Article: Oblates in Western Monasticism

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By Derek G. Smith This article first appeared in MONASTIC STUDIES 13, Autumn 1982. Used with permission.


<ul><li><p>Oblates in Western Monasticism </p><p>by Derek G. Smith Whatever the outward historical form oblature has taken--and it has taken many outward forms-its first and essential reality is a commitment to the monastic tradition of prayer and its generous silence. Its second purpose, almost inseparable from the first, is to seek to share that tradition of prayer and that profound gift of silence with the whole people of God. Unless that commitment and motivation are pursued, oblates lose their reason for existence as lay affiliates of monasticism who have promised their lives to the cultivation and sharing of those ideals. His prayer and his oblation, as the oblate soon discovers if only obscurely, are formed within a role [1] in the monastic community, a role which has had a vigorous, varied and tenacious history since the origin of monasticism. There are many issues which attract one's attention when oblation is examined within a comprehensive historical view. Among them are at least these four: (1) the origin and practice of infant oblation, which quite apparently and despite its changing forms, has provided the basic definition for many (perhaps most) roles of lay affiliation in western monastic history; (2) the question of whether oblation of an infant is binding on that infant on reaching the "years of discretion"; (3) the effect of practices in the oblation of infants which have affected the development of the role of adult oblates; and (4) the relationship of lay oblation to monastic profession. These questions deserve to be treated in a comprehensive single study in English. Excellent studies of particular problems and specific periods in the history of monastic oblation have been made by European monastic scholars. [2] In English these matters have largely been treated in passim in larger works. [3] The purpose of this paper is to suggest the desirability of carrying out a historically comprehensive work in the English language on oblation and its varied influences in monastic history. [4] With the help and support of the monastic community with which I am affiliated, I hope to attempt such a work. In early Eastern and Western Monasticism, most monks were laymen. Clerics and priests were ordained from among them at the need of the. community, although a few clerics sought entry to the monastic state. Clerics from outside the community, despite the general injunction to treat a guest as if he were Christ Himself, [5] were treated with a measure of suspicion, or at least reticence. [6] Some clerics returned to the lay state before seeking entrance. [7] The norm and the practice was that the majority of those who entered the monastic life were adult laymen. Children were present in some early monasteries, if only by toleration. Children were to be found in St. Anthony's monasteries; Evagrius forbade their presence; but the Regula of both Pachomius and St. Basil not only presume the presence of children, they provide for their acceptance as child oblates. [8] Both Rules allow the child oblate a choice on their reaching the "years of discretion", either of returning to the world or proceeding to the status of monk-novice. Despite St. Benedict's general approval of the Rule of St. Basil and his commendation of it to be read by his monks (Regula Benedicti (RB) cap. 73) St. Benedict's approach to child oblation was quite different, both from his predecessors Pachomius and St. Basil, but also from his near contemporaries Saint Caesarius (AD 470-543) and Aurelian (ob. </p></li><li><p>551 or,553). [9] The Regula Benedicti (cap. 59) clearly envisions child oblation as binding for life. The oblate retains no disposition of his person, for his destiny is "stability" in the monastic community in which he was offered by his parents. There is no question of the oblate having a right or opportunity to confirm or ratify his oblation when he comes of age. De Vogue [10] argues very cogently that oblation here is a form of profession, and entails renunciation of property (and, by implication, the freedom to marry) (cf. RB caps. 32-34, 59). [11] Not only does RB's provisions for oblates differ from earlier Eastern Rules [12], they also differ from contemporary Western monastic Rules, especially the Regula Magistri (RM). [13] RM (cap. 91) provides only for oblation of children of the nobility; RB provides for oblation of children of both the rich and the poor. More significantly, RM cap. 91, in contrast to RB (cap. 59), appears to allow adolescents to reaffirm their oblation as a matter of free choice. RM also provides several alternatives for the disposition of an oblate's property. Benedict's position is upheld and affirmed repeatedly by Latin Church authorities, at least for a time. [14] But the question of the binding quality of infant oblation to monastic "stability" (and by implication poverty and chastity) became a