THE CISTERCIANS AND MONASTIC FORMATION
‘… that Christ may be formed in you’. (Gal 4.19)
Formation is an intrinsic necessity, whether for institutes of apostolic life or for those of contemplatives. Cistercian monastic communities have long been convinced of the need for formation, a continuous monastic course. For this reason is it significant that this year occurred two consecutive courses of monastic formation, at the Collegio Internazionale di San Bernardo in Urbe dell’ Ordine Cisterciense, namely the course for monastic formation (21st August to 23rd September) and the course for new superiors (25th September to 1st October).
The triennial course for monastic formation (CFM) is aimed at all those monks and nuns of the Cistercian Order who are in course of formation, to all those monks and nuns, Cistercian or Benedictine, who wish to have a continuous formation, and to all friends who are interested in the cultural patrimony of the Cistercians. Since 2007, by agreement between the Collegio San Bernardo in Urbe and the Pontificio Atenea Sant’Anselmo, the CFM has been under the patronage of the Sant’Anselmo. The CFM is devoted to the study of the sources and of monastic tradition, patristic liturgical studies, studies in spirituality relating to the ideal and to monastic cultural patrimony, to contact with humanistic studies, psychology, anthropology, and especially to solid study of the holy Scriptures and monastic theology. This year the students concentrated on the biblical foundations of religious life, the sources of monastic spirituality in the Cappadocian Fathers, St John Chrysostom, the theology of St Gregory, the history of liturgical reform at Vatican II, Cistercian liturgy and ritual, contemporary monastic theology, the history of Eastern monasticism, introduction and themes of the Rule, religious law, the psychology of formation and humanistic culture. With continuous aggiornamento the CFM always seeks an authentic formation adapted to the needs of the signs of the times, because rapid evolution, both scientific and cultural, requires monks and nuns to deepen their traditional roots and open themselves to the demands aroused by the Spirit of truth.
Formation implies roots, the possibility of a metamorphosis, of being a man or woman capable by nature of self-modification towards the truth, liberty of heart, towards the full and holistic fertility of being, towards maturity in Christ. In the light of the Lord’s pedagogy and the theological tradition of the Church, formation is not confined to a particular period of life. Formation is a becoming, a dynamic, a continuous metamorphosis, a continuous research: si revera Deum quaerit in the following of Christ and the mission of the Church. Hence, after the CFM for younger monks and nuns, the Order organized for the first time a course for new superiors. Superiors are called to represent in their communities the image of Christ, the Good Shepherd, the Wise Master, the pious and humble Servant. In recognition of this, the course included conferences on selected themes: the figure of the superior in the Cistercian patrimony, the ministry of the Abbot in community animation, the role and fraternity of superiors in the diverse community of the Order, Canon Law, Regular Visitations and Immediate Fatherhood, ongoing formation, administration of assets, various problems and their treatment. Alongside the conferences there were discussions in linguistic groups and colloquia on various situations. Personal formation, information and reformation was an important aim of the course.
In fact the two formative movements have a single aim, a single formative model: Jesus Christ. Christ is the form and model of monastic formation. The formation is none other than formation in Christ, the progressive transformation to conform to the perfect likeness of Christ in the life of the Spirit: ‘My sons,’ said St Paul, ‘for whom I undergo once more the pangs of giving birth until Christ is formed in you’ (Galatians 4.19).
The holy Spirit is the model and shapes the human being to make it like Christ. The holy Spirit unites us in fraternal unity in the Father’s family. Therefore, says Dom Mauro Giuseppe Lepori, ‘Cistercian monastic formation is not only a matter of forming the intellect or practical abilities, nor even of forming the spiritual life alone. It is a matter of experiencing how much fraternity itself and friendship are an instrument and path towards true and integral formation. For the Truth which we seek coincides with Love, and the holy Spirit reveals in itself to us that true Wisdom is Communion’ (Letter of the Abbot General). An authentic monastic formation is a premise and a promise of a communion in Wisdom with those round us, in Christ and in his Church.
Experiences and testimonies
The CFM courses are the fruit of the ‘Listen’ of which St Benedict speaks to us in the prologue of his Rule, and of someone who has been able to put into practice what the Holy Spirit inspired. We can say that they already form part of the patrimony of the Order. We students arrived with our hearts open, willing to learn, totally receptive, like sponges ready to absorb the whole spectrum of material which was put before us, and of which the most interesting point was that they helped us to understand and deepen our own life in the monastic tradition to which we belong. We could experience that it was also through the community experience with monks and nuns from different countries and traditions and distinct cultures that we enriched one another with the contributions of all. I thank the Abbot General Emeritus, Dom Maur Esteva, and all who took part in this project which has come to fruition in these years, and is now continued with great enthusiasm by the Abbot General Mauro-Guiseppe Lepori.
Sr M. Teresa Alia Fuentes, O.Cist., Spain
For me this course has immense value, since in Brazil it is not easy to find a course of formation aimed precisely at monastic life. My community is comparatively new (12 years since its foundation) and we meet many difficulties in forming those who come to the monastic life. I am most grateful to God and to all those who conceived and those who work to realize this service to monastic life and to the Church. I am well aware of the incalculable value this has brought to my life and my community, and I hope, with the grace of God, to be able to pass on to my community and to the Church all the fruits which I was able to reap from this great grace.
