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What is a Benedictine Oblate?

Pluscarden Oblates are members of Pluscarden Abbey’s wider family: lay people or secular priests living their lives in the world outside the walls of the monastic enclosure, each according to his or her own vocation.

From the very beginning Benedictine monasteries and convents accepted boys girls, “offered” to them by their parents for their religious training and education. These children lived in the community, shared its daily timetable, and became known as oblates, from oblatio, offering. In the course of time, lay adults asked to be associated with monastic work, but without leaving their homes, families, and occupations in the world. These too were received, and offered themselves to God, became Oblates of a particular Community, and promised the conversion of their lives according to the spirit of the Rule of St Benedict. They strove to apply the teachings of the Rule to their lives in the world, in their domestic lives, in their places of work, and in their civic and social activities.

Today, throughout the world, there are thousands of Oblates working and praying in spiritual union with the Benedictine religious of various communities, and so receiving spiritual strength and inspiration from their association as Oblates. “The basis of all this is the Christian’s sense that life is a gift from God that must somehow be given back to its Creator, and that the monastic community with its life and worship can be the sanctuary to which lay Christians as well as monks and nuns bring their offering” (Abbot Anslem Atkinson).

Oblates, then, are lay Benedictines: that is, people who strive to live according to the spirit of the Rule of St Benedict, and of the particular monastery to which they are affiliated. Becoming an oblate is one way, freely chosen, of expressing one’s commitment to follow Christ whole-heartedly. Oblates do not take vows, as the intention is not to become monks and nuns living in the world; but instead, at their oblation ceremony, they undertake “the conversion of my life according to the spirit of the Rule of our holy Father St Benedict, in so far as my state in life permits.” Charity (and common sense!) should always prevail; therefore, being an oblate should not interfere with our role in the world, as workers or members of families; rather, it should enhance that role and offer us additional resources and support, knowing that we belong to the wider family of our monastery and of the Church.

In order to become an oblate, a person will normally need to visit the monastery several times, and to undertake a period of probation lasting at least a year. He or she will approach the Oblate Master of the chosen Community who, after meeting and discussing this desire, will enrol him or her as a postulant. He/she will be given a copy of the Prologue of the Rule, as well as Ch. 4, On the Tools of Good Works. After several months, if the postulant wishes to continue and the Oblate Master approves, he/she will be enrolled in a simple ceremony as a novice and be presented with a blessed medal of St Benedict and a copy of the Holy Rule. Around a year later, or when the novice feels ready, and the Oblate Master agrees, he or she will make his/her oblation in a ceremony, usually held after Conventual Mass, in the Lady Chapel. It is good if other oblates can be present at this ceremony, to show the fullness of acceptance into the Benedictine family of Pluscarden. Beforehand, the novice oblate writes out a chart of oblation in his or her own hand, reads it aloud facing the altar and then signs it on the altar, with full name including the name of the Saint chosen as patron. This should be a Saint to whom the oblate feels close and on whom he/she may call for support. The new name is also, in Biblical tradition, a sign of the conversion of life promised.

Oblates enjoy the sense of living in close union with a praying monastic community, and of sharing the great Benedictine tradition. Without being bound by a specific promise, they usually undertake to pray some part at least of the Divine Office each day, in so far as they are able; to nourish their faith with regular spiritual reading, especially of Holy Scripture; consciously to serve God in and through their work and other ordinary occupations; to pray daily for the Pluscarden monks and for each other. Some oblates meet together regularly for prayer and reflection, though this is not an essential requirement of being an oblate.

The monastery seeks to help the oblates live out their commitment to conversion of life according to the spirit of the Gospel and of the Holy Rule. The chief way this is done is through prayer. There is also a regular Letter sent from the monastery to Oblates. This is written by the Oblate Master, appointed by the Abbot. The current series of letters, begun in 1997, is in the letter archive on the Abbey website and is well worth consulting. In addition, oblates who can are encouraged to make individual retreats at the monastery, if possible, at least once a year.

“As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love” (RB Prologue 49).

Eileen Clare Grant Obl. OSB

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