Dispersed, Cloistered, Oblates, What is the difference?

Welcome to Modern Benedictine living. There is a wonderful working group of women Benedictines in the USA who are helping redefine what being Benedictine and Monastic mean in the new Millenium.

New Expressions like Being Benedictine in the 21 century, Spiritual Seekers in Conversation, and Monasteries of the Heart, and New Monasticism, are all part of this conversation. For many years there were only two kinds of Benedictine Monastics, Cloistered Professed Monks (Nuns) and Oblates. In the last 25 years a new group of Benedictine and non Benedictine Monasticism (Celtic, Franciscan, Contemplative, Dominican, etc) has come on the Horizon…Dispersed Monastics. I would like to take a brief look at the three forms Modern Benedictine life is taking shape discussing the role and place of the three contemporary expressions of Monasticism today…Dispersed, Cloistered and Oblate or Associates to Benedictine life.

Cloistered

Lets start with the obvious. Cloistered Benedictines have been around since the days of St Benedict. Even before him there were groups of monks living in small communities either near each other or under one roof at least 100 years before St. Benedict. (Greek koinobion), or Cenobitic monastiism was characterized by strict discipline, regular worship, and manual work. St. Pachomius was the author of the first cenobitic rule, which was later developed by St. Basil the Great (c. 329–379). Cenobitic monasticism was introduced in the West by St. Benedict of Nursia and became the norm of the Benedictine order. For centuries now Monks both women and men have lived sometimes under the same roof together, (early years) and after the Middle Ages mostly separately by gender in cloistered communities. They are of course NOT the source of Monastic life since the source of Monastic life is with the Desert Mothers and Fathers who left the comfort of their homes and went out into the Desert to encounter God. Many times these were folks who would still gather once a week for Eucharist and Community life if they lived in proximity, but the rest of their days were spent in nearly absolute solitude inside a cave or on top of some lonely structure The Desert Fathers and Mothers retreated to the outskirts of the cities and into the Deserts of Egypt, Syria and Palestine to find a different way of being a Christian in the world. Eventually Desert Monasticism was nearly completely replaced by Cenobitic (Communal) Monasticism with the exception of some Anchorites and Hermits who have existed throughout the centuries. Cloistered life required something that not all Monastics were able to have, the ability to be completely independent from family, living a celibate life (though some married couples became Monastics in early years usually vowing to be celibate), and living under one roof with others like them. In time. the need for including others who were not able to fit these requirements became evident. It began with the “children monks” who were offered by their parents to the Monastery who might, or might not latter become professed members once they reach the age of Reason (Oblates). The word Oblate means to be offered up as an Oblation.

Oblates

In Christian monasticism (especially Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Methodist), an oblate is a person who is specifically dedicated to God or to God’s service.

Oblates are individuals, either laypersons or clergy, normally living in general society, who, while not professed monks or nuns, have individually affiliated themselves with a monastic community of their choice. They make a formal, private promise (annually renewable or for life, depending on the monastery with which they are affiliated) to follow the Rule of the Order in their private lives as closely as their individual circumstances and prior commitments permit. Such oblates are considered an extended part of the monastic community; for example, Benedictine oblates also often include the post-nominal letters ‘OblSB’ or ‘ObSB’ after their names on documents. They are comparable to the tertiaries associated with the various mendicant orders.

There are also Conventual Oblates (who live in the Monastery)

Conventual oblates
There is a small number of conventual or claustral oblates, who reside in a monastic community. If the person has not done so previously, after a year’s probation they make a simple commitment of their lives to the monastery, which is received by the superior in the presence of the whole community. More on the level of committed volunteers, they would share in the life of the community and undertake, without remuneration, any work or service required of them. They are not, however, considered monks or nuns themselves. Often they wear a religious habit similar to, but distinct from, that of the monks or nuns. A conventual oblate may cancel this commitment at any time; and it is canceled automatically if the superior sends the oblate away for good reason, after simple consultation with the chapter.

