Fr Boniface Tiguila OSB,
Rector of the International Benedictine Study House Langata,
The AIM, a Baobab tree in the African landscape!
By way of an introduction
A tree, high tree, cult tree, totemic tree, ancient tree, ancestral tree, tree whose foliage provides shelter and that yields good fruit is an object of reflection in Africa. Much more than that, this tree radiates so much wisdom that it invites us to sit under its shade and talk away to it; that is, for a meeting characterised by giving and receiving. The AIM also invites us to stop for a moment to let ourselves be challenged by its history and questioned about its action in the monastic world. Coming from inland Togo, Agbang, I am going to fathom the AIM's secret with you.
Let me clarify from the outset that my analysis is based essentially on my African experience of the AIM's action. I do not know how things are done in other places. So please forgive me if my observations do not fit with what happens in other climes. I am simply taking the risk of sharing my point of view. In our country, wisdom is said to be like a Baobab trunk, which could not be hugged by a single person. And the range of the AIM's activities is vaster than a baobab trunk.
1. Giving is not receiving and receiving is not giving
What I have just said is more than obvious to express. It is said to be stating the obvious because one thing is quite clearly not the other. In our country, we would say: "Running and scratching your toes don't go together". You either do one or the other, but never both at the same time.
When we consider the concepts of giving and receiving, we realize instinctively that there is someone who has and who gives, and someone who do not have and who receives. This is totally logical, natural and spontaneous. We easily fall into this way of thinking and behaving in an aid/assistance relationship. This is what happened quite naturally after the impulse of generosity, altruism and missionary zeal that gave birth to the AIM.
- "We are going to help, give, support and found. And we want to give and help without expecting anything in return. It is total abnegation! It wouldn't be right of us and we wouldn't even think of it. In no circumstances would we allow ourselves to beg for the crumbs of those who have nothing. " This is how those who took the initiative might understand things.
Just one example illustrates this point well. When we see how many missionary communities hesitated for a long time before opening their doors to African vocations, we realize that many of them were there to evangelize and not to harvest vocations. They were going to give and not to gather. The most blatant example is our communities in Peramiho and Ndanda in Tanzania (St Ottilien Congregation), who were among the first foundations in sub-Saharan Africa and who waited until the 1980s before deciding to receive Africans. Shortly before this, demand was so pressing that Peramiho did better and founded Hanga as an African monasticism for Africans: "The African Benedictines of Hanga".
"We have nothing, we cannot do anything and we are nothing. Blessed be God, there are volunteers to do everything for us. Our job is to hold out our hand without tiring. " This is what happened to the beneficiaries. What's more, the "benefactors" seemed to enjoy seeing us dependant on their generosity. Sometimes they even had a clear conscience since they served a useful purpose and were saving people by taking care of them and even making them brothers. Forgive this somewhat sarcastic caricature, but it is how I experience and understand the facts.
At the beginning, the AIM was really the Aide à l’Implantation Monastique (Aid for Establishing Monasteries). That lasted for several decades, until 1997 to be precise (in other words, for 36 years), until Father Martin Neyt, OSB became president and Father Jacques Côté, OSB secretary of the AIM.
As things stood, our communities could not emerge from the characteristic lethargy of "spoilt children", who had always been fed like young birds and who did not know how to do anything other than beg and make demands. Our European brethren did not teach us to look for support and benefactors in Africa. As was only normal, they could not do this themselves. But they did not enable us to do it. Any riches from an African had been so demonized that it did not even occur to us to take something from the sullied hands of these rich people. Forgive my plain speaking ... but, unfortunately, members of the Mobutu family were at the same time financing certain communities in Europe.
Nevertheless, we must recognize that from its birth until its reorganisation in 1997, the AIM got through a huge amount of work. I shall refrain from an exhaustive assessment. Let me simply quote, for information, a few sectors where the AIM has excelled.
This impulse of monastic generosity and missionary zeal helped prepare the ground to plant and look after monastic "cuttings" in several regions of mission countries. A constellation of budding monasteries then gave new vitality and spice to the seed of the Gospel, which had fallen on African, Asian and Latin-American soil ... and I don't know where else.
As we realize on the AIM's website, this was accompanied by founding and developing over 450 male and female Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries in new territories.
By creating and supporting a rich network for information, training courses and meetings at every level, the AIM meant that in all branches of the huge Baobab tree, the Rule of St Benedict, like nutritive sap, brought about a new blossoming in other climes of the monastic stock. To take the image of the Baobab tree again, the AIM made all its parts strong.
