Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB
President of AIM
in the Benedictine Tradition
Since the present issue of the Bulletin echoes the session which took place in Vietnam in February 2016 on spiritual accompaniment it seems to us important to present here as an introduction certain findings on this dimension of the Benedictine tradition. The notion of accompaniment is important for more than one reason. First of all, in the Christian perspective, it is important for a disciple to be accompanied. Nothing is achieved in solitude.
Secondly, the first to accompany is God in person. God is present by Christ and in the Holy Spirit. In the image of Christ the disciple comes from the Father and returns to the Father. On this road the disciple is inspired by the spirit of God described elsewhere as parakletos, that is, someone called to be beside another as an advocate. There is therefore a paschal dimension in every accompaniment; it is a matter of not being shut in on oneself and of accepting to be stripped of our illusions in order to live according to God. This refusal to be shut in, this stripping, is a kind of loss of what one thinks one is, despite the fact that this is merely an appearance, in order to become what one truly is in the full depths of one’s being, where God has taken up his residence. This stripping of all the layers which cover our fragility and our nakedness is an especially demanding journey. But this demand brings a priceless blessedness which makes it possible to live on the road of discipleship, of a loving servant, careful of oneself and of all others, totally turned towards its source, its growth and its fulfilment in God.
This is totally different from a psychological accompaniment. As Dom Marie-Dominique Pham Van Hien shows below, the task of the companion is above all to waken the disciple to the presence of the divine Trinity in each of those confided to him. Of course the help of psychology can be necessary in many circumstances but it is not the last word in spiritual accompaniment.
When there are many candidates and a dearth of suitable formators it is absolutely necessary to show in more detail everything that comes into play in the matter of accompaniment. It is not a question of priding oneself on some Benedictine ‘method’ which does not exist as such. The Benedictine way appeals to certain sensitivities, certain temperaments; others will feel more at home in other situations. But it is also important that the Benedictine experience assert its originality and be put forward sturdily in the framework of our monasteries. We must be aware of the richness of this teaching to be able to bring profit from it not only for monks and nuns but also for those who surround them.
To speak of accompaniment implies ability to live out the different dimensions of the human person. It is more a matter of a lived experience of the common life than of a teaching to be conveyed notionally. Within the framework of a Benedictine accompaniment it is even good to leave a relatively long period, for example the postulancy and noviciate, to concentrate on the sharing of this experience at the heart of a community. This experience can be mulled over and valued permanently. These are various areas in which this experience can be lived out.
It is no surprise that the dimension of listening should be put forward as the first criterion of accompaniment. It is well known that the Rule of St Benedict opens, ‘Listen, my son, to the precepts of the Master, bend the ear of your heart. Welcome willingly the advice of a father and put it into practice’ (Prologue). This listening is not simply that of an exterior ear but that of the heart. This heart is nothing superficial but the depths of the heart from which arises the spring of life according to God. That is the heart of which the Bible and Christian literature of the early centuries speaks.
The accompaniment of someone who wants to follow Christ in monastic life consists primarily in help towards an awareness of this dimension of interior listening. It affects all the dimensions of life, from an exchange in human relationships or at work, passing by way of reading and liturgical prayer to the silence of contemplative prayer. If this listening is at the centre of our lives, difficulties encountered take on a different tonality; they can be faced with greater resources. How is this listening to be cultivated? How can it be practised in such a way that it becomes second nature?
The first thing is attention. This is both active and passive. The essential anchor-hold is the heart. The heart comprises the whole person who perceives all his or her surroundings from the starting-point of the vital source by which God gives us life. It is the point where the divine energy touches us, as the breath of the Creator infused into the human body at the moment of creation in Genesis. It is the interior attention which binds a mother to her children. In biblical language it is known as ‘mercy’, the same word which designates the womb, that precious and vital receptacle. Symbolically this stands for the heart, the symbol of tranquillity, peace and a sweetness quite unexpected but very real.