Oblate Monasticism has grown greatly in the last one hundred years. Oblates, or secular associates of monasteries, currently outnumber monks and sisters living within a monastery’s walls. There are currently an estimated 25,000 Oblates worldwide compared to 21,000 Benedictine monks and sisters. Oblates have the advantage of being able to continue with their family or commitments while being “tethered” to a monastic community. They do not afford the same privileges as the cloistered members and are more auxiliary than real members of the Monastic Community, yet they are an essential part of the life of cloistered communities. Many oblates serve hours of service in their local monasteries where they are vowed and connected.

One of the challenges of being an Oblate is the question of Belonging and not Belonging to a Monastic Community. My experience is this sense of belonging as Oblates varies much from monastery to monastery. For some Communities Oblates are very much included and connected to the life of the Monastery. In others places they tend to be more like a “fan club” of the local monastics emphasizing the great chasm between Oblates and Cloistered members. Oblates also have little independence so they are not able to make their own decisions as to how to organize themselves and how to live “amongst” each other in community. The local Monastery dictates what the relation will look like and many times the charism and decisions are held with the local Professed Monastic Oblate director of that Community. There is always a delicate balance between the Cloistered Monastics and their Oblates. Also the level of commitment on behalf of any Oblate may range from extremely involved and committed to just being an Oblate by name and perhaps a few regular practices affiliated to an oblate life.

Oblates are required to fulfill only a few of the the traditional practices that Monks are obligated to fulfill on a daily basis. As one Monastery website says this about what Oblates are expected to be and do. “A Benedictine oblate seeks God in association with a monastic community. As individuals and as members of a community, they grow in love of God and neighbor. With the Rule of Benedict as their guide, oblates engage in practices that are part of the very fabric of Christian spirituality. Some of these include spending time daily to reflect and pray with the sacred scriptures, as well as offering hospitality where they live and work.”

Dispersed Monasticism

Bishop David Walker of the Church of England talks about the growing presence of Dispersed Monasticism especially in Anglicanism both in Europe and in the Americas.

“New Anglican religious communities rarely begin with a group of people living together in formal community. Most start and remain predominantly dispersed. In some cases the dispersal will be quite local, especially if the charism of the community is to provide a specific ministry in a particular
place. For example a group might provide and populate a place of prayer and quiet in a city centre, exercising a ministry among young people engaged in the night life of the city. Groups with such a ministry will gather quite frequently, others may meet face to face much more rarely. Members are typically expected to commit to the use of particular forms of regular prayer, for example the saying of the community’s Daily Office. One recent development (for example the Anglican Cistercians) is that dispersed members gather on-line (such as via Skype) so that they can see and hear each other whilst they participate together in the community daily prayers from their own homes.” D Walker


Dispersed monastic groups will have some pattern of expecting members to meet together formally for shared worship, to admit new members, to celebrate transitions through the novitiate, to participate in formation into the life and charism of the order, and to discuss the affairs of the
community. Where dispersal is over a large area, this will often be through gatherings, perhaps monthly, of small local groups. Large and widely dispersed communities often hold an annual gathering of all members that is associated with the renewal of commitment; the largest bodies may
meet all together very rarely. The level of compulsion to attend the various gatherings will vary between the different communities.”

There are a variety of Dispersed Monastic Communities in the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Benedictine Confederation (see FB link) has a list of over 40 dispersed and traditional cloistered Benedictine Institutions alone. (https://www.facebook.com/groups/333044071005068/) There are many more monastic communities that are not Benedictine.

Anglican new monastic communities are open to both men and women. They include both those who are single and married. Many communities also do not discriminate based on Sexual Orientation. In most cases there is no requirement that husband and wife must join together as a couple. There is at present ongoing debate about the balance between making a life
commitment both to a marriage partner and to a religious community. Communities are open both to laity and clergy.

