In monasteries and in prisons, Benedictine oblates live out 'ora et labora' in day-to-day life

Benedictine oblates Mary Beth and Brian Balaze volunteer cooking meals for retreatants at the Subiaco Retreat House at St. Benedict Monastery in Oxford. Unlike professed members of the Benedictine order, oblates live "in the world" and may hold regular jobs and have families, but share a commitment to practicing Benedictine spirituality in order to grow closer to God. (Courtesy photo) 

Rule of St. Benedict helps lay Catholics live more deeply for God through prayer, work and Scripture study

This article is the first in a four-part series about lay spirituality and third orders in the Archdiocese of Detroit. To learn more about a particular charism, email the contact included in each story. 

OXFORD — “Prayer and work” (or in Latin, ora et labora) is a well-known phrase from St. Benedict, a saint who lived in Italy from 480-547 A.D. While the phrase is ancient, a group of laypeople throughout the Archdiocese of Detroit are basing their day-to-day lives on it in an effort to grow closer to God.

The Benedictine Oblates affiliated with St. Benedict Monastery in Oxford meet monthly to learn about Benedictine spirituality. While their formation process is similar to that of the Benedictine monks — attending Mass, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, engaging in Lectio Divina — oblates live “in the world,” holding regular jobs, living in regular homes with their spouses or children.

“A lot of people have a desire to be more engaged in spiritual life,” Fr. John Martin Shimkus, OSB, said. “They have a desire for more than just attending Mass. Others look for a community in which they feel supported.”

A crucifix lies next to a tree on the grounds of St. Benedict Monastary in rural Oxford. Lay Benedictines, or Benedictine oblates, make promises to live the day-to-day rule of St. Benedict, including praying the Lectio Divina and engaging in regular spiritual reading and reflection. (Mike Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic) 

Those discerning whether to become an oblate undergo a formation process to help them decide whether they are indeed called to the life. First, there is a three-month “discerner” phase in which the candidate becomes familiar with the community. “That’s the time we get to know each other,” Fr. Shimkus said.

About twice a year, discerners have an opportunity to advance to the novitiate, a one-year period in which they learn about the rule of St. Benedict, its requirements, and its applicability to day-to-day secular life. Practically speaking, candidates begin to incorporate such practices as praying the Liturgy of the Hours, Lectio Divina, and examinations of conscience into daily life.

While becoming an oblate is a serious commitment, novices need not worry about fitting in all such practices right away.

“For those who have jobs or other commitments, we ask which of them can you incorporate into your life?” Fr. Shimkus said. “Then, as they progress, if they can add more, they do so. By the time they are done with formation they ought to be able to do most of them.”

“The overarching spirituality is the emphasis, the heart of the rule,” he added. “The rest are changeable.”

Becoming an oblate

When the year is complete, the novice can then make a final oblation in a ceremony similar to a monastic profession of vows. The oblate commits to living in the spirit of St. Benedict, his Rule and the directives of the oblate program.

The oblation is renewed annually and is a promise rather than a vow, Fr. Shimkus said. Thus, if an oblate fails to keep the promise or neglects to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, it is not a sin. Likewise, if life changes make fulfilling the promise difficult, the oblate can choose not to renew his or her promise the following year.

Formation takes place at monthly meetings, beginning with Mass followed by communal Lectio Divina, and a light breakfast. Afterward, there is a formation class that includes a presentation on St. Benedict and his spirituality or a book study.

A small chapel is set up near a library inside St. Benedict Monastery in Oxford. Part of Benedictine spirituality is the regular reading and reflection on holy books and Scripture. (Grace Turner | Detroit Catholic file photo)

In addition to prayer and spiritual reading, oblates are encouraged to engage in works of service, though it is not required.

“We are a starting point,” Fr. Shimkus said. “As we grow in relationship with God in our community, we end up as a community reaching out to others.”

Among the many ways oblates reach out to the community is helping during the retreats at the monastery’s Subiaco Retreat House. For example, Brian and Mary Beth Balaze frequently cook and serve meals for the retreatants.

