Today marks the one-year anniversary of my Initial Oblation in St. Brigid of Kildare Monastery! For those who don’t know what that means, I’m celebrating becoming a part of a community of people who have devoted themselves to sharing in the Rule of St. Benedict. Even though we don’t live together in a cloistered community or a monastery, we commit to praying with (and for) one another on a regular basis. We cultivate our community life mostly through online interactions, and have four opportunities a day to pray together over Zoom: 6:30 a.m. (Vigils), 10 a.m. (Lauds), 8 p.m. (Vespers), and 10 p.m. (Compline). For about the first year of my membership in the community, I was considered a “novice” monk, and after going through that period (known as the novitiate), I have recently become a Junior. I’ll stay in this status until I make my final oblation, which is full membership in the community–although as a Novice and Junior, I’ve pretty much been a full part of the community life, but this makes it even more official (and lifelong).
One of the unique characteristics of monastic community is a thing called “statio,” which is where we get the English word “station,” and it literally means “place” or “status.” In monasteries and abbeys, statio is the designation by which each person is put in order (status) not by their class, race, sex, or other demographic features. The primary determination of statio is the date one entered the monastery. In our community, the only break with this is that the Amma (leader) and the prioress (assistant to the leader) are first and second in statio, and then everyone else follows behind in order of when they first appeared on our role of membership. This is not something you see anywhere else, although it was once much more common. For instance, our academic affairs office at the university where I work maintains a list of the university faculty in order of rank–which generally (but not always) corresponds to the dates when people became members of the faculty. Ostensibly, this list is maintained so that the faculty know what order they are to march in during academic processions–full professors, followed by assistants, followed by adjuncts and instructors, and so on. In reality, the faculty just line up however they want, and most people just choose to march in (and thus sit during ceremonies like convocation and commencement) with their close friends or colleagues from their department. But that tradition of marching into ceremonies in the order of rank (or order of “profession,” so to speak) goes all the way back to when universities were monastic institutions themselves, set up for the education of monastics and priests.
Statio accomplishes a couple things that just organizing however you see fit does not:
First, it removes the outside determinants of status or importance, such as family wealth, age, or gender, just to name a few. Statio was a radical idea for the late Roman world in which St. Benedict wrote his Rule for monks. In everyday life, those who had more wealth or status in society were given great deference, but in Benedict’s monasteries, no one was given deference based on anything but the order in which they knocked on the door of the monastery for the first time. In this way of organizing, a clergy person was no different from a lay person, and a person of means was no more important than the poorest member of the community. Statio removes the artificial barriers we humans set up among ourselves, and ranks community members with something so arbitrary as entrance date that, in the words of Joan Chittister, “There is, as a result, no rank at all.” (A Spirituality for the 21st Century, p. 41)
Second, statio forces us to mingle in ways that we wouldn’t choose on our own. Instead of processing and sitting with my best friends, I am compelled by the Rule to march and sit with someone with whom I may not necessarily share an affinity, or even like all that much. Statio breaks up the cliques that can form in any group that is together long enough for people to get to know each other and to decide who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Imagine if a professor of literature and a professor of physics were forced to stand in line next to each other two to three times a year, and to sit next to each other at commencement. Imagine if they were to begin to talk about what they love about their subjects, and more importantly, that they began to see the beauty to be found in the other’s subject. Monastics are not called to create cloisters within the cloister, but to embrace everyone in the community, even those they find most irksome and annoying. It’s also a good reminder that you yourself might be that irksome and annoying person to someone else, and thus you are in need of just as much grace as you seek to offer others.
Third, statio places those who lead at the front of the line, which I believe is both helpful and important. As much as modern organizational thinking says that we should flatten our organizations, and as much as the world sometimes thinks the best leaders are those who “lead from the center” or “lead from behind,” there’s something reassuring in knowing exactly who is in charge and to whom we should look when we need to be led. And all of us do need to be led from time to time. The Rule of Benedict doesn’t call for a dictatorship–the superior of a community is called upon to listen to their community members–but it does call for clear expressions of leadership, mostly because the superior “takes the place of Christ” within the community. Not the domineering kind of leader who hovers over everyone and rules with an iron fist, but the humble teacher who gladly accepts the lowest place in order to show by example how one should live out the gospel of love. I know that the community of which I am a part often needs our Amma to gently guide us back on the path of our communal life, and I am thankful that God has graced her with the gifts to be able to do that. I am also grateful my university has a president, who sets the vision for our work in educating students, and who helps us keep our mission foremost in our minds as we go about our daily work. . Simon Sinek, in his TED talk about “the Golden Circle,” says that we need to know why we do things before we can express the how and the what of what we do. This is what leaders do–they remind us of why we do what we do
All of this is to say that statio is one of the gifts that monastics can give back to the world, and which could revolutionize our way of thinking about order and status. If we could begin to revere experience within a community, a profession, or a community of those who profess something, we could gain insight from the collective wisdom of those who have been around a while, in contrast to the worldly approach to finding solutions for our problems in youthfulness and false naivete. If we could break down the barriers we set up among ourselves and sit down next to people who might disagree with us or look at things differently from us, we may begin to realize that our barriers are illusions, made up out of thin air and our own prejudices. Statio could create kinder, more caring communities that don’t have to worry about who’s on first, because that has already been determined, and we can all focus on the important stuff instead. I have found it personally enriching to be a part of a community where I am welcomed and valued not because of my education or my gender or my race, but because I have arrived–and where I can be a “beginner” again–experiencing things I’ve done before in new ways, unencumbered by worries over saving face because of the image I have curated of myself within the community. In short, statio saves me from my own worst impulses to seek after power and position, and reminds me that Christ is at the head of everything I do, and is the Host at every table where I serve.
Try it out. Your mileage may vary, but I guarantee it will affect you in some way that will change the way you look at the world.