Dom Patrick Olive, Sept-Fons, France
A few notes on the experience of Formation
One should not expect to find in this presentation anything new with respect to what I have already said by writing or orally 5 or 10 years ago, insomuch as it is true that, in the domain of formation, my profound convictions have not changed. All the more one will find here, consequently, specifications or nuances with respect to the past. The apparently impersonal aspect of these reflections will fool no one: they are all born from a long practice and from experience made in reality(1), but they obviously have no pretension to be all-embracing.
A sufficient clearness about the vision and the principles to transmit is at the base of a veritable formation. A community must know what it is and what it wants in order to be truly forming. This clearness must first express itself in a practice. It is important that all adhere sincerely to that which our founding texts express and their realisations for our time, such as the Church gives us. Beware of brothers that “generously” commit themselves so that the others will have time to be true contemplatives! The sense of priorities is indispensable; their order ought to be verified and brought back to mind regularly. Under these conditions, the brothers will develop a capacity for judgment which distinguishes the persons from their points of view, the objective data from sentiments, and which can sort out the true from the false without hurting anyone. The community thus finds itself made at once free and dynamic. Dynamic, since set apart from the false questionings which hinder communion and transmission; free, for these energies are intact for facing today’s questionings. Those who enter can thus find the necessary support for bearing their weaknesses and the power for living a constructive experience.
It appears to me necessary to insist on the fact that, for assuring a quality formation, we ought to be able to count on a team of formers. Of course (as our constitutions and the ratio institutionis say), it is important that the abbot and the Novice Master not only work together, but above all work in the same direction, I mean that they be clear about the finality of the formation, on a “theoretical” level (objective agreement on that which our fundamental documents say), but also on a “practical” level: on the way of giving life hic et nunc to these fundamental orientations. In effect, in the domain of the formation, actions count as much as (and sometimes more than) words; it is from day to day that the young brothers receive, in the same movement, both the goal to pursue and the concrete means for getting there. If there is no harmony on these points between the formators, the work will be sterile and even counterproductive. But if that unity of thought and of action is to extend itself to all those who participate in the formation: teachers, sub-masters, work leaders…, in order to create a framework where the brothers will be able to grow in a coherent manner. It is not a matter here of a sort of external uniformity which prevents personalities from expressing themselves or from developing, but a kind of common consciousness which gives on the contrary a great liberty of expression to those doing the forming as to those who are being formed, for the risks of individualism or of division are considerably diminished. This requires, on the part of the formers, a real capacity of adaptation, a flexible quality which one must not, certainly, confuse with weakness, but which is the condition of balanced and constructive relationships. One must evidently expect from the formators that they be capable of reflecting together for evaluating with lucidity their work.
To be efficient, the formation must be global, that is to say embrace all the aspects of life in a unifying perspective:
- The spiritual formation is certainly the most delicate reality to assume and it is mainly in the contact with an “elder” that it can be done usefully, for the spiritual experience(2) is transmitted mainly in a living and personal manner. One must avoid believing that, being given the theoretical principles of spiritual life, one has done enough and that it suffices to let each brother make his way alone. Discouragement comes fast and experience shows that the brothers need to be reenergized regularly. In addition, one must be careful to not let more or less marginal practices take root under the pretext of fervor. In this domain, prevention is more sure, and taking up again is often difficult, if not impossible, when certain behaviour is installed.
- The intellectual formation requires being closely integrated to the rest of the formation in order to avoid making it a domain apart, disconnected from real life. The harmony is not easy to put into practice but, if one does not try, one risks to have so-called “intellectuals” who make use of their “science” for escaping in particular the common life, of those who are always ready to go a thousand kilometers to talk about enclosure! The quality of the intellectual formation allows confronting the questionings without being destabilized or troubled; it avoids as well to be impressed by fashions which pass, in distinguishing the accessory from the essential.
- The human formation is more necessary and doubtless more delicate today than in the past. The young brothers are more marked by the framework (or rather the absence of framework) of their life outside the monastery, personalities are very little structured, often because of a chaotic family life. The community is asked for things which it is not prepared to give and which can go beyond its capacities. The discernment is sometimes long and one is tempted either to renounce receiving persons of this type (but then who would enter?) or to turn into a doctor. The middle path is often heavy to assume but it is the only one possible.
- The professional formation ought never to be neglected, for it is at the workplace that many constitutive elements of the life of the brothers are verified: attention to others, patience, sense of responsibility; one sees just how far brotherly love is a discourse or a reality. By giving the brothers the means of acquiring a true technical competence in one domain or another, one assists at the birth of a solid general equilibrium of the personality.
