As a Benedictine oblate, people ask me regularly: what does it mean to be an oblate? Most importantly, it entails taking the Rule of St. Benedict as a spiritual charter for how we live the Gospel. St. Benedict is clear at the opening of the Rule: incline your ear to the words of the Master and run to meet Him. The Master is Christ and the Rule helps to shape a pattern of life to live out the Gospel!
Secondly, the Benedictine life is rooted in the liturgy, as it shapes one’s encounter with God and the daily rhythm of prayer. Through the liturgy we enter into the Church’s prayer and into the mysteries we believe and celebrate. Christ and His saints become present to us in the daily rhythm of the Divine Office, which extends our Eucharistic enoucnter with the Lord through the rest of the hours.
Two Benedictine spiritual masters have been particularly important to me. They have much to offer everyone, not just oblates. Both were Benedictine abbots of the last two hundred years, who offer practical advice on growing in prayer.
First, Ven. Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875),was the great restorer of monasticism in France following the destructions of the French Revolution and Napoleon. He refounded the Abbey of Solesmes in 1833, which went on the become a center of renewal for monasticism, the liturgy, Gregorian chant, and the study of the Fathers. Pope John Paul, just 10 days before he died, wrote that “reviving the figure of Dom Guéranger is an invitation for all the faithful to rediscover the roots of the liturgy and to give a new breath to their journey of prayer, taking care to place themselves always in the great tradition of the Church, in respect of the sacred character of the liturgy and of the norms which mark its depth and quality.
Many know Guéranger from his famous work, The Liturgical Year, which provides reflections and explanations of the liturgy for each day of the year. The first lines point to the key to Guéranger’s teaching: “Prayer is man’s richest boon. It is his light, his nourishment, and his very life, for it brings him into communication with God, who is light, nourishment and life. But of ourselves we know not how we should pray as we ought; we must needs, therefore, address ourselves to Jesus Christ, and say to him as the Apostles did: “Lord, teach us how to pray.”
The Liturgical Year may be Guéranger’s best known work, but I recommend a compiliation of his wirtings, together with two other key figures of Solesmes, Mother Cécile Bruyère and Dom Paul Delatte, The Spirit of Solesmes, as the best introduction.
Bl. Columba Marmion (1858-1923) was one of the most influential spiritual writers of the early twenieth century, influencing Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa. He was a diocesan priest in Dublin, but received a call to enter a Belgian monastery, Maredsous, eventually becoming abbot. Two of his major works, Christ the Life of the Soul and Christ in His Mysteries point to the fundamental realities of the spiritual life—the divine sonship we receive from Christ:
“We shall understand nothing—I do not say only of perfection, of holiness, but even of simple Christianity—if we do not grasp that its most essential foundation is constituted by the state of a child of God; participation, through sanctifying grace, in the eternal Sonship of the Word Incarnate” (Christ in His Mysteries, 64).
Like Guéranger, Bl. Marmion emphasized growing in holiness through liturgical prayer. A unique emphasis of his teaching comes in his spiritual direction, though. We are gifted with excerpts of his letters of spiritual direction in Union with God, which shows Marmion’s practical bent in guiding souls. For instance:
“God does not ask a married woman of the world for the austerities and mortifications that may be practiced by those living in the cloister. But He sends them other trials adapted to their state and which render them so agreeable to His Divine Majesty. Our Lord asks of you: 1. To accept daily the sufferings, the duties, and the joys He sends you, as Jesus accepted all that came to Him from His Father… 2. The perfect fulfillment of your duties: a) Towards God … above all family prayers; b) Towards your neighbor—Towards your husband…Towards your children. The grace of motherhood has its origin in the Heart of God, and He puts it in the mother’s heart in order that she may love and guide her children according to the Divine good pleasure … c) Towards yourself…. Be joyful and gay, natural and straightforward as you are, and God will bless you.”
One of the happy surprises of organizing the Saints, Monks, and Beer pilgrimage this October was realizing that the grave of these two spiritual giants laid in our path of visiting the brewing monasteries of France and Belgium. We were able to add Solesmes and Maredsous to the itinerary to visit the tomb of the holy abbots. This is not just a plug for the pilgrimage as I’m so happy to share the life and teaching of the great Benedictines, whose writings opens up a path to holiness through the liturgy and prayer. Look up their books and follow their profound teaching… and if you feel inclined, come visit them.