The AIM stands as a privileged witness to the daily life and worries of monastic communities. The AIM supports and accompanies communities as they emerge and develop, and during their trials. The AIM is a place for reflection on monastic identity in the face of challenges from the world: education, poverty, the environment, justice and peace. The AIM promotes and encourages cooperation and solidarity between monasteries and the world. The AIM contributes to the human, cultural and spiritual formation of communities: study grants and sessions, training tools and development projects. The AIM brings about and supports exchange networks between monasteries at regional and national level. The AIM supports projects for financing communities and develops links with evangelization and development organisations. The AIM bulletin is a platform for exchange and reflection about monasticism. It is published in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Portuguese.
By means of their legendary hospitality and discretion learnt from the nourishing milk of the Rule of St Benedict, monks soon showed that they were authentic partners for inter-religious dialogue, which they developed from 1974 onwards. In 1994 the DIM ("Dialogue Intereligieux Monastique" - Monastic Inter-religious Dialogue) became an autonomous organisation. Fr Pierre de Béthune, OSB was the general secretary until 2007. He was succeeded by Fr William Skudlarek, OSB. A link is maintained between the AIM and the DIM via publications and mutual invitations to annual meetings.
But in the background there was something akin to a trace of malaise. It was rather as though the joy of giving, and giving so generously, was accompanied by regret that nothing had been received in return, that a meagre result had been obtained. Those whom we helped have not managed to stand on their own feet and take care of themselves. They have remained the eternally cared for.
Since I am allowed to be frank and direct, let's take some examples, citing a few cases that encourage us to ask questions so as to better plan for the future. Surely it is a failure if today, after more than 50 years, we are forced to turn to a retired European abbot to become the prior at Bouake? The same situation is at Masina Maria in Mahitsy on the Island of Madagascar. Worse still: surely what happened at La Bouenza in the Brazzaville Congo is a real mess? Fortunately, in this case, a group of pioneers have drawn lessons from the past and want hope to be reborn.
- A malaise has also appeared in the beneficiaries. We feel frustrated that we have received so much and remain constantly cared for, unable to get a grip on ourselves and continue what has been bequeathed to us. That often makes us doubt ourselves and/or question the goodwill of those who sacrificed everything to come to us with the gift of monastic life. Unfortunately, this is not always very clear and properly formulated at our level. This creates a malaise that we can't hide, assume or even put on the table of dialogue so that, in frank and calm exchange, solutions may be found.
During our Congregation's General Chapter in October 2004, I couldn't stop myself and had to shout out "That's enough! ". I could not and did not want to hold this in any longer. When, often, I hear the reflection of our brethren saying: "You know, our African brethren are not yet capable of taking over such and such an area", I say to myself, there are two possibilities: either we who entered mixed communities are the thickest of our generation, or something else is being hidden from us. How are we to understand that today, I who have done the same studies as certain colleagues, am told that I cannot take on such and such a task whereas it is my African colleagues who have our country's destiny in their hands as government ministers, general directors, etc. Has entering a community made me that thick, or are there secrets that no one has yet, or does not yet want, to tell me about? In either case, it's high time to act.
Let's say straight away that the AIM alone has not created this situation in Africa. The shock of every encounter with external influences, such as colonialism, school, missionary activity, aid or development, international exchanges at all levels, have all ended in an assessment that is curate's egg.
2. Giving while receiving - Receiving while giving
In 1997 the AIM: Aide à l’Implantation Monastique became AIM: Alliance Inter Monastères (Alliance for International Monasticism). This was a decisive and prophetic turning point in the history of our institution.
On the AIM's golden jubilee, the first fruit, the reason for our thanksgiving, must be to praise the prophetic vision of faith of everyone who took the initiative, as well as of all those who have followed in their footsteps on this great chain of monastic and missionary solidarity, even though everything has not always been perfect. In my country, we say: "He who does not at some stage or other break the jug is he who does not go to fetch the water!”
The second fruit, another reason for our thanksgiving on this jubilee, is to admire how the AIM has managed to renew itself without denying its identity, and without clinging stubbornly to what clearly needed to be changed and transformed. The abbreviation has stayed the same, a sign that today we are not ashamed of this institution's long history. Quite the opposite! The AIM of 50 years ago is what makes us proud! The "aggiornamento" implemented in 1997 is of the same nature, relatively speaking, as that of the Second Vatican Council for the Church.
The "Aide à l’Implantation Monastique" thus became the "Alliance Inter Monastères", moving from "I give and You receive" to "Both of us hold out our hand for mutual giving and welcoming". This is a mutual discovery, and the AIM's new approach is to put partners in touch with one another who then discover values that they never knew existed. But that requires both partners to really question themselves.
What I want to offer here is a reflection about how we Africans could enter into this new order, this meeting characterised by giving and receiving.
