Some years ago I was often a “colonist” at the Saskatchewan Writers Guild summer writing colony at St Peter’s Benedictine Abbey, a monastic community near Humboldt (east of Saskatoon) in Saskatchewan. We writers kept mainly to ourselves – our rooms were in a former convent house. But we were always welcome to join the community at their daily Divine Offices, the Opus Dei, the Work of God, namely a prayer schedule focussed on chanting Psalms as laid out in the sixth-century Rule of their founder, St Benedict. “Nothing is to be preferred,” he wrote in Chapter 43, “to the Work of God.”
The monks gathered four times a day in their beautiful modern chapel at Lauds (6:20 a.m.), Noon, Vespers (5:35 p.m.) and Vigils (7:30 p.m.) For a few summers, I hung out with the other writers for Happy Hour in the back garden, each with her favourite tipple and getting tipsy, while the Brothers prayed Vigils. Perhaps inevitably, given my writing the drafts that would become Prodigal Daughter, I found myself drawn to that chapel.
I was shy at first. I am not a Roman Catholic and had no idea how to be present at the Office. I was the only woman there (although occasionally a fellow writer, an Anglican, joined me) and I had the worst time trying to follow what they were reading and chanting from the plethora of pew books at my disposal, until Fr Demetrius, the Guestmaster, kindly showed me, each time. Then I had to understand that the monks sang back and forth, taking turns with the verses, that the black clusters on what seemed to be a musical stave actually represented the notes they were singing, and that they always stood up and did a small reverential bow when it came to chanting “Glory to the Father, to the Son and the Holy Spirit” (as an Orthodox, I instinctively made the sign of the cross at these words but soon learned to stop doing that). Even when more confident in my participation, I kept my chanting sotto voce in case a woman’s voice would be considered intrusive if not unseemly.
But my biggest problem was the texts themselves, Psalm after Psalm after Psalm. The Book of Psalms, traditionally attributed to Old Testament King David , is used in Jewish and Christian worship and lies at the heart of the Offices. Benedict’s Rule #18 instructs that “the full complement of one hundred and fifty psalms is by all means carefully maintained every week.” Yikes. As with many cultural if not practising Christians, I struggled with the Psalms that asked “O God” that He “break the [enemies’] teeth in their mouths” and other such vengeful outpourings, and simply refused to utter them until we came to a better Psalm, such as the one that my mother loved (“The Lord is my shepherd”) and the one whose poetry I truly gloried in, “The Lord stretches out the heavens like a tent, and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind.” How not to pray? While some of my fellow writers had removed the crucifixes from their rooms or turned holy images to the wall the day they moved in, I kept all such accoutrements intact and began to order my writing day according to the daily rhythm of the Offices in the Chapel. And eventually got the hang of it.
Then one day, while waiting outside his office to have a chat with Fr Demetrius , I picked up a pamphlet, “Oblates of St. Benedict” and learned that Benedictine religious communities such as St Peter’s offer association with them of (baptized Christian) laypeople “who yearn for a spiritual life deeply rooted in God.” They had me at “yearn.”
“Oblate” comes from the Latin offere and what Oblates of St Benedict “offer” is to follow the Rule of St Benedict in the world. The Abbey bookshop has the Rule for sale, so that became my first step toward oblation. Its opening word is justifiably celebrated, “Listen.” Then: “Attend…with the ear of your heart.” What an image, what a striking conflation of intellectual and compassionate labour. I read on, even when these sixth century Rules had no remote connection to my 21st-century life. Chapter 33 exhorts the community to uproot the “evil practice” of private ownership, of even “a book, writing tablets or stylus.” Chapter 22: the monks “sleep clothed, and girded with belts or cords.” Chapter 6: “We absolutely condemn in all places any vulgarity and gossip and talk leading to laughter…” But the Benedictines of St Peter’s were far from dour, sour or sanctimonious and, as I kept reading, I realized that the Rule was also fully understanding of human frailty, as with the Rule on The Proper Amount of Drink. “We read that monks should not drink wine at all, but since the monks of our day cannot be convinced of this, let us at least agree to drink moderately…” And so, the Rule stipulates “that a half bottle of wine a day is sufficient for each.” (However, while I have been a frequent guest in the monks’ dining room, I haven’t once seen this Rule observed. Tea, anyone?)
There was a treasury of books in the bookshop and over a couple of years of reading Rule-inspired writers, I began to get an inkling of how I might indeed try to follow the Rule in my daily life. Without realizing at the time that Kathleen Norris is a Benedictine oblate, I had read her The Cloister Walk, of her long residencies at St John’s Benedictine Abbey in Minnesota, with considerable envy and awe. She’s a Presbyterian, for heaven’s sake. Then there is the redoubtable Benedictine nun, Joan Chittister, a passionate advocate for “justice, peace and equality, especially for women,” and author of more than 50 books. There is the Anglican scholar, Esther de Waal, who has written several commentaries on the Rule for laypeople. Even Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and writer beloved of many non-Catholics, lived a monastic life whose keynote was a return to literal observance of the Rule of St Benedict.
And the Psalms? I return to Kathleen Norris: “To say or sing the psalms aloud within a community is to recover religion as an oral tradition, restoring to our mouths words that have been snatched from our tongues and relegated to the page, words that have been privatized and effectively silenced. It counters our tendency to see individual experience as sufficient for formulating a vision of the world.”
All signs were starting to point in the same direction.
I thought of the Orthodox Liturgy which every Sunday incorporates, without my even having noticed, versicles and responses from the Psalms. The word itself, Liturgy, comes from the Greek for public + working. As a member of an Orthodox Church, liturgical and traditional to the core, I was ready to turn to my community there and find the means to live the Rule.
ObOSB? Oblate of the Order of St Benedict.