M. Irene Dabalus, OSB
St. Scholasticas Center of Spirituality
AIM – 50 YEARS AND ONWARD OF
“SUSTAINING MOMENTUM IN MONASTIC LIFE” IN ASIA
CONGRATULATIONS are in order on the Golden Jubilee of Foundation of A.I.M., formerly called “Aid in founding monasteries”, later “Aid among monasteries”, and now “Alliance for International Monasticism”.
What I knew of AIM all these 50 years was something I had not experienced personally. When I returned from Europe to my country in 2007 I was tasked with programming the spirituality courses in Tagaytay, Philippines. It was then that an “expensive” grace reached me from AIM to subsidize a three-week course for an intensive RB Study given by Sr. Aquinata Boeckmann for Benedictines in our part of the Asia-Pacific Rim. I crammed to research on the meaning of AIM and what it stood for. Lo and behold, I discovered that AIM is that rare brand of vision and optimism which achieves collaboration through inspiration and hard work. AIM has been a life support since then. Therefore, when I was asked to say some words on the AIM golden jubilee, I said YES, for it is now “pay back time.” We are so grateful.
Whoever had the idea to bring A.I.M. to life, knew what he was seeing - a holding vision of monastic life growing and sharing itself from mainland Europe to other continents, yes, to the rest of the globe. The holding vision was not only for monastic life to expand in territory and numbers but to take root and sprout, flower and bear fruit in different climes and cultures to make God present and praised in the spirit of St. Benedict.
For 50 years AIM has worked to bring “growth and development” to monastic communities world-wide. This is its avowed mission statement. I see this growth and development as a ministry of
Sustaining Momentum in Monastic Life Worldwide in Africa, Latin America and Asia and the rest of the continents
through international collaboration.
I see this reflected in the history of AIM from its beginnings in 1959 as it
- changed names in significant periods of its history,
- fanned out from Africa to all continents at present,
- harnessed its energies towards a variety of services and skills in material and spiritual projects,
- and firmed up its leadership and membership organs globally.
From 1997- 2007 alone there were 103 new monastic foundations flourishing under the “patronage” of AIM – Trappists 12; Cistercians 7; and Benedictines 84. What a growth! These new and young monastic communities, I am convinced, are a stabilizing and life-giving force in the Church and in the countries where they thrive at present.
AIM now serves to coordinate over 450 monastic communities in all continents with an average of about ten new foundations each year. Unluckily, the decrease in the number of monks and nuns in many large monasteries continues unabated.
In Asia alone the young monastic communities both cloistered and non-cloistered which emerged during the decade from 1997 - 2007 numbered 19. They testify to the freshness and continuity of an age-old charism that hails back to the fifth century. India founded 7, Korea 5 and the Philippines 4. An updated number was not available at the time of this writing.
THE ORIGINAL MOMENTUM
It is amazing how the original momentum of AIM was launched by the vision of the Congress of Benedictine Abbots assembled in Rome in 1959. With Abbot Primate Benno Gut at the helm, they resolved to create a “center of information and coordination for the implantation of monasticism in mission lands.” Abbot Benno encouraged the staffing of a secretariate. Together, Abbot de Floris, Abbot Tholens of Schlangenburg, and Abbot Guiesquiere Zevenkerken in Bruges spearheaded a study of the project. The secretariate was installed in Vanves in the priory of St. Bathilde with Sr. Maur Esquerre de Rosny, a Benedictine of Vanves, as the first secretary general.
Little could this founding group have imagined that the energy and momentum they created would be sustained by other abbots and secretaries general after them. History shows that their efforts went to innovate relentlessly in order to sow and plant, grow and reap, and share the fruits of monastic living worldwide. Through 50 years, AIM brought the ideals and tradition of monasticism to countless communities, first in Africa, then in Latin America and Asia and then back to Europe and America in a world-wide sweep.
What was it like to create momentum for the AIM vision and to maintain this momentum in monastic living? A publication called “Momentum in Ministry” by J. Smith and D. Church observes that momentum is “mass in motion.” In the natural world when an object of mass is moving then it has momentum. “Momentum occurs when a force that is greater than the resistance to the object is applied.” (J. Smith and D. Church, “Momentum in Ministry”, 25)
“Just as momentum works in the natural world, momentum works in our ministries and spiritual lives. Whether it is a job or a ministry we must realize that it takes a concentrated effort or force to create that job or ministry” (25) I believe that this also happened in the history of AIM. It took some time for our multi-cultural and intercultural communities to swing into the vision of an international collaboration under the direction of AIM. In its 50 years AIM has indeed sustained its momentum towards collaboration, both materially and pastorally, in marvelous ways, judging from its records of achievement.
