In my post, “ObOSB Decoded,” I had written that “all signs were starting to point in the same direction” toward a decision to ask to become an Oblate of the Order of St Benedict. I had spent considerable time over the years at prayer with the monks in the chapel of St Peter’s Abbey in Muenster, SK, but the direction was pointing to my own church community in Edmonton – the parish of St Elia, Ukrainian Orthodox.
I had taken to heart what other oblates have written, that Oblates of St Benedict “offer” to follow the Rule of St Benedict “in the world,” in their daily lives, and, anyway, the Rule of Benedict is also fully understanding of human frailty. Oblates are not monks or nuns. And I had been reassured by Fr Paul Paproski, the Director of Oblates at St Peter’s, that it made no difference that I am not a Roman Catholic and that I could “offer” to follow the Rule in my daily life as an Orthodox Christian.
So that became the challenge on the path to a Final Oblation: just how could I or did I “live the spirituality of the Rule” as a member of St Elias church? I decided on three basic Rules for myself: the Reception of Guests (Hospitality), Good Works, and Humility. Then began to examine each in relation to my life as an Orthodox parishioner, not my life as a writer (too proud, too secular, too many meals in restaurants rather than around my own table) and where I could do better.
Humility? This required considerable self-examination as I imagined how my writer friends and associates might have smiled at the notion of Myrna eating humble pie. But the point now was how to relate with humility with my fellow parishioners. So I reviewed my experience as a newer member of the church council; and there I discerned an internal shift in my character that I found quite startling once it came into view: namely, that I had gradually been letting go of the conviction that I was quite the smartest person in the room. I’m expressing this more pungently than I felt but it is shorthand for the experience of the Rule “Listen.” It hadn’t taken me more than a couple of council meetings to realize that the people around the table knew what they were talking about, whereas I was at a loss and should just keep my mouth shut, when it came to ongoing concerns of the parish: disputes past and current, budget crises, determining the kitchen schedules, replacing the front steps so pall bearers could safely bring a casket into the church, and what to do about preparing the weekly Sunday Bulletin now that the woman who had been doing it for ages was stepping down.
The fact that I had two university degrees, could speak French, had travelled a lot, wrote books and could name-drop famous writers and artists didn’t matter worth beans. From the point of view of the councillors, I was pretty useless.
But I was a member of council and needed to be useful. I pondered the possibilities. Although I had helped dish out pyrohy at one community perogy supper, I never did it again and I wasn’t keen on making them either, nor planting annuals in the flower beds, nor (yikes) chairing the St Elia branch of the Ukrainian Women’s Association of Canada. I was watching and listening and could see there were parishioners really good at these labours. Then I realized that the Sunday Bulletin needed a new “editor,” I volunteered and the council accepted with alacrity.
But now came a new lesson in Humility. The Bulletin had absolutely nothing to do with my self-expression as a professional writer but everything to do with the needs and expectations of the priest and congregation. There is a formula to preparing the Order of Service/Bulletin and all other material in it is likewise to be Orthodox in thought and origin. Epistle and Gospel readings are according to the New King James Version. Reproduced images are Eastern Christian not Western Baroque. And all clergy are to be referred to by their rank, from Subdeacon to Deacon to Very Rev. Mitred Archpriest to His Grace the Bishop. Far from feeling resentful about this, I have been grateful for the ecclesial and religious education I am gleaning from a remarkable number of Orthodox websites and blogs. I get more adventurous as I go along, but I am always grateful to be able to fall back on standard Homilies and Pastoral Letters. Humility? I confess to a quiet satisfaction when I see people open the Bulletins to read, all six pages.
Hospitality. Benedictines are renowned for their Rule, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35.” In reflecting on how I could replicate the “abbot’s table” in my daily life, I knew it was not enough that I simply invite more friends for dinner. That’s easy, I felt, and not a spiritual discipline. Instead, with three or four other women of the parish, I began to host mid-month fellowships after the Liturgy. Unlike many other churches of all denominations, at St Elia we do not linger for coffee, cookies and fellowship every Sunday. True, on the last Sunday of the month rotating teams of cooks and servers offer a hot lunch for a small donation but our little “outreach committee” decided it would be hospitable to invite people to stay mid-month for a casual fellowship and not to rush away. We offered tea and coffee, muffins, fruit and cheese (if people had been to Communion, they had not eaten since the night before) and a topic of conversation (“Who was St Valentine?” “What are your childhood memories of Christmas on the farm?”) as well as comments from the priest or deacon.
And people did stay. And, because we are Ukrainians, they began to bring potluck offerings so we could eat real meals – cabbage rolls, potato pancakes with mushroom sauce, Korean crepes, not to mention heaps of baking.
Hospitality? There was a certain amount of self-gratification in pulling this off but more important to me was that fellowship was extended to people who were part of a community that now included me and was not limited to my friends in my home.
This lead to Good Works. At these fellowships, we put out a small basket and requested a modest donation for an on-going “outreach”: food baskets to deliver to Eritrean neighbours; and supplies for a kindergarten in an inner city school. Always we were grateful for people’s generosity (after all, the church council or Eparchy/Diocese or central office of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada were always asking for donations, for everything from flower arrangements for Easter to the Bishop’s orphanage fund to payment for the latest Liturgical books). With the support of the clergy, we were making the point that Good Works need to be done for “neighbours” well beyond Orthodox Ukrainian-Canadians. So-called “ethnic” churches can be very insular as their members tend to come from the same or similar ethnic community – Ukrainian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian… Now our outreach committee is hoping to become a Community Partner with a local junior high school that runs a Hot Meal program and to make donations to Edmonton’s Mustard Seed Church food bank. We hope for support in the form of modest donations from the St Elia Branch of the Ukrainian Women’s Association at my church.
Came the day that I asked Fr Paul for a meeting and told him of my readiness to make my Final Oblation, and why. He heard me out and agreed. I don’t remember much of that ceremony. It took place during the Eucharist Mass that was celebrated as part of an Oblate Retreat. I was summoned to Abbot Peter near the altar, read a prescribed vow (it does not include any mention of fealty to a Pope), signed a document that went into the Abbey’s vault, and was presented a copy of the Rule and a small plastic rosary. As I returned to my pew, the gathered Oblates beamed at me and I beamed back. Later I made a presentation of my own, an Orthodox icon of St George that now hangs in the Oblates’ reading room in the guest wing of St Peter’s Benedictine Abbey in Muenster, Saskatchewan.
P.S. Since I wrote this post, I have learned that there is no support for the Hot Food program outreach initiative from the St Elia Branch of the Ukrainian Women’s Association of Canada. I am withdrawing into a period of “discernment” about what this means for my Oblate vow of Good Works.