Dom Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori
Abbot General OCist
The Monastic Charism in the 21st Century
Address to the General Chapter of the Cistercian Order
of the Strict Observance, held at Assisi, September, 2017
I am both glad and grateful to have this opportunity to meet with you for the third time, gathered as a General Chapter. For me it is a moment which provides a focus to many other meetings with monks and communities of our Orders and in the Cistercian family, meetings which are always a call to the unity of our vocation. Of course this is not always the case in the vocation as we live it, for we are all continually engaged in the occupation to which Christ calls us, but it is the case with the vocation to which we are called, and to which the Spirit draws us. If any individual or any community says to itself, ‘I am fully living out the vocation!’, this means that it is not doing so, for the vocation is never a process done and dusted, if it is truly an attempt to follow Christ. This is the case only if we drag Christ along behind us as did the soldiers who led him bound to Caiaphas or Pilate. Jesus walks free before us also in monastic life, even if it is a form of life where one more easily runs the risk of thinking that the path is fixed for ever, both in the past and in the future.
I am convinced that the light which we should reflect by our vocation and our way of living is the conception which St Paul had of fidelity to his own vocation,
‘Certainly I have not yet won, but I am still running, trying to capture the prize for which Christ Jesus captured me. I can assure you, my brothers, I am far from thinking that I have already won. All I can say is that I forget the past and strain ahead for what is still to come; I am racing for the goal in view of the prize to which God calls us upwards to receive in Christ Jesus. We who are called ‘perfect’ must all think in this way. If you see things differently, God will make it clear to you; meanwhile, let us go forward on the road that has brought us to where we are’ (Philippians 3.12-16).
This thought lends me strength, for what disturbs us is often that we base our future perspective by looking backwards towards the past. It is perhaps also in this sense that Christ invites us to follow him without a backward glance (Luke 9.62). Looking backwards prevents us running forwards, whether it is a matter of looking at a wretched past strewn with ruins, or, worse still, a glorious past, for it is less easy to shift our gaze away from a glorious and flattering past. However, no one can run forwards while looking backwards.
On this occasion your preparatory commission has, through your Abbot General, given me a theme to develop, that is, the monastic charism in the 21st century. So you too are inviting me to look forwards rather than backwards. That being said, the past is not without importance for our path. It carries us as the roots carry a tree which is growing in height and breadth to embrace all time and space in tension towards heaven. We must not look backwards, but we must remember. That means that the past must not remain at our backs; it must accompany us, dwell in us, be a living presence in us. In this way the past becomes tradition, transmission, heritage. That means that the past can, through us, go further than we ourselves go. It can go past us, beyond our life, even become a transmission of our life, a heritage from us.
The question therefore is how we can today be aware of our responsibility to pass on a heritage, our paternal or maternal responsibility towards future generations. The twenty-first century, or even the third millennium, is not so much a length of time as a heritage. God did not promise to Abraham and the patriarchs and kings a temporal future. This would have been too abstract for the Jewish mentality. He promised rather a descendance, that means a human future, vital, personal, cultural in the deepest sense. And this is a future which depends also on the link which I am in the chain between my fathers and mothers and my sons and daughters.
I always feel uneasy when I perceive that the concern to have vocations for our monasteries is often less a care for fruitfulness than a care to keep the house, the enterprise, the monument on its feet. It is as though vocations are only in function of the structure, rather than built on a desire to pass on the life, the vocation as a life. The sign of a desire for real fruitfulness means, even in this domain, bearing always in mind that we are called to a virginal fruitfulness which remains always mysterious, since it transcends our human means in the measure in which they are put at the service of the work of God, of the holy Spirit, just as Mary put at God’s complete disposal her body, her soul, her spirit, her life, her relationships, even her relationship with Joseph. This virginal relationship with reality allows God to act as he will. It is an opening of the heart to a fruitfulness which is not our own, which we cannot grasp, and which from this very fact is a fruitfulness greater than our own.
‘Amen I say to you, no one leaves for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel, a house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children or land who does not receive now in this present age a hundredfold, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land, with persecution, and in the world to come life everlasting’ (Mark 10.29-30).
We must not forget that virginal fruitfulness is more solid that corporal fruitfulness; it is free of close restrictions. Parents who have no children have no descendance. Our descendance on the other hand can even leapfrog generations, can bear fruit even after our death or after the death of a community. How many Cistercian monasteries have died and been resurrected after decades or even centuries! This virginal, gospel attitude of conceiving the fruitfulness of our life, of our communities, of our Orders and in general of our monastic vocation, is a crucial point which – in my opinion – is going to decide our lives in the coming decades. I say, ‘our lives’, not ‘our survival’, for Christ has promised us not to survive but to be raised to life again. Survival is not enough. ‘Tax-collectors and gentiles do as much, do they not’ Matthew (5.46-47). Our faith is founded not on the resurrection of Lazarus or the daughter of Jairus or the son of the Widow of Nain, but on the definitive Resurrection of Christ, who by baptism has become our eternal life. The desire to live in order to survive is basically a choice of death, a choice of fear which takes from us the joy of living, of living each day as an instant in which the Eternal God grants us to share in his Being which is Love. Can any fullness of life be greater than such an instant? This is true even if the next instant must be that of my death or the death of my community. Without such a gospel virginity, what progress has our monastic charism to offer the world of today?
