How to Find the Right Contemplative Community

A reader named Brian writes:

Being a Lay Cistercian seems to be an important part of your journey. I’m wondering if becoming an oblate is a next step for me?
My spiritual director and I have discussed this off and on for over a year now. While I have an established contemplative practice (e.g., Daily Office, Lectio Divina, Examen, Centering Prayer), he and I agree that “scaffolding” helps keep me intentional, accountable, and engaged with community.
How to discern which monastery to affiliate with? There is a very large Benedictine abbey near by. There is a Cistercian monastery within a day’s drive that has an on-line lay Cistercian community. And the Camaldolese also allow “distance” oblates. I have a regular hermitage I make silent retreats at, and I have no desire to replace it with a monastery’s guest house.
Or is being an oblate something that finds you, and not something you pursue?
Thanks. And peace.

Thanks for this question. Tomorrow (May 6) is the 8th anniversary of my solemn (life) promises as a Lay Cistercian, so it’s a delight to reflect on this at this point in time.

Yes, being a Lay Cistercian has been a tremendous blessing for my own contemplative journey. No community is perfect and my relationship with the Lay Cistercians (and the Trappist monastery with which we are affiliated) has had its ups and downs over the years, but the “ups” have more than made up for the “downs.”

Let me echo the wise words from your spiritual director about the “scaffolding” — and about the importance of community. Contemplation is so often something that introverts are drawn to, and often we have to be reminded that community matters just as solitude does. We all need both — although, admittedly, a healthy balance between the two will vary from person to person. But even a hermit needs to wash someone’s feet from time to time, and even the most engaged community leader/activist needs to get away from time to time for prayer, meditation, contemplation and rest.

I think you are very fortunate to have several options for a possible contemplative community you could affiliate with. What a blessing! Lay Cistercians, Benedictine Oblates, Camaldolese Oblates… and if you are in or near a large city, you probably also could find Third Order Franciscans, Lay Carmelites, and other communities, usually but not always affiliated with a monastic or religious community, that might be worth exploring.

Signing my life promises as a Lay Cistercian at the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit, May 6, 2012. My wife, Fran, signs as my witness.

Choosing the Right Contemplative Community

So to your question: how to choose? While I like the idea of letting the oblate life “find you,” that smells just a bit too quietist for my taste. Being passive can be a subtle way of avoiding responsibility. I believe God gives us desires and longings for a purpose, and it is a good thing to act on such yearnings, ethically and reasonably of course. So if you are feeling a desire to explore contemplative community, do so! There’s no hurry, no rush. Contemplation always invites us into the leisure of eternity, and this is helpful to remember when exploring the possibility of joining a community.

Every community is unique, even within the same order. I have knowledge of several different Lay Cistercian groups, and each one has its own personality. And of course once you start looking at groups from different orders, those differences become more pronounced, since the charism of each order will shape the identity of its groups. So I’d invite you to consider taking time to get to know all three of the groups you mentioned, and perhaps even some other groups in your area, if they come to your attention (maybe that’s where you can just allow “the group to find you” — no need to exhaustively hunt down every oblate group within 200 miles, but on the other hand if someone tells you about a group, maybe it’s worth a look see).

Each group will have its own protocols for inquirers/prospective members. Some groups might simply say, “We meet on the first Saturday of every month, see you next month!” Others might want you to undergo an interview process and then will ask you to participate in a program just for inquirers. My own Lay Cistercian group does it that way, and we only have a new inquirers program once every two years — and that program lasts six months before you may be admitted to the novitiate. So you may find there is a waiting period that could last anywhere from a few months to a year or longer. Trust the process, but also don’t be afraid to explore the more accessible groups first while you wait for the opportunity to explore the group(s) that have a more structured entry program.

So how do you determine which group is right for you? On one level, it’s almost like dating. We all know that romance is the fine art of balancing a person’s attractiveness with honestly understanding their flaws, and marriage works best when we choose to love someone whose beauty makes us sing — and whose flaws we can live with! For example: I’m useless in the kitchen, and it’s a running joke between my wife and me that when she was praying for a husband, she forget to mention that he should be able to cook! But fortunately for both of us, Fran loves to cook, and aside from the occasional teasing, she seems to be content with me as little more than a helper (and bottle washer).

So it’s the same principle. You’ll find that some communities are very social, others very quiet; some are theologically rigorous, others have a more generous understanding of orthodoxy. Some groups tend to be more elderly and affluent, others younger and perhaps more diverse. Some might be more focused on devotional practices like the rosary and adoration, while others tend toward the liturgy and centering prayer. Some groups will be exclusively Catholic (or whatever denomination), while others will graciously be ecumenical in their spirit. So part of your journey will be getting to know the “personality” of each group, and without judgment, simply discerning “Is this someplace where I can grow in love and faith and in my commitment to my contemplative vocation?” And like romance, chances are you’ll know intuitively when the answer is yes.

Keep in mind, though, that the road moves in two directions: and while you are discerning if you are a good fit for them, they’ll be discerning the same about you.

Finding a Group You Can Be Faithful To

Finally, to return to the romance analogy: while when you’re just casually dating it’s fun to socialize with many different people, going steady implies a certain commitment to just one person — and marriage formalizes that commitment with the good intention of it being lifelong. Keep this principle in mind while exploring contemplative communities as well.

So at first, when you’re just doing some initial inquiries, go ahead and visit all the communities that you know of — get to know them, and see which one feels right. But when it comes time to make a formal commitment to be a postulate or novice, that’s the equivalent to “going steady.” So only take that step once you’re ready to exclusively participate in just one community. Eventually (the process will vary from community to community), postulants become novices, and novices will be asked to make temporary promises (usually for a year). That’s like “getting engaged.” And after a period of temporary promises (in my case it was at least three years), you may have the opportunity to make a lifelong commitment through solemn promises. At that point, your relationship with the community ought to have a sense of fidelity and perseverance just as we would bring to a loving marriage.

But don’t worry about those momentous commitments — they are years down the road. Just as it’s not helpful to be listening for wedding bells on a first date, when you’re just getting to know contemplative communities, don’t worry about whether or not you’re ready for a lifelong commitment. That would just make the process more stressful than it needs to be. Take it a day at a time — remember that “leisure of eternity” I spoke of earlier.

The questions to ask:

  • Is this a community where I can more fully live into my contemplative vocation?
  • Is this community truly prayerful — and thoughtful as well?
  • Is this a community that will both nurture and challenge me?
  • Is this a community where I can be truly myself — where it’s safe to be authentic?
  • Is this a community that knows how to deal with conflict in a healthy and caring way?
  • Is this a community where I can be generous and joyful in my service?
  • Are these the kinds of folks I would enjoy hanging out with? (you might never hang out with most of them, but if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll form some meaningful lifelong friendships in your contemplative community — so it’s an important question to consider).

I hope these questions will aid you in your discernment journey. Thanks again for the question, it’s an important point and I’m glad you gave me the chance to write about it. Blessings on your journey!

Featured image: making my life promises as a Lay Cistercian, May 6, 2012. Fran is at my side, and other Lay Cistercians making their life promises are off to the side.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.