Dom Martinho OSB, Monastery of the Transfiguration, Brazil
I am glad to have taken part in this course in monastic formation. We received a great richness and we feel that we have had the opportunity to deepen our roots and the fundamentals of monastic life, since we received at the same time a formation which built on our human existence. It is important to say that among ourselves we had the experience of diversity which reflected the one God who is Love and who calls us to live a unity in diversity of gifts and charisms. We thank the AIM for the gift received and the grace to be able to grow together in the care of God and fraternal community.
Irma Maria Gabriela Fernandes, OSB – Mosteria Agua-Viva, Brazil
As I have been living in Rome for three years, and am a student of the second cycle of theology, the life of a monk-student in the Casa Generalizia did not take me by surprise as much as it perhaps did other members of the course on monastic formation. A fruit quickly gathered was the very special value of meeting other Cistercians, especially important for those of us who come from countries far away from Europe. Being young, it was especially important for me to see in some way the aims of the others, teachers both Cistercian and non-Cistercian, the leaders of the course: what sort of future we want, what we hope to discover together once we have left Rome. I would say that the intensiveness of the course is problematic. Monastic life is intensive in one sense, but in another sense less so: the monastic endeavour lasts a whole life, and thus, although there is plenty to do, there is also plenty of time to do it. For this reason the course is difficult for many. But perhaps the most important lesson is to bring to our communities not the feverish behaviour of an overworked student, but the intense desire to understand our life and transmit it.
P. Stefen Charles Gregg, O.Cist, USA
The five-week course in Rome on monastic formation was filled with excellent lectures, interesting excursions and international meetings. The lectures opened up a wide range of themes and were consistently on a high level. They provided for the participants everything necessary for monastic life. The excursions took us into the city of Rome as well as to Monte Cassino, Fossa Nova and Casamari. They deepened our understanding of art, culture and history. Apart from these scholarly aspects I should mention also the possibility of personal exchanges with brothers and sisters from every continent. At the end of the course the participants returned to their communities strengthened and enriched.
Sr Pauline Klimach, O.Cist, Germany
The experience of participating in the course for monastic formation was really splendid! To deepen the essential aspects of monastic life, such as Scripture, liturgy, the Rule of St Benedict, our own history and origins, the Fathers and their teaching, united to community life lived in an atmosphere of true fraternity, with monks and nuns from so many parts of the world, opened horizons onto a deeper understanding of the importance of giving oneself wholly to God and to the brothers and sisters. I can only thank from my heart all those who made this divine project a reality.
St Aline Ghammachi, O.Cist, Italy
‘How good and sweet it is, brothers living together in unity’ (Psalm 132.1). From 22nd August to 24th September, in the Generalate of the Cistercian Order in the Piazza del Tempio di Diana, took place the annual course of monastic formation, with the participation of a large number of young religious who had decided to give their lives wholly to God in the observance of the Gospel and the Rule of St Benedict. For many of us this year provided the first participation. It was interesting to discover how these young people, despite everything the world can offer them, had decided to renounce everything to follow Christ more closely, for nothing equals lived experience. For my part also, as a participant and eye-witness for the first time in this course of formation, I must avow that it is an excellent initiative, and I bless the Lord for having inspired the superiors to organize these regular sessions. We were formed not only at the spiritual but also at the intellectual and human levels. I wish that at least all the communities of the order could send some of their members to these occasions of formation and fraternal sharing.
Br Michele Doussou, O.Cist, Italy
The monastic course took place in a marvellous atmosphere. I had the chance to get to know my brothers of the Order and the various Congregations of the Order. There was a most beautiful relationship of prayer and personal sharing between monks and nuns, in the course of which I learnt much that was new, for example, on community life, on the presence together in prayer and in the sharing of life. This was for me something indispensable for my personal growth. The quality of formation on monastic life given by the professors for my personal thoughts and speech was the most important aspect in getting to know the Cistercian Order thoroughly. The courses of psychology and canon law were an enrichment for every monk in formation, a very fine gift on the part of the Generalate and of the organisers.
Br Roberto Sanchez Torres, O.Cist, Italy
For me the experience of the CFM in Rome was like a new beginning. The meeting of the various participants from all over the world caused a Babel of languages, and yet most of us understood one another. After 25 years of monastic life in the Third World participation in this course marked a new orientation in my life. It was not easy for me to let go of what I had learned and lived, and to open myself to new aspects without knowing where they would lead me. Nevertheless, with the support of my Prioress and some courage and audacity, it was possible to say a new ‘Yes’. My computer skills for producing written work and gathering supplementary information from the internet were not exactly the best. It would be an advantage if each participant acquired these skills on the occasion of the course, which would produce a much better understanding of the younger generation both within and outside the monastery. Another difficulty was the heat. As, on the high plateau of Bolivia I was not accustomed to a temperature of 30 degrees at sea level, I had to get used to the climate. All the exercises were led by first-class teachers from Europe. Body, soul and spirit were filled by a continuous exchange of knowledge, giving joy and pleasure in learning. The experiences, meetings and spiritual conversations were an enrichment for each one of us. This enabled us to ask once again such questions as ‘What does sanctity mean for us?’ and ‘What is our focus?’ We really have good reason to be thankful each day that we belong to a monastic Order which offers us the opportunity to get to know our identity better, to grow stronger and to pass it on to others.
Mother Asunta Steinberger, O.Cist, Bolivia