I would like to believe that so much has been achieved due to three characteristics that can be deduced from the data reported there.
AIM had, first of all, the zeal:
- to innovate relentlessly in making monasticism the project for international collaboration. During the past 50 years AIM has encouraged initiatives for firming up the monastic tradition in countries far and near, such as in Tanzania, and the Ukraine, Congo and the Dominican Republic, Romania and Nigeria, Nicaragua and Ecuador, Mexico and the Czech Republic, not to mention the countries of Europe. The steady influence of AIM backed them up in their journey towards a strong monastic identity with both financial and formative resources.
- Then, to emphatize with and minister to growing young monastic communities in their areas of need and development. In Asia, the home of ancient cultures and living faiths, the existence of these monastic communities points to their rich unfolding but also to their struggles to survive as a minority presence in a politically conflictual environment, such in Vietnam or India. In my country which is a predominantly Catholic country, their growth can go unhampered as vocations continue to flock to monasteries living in solitude or engaged in apostolic service in the local Church. However, the scourge of poverty has hindered vocations and convents, especially those of women, from pursuing the monastic tradition, with a modicum of security and ease. Here is where AIM has lent us support in effective though unobtrusive ways. This is especially true in the formation of young members, in income-generating projects for the poor cloisters, and in the training of young leaders. In my case in Tagaytay, our RB studies have left their mark on both men and women monastics who have gone through the “school of the Rule” through exegesis and the reading of the primary sourcs of the Rule.
- to animate monastics – individually and collectively - to go for an imaginative but reality-oriented approach to renewal in a Church ”in ferment”, and in a “world in upheaval”. I can cite the visionary efforts of launching the “movements” of Benedictines of East Asia and Oceania (BEAO), the Benedictine-Cistercian Monastic Institute, the Asian Benedictine Women of the Philippines (ABWP) in different meetings in Asia. AIM has supported such groups to create a consciousness of communion and peace among themselves and to share spiritual experiences with the world.
This is a rich field for historians to explore, but for now the compelling idea for me is to presage, like Cassandra of old, the meaning and moment of this AIM jubilee for the next 50 years. What is the meaning and promise of this jubilee moment? It means a kairos at this stage of the journey - the unique opportunity to increase momentum for monastic growth and development wherever the Lord sows his seeds – in both young and old forms of monastic life.
I am interested in giving AIM a big challenge as it enters into the second half of this century, because AIM is such a quality institution with a moral power to bring about a paradigm change in monastic life worldwide.
So - what is AIM’s contribution to monastic presence and renewal in the marketplace of liberal post-modern values?
If we again refer to momentum as the strength and the speed of a body in motion, then we can deduce that the world around us has its own momentum in terms of vision and direction. More often than not its momentum runs counter to AIM’s avowed vision and sets it in reverse.
We can think, for example, of life situations in our “threatened world” which truly impinge on our own reality and lead to the question: How can AIM secure its momentum in a world “in upheaval”, in a “Church in ferment”?
These situations include the dramatic events going on around us in their threatening and inexorable march towards a predictable moral downgrade. In the words of Sven Giegold, the “Green Representative” to the Europe-Parliament, the multiple “crises” which face us today can be reduced to these three:
- the climatic and resource crisis (devastation of creation, climate change and destruction of the multiplicity of species and resources),
- the justice crisis (growth of social inequality, the basic social rights are ever more difficult to ensure),
- the economic and financial crisis (global markets but no global economic politics, lacking control of global undesirable development, among others due to problems of distribution). (Notes from an assembly of the German Catholic Mission Council on the theme “Prophetic Church” held in January, 2011).
S. Giegold is convinced that this world situation cannot be dealt with by piecemeal action on the part of good and influential individuals but only by common and internationally orchestrated action directed towards a change of paradigms in Church and society. He believes that “all these crises have their common origin in the paradigm of ‘growth’ which permeates all global thinking like a measuring instrument for progress and development and for ‘more, more, more’ of money, consumption, gain, and technological advancement.”