3. Africa and the AIM
Goodwill alone is not enough in human relationships. It is good to set out with generosity of heart, and it is also good to reflect on all action so as to see it through to completion. "If it were enough to love" is the title of a song by Céline Dion. If it were enough to love, there would never be any sadness in love, disappointment, divorce, etc. But loving another is not enough. Good intentions are not enough. Generosity of heart is not enough. Wanting to do something is not enough for it to be good. Knowing how to do something or change the conditions for a collaboration is not enough for it to succeed. Each individual must still set out with determination.
I know that this "aggiornamento" was largely reflected by our Western partners and that we, the beneficiaries, are evaluating its importance and significance.
Our contribution in Africa would be the following fundamental question: now, as Africans, what can we give while receiving, and how are we to do this?
Several communities in Africa have already celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their foundation: Keur-Moussa, Hanga and Dzogbégan, to give just these examples. Several monks and nuns in Africa have already celebrated the 40th anniversary of their monastic profession. This means that the monastic life sown and cared for here by the AIM is no longer at the adolescent stage. Quite the opposite, it has matured and has fathered other monastic beginnings. The Abbey of Hanga founded Mvimwa, which has already become an abbey, and even a few communities outside of Tanzania. Keur-Moussa has made a foundation in Guinea Conakry. The nuns of Dzogbégan have founded Sadori in North Togo. Agbang and its Congregation are committed to a foundation project in Cuba. These few examples show how those who received much have matured. But there is still a question ... The child that was fed on the bottle and drip-fed for a long time has become an adult and a father.
What should be our stance regarding certain dependence reflexes that are unfortunately still established in our African monasticism? Over the past three or four years, several African countries have celebrated their half-century of political independence. This is a temporal version of the same type of questioning facing our monastic brethren.
I am convinced that monastic life in all climes ought to be a laboratory where life blossoms in all domains, as it has been in Europe. To this end, there is a heavy responsibility on us in our cloisters to work at finding solutions that are so sorely needed by the whole of our Africa.
It is important for our African monastic communities to question their attitude towards the external aid that we may receive or expect. When we have found the right approach in this domain, we will be able to help our people reconsider the issue of international aid.
It is important for our African monastic communities to ask the question of our identity as African monks, so that we have monks and nuns who are happy with who they are. They will thus be able to become aware of their vocation, becoming full of life and able to attract others to follow them into the adventure of monastic life.
It is important for more and more African monks and nuns take the risk of sharing their understanding of the Rule, vows, monastic enclosure, Lectio Divina, etc. We will thus be able to enrich monastic reflection, not only for our young monks and nuns, but also for our brethren in other places.
It is important for genuine and profound religious dialogue to start between African monks and nuns and the various religions in this continent. The PEACE that is so passionately intrinsic to us also comes at this price. And God knows how much Africa is desperately looking for paths to peace!
When we see that we have failed here and there, this must not be regarded as a mess but rather as an opportunity to better set out again on solid foundations towards a better future. For this, it is important for our African monastic communities to have the courage to reread their history so as to learn from its high and low points. This history should teach us how to rise again from our ashes and mistakes, like the AIM, for a more promising future.
These are just a few avenues for real reflection along the lines of the question that we must ask ourselves on the AIM's jubilee, namely: For us, monks and nuns of Africa, how and what are we to give while receiving?
4. By way of a conclusion
"If it were enough to talk!” Allow me to plagiarize Céline Dion. If it were enough to talk, Africa would, several times over, have found solutions to all its troubles from the mouths of all the smooth-talking politicians and religious who abound here.
I am not just here to talk. I have come here to plead for something mad!
To help us enter into the new order of "giving while receiving and receiving while giving", on the AIM's jubilee, and on its baptismal font, let us give birth to the AIM-Africa.
We already have the AIM-USA. The AIM-Africa would be a mark of gratitude by Africa towards the AIM, which has done so much for her. It would be a way of telling our "Ally" that he is no longer a stranger and is at home with us in Africa.
But beyond this tribute of gratitude, I see the AIM-Africa as Africa's commitment to remain no longer on the fringe of this movement and become a full partner in this Alliance.
I see the AIM-Africa as the structure that would enable African monasticism to organise itself from within and form a heritage of reflection at every level, no longer going empty-handed to future meetings characterised by giving and receiving.
I throw that out as a suggestion. I don't want to be the only one who brings something to the table. If we give this idea a chance, I am sure that we will be given many more opportunities for the AIM to truly become the Alliance Inter Monastères.
One-way dialogue is always boring, offensive, tiring and depressing! Let's free ourselves of the last vestiges of this one-way dialogue and enter at last into truly reciprocal two-way communication.
May the echo of the AIM's golden jubilee bring with it, in the distance, the Good News that all monasteries have come laden with their various riches to the High Mass of giving and receiving. Thank you!