Monday, September 22, 2014

Oblation: A Reflection

The following talk was given by Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB, at the August meeting of the Oblates.  We thank Dawn Hardison for typing up the transcript of the talk!  What follows has been somewhat edited for easier reading.

            I’d like to talk today about Oblation, but not as a ceremony or a group within the program.  I’d like to talk about it in its root meaning as something offered to God.  That is basically what the meaning of Oblation is. 

Now Benedictines, in whatever capacity, are men and women who offer ourselves to God through a life inspired and guided by the Rule of Benedict.  We do that either through vows, for those of us who are in the monastery, or for lifelong Oblation in an association like ours under the auspices of a Benedictine monastery,  or sometimes even more informally than that.  St. Benedict has reached out very far. 

Now, just as a sidebar for newcomers, on our group’s structure, There’s been a little confusion about a few things, so I thought I’d clear this up.  We have a weird situation where we have two Oblate directors.  I’m actually the Oblate director, but I don’t live at the Abbey very much, so Mother Maria Thomas, who is the retired Abbess of the Monastery and the retired Oblate Director, has very graciously taken on the responsibility of conducting the meetings that happen during the year, and it is she who will be coordinating the Oblation in October. 

So we have Oblate Directors appointed by Mother Maria-Michael Newe, OSB, Abbess of the Abbey of St. Walburga.  We also have, thanks to Mother Maria-Thomas’s inspiration, regional groups, five regional groups now that are coordinated by experienced Oblates who convoke the group, welcome inquirers and do whatever else is needed.  Because of geography and climate and distance, some people need to start out with a local group first, and then eventually make their way to the Abbey.  But at some point we would like to invite you to make your way to the Abbey and talk to one of us, so that we have that connection.  The local coordinators are the ones who recommend candidates for enrollment or oblation. 

Now because of distances and Colorado weather, the regional groups are the working heart of the program.  But the Abbey is the center, where all of you are welcome any time for a time of prayer, or for some consultation with the directors, depending on availability.  For those of you who are not familiar with the regional groups, they meet about once a month to study the rule together, using some edition of Mother Maria Thomas’s study guide for Oblates.  There are various editions of this in use in various groups.  The latest one was printed very recently.  The first printing has sold out, but a second printing will soon be available in the Abbey Gift Shop (

So the regional groups meet to study the Rule together, and also, and just as importantly, to provide mutual support in living according to its principles, because this is a flesh and blood way of life.  Monasticism is very practical and so we work in the concrete, and the group is there to supply support. 

Benedictine spirituality is always a practical matter of times, places and practices.  So that is what our focus is in reflecting on what the structures and principles given by the Rule provide for us in the way of living and growing our everyday life. 

We think of Oblation itself it as a ceremony, but it’s really a rich and multifaceted set of interactions between God, who is the first giver and ourselves.  We make Oblation, that is, self-offering, but God is the first giver.  We are not.

So what I would like to do today is look at the parable of the talents, as a way of reflecting on this interpersonal exchange.  The parable is found in Matthew 25:14-30, but we will end this reflection with Verse 28.

In Chapter 25, Jesus is talking about the final sorting out of things at the end of time.  But obviously that has enormous repercussions for all of us who are living toward that time, either personally or globally.  He says that time “… will be as when a man who is going on a journey called on his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.  To one he gave 5 talents; to another two; to a third, one; to each according to his ability.” Note that the amounts were not arbitrary.  The sum entrusted to each person was determined by that person’s ability, not too much for the man who could handle only one talent, not too little for the man who could handle 5.

The story continues:  “Then he went away.  Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five.  Likewise, the one who received two made another two.  But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.  After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them.  The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five.  He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities.  Come, share your master’s joy.’ “

Note that sharing the master’s joy includes taking on more responsibilities, not just sitting around in retirement drinking lemonade!

“[Then] the one who had received two talents also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two talents. See, I have made two more.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities.  Come, share your master’s joy.’ Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter, so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.’  His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter? Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?”
The first thing to notice, I think, is that in praying with the parable we have to remind ourselves what a parable is.  A parable is always a story, it’s always fiction, although I’m imagining Jesus knew some of the characters in these stories.  And it’s a story with one point and the one point is usually a twist in the tail of the story.  It’s something unexpected that happens. 

Like in this story we are set up by repetition, to say “OK, this one got that much, he went off and invested it.  He brought back double.  And the next one got this much, he went off and invested it and came back and brought double.” And so we would think with the third one, who got only the one – that’s not so much to have to deal with-- that he would have gone off and invested it and come back with two,  and  we would have all gone away satisfied. 

But that’s not what happens, because this is a parable.  So the one behaves in an unexpected way, and gets an even more unexpected result.  He loses what he had. 