MOMENTUM IN REVERSE
If “momentum occurs when a force that is greater than the resistance to the object is applied, it can also work in a reverse, negative manner" (26). Thus, we can imagine two scenarios happening to AIM in the coming 50 years. It can either exert enough force to offset the momentum created by opposing forces and sustain its work for international monastic alliance in the next half century. Or its momentum can be cancelled out by the counterforce of a runaway world and its paradigm of a value-free existence. Such counterforce can also be found in monastic communities themselves and in their individual members succumbing to activism, career-mindedness and globalized superficiality in a false drive for “growth.”
And here is where I would like to throw a big challenge at AIM for its work of shaping the unfolding future of monastic communities in Asia and elsewhere as it moves towards its centennial.
To begin with, AIM, like every ministry, must have a force greater than the resistance against it. It must be single-minded in its innovative drive
• To effect a paradigm change
1. That includes a scientific grasp of the economic world in which we live and its dynamics, including the model of a society that we want.
2. That includes a manner of using goods which is satisfied with what is needed from the environment and not more than what is needed so that in justice others too may live.
3. That includes the practical will to use energy which is renewable energy in our age, as well as the political will to exercise our global responsibility to bring about a “conscious, fair and ecological purchase and consumption” in accord with the dignity of all human beings and their humane working conditions .
• To help achieve credibility and relevance for monastic life
1. That includes intensive renewal in BENEDICTINE SPIRITUALITY.
- Root spirituality in an in-depth study of the Word of God and the Rule
- Re-imagine the fundamentals of monastic life and expression in today’s world.
- Build life around the liturgy – Eucharist and Opus Dei and Lectio Divina as the source of the energy and power of the ministry.
2. That includes inculturating the profession of stability, conversatio and obedience.
- Balance culture and the life of poverty, celibacy and obedience.
- Critique the-not-so-simple life style of communities set amidst a population of poor people on a subsistence minimum in developing countries.
• To steer towards promoting a multicultural/intercultural cenobitic formation in monastic communities
1. That includes a sound theology.
- Ground the formands and formandees in biblical exegesis, fundamental theology and pastoral ministry.
- Develop their historical consciousness.
2. That includes a deep spirituality.
- Steep them in contemplative mindfulness.
- Give them skills in the three “Ds”: dialogue, discernment and disponibility for service.
- Lead them to spiritual wholeness and global awareness.
3. That includes formation for a life of communio.
- Direct them to the conviction of their call to the coenobium.
- Show them communio as Benedictine in substance as well as the appropriate and urgent response to globalized “economism”, fundamentalism, and hedonism rampant in our day.
PRACTICAL TASKS WITHIN OUR REACH
Lest we be overwhelmed by the mammoth tasks facing us in the Philippines and in Asia for the future of monasticism, the same S. Giegold cited earlier encourages us to look for “key projects, good possible starts and credible consequent action in order to strengthen the motivation for initiatives” of social and spiritual transformation. We have to turn to practical tasks within our reach in order to avoid being swallowed up in a vortex of change. These practical tasks include modest initiatives which – if they remain consistent and keep to the direction of living the values of the Rule –can bring about a paradigm change.
Such a practical task was handed over to me when I was mandated to set up a Benedictine Institute for Liturgical and Spiritual Formation in Tagaytay. This was challenging, because I dreamed of sharing the riches of our charism “ad intra”, among the different Benedictine communities in the Philippines, and “ad extra”, in the area of the local Church where the laity are hungry for such sharing. It was easy to enthuse some OSB facilitators, mostly among our sisters to hold weekend seminars with a Benedictine flavor on the themes of prayer, liturgy, lectio Divina, the Eucharist, the woman question, women worship, eco-justice and feminism, Mary in our life, healing and forgiveness and such a wide canvass more of life-inspiring topics. When I started four years ago, our visitors came mostly from our schools. Now my dream has become a reality. We have interfaced with the “local Church” and amazingly, with the poor sectors of the parishes: lay ministers, volunteer catechists, parish youth, church workers, and mandated organizations. At present I subsidize these courses, since they are not well-to-do and would not be able to afford accommodations in a retreat center, such as ours. One comment in this ministry warms my heart: “Now I know St. Benedict and he is a wonderful guide for my life.” There have been more such comments through the years in this ministry. The Lord has gifted us with this ministry and as long as he does not withdraw this gift we shall continue to pray and work that the wisdom of St. Benedict touch the hearts of our people through this formation of the heart.