Jurisdiction and Authority over Dispersed Communities

Nearly all communities have a Pastoral Visitor (almost always a Bishop) and also a some a means to be recognized officially within the National Church Jurisdiction. As of late many communities have members that cross ecclesiastical church boundaries (All Anglican or Episcopal National Churches are autonomous and have their own Constitution and Canons even if they are in Full Communion with each other and with the See of Canterbury.) This is also a delicate question since there is no jurisdiction of many communities under one ecclesiastical authority. This will be important in the future as communities grow and develop.

“Whilst it is clearly not necessary to belong to a new monastic community in order to take up the discipline of a Rule of Life, belonging to an order creates a locus for accountability. This can be both implicit and explicit. Explicit accountability may take the form of all members being required to
submit a regular self-appraisal, against the Rule, to another member or officer of the community. Members may also be expected to meet and discuss how they are keeping their Rule with a personal
Spiritual Director. Implicit accountability is found in the internalized commitment to keeping the Rule that comes from the member’s knowing that others are seeking to do the same. Community
gatherings may reinforce that internal accountability by bringing members face to face with others known to be striving to keep the Rule. Such meetings may also allow members to discuss together
aspects of the Rule and how it applies to daily life, resulting in a greater sense of mutual support.” D Walker

Dispersed Monastic Communities are sometimes short lived. Their existence depends heavily upon the kind of leadership that exists and level of commitment of all their members. (this is not necessarily that different with some Cloistered Communities over the centuries) Since Dispersed Monasticism is “new” relatively in comparison with other forms of Monastic Life it is going to be interesting to see what kind of influence this form of Monastic expression will have in the short and long term. Curiously most serious Benedictine Writers these days who are respected for their writing are now including Dispersed Monasticism as part of their ongoing discussion. My own sense is that The dispersed expression of Monastic Living is here to stay and will be an important part of the dialogue between and amongst Dispersed, Cloistered and Oblate or Associate Communities.

Most dispersed Monastic Communities have some kind of relationship with traditional and cloistered houses. At their inception there was little recognition of these communities by the cloistered houses, since they seemed like a bunch of “Lay People dressing up as Monks and Nuns”. But as time passes they are being taken more and more seriously. There was a popular joke some time back in Anglican circles, that in order to start an Anglican Religious Order all you needed were “a group of homosexual men and a sewing machine.” This is no longer the case as Anglican dispersed Monastic Communities are becoming more visible, active in both local and national church politics, and are proving to be very serious about their quest to live fully into monastic life even if they are dispersed. Some have said that the relationships built between Dispersed Members of these Communities are sometimes deeper and stronger than the relationship between Large Cloistered Communities where even over an entire life time you may only be deeply connected to your Novice Group and a few mentors or elders.

Are Dispersed Monastic Glorified Oblates?

“Oblates or monastics?
For much of the twentieth century, men and women who felt an association with the monastic life but were not called to the celibate life of a gathered community might have explored their calling through membership of an oblate group attached to a traditional order. Many of the features of
such groups can be found in the life of the emerging new monastics. This poses the question as to whether these new bodies should be encouraged to explore the oblate status instead.

However, there are both practical and ecclesial arguments against such an approach. Firstly, whilst oblate groups may have some responsibility for the organization of their life, they remain subject to the authority of the host community. Their primary role is to support that community, be it through prayer or participation in such ministries as the order undertakes. By
contrast New Monastic groups, even where they have an association with a traditional order, are fully autonomous bodies, developing their own mission and responsible for their governance.
Secondly, the capacity of many traditional orders, in a period of declining numbers and aging members, to adequately support a vibrant and growing oblate group, is lacking. Moreover, a very strong association with an older community would create potential problems for the future should the host body reach the point of closure. (Where this has already taken place in some communities). There have already been some attempts to create New
Monastic communities from the oblates attached to traditional communities that have reached the end of their life. These have tended not to be sustainable as there has been no tradition of developing independent, sustainable leadership within the oblate groups. Separated from the
guiding hand of the host community they have fallen prey to power bids, ineffective leadership and internal conflict.

