Standing Like Mary Magdalene at the Tomb:  Recognizing New Forms of Benedictine Life

by Sister Teresa Jackson

There was a time I would read the account of Mary Magdalene at the tomb in John’s Gospel and get rather irritated at her. I mean, she’s standing right in front of Jesus but she doesn’t recognize him. I want to shake her and say “Look!  He’s right in front of you! How many times does he have to call your name before you recognize him?!”

Now that I’m older, although probably not wiser, I am much more sympathetic to Mary Magdalene’s plight. Here is this poor woman who has just lost her teacher, her rabboni. She has seen him cruelly and ignominiously tortured to death. Now all she wants to do is to honor his body one last time by ensuring a proper burial. But she can’t even do that. She already told Peter and another disciple that Jesus’ body was gone and they left and went home. Mary is left alone trying to talk to the gardener. She just wants to see Jesus again.

At this critical time in the history of Benedictine monasticism I wonder if most of us are like Mary Magdalene: standing at the tomb of Benedictine life as we have known it, weeping because we want to see Jesus, we want the life we’ve known. In our longing for the past we cannot see that the risen Christ, the new forms of Benedictine life, are right in front of us. It is extremely human to want to go back to the way things were, to have what we used to have. It is hard to wake up and recognize a completely new, incomprehensible reality and way of being.

At a time when there are fewer traditional vocations to the Benedictine life perhaps we need to ask whether a new reality is staring us in the face and we are failing to recognize it because we keep looking for what is past. We are standing at the tomb of Benedictine life as it has been, clinging to what we have known while a completely new form of life is calling our name.

Perhaps we do not have a vocation crisis, after all. Perhaps the vocations are just coming in a new form that we have trouble recognizing. One day a few years ago one of our sisters had a revelation. It was a Sunday morning and several people were making their oblations at Morning Prayer. Their joy was palpable and their personal statements as they made their oblations were profound. Afterwards the sister said “I finally realized that the oblates have a vocation. When they make their oblation they feel like I did when I made profession. I never realized that before.”

What if making oblation is a form of Benedictine vocation? How many thousands of women and men in North America are committing to live “according to the Rule of Benedict insofar as my state in life permits” as the oblate formula states? In our midst we see large numbers of dedicated, faithful, committed women and men who want to live according to the Rule of Benedict and who are embracing Benedictine spirituality. But because they are not professed Benedictines and they don’t look like the vocations we’re used to, are we standing weeping at the tomb like Mary Magdalene hoping for what was while a new generation of people with a different Benedictine vocation is calling our name?

Professed Benedictines have been around for over 1500 years. There will always be those of us who are called, who have a vocation to the professed Benedictine life. Traditional vocations are flourishing in Africa and other parts of the world. To say that oblates might have a vocation takes nothing away from our vocation. The oblate vocation only adds to the amazing accomplishments of our monasteries and our forbearers. To acknowledge the depth of the call of Benedictine oblates today is simply to acknowledge that Benedictine life and vocations are not in decline, but are actually alive and thriving in new ways.

So what are the practical implications of acknowledging and supporting the vocation of Benedictine oblates? Perhaps the most important thing is simply a change in attitude. When Mary Magdalene was able to let go of her friend, the human Jesus, in order to embrace the risen Christ her understanding of the world changed. When she understood she had to release the past and embrace a new reality she was able to go out and change the world.

In embracing oblates as people with a different, yet vital Benedictine vocation our world will be made new. Rather than a group of nice people who like us and help out as volunteers at our monasteries, we will begin to see co-workers in the vineyard. Oblates can become the people who take our mission and charism to places we can no longer go. People with an oblate vocation can and are living the monastic way of life in new ways just as our foremothers and fathers from Europe began living Benedictine life in new ways when they came to the United States.

Those with an oblate vocation are also invited to change their way of thinking. Perhaps they will no longer defer to the “real,” professed monastics, but begin to ask how they are independently living their Benedictine vocation. Rather than standing in the shadow of professed Benedictines, oblates can see their vocation as the center of their life and not merely a way of expressing support for the monastery of their oblation.

A new, largely unexplored shift is happening in the Benedictine world. It is based on the solid foundation of the Rule and the history of the faith-filled and courageous Benedictines who have come before us. It is also an opportunity to take our eyes off the empty tomb and begin to look at a new, transformed reality, a resurrection rather than joining Mary Magdalene in only hoping for a resuscitated body. Vocation is always a call from God, we don’t invent it and we often resist it.  But many new committed, faith-filled Benedictines are rising up in our midst. How will we receive them?

On October 7-13, 2018, the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood Idaho is offering a symposium for professed monastics and oblates entitled “Oblates for the Future” to explore these issues. Please plan to join us.

Learn more about the oblate symposium “Oblates for the Future”…