Oblate Conference: The Domestic Church

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

This conference was delivered to the Benedictine Oblate meeting held at Saint Meinrad on September 22, 2018.

When the Benedictine movement was established in the sixth-century, the signs of the times read one thing: Trouble. Benedict established the ideals of the Benedictine ethos in times of trouble, in times of social and political upheaval. Today we offer the quaint expression "barbarian invasions" to name this movement in Europe.

It means very little to us today, but at the time, the barbarian invasions signaled the wholesale destruction of culture, the breaking apart of the Roman Empire, of its political and social ideals, of its cultural institutions, its education systems, and its literary world. Whole swaths of intellectual history preserved by the Romans were lost, including the works of historians, philosophers, poets and playwrights.

Into this morass of violence and normlessness, Benedict came to provide, as far as possible, an oasis of sanity and tradition to a world careening out of control. What was the Benedictine ideal? How can we describe it? I believe St. Benedict understood that Christian identity and Christian practice must be at the very heart of the ideals of the Church.

He also understood that this identity and this practice must be total; it must encompass every aspect of the human person. It must be something that one wakes with in the morning and goes to bed with at night. Christian identity and Christian practice meant informing not only MY life, but that of all I might encounter through my witness to the world. It was the new evangelization of the sixth century.

Benedict also understood what we today refer to as the domestic church, the ideal of a church that exists not only within the parameters of formal worship, but also within the ideals of daily living. Is this not also the ideal of Benedictine oblation, of living the realities of discipleship in the world? There can be little doubt that there is need for such a witness today.

Like Benedict, we are living in difficult times. We are living in times of pain and scandal for the Church. We are being challenged every day to forage through the mess of what we are almost hourly encountering in unfolding problems for the institution. Like Benedict's own time, we are living in a world of normlessness, of confusion, and part of that mess lies squarely in the institutionof the Church. How can we Benedictines help our Church (and our world) to heal?

The State of the Domestic Church Today: A U.S .Perspective

Examining the ideals of the domestic church in a contemporary U.S. perspective, one must keep in mind the foundational principles of U.S. culture, particularly the separation of church and state. This ideal has afforded U.S. Catholics a great deal of freedom from a historical point of view, but it may also have had an eroding effect on the ideals of Church as understood by classical ecclesiology, that is, the full integration of Church into the social order.

For many of us, the Church is not a daily reality, but a place to go for a very limited time on Saturday or Sunday. The Church gives you a 45-minute hint of spirituality once a week and you are on your way. We do not necessarily think of our parishes as a place to spend time, much less as places that offer us something real to take into the world.

Our Fr. Cyprian Davis, of happy memory, once said that the institution of the Church must be thought of as a train station, a place to pull in to take on new passengers and dispatch others, refuel and be on our way. Being on our way, engaging the world with Christian values, understanding how that "fuel" of that station informs every action of that way, these are the realities that we must attend to most carefully in cultivating discipleship. But, when we view our "state" responsibilities as something so removed from Church, we are left with a dilemma: How can we be faithful Christians in the world, how can we live our values, cultivated in Church "out there"?

Another challenge for the domestic church in contemporary U.S. culture is the general demise of domesticities. The home and the extended family are no longer the norm in U.S. culture the way they were 100 or even 75 years ago. As family units become increasingly distended, they provide less of the formational matrix that they once did.

Likewise, as family members engage in individual projects, they seem to be less likely to engage religious activities or really any activities as a family. As family life fragments, members turn to alternative support mechanisms, and sometimes family life can become a kind of battleground as these individual mechanisms compete for dominance.

Just as the domestic church is demonstrating problems of identity, likewise the contemporary ecclesial environment is having problems. The battlefield of the sexual abuse crisis in the U.S. has left many, if not an advancing majority, with negative reactions to the institution of the Church.

An adage of previous generations was that young adults generally drifted away from the practice of Catholicism until the time of their marriage, or the first appearance of children. Then they tended to rejoin ecclesial structures, go to Church and participate in the activities of parishes and schools. This is less the case today. While the same drift exists in 20-somethings, there is not a concomitant return of young people as family structures begin to develop. In a recent study, the following was observed about a meeting of young adults:

The low attendance was discouraging. It told me that the church is irrelevant to their lives. They do not even care enough about church to come and tell us why they don't want to come. For them, the church is a dead letter, not good news.

Given these realities, there is a need to reinvigorate the domestic church beyond the parameters of ecclesial understandings, at least for the present. Cultural norms are changing and growing, as the institutional Church reforms itself for a new generation; likewise, the domestic church must be strengthened and encouraged into a new strength and position.