contentious issue within only a few years of St. Benedict's death. In practice, infant oblation ceased completely only in the 12th century. Meanwhile, several synods and councils reaffirm what is essentially St. Benedict's position: e.g. the Synod of Orleans (A.D. 549), canon 19; the Synod of Micon (A.D. 583), canon 12; the IVth Synod of Toledo (A.D. 633), canons 49 and 55. A statement attributed to St. Isidore affirms the same doctrine: "In monasteriis perpetuo maneant qui a parentibus ibi traditi sunt". [15] However, the Xth Synod of Toledo (A.D. 655), canon 6, takes an entirely new approach to the subject. It declares that parents may not force their children to enter the monastic life until they are at least ten years old. Canonists of the ensuing period had a tendency to raise this age to twelve or fourteen years. [16] St. Boniface did not agree with the position of the Xth Synod of Toledo, and referred a specific question on the issue to Pope Gregory 11. The papal response was to reassert, most forcefully, the position of RB and Benedictine practice. It was upheld by Pope Gregory 111. Henri Leclerq asks whether these papal decisions invalidated that of the Xth Synod of Toledo. [17] In any case capitularies of the reign of Charlemagne show that the papal position was upheld. But by A.D. 817, under the influence of Benedict of Aniane, the capitulary of Aix-la-Chapelle clearly holds that child oblation, to be valid, must be confirmed by the oblate on reaching the age of reason. A notable case of an oblate seeking to leave the monastery at the age of adolescence is that of an oblate of Fulda, who placed his case before the Synod of Mayence (A.D. 829). The Synod's decision that the Abbot of Fulda had conferred the monastic habit on the oblate by force, thereby nullifying the oblation, was vigorously contested by the abbot (Hrabanus Maurus) in his now famous Liber de Oblatione Puerorum. It is a forceful treatise in support of the norms of the Regula Benedicti. The Synod of Worms (A.D. 868), canon 22, affirms the position of Hrabanus Maurus. [18] </p></li><li><p>It is out of this debate that adult oblation seems to have evolved-gradually, and admittedly under the impact of yet other influences. By the 9th century, Celtic monasticism had substantial impact on continental practices. [19] Celtic monasticism bore resemblances to older Eastern monastic traditions and to the monasticism of Gaul under St. Martin. It was deeply contemplative and eremitical. Of particular interest here are the Penitential communities of lay men and women which were attached to local churches or monasteries. Their penitential emphasis, although distinctive, is compatible with Benedictine ideals of conversion. Community members, both men and women, dressed simply, scrupulously followed the liturgy and the daily office in the church, gave themselves to silent private prayer, and lived a frugal and chaste or continent life. According to Jean Leclercq [20], the life of these pious lay people was clearly distinguished from both monks and clerics. lt was much more like the monastic state, but was not confused with it. As Leclercq says, the Penitential State "...was a kind of third order or more precisely a secular institute, entry into which was by means of a promise described by words like conversio, propositium, professio, or religio. [21] This is clearly not oblation in the Benedictine sense, but the Celtic Penitential Communities were remarkably similar to the "prayer communities" or fraternitates from which Cluniac monasticism drew so many of its adult oblates. [22] It is worth noting that it is precisely the period in which the Benedictine Rule became almost the exclusive monastic Rule in effect in the Latin Church. Greenia [23] notes that Celtic and Eastern monastic traditions had considerable influence on the formation of lay monastic roles in this period. </p><p>The monastic familia of Cluny [24] typically consisted of monks, monk novices, and several categories of lay affiliates under oblation who lived in the cloister and wore monastic habit. Infant oblates, pueri oblati (also called nutriti), played a prominent role in the observance and discipline of Cluny, particularly as choristers. The Cluniac oblation formula [25] which has been preserved, as well as other documents, clearly show that Cluny held very strongly to the position that infant oblation was as binding once-and-for-all as adult monastic profession. </p><p>However, at Cluny, oblation could also be contracted in adulthood (i.e. over fifteen years of age), but was made according to a different formula. By the beginning of the 12th Century, infant oblation at Cluny was "conditional", in that the oblation formula included the qualification "si nutritus vellet se congregationi incorpari. [26] Young oblates were very numerous in Cluniac houses, so numerous in fact that one abbot complained that oblature brought "so many one-handed, deaf, blind, hunch-backed, and leprous infants" into monastic communities that they threatened the viability of a good number of French and German