to know that at the heart of the Anglican tradition lies a deep history with and appreciation of monasticism. From its earliest days, Christianity in the British Isles was rooted in the communal life of monks and nuns—and associated parishes who found their identity rooted in these spaces of prayer. What became a rich Benedictine framework gave shape to the life of the Christian Church in England (there’s a reason Westminster Abbey is named this).  There is a reason our tradition has a Book of Common Prayer at the core of our life of prayer: the development and nurture of a spiritual community is at the heart of who we are.

Every time I lead a newcomer’s class, I remind folks that, when they want to have an image of what “being Episcopal” or “being Anglican” means, not to immediately look at the English cathedrals. Rather, I tell them to look to the monasteries, to look at the formation of intentional communities shaped by prayer and work, by study and rest.  It is there, in the monastic communities, that we find the roots of our rhythm—our Rule of Life. Here at Grace and throughout other Episcopal parishes, we have the Community of Hope. This remarkable group of lay people have chosen to intentionally ground their life in the Rule of St. Benedict. Their embodiment of compassion finds its grounding in a monastic understanding of vocation and prayer, of service and community.

For the past several years, I have explored what it would mean to formally associate with a monastic community. What would it be like to intentionally live into this monastic practice within the everyday life I live as a parish priest. Some may think that a priest’s life is essentially monastic. I can assure you that priests can easily fall into the pattern of mindless work, of tasks and assignments, driven about by the winds of the broader culture.  In other words, we struggle to place a practice of prayer at the center of our lives just like anyone else. For me, formally associating with a monastic community will help hold me accountable to my Christian practice. Monasteries have long had these associates, or oblates, people who seek to adopt the richness of the monastic tradition and translate it within the rhythm of their own lives. Being an oblate, to me, is seeking to be more grounded in the call to my own vocational discernment as a Christian. I would do this whether or not I was a priest. Being a priest, I deeply appreciate the space to explore my Benedictine heritage more intently.

Monastic communities have different charisms—focus points and gifts of the Spirit that ground their life and make it distinct. Benedictine communities focus on the embodiment of Christian practice within the complexities communities of faith, and this is where my heart resonates. If I could summarize what I see as the most important responsibility of my job as your priest, I would say that I am called to help cultivate spiritual communities who are mindful of God’s presence in their lives as they live together as fellow disciples of Jesus. Being an oblate will help me be even more aware of this call.

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The particular religious community I am associating with is the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California.  The Camaldolese are a particular community within the broader Benedictine tradition that began a thousand years ago in Camaldoli, Italy.  At that time, a group of monks felt they needed to honor both the call to community life while also nurturing what they felt as a distinctive call to solitude and silence. Their Rule of Life, called The Little Rule of St. Romauld begins by saying, “Sit in your cell as in paradise…”  The Camaldolese live as a community of hermits.  This fascinating arrangement provides a creative tension between the demands of living together as a community with the demands of developing a practice of contemplative prayer.  After exploring many communities for many years, last year I made the choice to enter into a year-long postulancy period with New Camaldoli.  They have been incredibly supportive of my desire to anchor my religious practice more and more in silence and contemplative prayer—and to see how this orientation helps nurture my vocation within a community of faith. Having an association with a Roman Catholic religious community will also be good for me, because it reminds me of the even larger tradition of which I am a part. I can trust that a group of committed disciples who have struggled to live together for a thousand years has something to teach me.

Upon hearing of my desire to explore, Fr. Robert immediately invited me to consider May 8 as my Oblation Day: the Feast of St. Julian of Norwich.  He wanted to make sure that I had a deeply Anglican grounding to the commitment I was making as an oblate. A deep sign of the hospitality so long a part of the Benedictine tradition.  Dame Julian was a 14th century English mystic whose writings have greatly influenced the Christian tradition. So, on May 8, at the end of the Welcome, I will make my promises as a Benedictine oblate. It is a simple liturgy of about three prayers that Cynthia will receive on behalf of the New Camaldoli Community. I wanted to do this in the principle service as a way to remind us all of the call we share to more deeply practice of faith as Christians.

I thank you for your prayers, and I thank you for your ongoing support and participation at Grace. We share an amazing community of faith, and I am excited about where God is leading us all—together.

Blessings,
Stuart+

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