Today’s life asks us questions that are not easy to identify, and to which is not evident to reply. Beforehand, one must avoid “mistaking the war” and understand that today’s questions (and consequently the way of answering them) are not those of twenty or forty years ago. One must keep from exercising the young brothers in combats with which they have nothing to do and are not theirs. An analysis of the situation requires a lot of care and nuances, but it is indispensable for confronting the questions which will be asked to us. I will point out here, as examples, three points:
- the fragility of today’s youth. In the way of a paradox I will first say that this is perhaps less important than is often said. Confronted with situations which our generations have not been confronted with, I find that they do not react so poorly. They are said to be immature, but they are also better informed, more open to different realities and more lucid on the weaknesses of their time than we were before them. However it remains true that the conditions (in particular the family ones) to which a certain number of them are confronted with hit directly against some of the major requirements of our form of life, role of the father(3), balance of sentiments, place of sexuality, management of conflicts etc… We must be conscious of these obstacles, without overemphasizing them. We must not play at being replacement fathers and even less as buddies; one must measure up to what point it is possible to accept their limits, to be capable of managing a certain gradation in the evolution of their attitudes, and not let ourselves to be impressed to the point of balking on the true requirements of our form of life; the youth, even wounded, have nothing to do with a life at reduced price which, instead of helping them to advance, would maintain them in their weaknesses.
- The use of today’s media obligates us to make a serious reflection and delicate choices. The formation is very directly concerned here. The immediately accessible aspect of the virtual universe goes directly in counter current of our way of living which supposes a patient use of time and a sense of reality, barrier against illusions. However, it is not above all by fear of dangers in the usage of these means that we must react, but by a positive choice of fragile values which suppose a distance with respect to that which competes with them and could dissolve them. We must measure what we win and what we lose in the utilisation of these media and draw the practical conclusions which impose themselves. Certain ones are obvious, others are more nuanced, but one cannot escape questioning these things without major risks. One should note equally that, quite often, young arrivals are not surprised at our reservation in that respect; it is rather the contrary that would surprise them, for they do not have, with respect to this, a certain number of illusions which were proper to former generations.
- The differences of generation, of origin, of culture, require a particular attention today where the movements of persons are more numerous and more frequent than in the past. It is fortunate that they be in a society which has a tendency to harden the differences and the oppositions. We must obviously make distinctions:
- the difference of generations is a biological fact for which the resonances of common life are numerous. To live a certain “symphony” of generations is not evident and requires a reflection proper to each kind of generation: the elders for accepting their state, the younger ones for relativising their own. This harmony is not given beforehand and must be sought after; one must distrust (here as elsewhere) easy slogans: the elders are incapable of evolving or the young ones have so much to teach us, etc… The true challenge seems to me to one of transmission, I will come back to it later on.
- The difference of origin or of culture does not seem to me to need to be emphasized artificially as a barrier impossible to cross. Wherever they come from, the brothers are first of all men who have more in things in common than otherwise. It is necessary to pass from a sentimental perception of each other, or at any rate mainly sensitive, to a reflection capable of distance for analysing behaviour (and firstly one’s own!); one may thus relativise many differences and count on a solid and large common fund. The differences, better put in their place, are thus also better respected and better integrated in a whole which enriches it. This is a decisive path in their formation.
A lucid process of formation must necessarily integrate the notion of failure and try to do it as positively as possible. Whatever may be our efforts and our good will, we will nevertheless hit against failures: errors in judgment and discernment, limits which are too profound to be overcome, use of time, unforeseeable faults, and resistances too strong for the work of God. We must neither be surprised nor discouraged nor, even worse, resigned. We are the servants of a plan which is not our own and we never have all the cards in hand. Human liberty is, for us as well, a mystery and the combat of darkness and light, and it is a reality that sometimes is tangible. Time, finally, the master of us all, is here a determinant factor: it reveals without pity our aptitude of building solidly on a solid base or putting up something provisory which will fall apart with the first gust of wind. Discerning the capacity of perseverance is delicate and never assured; without this work however, we build on sand. That is why the work of the formator requires a good dose of humility, of humor, of patience and of optimism. Always begin afresh (for all formation imposes repetition) “without tiring or backing away” (R.B.VII, 4th degree) must be the law of the formator. Failure puts him before his own limits (in avoiding guild as much as possible) and invites him to revise his way of doing things to act better in the future. Thus the formator is formed by his own work of formation!
To finish, I would like to emphasize that the formation depends a lot on our relationship to memory and to its transmission. Our epoch entertains an ambiguous relationship with its past: we adulate it or we scorn it but we are rarely lucid about it: precisely because it is seen first off as “past” and not as an element of transmission of memory. The rupture of memory, for a person as for a group, is something dramatic which leads to complete disorientation, to anguish and to lack of hope. Analogically, the group which is affected by the same sickness has difficulty finding its marking points, to make comparisons, to recognize itself inheritors more than creators or more exactly creators because inheritors. One of the lacking elements the most marking of the young brothers who present themselves is precisely that: they do not know what they are because they do not know from where they come (today’s manipulations give a physical character to the problem which cause trembling). It is thus of the first importance that they meet people who are (at least nearly) clear about these questions and communities which live a balanced relationship with their memory. If this is the case, a sort of osmosis will happen by which the young brother will appropriate the common memory and will become in turn a “passer of memory,” in enriching it with his own experience. If this is not the case, we will produce nostalgic or disoriented people. This is one of the major factors today, it seems to me; by seeking our own manner of confronting it, we are at the heart of the Church which lives by the same dynamic process.
(1) The same with the imperative (one must, it should, etc.) is a facility of style and must be understood with an optative meaning.
(2) By this I understand: the concrete means of seeking God and of lasting in that research.
(3) It is not certain that it is more difficult to live life “without a father” (the case of current generations) than “against the father” (the case of preceding generations)!