Now, the details in a parable are there to make a good story, not necessarily to communicate other meanings.  So we have to be careful when we read a story like this one that we don’t go away thinking that God is a hard-hearted financial investor, as the man with one talent imagined.  And we have all met that God somewhere along the line in our religious formation:  “God’s going to get you for what you didn’t do, and you’d better do this much to please God.” 

Jesus is telling a good story – he is a good storyteller.  He has all the details add up to be part of the story framework, but they are not the point.  So Jesus is not saying “God is a hard-hearted, mean financial investor, who harvests where he did not sow, and wants more back than you even feel like on any given day that you can provide”.  So we’ll look a little further here. 

When we read a story like this we need to step back and think about the bigger context.  What is the picture of God that Jesus gives us in all of the gospels?  It’s the picture of a God of mercy, a God of forgiveness, God who will allow us to experience the consequences of the choices we have made, but who does it terribly reluctantly and often with great grief, if we’ve made destructive choices.  So keep that God in mind.

The second thing is that God is the one who gives the talents for the recipients to work with, but what they do with them in order to make a suitable return is up to them.  There is no user’s manual, there is no instructions book, there is no help menu in the story.  God gives them the talents but does not tell them exactly what to do with them. 

We need to ask more questions here.  What are the talents?  Now in the story, the word is misleading in English, because as you know these are cash coins, they are not talents, like gifts of music or writing or poetry or farming or any of those things. 

So that provokes the question; What does God give us to work with, really?   Not a sack of coins. I’m sure sometimes you’d like to have a sack of coins handed to you, but that’s not the way it works.  In reality, in the bigger picture the person is the package.  Every person is a bundle of possibilities that can’t be counted like coins. 

So in real experience the 3…2…1… talents are for the sake of a good story about this mean-hearted master and these servants.  But life is not like that.  This is not saying that some people have more and are better than other people.  How often have we made that mistake?  Nobody knows what possibilities any other person has in the package that was given them. 

So we can’t look around and say “Oh, she has more talents than I do.  Or he has more talents than I do.”  We don’t know that.  We don’t know what the hidden possibilities of a person are and we often make big mistakes in judging  and quantifying those possibilities, those gifts, because we tend to evaluate them in terms of our societal standards.  This person has more money.  This person is able to do more public things.  This person has the skills to get success in whatever ways society is defining success.  That’s not what it’s about.  Every person is an indefinable package of possibilities.  Quantities and tangible worth are irrelevant.

So the numbers belong to the story image, but not to the human reality. 

Secondly, what do we do with what we receive?  What is this business of investing or trading and making more and coming back and pleasing God? 

What God is really always inviting us to do with this package of the self given us is to grow into the full possibilities of the package, to go from this little nugget of promise that we all are when we start out into a fully mature and well developed human being. We cannot judge the final results for ourselves, ever.  Because we tend to either over-judge it or under-judge it. 
So all we are asked to do with this package of possibilities that we are given as we are starting out, is to develop it in every sense and way that life allows us and grace assists us, so that become all God desires us to be.  Not… “I’ve made more of this, I have the gift of singing and I have turned that into a great success as a concert singer”.  That’s not what this is about.  It’s about how I hve grown grown into all of the possibilities of my person, including those I have not yet recognized.

The third thing is, does God really go away and let us get on with it with no help or users’ manual?  That’s what the master in the story does.  He goes away and leaves everybody alone. They have to cope the best way they can.  Presumably they learned something about investing and marketing somewhere along the way.  Maybe the guy who buried his talent said “I don’t know what to do with this.  Let me just put it in there, and give it back to him.’’

We know that’s absolutely untrue of our relationship with God.  God has incorporated us into Jesus Christ, and in Christ we have every help we could possibly need.  St. Paul says that at the beginning of the letter to the Ephesians.  We have every help we could need.  So God doesn’t leave us without help.  In fact, God never leaves, for one thing. At the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus says to the disciples and all of us “I will be with you always.” 

So God is always there and always helping us with the Spirit poured out upon us.  And God has given us the Scriptures as a users’ guide.  God never turns us into helpless infants.  Only helpless infants are helpless infants.  God treats everybody else as being capable of taking responsibility.  Maybe we are scared, maybe we think we can’t do it.  Maybe we are afraid we will fail.  But God is always there in our corner, saying “You can do it.  I’m not going to do it for you.  I’ll do it with you.  I’ll always do it with you, but I’m not going to do it for you.”  Because that turns us into infants, it turns us into puppets, it turns us into less than the human beings that we are. 