“We love it,” Brian Balaze said. “It’s a great way to give of our time. What better way is there of seeing the effects of ora et labora?”

The Balazes have long ties to Benedictine spirituality, though they did not realize it at first. The couple had long been friends of Fr. Dan Homan, OSB, then associate pastor of St. Scholastica Parish in Detroit. Fr. Homan was also prior of the monastery and founded its Subiaco Retreat House, the main source of income for the priests and monks there. When the Balazes realized they wanted to grow a deeper spiritual life, they knew where to turn.

“Fr. Homan encouraged us,” Mary Beth Balaze said. “He had married us and we stayed in touch with him. He told us about the oblate group and we decided to try.”

A spirituality for daily life

Brian Balaze, a dentist in private practice, and Mary Beth, who works in Brian’s office, have found Benedictine spirituality to be invaluable throughout their busy day-to-day lives. Brian has a Benedictine prayer in his office as a reminder “to be humble, be hospitable” with each patient.

“Morning prayer especially has been helpful,” Mary Beth said. “Every day, we read the Gospel and we try to have it be our guide. When I’m working at the front desk, I try to see what I can offer to those I meet.”

Fr. Homan died in 2011, and the Balazes are helping to keep his legacy alive through their work at the retreat house. While most of their work is in the kitchen, they do what they can to serve the retreatants, who are often students preparing for confirmation. Listening to them is especially important.

“Listening is an important part of St. Benedict’s teachings,” Brian said. “I try to listen – to my patients, to everyone.”

A statue of St. Benedict is seen outside the Benedictine monastery in Oxford. Since the great saint's own life in the sixth century, generations of his followers have put his "Rule" for life to good use in their own situations in life. (Mike Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic)

In addition to the approximately 40 people who attend the monthly meetings the monastery, Fr. Shimkus said there are 10 more oblates who are in prison facilities in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Prison ministers approached the Benedictine monks to help start an oblate program for the inmates, “so they could feel more part of the Church.”

“There are a lot of real conversions in prison,” Fr. Shimkus said.

Fr. Shimkus emphasized that the oblates are a valued part of the Benedictine community. “They help us to tap into the hunger we have to seek God through monastic life. Certainly they help me to better appreciate monasticism by how faithfully they live the life.

“It’s really interesting to see how they are a light in the world,” he said. “We are called to bring God through the teachings of St. Benedict. They can go into areas where we are not able to be, precisely because of who they are. We are to bring God where we are — at home, at work, to the poor, to the rich, the kind and to the unkind.”

For more information, contact Fr. John Martin Shimkus, OSB, St. Benedict Monastery, 2711 Drahner Road, Oxford, MI  48370-2815, (248) 628-2249, [email protected]

About St. Benedict

St. Benedict of Nursia (near Rome), was a 6th century monk who lived as a hermit before establishing several monasteries, writing a Rule to help monks, religious and oblates (laypeople) to be closer to God. This Rule is still used today, guiding Benedictines through communal and private prayer, spiritual reading, work and sleep.

In brief, Benedictine spirituality emphasizes Scripture study, prayer and hospitality. The main characteristics of Benedictine life are listening, humility, obedience, simplicity of life and stewardship. Benedictines emphasize discernment and moderation in following the rule, adapting it where necessary but in keeping with the main tenets.

Among the many notable aspects of the Benedictine rule are the 12 Steps of Humility:

  1. Always have the fear of God before your eyes and never forget it.
  2. Love God's will, not your own.
  3. Be obedient to God and your superiors.
  4. Accept hardships with patience and endurance.
  5. Humbly confess all your sins to the priest.
  6. Be happy with having the worst of everything.
  7. Be happy not only saying but sincerely believing that you are the lowliest of all people.
  8. Do nothing except what is in the rule of the monks and in the example of elders.
  9. Do not speak unless asked to speak.
  10. Be not easily moved or brought to laughter.
  11. Speak gently, without laughter and with few words.
  12. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, believe that you are a sinner and do not lift your eyes from the ground or from your work.