The limits of all three expressions of monasticism

Taken into account all three contemporary forms of Monastic expression, there seems to be available some form of monastic living for the many different modern lifestyles that exist today. Some monastics have the luxury of leaving their local environment and joining a cloistered community. Sadly, modern living makes this more and more a challenge but not an impossibility. Traditional and Cloistered Monastic Communities are aging and dwindling in numbers. I doubt very much that they will completely disappear, but it is pretty sure that they will remain smaller in the future and they are going to have to continue to adapt to the ongoing societal changes around religious belief and practices.

The Oblate expression of Monastic Living is great for those who really need to be closely connected to a local Monastery or have the luxury to be able to keep an ongoing relationship with a specific Monastic Community. Most communities are also lay and ordained, and Ecumenical which is a wonderful advantage for the Church at large. There are also a challenges in these modern times. Mobility of the modern earth dweller makes this kind of “Oblate” relationship more and more difficult.

Dispersed communities are part of “New Monasticism”, an ecumenical movement within all branches of Christianity. It is still too NEW and too YOUNG a movement to be able to say what the the long and lasting effects it will have on the ongoing history of Monasticism. One can say it has gotten off to a good start and the availability of modern communication makes these kinds of Monastic Communities more and more attractive to the modern Christian or Seeker.

In Conclusion

Catholic Camaldolese Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths spoke of monastic life being essentially a lay calling, and saw the future of monastic life in lay communities.


“The monk is a lay person…An order of monastics is essentially a lay order. Some monks may live in monasteries, but increasingly the majority will live in their own homes or form small communities — a monastic order in the world.”

As one dispersed religious community puts it, “We are committed to the “new (or secular) monasticism.” (The Lindisfarne Community). Secular refers to the fact that traditional cloistered Monastic Communities are called “Regular” following a Rule requiring celibacy and enclosure, and “Secular” religious communities are “in the world”, separate from the cloister and though they also make vows as monastics they may or not be celibate and their homes are their monastic closures and their families their immediate communities if they live in a family setting.

My personal belief is that these three forms of Monastic expression, Dispersed, Cloistered and Oblate or Associate are in reality the new face of Monastic life. They are not in competition with each other but are complimentary to each other. In the best cases they are in constant dialogue with each other and feed off each others wisdom, knowledge, history and experience. They are a united front of Monastic Expression in a world deeply in need of Silence, Quiet, Reflexion, Prayer, Prophetic Witness, Peace and Stillness.

“Being Benedictine is the foundation of my life. Being Benedictine is a commitment to lifelong learning and prayer. Being Benedictine is experienced by following the promises of obedience, stability, and conversion of life.” (On Being Benedictine in the 21 Century).

Dispersed Monastics, Cloistered Monastics, Oblate Monastics can all agree with this statement about the Benedictine expression of Monastic Living. These are exciting times for Monastic Living. Monastic life is far from over or about to disappear in the world. What it is about to become is the story yet to be written.

Pax Bene +

Pater Vincent osb

Links on Benedictine contemporary Monastic Conversations

  1. https://www.monasteriesoftheheart.org/

2. https://beingbenedictine.com/2019/04/14/being-benedictine-in-the-21st-century-spiritual-seekers-in-conversation/

3. https://medium.com/dude-jitsu-for-everyday-life-leisure/the-new-monasticism-4d34a3071497

4. https://beingbenedictine.com/

5. Click to access New+Monastic+Communities+in+the+Anglican+Church+-+Bishop+David+Walker.pdf

4 thoughts on “Dispersed, Cloistered, Oblates, What is the difference?

  1. Vincent, This is a thoughtful description and beginning of a fruitful dialogue. This is a topic of some interest in my own community.
    Kate OSB

    Like

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