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The Birth of the Oratory

Updated: Feb 7, 2023


The photo above is of St. Kevin's Kitchen. I don't know why they call the monastery that he founded in the sixth century a kitchen. Perhaps it's because monasteries are places of work, service to God and the world, a place where the monks cooked things up. While I have never been there, the image of his little chapel and tower have lived in my mind and heart ever since I started exploring Celtic spirituality.


Recently, as I was thinking about the spirituality groups I started running a couple of years ago, I realized that a community is forming. I expected curious folks to come and go, but a handful of people kept registering for the new groups again and again. We have gotten to know each other, albeit on Zoom which, while unlike meeting in person, has proven to be a remarkable alternative. They have become familiar friends and fellow travelers.


While I must confess that I do not know where all this is going, I do know that I have valued community for a long time. I even took a class on community in seminary and we learned all about contemporary intentional communities such as the many cohousing communities here in the U.S. and in Europe, The Farm in Tennessee, Twin Oaks in Virginia, and the The Sirius Community here in Massachusetts. I was fascinated.


I have often yearned for the monastic life. It did not seem to tax the mind and cause the stress that work for a living causes me much of the time. It also gave an opportunity to practice a vocation, such as my pottery, while being devoted to the contemplative life. But I was married, had a child, maintained a home.


I know that what I yearned for was not a cenobotic community, nor was it eremitic. Eremitic monks ("hermits") lived alone in a monastery consisting of merely a hut or cave ("cell"), the cenobitic monks ("cenobites") lived communally in monasteries comprising one or a complex of several buildings. Being a hermit seemed way to intensive, fine for a day or a week, maybe, but not for life. And traditional monastic community seemed intense for the opposite reason, one is never alone; the politics alone would not be good for an introvert like me.


What I was interested in was a skete or a lavra. Skete communities usually consist of a number of small cells or caves, spread near and far, that act as the living quarters with a centralized church or chapel. Similarly a lavra or laura consists of a local cluster of cells or caves for hermits, with a church and sometimes a refectory at the center. Sketes and lavras have survived in the Eastern Church, but it seems only the cenobitic model remains in the west with a hermit here and there attached to a monastery.


Today, we live in a new world. The pandemic has changed many things, including how we meet, less in person and more in video conferencing. This has allowed us to work from home and build relationships across the globe without leaving our desk chairs. Folks in our groups are from all over, the northeast and mid-Atlantic states as well as Canada, mostly, but the potential is for anyone who speaks and understands English anywhere on the planet, given the technology, to join the discussions.


So my long-time yearning for community, my study of the desert fathers and mothers, my rime in an ashram, my experience with serving churches since 1990, my recent experiment with these online spirituality groups, and the examples of new monastic movements such as New Eden Ministry and the Lindisfarne Community, all coalesced. (New Eden and Lindisfarne are both examples of how contemplative community can be built while the members live in the world AND pursue a contemplative life. They use Zoom and other forms of modern communication for retreats and worship, while often meeting for annual gatherings in person.)


So just last week, as I was walking the rail trail and listening to inspiring guitar music, I started to formulate how I could bring the experience I felt arising in our groups into a sort of new monastic community. My brainstorm led to what you see on the website. It has the following characteristics:

  • Primarily communicates and meets online, both one-on-one and in groups.

  • Explores world spirituality (not only Christian or any particular tradition exclusively).

  • Shares time in silence as well as talking.

  • Members write their own Rule of Life and adopt their own contemplative practices.

  • Members live in their own accommodations scattered in the world while gathering in a "virtual center" online, perhaps more of a skete than a lavra.

  • Members build vocational ministries such as teaching, leading worship, writing, or managing some aspect of the community's online service to the world.

Thus, the Oratory is born, a "a virtual chapel, a society of seekers after truth, and a team ministry." According to Oxford Languages, an oratory is "1. a small chapel, especially for private worship, and 2. (in the Roman Catholic Church) a society of priests without vows, especially the Oratory of St. Philip Neri founded in 1564." We have no shared vows, but individual members have their own Rules of Life and daily practices and they come together for support of their spiritual growth and to live out vocations that support the work of the community.


There is a story about St. Kevin and a blackbird expressed beautifully in a poem by Seamus Heaney.


And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.

The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside

His cell, but the cell is narrow, so


One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff

As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands

And lays in it and settles down to nest.


Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked

Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked

Into the network of eternal life,


Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand

Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks

Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


*


And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,

Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?

Self-forgetful or in agony all the time


From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?

Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?

Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth


Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?

Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,

‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,


A prayer his body makes entirely

For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird

And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.


May we hold out our hands in prayer until it becomes an offering and we forget ourselves in service to each other, to nature, and even to wayward humanity.



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