So in the end, if we read this story in a deeper kind of way, using what’s very helpful from the imagery, we are responsible for our side of the collaboration, and making the most of us.  God is responsible for God’s side in that collaboration.  And there is no way of saying where God’s work stops and ours begins.   It just doesn’t work that way. 

So what we offer back to God as an Oblation, in whatever walk of life we follow is ourselves; all that we are.  Not a sack of coins.  Not a report card. Not newspaper articles about what a success we were.  We offer back to God all that we have become. 

Now I’d like to use as some imagery for that two prayers that are always used in the preparation of the gifts to be offered in the Roman Catholic liturgy, in the Mass.  Although they are Catholic, they have universal implications for everybody. 

The first one says “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you, fruit of the earth and work of human hands…”

And the second prayer is similar;  “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you, the fruit of the vine and work of human hands…”

There’s a really interesting dynamic in those prayers, that we often don’t hear, or ignore, or pass over.  It’s that God gives us the basic material that we have to offer; in the case of the bread, fruit of the earth; in case of the wine, fruit of the vine. But in both cases what God has given us as the basic materials for our offering is transformed by our own work.  Human beings went out into the field, and plowed the field and planted the wheat. They watched the wheat grow.  Human beings cut that wheat down, human beings thresh it and separate the grain from the chaff.  Human being grind the grain into flour and human beings make the bread. Only very rarely might the same human beings do all of those things.  Many people engage in the work, each according to his or her own gifts and circumstances. 

So the bread that we offer started out as God’s gift.  But God’s gift is the possibility : wheat in the field. That’s hard to eat, doesn’t taste very good;  it’s cracks teeth, and it doesn’t nourish us.  It becomes nourishing through our own labors, the labors of many people.  All of the gifts we have been given grow into what God wants us to be through interaction, not only with God, but those around us, with lots of other people, some of whom we know and see every day, some of whom we don’t know at all. 

So this whole business of Oblation, God’s gift to us and our return of self to God, is a very complex set of personal interactions between God and human beings, and among human beings.  It’s a significant dimension of all Christian life, not just Benedictine life.  In the Benedictine process of Oblation, or self-gift, we mark the key moments with ceremonies, the enrollment of novices and the final oblation of those novices after a formation period. 

But these ceremonies are not graduations.  St. Benedict says that Benedictine life is a school in which we are enrolled as lifelong learners.  Our primary textbook is the Scriptures, but our specific text for learning to live the Scriptures in the spirit of St. Benedict is the Rule of St. Benedict.  Through our study and internalization of these texts, and the other guides God supplies us with along the way,  the Spirit of God teaches us how to make maximum use of our gifts in order to become what God wants us to be.

 Copyright 2014, Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Blessing of Work: Reflection for September

The following reflection was published in the September, 2014, Give Us This Day, a monthly publication of The Liturgical Press and is reprinted with the publisher's permission.

O Lord, look with favor upon your servants, and upon the works of our hands.
“And may the gracious care of the Lord our God be upon us. Direct the work of our hands for us.
O direct the work of our hands” (Ps 90:17).

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.

—Daily Prayer for the Blessing of Work
Prayed every workday by the Nuns of the Abbey of St. Walburga

Why ask God’s blessing on something as mundane as work? When we watch a mushroom cloud rising above the un- bearable ruin of life in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the smoke billowing from the crematoria of Auschwitz, we might look toward heaven and ask, “Where were you?” But I wonder, if we listened, whether we would hear God reply: “Where were you?” Hard to deny that the mushroom cloud and the chimney smoke were the work of human hands.

Work was woven into the human fabric from the start. We first see God busy about what Genesis calls the work of creation (Gen 1–2:1). The climax of God’s creative work was human beings, created in the image of that very same God. Entrusted with the care of everything just made (Gen 1:28- 29) or set in a garden rich in fruit trees (Gen 2:8), the first human beings were also intended to be creative workers, cultivating the future God had built into all living things.

The first explicit human assignment was to pick fruit for food (Gen 2:15-16), presumably to strengthen earth’s new cultivators for their task. But before the story got too far, the work went badly astray, thanks to that chat with the serpent (Gen 3). Instead of expressing human being’s true identity and purpose in relation to Creator and creation, labor was twisted into the human pursuit of an illusory self in isolation from God and the world. At that moment, mushroom clouds and smoking chimneys became possible.

Fortunately, few of us spend our workdays inventing weapons of mass destruction or new tools for genocide. Our work’s content does matter, of course, but what matters more is what truth it tells about us, what relationships it serves, what fruit it bears. Does it reveal the image of God or a self writ large? Does it weave bonds or tear them asunder? Does it bear the fragrance of fruit trees or the odor of smoke? 

Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB

Copyright 2014, Abbey of St. Walburga