Rule of St. Benedict - Guides and Principles

As cultural norms within the Church continue to change and grow, the development of the domestic church seems to be not only a desirable outcome, but possibly the means of establishing a new credibility for Christian practice. If Christian ideals are to thrive, they must be given a wider place of involvement than formal institutional structures. The Church must move to the workplace, the school, recreational centers and, of course, to the home.

In framing new attitudes to assist this necessary expansion, it is helpful to turn to a tried-and-true Christian ideal for community building, The Rule of St. Benedict and, in particular to the ideals of Benedictine oblation. In his rule, Benedict presents as series of ideals for building the community of faith at the local level. These seem to apply quite readily to the domestic church.

First is the idea that there is such a thing as the domestic Church. Again, this is something that cannot be taken for granted in our contemporary cultural setting. A culture inundated in the "separation of church and state" frequently places the ideals of living outside the parameters of formal religious institutions in the area of "state" and thereby closed off to influences theological, liturgical and specifically moral.

St. Benedict proposes the ideal of finding God in all things and glorifying God in all things. True practice of faith becomes not esoteric knowledge, but wisdom distilled from the daily. Situating the presence of God in daily life becomes the first task of building the culture of the domestic church.

Second, prayer is the center of the domestic church. Domestic church members have the task of centering prayer in the church at home. Prayer is often seen as the domain of the institutional Church, yet there is the possibility of seeing prayer as an essential element of life and thereby practiced outside the material parameters of the institution.

Teaching people to pray at home, with one another and alone, and to pray in the workplace, the school, the shopping center, becomes part of developing the personality of domestic Christians. Ritual is a part of life, an essential anthropological theme, and thereby must be practiced in every place where human persons find themselves.

"Pray without ceasing for this is the will of God" is not only a temporal ideal, but a spatial one as well. Benedictine oblation instills in its adherents the necessity of consecrating the day through active prayer and to see prayer as a part of the oratory, certainly, but equally an activity of the field and workroom.

Third, St. Benedict is convinced in the Rule that cenobitism (people living together) is the bestwayto live. Benedict favors a community life and one that stretches over the long term. He wants people to be at home and develop themselves at home. A monastery, like a family home, is not just a place to sleep and leave your things.

It is where we work out our identity, in the living crucible of family life, as rewarding and frustrating as that might be. Family rituals help to create an environment where this is possible and encouraged. Benedictine oblation helps to focus the activities of the family certainly, but also the realities of daily living, the way in which very normal activities are engaged.

Fourth, meals are a major place to meet. Taking a cue from the Gospel, St. Benedict promotes the idea of meals as a central place to meet and express values. Presence at meals is essential in the Rule,and the meal is the place where values are expressed, the connection being explicit between table fellowship and the fellowship of the altar.

What is the condition of the family meal today? In many families, it no longer exists. Eating is no longer an opportunity to express essential values of human living, but becomes a pragmatic means of gaining fuel for additional, sometimes directionless, encounters. Within the context of oblation, meals become the place where family life is focused and consecrated.

A fifth important point for St. Benedict is that everyone has a job. Work in the home and for the benefit of the family is essential. Work provides not only for the accomplishment of necessary tasks, but also uses labor as a means of establishing connection and ownership in the domestic environment. The reward for work is justifiable pride in the domestic church and its environment. Work is also accompanied by prayer. Again, finding a connection between spirituality and the mundane tasks of life becomes an essential component of strengthening ecclesial identity in the home.

Sixth, for St. Benedict, objects are always to be respected. Material things, even the most lowly, have value and should be respected. The institutional Church has its objects that inform identity - liturgical garments, vessels, images, etc. Likewise, in the domestic church, there is a need to honor creation.

How will the domestic church understand its material culture? One way in which this might be realized is through the establishment of a home oratory. The presence of a home prayer space provides a needed focus for everything else that happens in the home.

Finally, time is to be respected. St. Benedict demonstrates in the Rule an authentic love for temporality. Everything in the course of the day is observed, acknowledged and sanctified. This respect for time and space is very much a product of Benedict's authentic incarnational theology. As in the person of Christ, we find the divine in the ordinary, the prospect of daily life.

These are the basic principles for realizing the Benedictine ideal, in the home, in the world, through the real spirituality of oblation. I believe that this is also the way in which our Church might be renewed.

Again, dear oblates, we are living in troubled times, particularly for the Church as an institution. Domestic life, oblate life, is not an alternative to a stumbling institution. The purpose of the institution is to strengthen discipleship in the world. It may also be the case that an empowered domestic church may have the benefit of raising up ramparts for the institutional Church that highlight its essential character in the world. The Church is one and we are one in the Church.