The concept of being a Benedictine oblate was new to me when I first heard that the choir director of our Episcopal parish was an oblate of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania. I did not know much about monasticism at the time but was intrigued by the idea that lay people outside monasteries could take on a Benedictine identity of some sort and that this arrangement could happen across denominational boundaries.
Some years later, in 1998, another choirmaster gathered a group of parishioners interested in studying Gregorian chant notation and practice, at a two-week course taught by Fr. Columba Kelly, OSB, at Saint Meinrad Archabbey. I had heard that Saint Meinrad was a center of liturgy and especially chant, and the opportunity to experience a monastery was very appealing.
The two weeks were life-changing, both in newly opened doors to the world of chant and in a fairly lengthy (compared to typical retreats) experience of the monastic rhythm of each day and the week. Particularly compelling were the orderly progress of each day--with enough time for everything and no need to worry whether everything would get done--and the immersion in the beauty of sung prayer, bells, architecture, devotional art, and the daily round of praise as we chanted the psalms.
Another participant in that two-week session was a Lutheran woman from California who said she was an oblate of Saint Meinrad Archabbey. I explored what this meant both by speaking with her and by consulting the archabbey's printed materials about oblates, and I resolved to pray about whether I was called to be an oblate. I felt that many factors had come together to bring me to this decision.
It took some time and a couple of private retreats at the archabbey to decide to apply to become an oblate novice, and then I took a bit of extra time as a novice before making my final oblation. I still feel I was led to oblation and to Saint Meinrad, and at my final oblation I took the oblate name Gregory, for the saint traditionally associated with chant, which had brought me to the archabbey in the first place.
For me, being a Benedictine oblate means having a formal connection with a community and way of life that give a helpful structure to Christian living. Like many people, when it comes to something like losing weight or deepening one's spiritual life, I find specifics helpful: How do I start? What should I do, and when? What happens if...? On a diet, simply thinking I'll eat half of what I normally would eat isn't enough to make the diet successful. I need a daily structure. It's the same way with spiritual things: just deciding to pray more will not bring an effective improvement in the end. Becoming a Benedictine oblate meant that I was signing on to a proven structure, with a supportive community, and with real promises behind the good intentions I had. I have promised to pray in a certain way, daily; I have promised to pray for the Saint Meinrad community; I have promised to read the Rule, practice lectio divina, reach out in specific ways to those around me in the world, and be faithful in my parish's liturgical discipline.
But far beyond self-improvement is the benefit of having St. Benedict pointing the way to Christ at every turn. I often cringe when I hear phrases like "Benedictine living," or "yours in St. Benedict," because Benedict points always to Christ, not himself. It's Christian living with a particular kind of support structure and a tangible cloud of witnesses cheering us on. I stumble daily, many times, on this road, but being an oblate is the way I have found to have friends nearby to help me get up again when I fall. Thanks be to God.