Discovering My Inner Benedictine

Partially as the result of my experiment with the Liturgy of the Hours (which I’m become rather attached to) I’ve grown interested in the topic of monasticism, and more particularly in the monastic “third orders”. The third orders go by different names depending on the orders to which they are attached—there are the Secular Franciscans, the Dominican Laity, the Benedictine Oblates, the Augustinian Seculars, the Secular Carmelites and Carmelite Third Orders, and so forth—but in every case, the members of a third-order are laypeople who are attached in a formal way to the particular order and live their lives (or try to) according to the spirituality of that order, as suitably modified for their positions as laypeople.

Many years ago, Jane and I had a friend (now deceased) who was a third order of the Order of the Holy Cross, an order of Episcopalian monks, probably Benedictine in flavor; he didn’t talk about it much, and rather forgot about the whole notion until I was nosing about the links at a Catholic blog called Disputations. I was briefly acquainted with the author of Disputations around fifteen years ago, when he worked at JPL; we had a shared interest in P.G. Wodehouse. I had no idea at the time that he was Catholic, and maybe he wasn’t. But at some point in the intervening years, according to one of his links, he’d joined something called the Dominican Laity, the current name for what used to be called the Dominican Third Order. I thought that was rather cool, as St. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican, and as I’ve noted in the past I’m rather fond of St. Thomas.

More recently, I happened on a blog called Perfect Joy, which is written by an anonymous member of the Secular Franciscan Order. In one of the posts I read, he recommended a book entitled Paths to Renewal: The Spirituality of Six Religious Founders, by a Franciscan priest named Fr. Zachary Grant. Grant’s thesis is that anyone who seriously advances in the life of Christ is going to find themselves, whether they realize it or not, following in the footsteps of one of the Six Great Founders: Saint Augustine, St. Benedict, St. Dominic, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and St. Teresa of Avila. Each of these saints founded a religious order; each came at a time when the Church was in disarray; each brought renewal, reform, and revitalization to the Church; and each had a characteristic spirituality associated with them and their followers. Grant allows that there is considerable overlap (there had better be) between the six paths, and that there has been almost infinite variation within these six broad categories; and also that they have been rediscovered multiple times. Grant believes that renewal in our day requires serious prayer and devotion, and is most likely to come from those who, whether clergy, monastic, or lay, seriously follow one of these paths. Finally, he thinks it can only be helpful, especially for secular clergy and laity, to figure out which of the six paths they are on.

I was intrigued by the blog post, and so I ordered a copy of Grant’s book. I found it interesting reading, but ultimately unhelpful as any kind of guide. Grant goes to great efforts to mark the differences between the six paths, their characteristic traits and devotions and whatnot, but I’m afraid the distinctions were too subtle to be helpful (for me, at any rate). Someone more familiar with the different orders and their founders might have understood them better, and someone farther advanced in the spiritual life than I am might have recognized his own path clearly among the six, but I didn’t. The two that seemed to resonate a little more than the others were St. Dominic and St. Benedict; but then, those were the two I had the most interest in when I started. And the spirituality of St. Francis, as described, didn’t appeal; but then I didn’t expect it to. There are a lot of Franciscans in California; there’s a Franciscan high school not far from where I work, and the the California missions were founded by Franciscans. And in fact, I had the honor of attending Blessed Junipero Serra’s Beatification mass at the Carmel Mission many years ago; I was on vacation, and simply happened to be at the mission at the right time. Nevertheless, I’m afraid I’ve never been particularly attracted by St. Francis.

Some while ago, Jane had picked up a book, rather on a whim, called Monk Habits for Ordinary People, by a Presbyterian minister named Dennis Okholm. Okholm has, rather surprisingly, for twenty years been an oblate of Blue Cloud Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in South Dakota, and his purpose in writing the book was to make Benedictine spirituality accessible to other Protestants. I’d glanced at it at the time, but no more than that; a couple of days ago Jane reminded me of it, and I more or less devoured it. Portions are tedious, as when Okholm spends not a little time explaining why Benedict has something to say to Protestants; and given a few of his remarks I’m afraid that Okholm’s Eucharistic theology might be a little “higher” than is safe for a Presbyterian minister. But the bulk of the book is an overview of Benedictine spirituality, and I found it fascinating.

Okholm highlights the Benedictine virtues of Poverty (a very different thing than Franciscan Poverty), Obedience, Humility, Hospitality, Stability, and Balance; the Benedictine motto, “Peace”; and the role in the Benedictine life of Prayer, Work, and Study. And in pretty much every section I found something that resonated with my life over the last few years. Some of them were recent developments, and others were of long standing; and a number of them came as surprises.

Clearly, I’m not about to run off and join a Benedictine monastery, but I don’t need to—the monastic life and Christian family life have a suprising amount in common. In each case you have a collection of people who are committed to living peacefully together, all of whom are imperfect and so take some living with, and all of whom are at different places in their journey toward Christ. The required virtues are the same, and a similar balance is required between Work, Study, and Prayer.

In a nutshell, I think I’m going to need to explore Benedictine spirituality further.

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