A twenty-first century human, having lost the sense of eternal life, lives in order to survive. Any political or social programme, any programme of a religion à la carte offers means of survival, survival for ecological catastrophe, for depression, for accidents, for terrorism, for a flood of immigrants. What does our charism offer this world, this cultural climate of the globalised twenty-first century which we find everywhere, in Europe, in America, in Asia, Africa, Oceania?
St Benedict insists rigorously on choice of life as the profound motivation of our vocation. In the Prologue of the Rule the only vocational question he poses is to ask with God, and so with the centre of our being, whether the person ‘desires life and wants to see happy days (Prologue 15). Immediately he explains that this desire for life means a desire for a true and eternal life – veram et perpetuam vitam (Prologue 17) – so not a dream-world nor a mere survival nor a comfortable life turned in upon oneself, but a life here and now, an eternal life which begins in this present life. The whole of the Rule illustrates this true and eternal life, the ‘path of life’ which ‘the Lord himself offers us in his goodness’ (Prologue 20).
If this is not what we propose, if our communities do not live with this end in view, then they are not a school of true and eternal life, and we are not living out our charism, we are not truly fruitful. For to be fruitful means to transmit life, and we are called to live and transmit that true and eternal life which the Easter Christ gives to us in baptism. I say all this because this vision allows us to live out our fragility and our death as an occasion of witness to true life, to that true fruitfulness which Christ renders possible. The fruitfulness of the martyrs was expressed in the extraordinary way in which they died.
This is a direct legacy of the crucified Christ. ‘The centurion who was standing in front of Jesus, seeing how he died, exclaimed, “Truly this man was Son of God!”’ (Mark 15.39). What has this gentile seen in the death of Christ that was so convincing? He had received the grace to see that Jesus died with a sense, a love which made this death a witness to a greater life, a sense of life more powerful than death. It is no accident that St Benedict put one after another three instruments of good works which speak of life and death:
To long for eternal life with all the warmth of the Spirit
To have the prospect of death before one’s eyes every day
To watch over the actions of life at every moment (RB 4.46-48).
In the desire for eternal life everything makes sense, every instant of temporal life, just like inevitable death itself. Nothing is a stronger proof of eternal life than a life and death which find in death their sense and their fulfilment. The twenty-first century is already a century in which human beings can no longer give any sense to life or death, for it is a culture which has lost the sense of eternal life. Does one not breathe the longing for eternal life in our monasteries, in our liturgies, in our community life, in our hospitality, our silence, our words? Does one not see in our life and our death that the risen Christ has conquered death and thus given an eternal sense to life?
We will understand that it is impossible to answer such questions with a moralising response. Nor is it a matter of doing something more, or different, or better. St Benedict shows us that it is rather a matter of a work of desire, an interior vision, a movement of the heart which gives depths to ordinary human life lived in the monastery, as is the case for all our brothers and sisters. Those who have passed down this heritage to us are not lacking. If we are monks and nuns of today, for better or for worse, it is that, for better or for worse, we have been born for this vocation. In just the same way that I know for sure that I am linked to Adam and Eve by an uninterrupted chain of generations, so, if I am a Cistercian of today this means that a mysterious uninterrupted spiritual chain binds my vocation uninterruptedly to those first abbots and monks of Cîteaux, and through them without interruption to St Benedict.
When we met in May at Cîteaux to consider together the possibilities of collaboration of the Cistercian family in the maintenance and use of our place of origin, and especially the Definitory and the traces of the first church, it was evident that the Spirit was giving us afresh a source which gives us life today. In this sense, I am convinced, we must find a way of living together the nine hundredth anniversary of the Charter of Charity with a sort of filial piety which can regenerate us, to generate in our turn a Cistercian future heritage more concerned than ever, like Abraham, to constitute a blessing for today’s world.
Every charism is above all a gift, a grace, and remains a charism if it continues to be received and handed on as a grace. No one is master of a charism, though from time to time people claim to be guardians when they are no more than kidnappers. We have not received our charism to make it a hostage to our thirst for power, our vanity or our fear of losing our lives for Christ. A charism rather creates prophets, and to be a prophet means being a servant of a gift given to us. It is like being the owner of a spring: I keep it if I enable it to flow a long distance from my land. Otherwise it becomes a stagnant pool.
I was recently struck by a saying read at Vigils from the prophet Amos, ‘When the Lord God speaks, who can keep silent?’ In the history of our charism many have agreed to pass on the Word which God entrusted to them. Our spiritual authors, our saints, monks and nuns who have known how to revive purposefully and visibly the flame of our charism. Since I gave it a little impetus here six years ago, a common effort to have St Gertrude recognised as a Doctor of the Church has made great advances, not perhaps in exactly that direction but in the same sense. I mean that studies, meetings, sessions provoked by this impetus have convinced us that what we want for the Church is already a reality for ourselves: Gertrude is for us a prophet of the word of God who can speak to the humanity of the twenty-first century and give a meaning to life in a living and loving relationship to Christ and through him to the Trinity.