monasteries. [27] Adult oblates living in monastic habit and in cloister, as an integral part of the monastic familia, were variously called oblati conversi, oblati barbati, oblati illiterati, idiotae, and a variety of other terms. [28] In addition, there were lay assistants habited and in cloister under a form of oblation who conducted business affairs. These matricularii (i.e. enrolled in the scapular of the monastery) seem to have been drawn from the lay prayer communities fraternitates) which surrounded the monastery. Yet other names for lay people living under some measure of monastic rule in association with Cluniac houses were dati, donati, condonati, commissi, offerti, monachi laici, devotae, and traditi. The richness and flexibility of Cluniac arrangements for lay </p></li><li><p>association are well worth further study since they are as yet imperfectly understood. It must be emphasized that while the Liturgy of Cluny had undergone considerable elaboration, there was a strong insistence on silence and private prayer legitimated by references to Cassian and other early Western and Eastern monastic Fathers. [29] </p><p>Roughly contemporary with these events at Cluny [30], St. Romuald and his disciples also created an authentic monastic role for laybrothers, perhaps as early as A.D. 1012 at Camaldoli. The eremitical propensities of Camaldoli and other related foundations in Italy of this period differ from the usual cenobitic tradition of monasticism, and stand in contrast to Cluniac spirituality and practice. St. Romuald, although he had founded some cenobitic communities and reformed others, had a strongly eremitical inclination. He had particularly devoted himself to the study of Cassian. [31] </p><p>St. Romuald's laybrothers were never called "monks", unlike the "lay monks" of Eastern tradition. His laybrothers as Greenia [32] shows occupied an authentic monastic role quite clearly distinguished from that of the monk. The Rule followed by his monks and laybrothers was that of St. Benedict. </p><p>Not far from Camaldoli was the hermitage of Fonte Avellana under St. Peter Damian as prior (he always refused to be called "abbot" [33]). Like his acquaintance St. Romuald he too had an eremitical preference. He had founded some cenobitic communities and had governed others. His laybrothers' role at Fonte Avellana was likely modelled on that of St. Romuald's Camaldoli. </p><p>In the Benedictine foundation of Vallombrosa, not far from either Camaldoli or Fonte Avellana, laybrothers were also introduced. St. Romuald is known to have had an influence on this organization. St. John Gualbert, the founder of Vallombrosa, called his laybrothers conversi. Although the term had been used sporadically before, his usage became the conventional way of referring to laybrothers in oblation during medieval times. [34] </p><p>St. Bruno, with the approval and urging of his friend Pope Urban 11 introduced conversi to Chartreuse in A.D. 1084, and about the same time they were introduced to the Abbey of Hirsau in the Black Forest by the monastic reformer William of Hirsau, and to Cluny by the monk Uldaric. [35] </p><p>But these events so far described were only a small-scale and rather local experimentation in the institution of adult oblate laybrothers. It was among the Cistercians that oblate laybrotherhood was massively developed and integrated into monastic organization and spirituality. [36] Although at Cluny child oblation had fallen into disuse, it was the Cistercians who firmly decided to put an end to it." The Cistercians continued it under the milder form of receiving children for academic and musical training--the forerunner of the "petit seminaire" of Latin lands. Boys were prepared for monastic and/or clerical postulancy, and as choristers and musicians. The Cistercian reason for abolishing child oblation probably was rooted in their conviction that none should enter the cloister but professed monks and oblate laybrothers over the age of </p></li><li><p>sixteen. [38] Compared to the varied and flexible Cluniac familia, the Cistercian community was quite homogeneous. Adult oblation became of such tremendous importance to the Cistercians shown by the fact that oblate conversi often outnumbered choir monks by as much as three to one, numbering in the hundreds in the larger abbeys. [39] The Cistercian constitutional document the Usus Conversorum [40] assumes their presence everywhere within only fifty years of the foundation of Citeaux. Another early constitutional document, the Exordium Parvum (cap. XV) refers to them as conversi barbati, who are to be "treated as equals", but are not to be considered as monks. [41] Laporte [42] shows, that apart from the economic considerations that so many historians emphasize, laybrothers occur whenever there is a monastic spirituality with the "essential characteristics" of prayer penitence, obedience, poverty, and the cultivation of deep silence. However, Cluniac and Cistercian houses of the 12th century show many cases of rebellious and wayward conversi". The institution gradually...</p></li></ul>