oblation: vows and eucharist
I have had two liturgical, homiletic challenges recently. Last week we had a first communion on the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity. Actually it wasn’t too difficult to find a thread between those two things. And this week we are celebrating one of our brother’s simple vows, his monastic profession, on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. But again, I was only perplexed for a moment before I found the thread between the two of them. James has gone by the name Cassian throughout his novice year but now as he makes his simple vows he has chosen to go back to his birth name, his baptismal name. That is fitting, too, since all these things––first communion, vows, our vocations in general––are all a deepening of our baptismal commitment.
The first thing I thought of to tie monastic profession in with the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ was Chapter 59 in the Rule of Saint Benedict. If I understand it correctly, it’s from that chapter that we get the tradition of having oblates, of which we Camaldolese in America now have hundreds. It may sound strange to us now, but in Saint Benedict’s time nobles would offer their sons to the monastery as an oblation. We might think of the word “oblation” as having too much connotation with bloody sacrifice, but it is usually translated as an “offering,” something more like a yajna in the Indian tradition. The young man would then be trained and formed by the monks. And there is a poignant ceremony that accompanies this oblation. If the boy is too young, the parents write up a document with the vows on it, just like the one that James wrote that’s on the altar now; and then at the presentation of the gifts––cum oblatione, they wrap the document and the boy’s hands in the altar cloth. That is how they offer him, Benedict says. At the preparation of the gifts! With his hands wrapped in the altar cloth! And a similar thing happens with poor families who have nothing to offer by way of a donation to the monastery. They simply write up the document, but they still offer their son with the gifts––cum oblatione.[i]
This strikes me especially strongly for two reasons. First, the only other time I can think of that we offer something besides the bread and the wine at the presentation of the gifts is on Holy Thursday when we bring up the newly blessed and consecrated sacred oils. And second, we rarely put anything else on the altar except the bread and the wine to be consecrated. We only bring things to the altar that are already consecrated or that we are offering up. But today we lay that book on the altar in which you have written your vows. And that made me think of the chapter just before this in the Rule, (Chapter 58) where Benedict explains how the novice is to be received and trained, and then how he is to write out that same document when he makes his vows. And then Benedict has this rather shocking line, when he is writing about how the monk is now to give away everything and only possess what the monastery gives him, because, he says, from that day on he will not have even his own body at his disposal![ii] Actually Benedict wrote something similar to that already earlier in the Rule, too, in Chapter 33, when he is speaking of what he calls the “evil practice” of private ownership, and about how all things should be the possession of all and no one is to presume to call anything his own. Benedict says again this is because monks may not have the free disposal even of their own bodies and wills.[iii] That’s the oblation. What the young man and the novice are offering up is not a piece of paper; what James is offering up here is not just his temporary vows. He is offering himself. He’s symbolically laying himself on that altar, his whole being, his body and his will, for the next three years. As Saint Paul says (to us all, actually) in the Letter to the Romans, Offer your bodies as a holy sacrifice truly pleasing to God.[iv] There of course is our link with today’s feast and the Eucharist in general.
Christianity, especially Catholicism and the other sacramental traditions, are almost embarrassingly physical, corporeal. And on a feast such as today’s it’s important to emphasize that there is a direct link between Jesus’ actual body––his physicality––and that bread and wine that we will consecrate and receive. In between Jesus’ very body and that bread and wine are Jesus’ offering himself as a healer and a preacher; Jesus’ offering himself in service to the poor and the downtrodden; Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples; and mainly Jesus’ offering his own will up to the will of his Abba to the point of offering his body on the cross. Those are the things that link the very physicality of Jesus to the bread and wine on this table. It’s because of this that William Johnston wrote that the “… Christian mystical experience cannot be divorced from the Eucharist. In some ways [the Christian mystical experience] can even be called an extension of the Eucharistic celebration.” This is very clear in The Cloud of Unknowing (of which Johnston was an expert) where prayer and meditation become “a silent offering of one’s being to God together with Jesus who… offers his all to the Father who is his all and his very being. This is both mystical and eucharistic.”[v] So it’s especially meaningful that we meditate each evening in the rotunda in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament on the altar. You could say that that is the vertical dimension of both the Eucharist and your vows: an offering of your being to God together with Jesus, something both mystical and eucharistic.
But there is also the horizontal dimension. With the commitment to conversatio, the conversion of all our ways to the monastic way, in offering up the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as you will for these next few years, we monks give up very tangible and real things: we sacrifice a legitimate right to private possession and a right to a legitimate and beautiful form of intimacy; we give up the right to make decisions wholly for ourselves and by ourselves, just like Jesus surrendered his own will to the Father’s. The good news is that, in place of those things, in making these vows, in deepening your Baptismal commitment, you are also becoming a member of the larger Body of Christ in an even deeper way––and that too is our tie in with Eucharist, the horizontal dimension. You will be in an even deeper way a part of the larger body that is this community. Your vow of stability is to us, this specific place, this specific life. And your vow of obedience is not just to me, but the mutual obedience of the good of this community, often having to put the needs of your brothers ahead of your own.[vi] And that too is Eucharist. You will be in an even deeper way a part of the larger body that is the Camaldolese presence in America, and the larger body that is our congregation stretching across the globe from Italy to Africa, India and Brazil, not to mention our extended family of oblates. By giving your self as an oblation, you are becoming a part of the body that is the order of Benedictine monks and nuns stretching back to the 5th century and spreading across the globe; and the order of spiritual seekers in so many traditions who have consecrated themselves to this path of self-knowledge and charity. In sacrificing your autonomy the gains are significant.
And in some way, in making these vows in public––as Saint Benedict demands: he comes before the whole community in the oratory… in the presence of God and his saints[vii]––you’re also committing yourself to everyone here in a deeper way too, becoming a deeper part of the mystical Body which is the Church. Just look around you at the Our Father and the sign of peace. You’re their monk! You’re our monk! We monks do what we do for the sake of the whole Body even in the solitude of the cell. And we, of course, commit ourselves to you, too, and that too is what Eucharist is about and what your vows are about, not just between you and God, but between God, you, and the whole Body of Christ, both the eucharistic one and the mystical one.
It’s not just any old thing that we lay on that altar, but today we lay that book there as a holy thing, filled with the self-offering of many men who have gone before you, and your own intentions too. Let that book and those words be a symbol of your whole being, being offered to God. That’s what will be accepted and consecrated. And pray that in the years ahead this would be more and more deeply incarnate, made real, in our lives together in this very real place with these very real saints. That would be a sacrifice truly pleasing to God, both mystical and eucharistic.
[i] RB 59:1-2, 8.
[ii] RB 58:25.
[iii] 33:6, 4.
[iv] Rom 12:1.
[v] Mystical Theology, William Johnston, 64.
[vi] RB 72:6-7.
[vii] RB 58:17-18.