Of course, the jewel in the crown of our Benedictine spiritual formation in this Institute is the yearly RB Study Weeks of two to four weeks of serious engagement with the Rule mentioned earlier. On the average some 40 nuns, monks, and sisters, both Cistercians and Benedictines joined us in this study over the last four years. Twice it was held with Sr. Aquinata Boeckmann as professor, once with Sr. Margaret Malone from Australia, and in the initial phase with myself and some local formators on the primary sources of the Rule. For this four-year program AIM certainly kept us on track, because without AIM funding the whole endeavour would have remained an empty dream. The nuns and sisters were often heard to say: “If we had only learned more about the Holy Rule in our younger days!” meaning that the wisdom of the Rule never fails to attract young and old of any age or country.
It is safe to presume that AIM has come to the aid of many initiatives similar to ours in Tagaytay in the different monastic institutions in Asia. These have not been extolled through any pulpit.
To be sure, Benedictines in my country and wherever they thrive in other Asian countries, including Australia, have always brought with them a quality of excellence in education and formation. Such an education for life is handed down in the schools and social institutions they run, needless to say, with professional competence and high standards. In my country, we have 13 schools ranging from grades to college, teaching some 40,000 students within their halls. The “hallmarks of our Benedictine education” are visible in our work and those of our students. I myself grew up with our German Benedictine sisters and unconsciously drank of the wisdom of the Rule for my life. Nowadays, the values of the Rule of Benedict are openly taught in the classroom so that even the little kids end their classes with the classic phrase: “that in all things God may be glorified!” Or in the tradition of true Benedictine education, they do their “lectio divina” in the classrooms of the school with their teachers! What a treasure for life in a country that is poor in economics and world politics, but rich in the values of the Rule. The same applies to the work in education of our monks and nuns in northern and southern Philippines. Whether it is in cathetics, barrio adult programs or basic ecclesial communities, the Benedictine touch is there as a trademark. It is present within the matrix of the liturgy, the Word of God and the welcoming community.
The Philippines is of course only a tiny drop in the continent of the many living religions and cultures that is Asia. Although we are the only Christian country in the Far East and the only Catholic one far and wide, we hobnob directly with Islam in the south of the islands. There our Muslim brothers and sisters have been fighting for their autonomy as a Muslim land down the ages. Certainly, in this highly divided and depressed situation of living together, our Benedictine vision of peace and hospitality is a much needed element. I remember giving a talk on Christology to a Christian assembly in a Muslim village in the South only to find that women populated the area, their men were absent. They lived in the hills in battle gear. It was a most uneasy atmosphere, but the feeling of communion was present because there was mutual respect for each other among us with the womenfolk there. Our presence as Benedictines in an inter-religious dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters is minimal at present, but the awareness is certainly growing. God grant that one day we might locate ourselves there, not as proselytizers but as sharers of a life under God as his children, albeit sharing the same land though bearing a culture one different from the other.
Thus, the tasks for Benedictines in Asia are countless where the “ora et labora” is a style of life, hospitality always a way of evangelization, and “communio” a countervailing force against the degradation of human dignity, eco-feminist wholeness and Godliness. And this is where AIM is really scoring – in the work of sustaining momentum in monasticism not only in the Philippines or Asia but worldwide in international collaboration.
I make my own the words of Donato Ogliari, OSB (“Beyond Survival: What Future for the Monastic Presence in the West”, ABR 61:2 – June 2010, 157) as the challenge for AIM to fan its zeal in the work of aligning monasteries in its vision for international collaboration.
“In order to avoid being totally unprepared, we must watch attentively and not let ourselves be submerged under the weight of difficulty, sadness, discouragement and fear. If that should happen, we would be like those without hope (see Eph 2:12). But for the person who has placed the God of Christ Jesus, the Risen One, in the center of her life, there is no option of ceasing, even for an instant, to long for the light even when we seem to be surrounded by darkness. A healthy and necessary realism in the face of the dangers we face ought not to diminish or fade the beauty of our vocation and the generosity of our response. In the face of such a daily obligation, it is not danger… that wins out, because what stands before us and what the Lord still reserves for us (“to live”), is always much more than “survival.”
In conclusion I would like to reiterate what I once said before persons endowed with authority as you are in this AIM body. It is important that our gaze take in a broad sweep of reality that goes beyond our own institutions. Let us open up to the bigger frame of the outside world “ad gentes” and “inter gentes” and gain a vision and perspective that stretch our imagination beyond our proximate goals to the frontiers of the universe, to the universal Kingdom of God.