For Sandi Austin, the attraction of becoming an oblate was more than the idea of living life by a rule.
It was also the idea of relearning how to commune with God.
“I thought I knew what prayer was all about until I came here,” says Austin, a retiree who made her life promise to serve as an oblate with the Toronto-based Sisterhood of St. John the Divine (SSJD) in 2010.
“I went to church every Sunday, and had since I was a child, and I knew all about intercessory prayer, and I prayed the Lord’s Prayer constantly,” she says. “But I came here and found out there were so many other ways to pray with God, many of them without words.”
A day spent in one such non-verbal form of prayer—prayer through the creation of art—was one item on the agenda as Austin and 19 other SSJD oblates from across Canada gathered at the order’s Toronto convent April 30 to May 6. Other items included an information session on spiritual formation, a visit to a Coptic Orthodox church, an update on developments in new monastic communities and a session on liturgy and music.
Instead of taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as do the sisters of the SSJD, oblates take promises to a life of prayer and service, and formulate, together with the SSJD oblate director, a rule of life. They ordinarily live in their own homes, but spend at least two weeks of the year at the convent working and praying with the sisters.
For Austin, the best part of the gathering was spending prayerful time with her counterparts across the country.
“We only get an opportunity to do this once every three years,” she says. “That was for me very energizing. Out in British Columbia, we do have five oblates and four of us who live in the vicinity of Victoria do get together on a fairly regular basis, but this was an opportunity to be with everyone.”
Fellow oblate Doreen Davidson, who lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., says she liked the chance “to live and move amongst the sisters” at the convent.
Though Austin and Davidson became oblates only relatively recently—Davidson in 2007—both see their decisions as issuing from inclinations they first sensed earlier in their lives. Austin says she was interested in the monastic life as a teen, but was discouraged from taking that path by her rector at the time. Then, a dozen or so years ago, she says, “a monastic sister from this particular order walked into the course I was taking, and it just brought the whole thing back to me, so that started me on the path.”
Davidson says she first became aware of the SSJD in the 1960s when a friend joined; when another took her promises three decades later, her interest was piqued.
“It sparked something in me, to find out a bit more about the community, and for me it was an opening to finding a way to be contemplative out in a chaotic world…The rhythm of life that the sisters live just helped to ground me and to be able to live a much better and fuller life,” she says.