If I remain in the attitude of profound interior peace I have the Word of God, participate in the liturgy, work with my hands, listen carefully to those who speak to me, without trying for a moment to enclose myself in my own thoughts. Above all it is important to cultivate this attention of the heart. Imaginary constructions will arise in my mind, but I do not become attached to them. They are simply the products of memory which will be useful to me when I have to make choices among a large palette of possibilities. If I am to appreciate the source of life which God arouses in me it is important that I should try to remain in an attentive presence built on silence.
Then comes the moment when I want to express something either in prayer or in conversation. This I do in total openness as a reflection, a suggestion rather than a peremptory affirmation. By my way of expression I show that it is a mere suggestion, an idea which needs to be adjusted, and from this very fact may be corrected. This does not prevent me formulating convictions and even holding to them firmly. But these will never be closed propositions which rule out another point of view.
In the first place, with experience this profound listening leads us more and more to have confidence in what is ‘said’ in the heart. It becomes progressively more natural, simple and apposite. I become progressively more aware that this is the source from which springs the Life given to us by God. Meditation and exterior situations reveal in me this surge of life and of love linked to the presence of God in us. I can become aware of this at any moment. It is easier to experience this in circumstances such as contact with nature or attentive reading or listening to music in order, for instance, to prepare oneself to live in relationship both to God and to our human brothers and sisters. Concretely when the mind sets about commenting what I perceive I find it more easily but I try not to attach myself to it too easily. I return gently and in all simplicity to the heart and there I stay. The process of transformation and of conversion is not short.
It is well known that the word ‘obedience’ comes from the verb audire, to listen. The Latin word ob-audire means to ‘listen to’. This is the starting-point, as the Rule of St Benedict says, for that profound listening which issues in concrete and efficacious action. This is a long way from being at someone’s beck and call. It is rather an active attention, a lively perception which gives the energy to respond as fully as possible to what has been perceived. This corresponds to the obedience of Christ seen in the New Testament. The desire involved in this obedience is directed not to its author but to the Person with whom one wants a relationship. However, how can it engender a human relationship?
In formation after the statement of a proposal an exchange can follow, with requests for clarification and understanding by both the recipient and the proposer. Such an exchange occurs both in teaching and in spiritual accompaniment. It highlights the fact that we cannot immediately understand another person. Such understanding is essential in both listening and dialogue. So silence is needed, and it provides a space when I remain in the presence of the other without making any judgment or any image of the other built on what I know about that person, or my experience of that person. I see him or her as a blank page. I keep my attention in my heart and suppress in silence anything which would fill the space. I rely on the fact that the other is infinitely different from anything that I can perceive. Just like myself, the other can be resolved into an infinite range of unspoken and unconscious passing ideas and possibilities.
In fact by listening I can uniquely perceive what there is in myself; I see the other from the mould of myself. Beginning a relationship involves a desire to emerge from this mould to try to begin discovering the mould of another. For this some questioning is essential. Questions and answers equally lead to new provisional ideas until agreement is reached, just as in tuning a musical instrument. An endless and fascinating process!
St Benedict gives great importance to the virtue of silence. Of course this has nothing to do with mutism. It is an attentive silence which leaves space for the work of listening during the germination and growth of the word, like a seed thrown into the earth which grows without anyone knowing how it grows. Such a silence becomes progressively more accessible in the most permanent possible way, which makes possible a relationship with God and other people in order to correctly develop a life within us and between us.
In the first place entry into silence makes it possible bit by bit to dismantle the masks we wear. At a second stage one becomes aware that this attitude is a trump card, made more effective by drawing on this immense silence. An effective use of our facilities is the ability to let silence and thought fertilise one another. Among these the most precious of all is the daily increasing use of inner space, how to widen it, discover its potential and how it shows itself. I am called to hold myself in this silence without leaving it and to treasure its results. From it may emerge sensations, sentiments, images, thoughts and reasoned action. Such a silence engenders in us the blessedness of an attitude free from all self-will, and in this space there is room for a very intimate experience of the essential Presence.
In such an approach it may be said that the principal obstacle is fear of the manifestation of this intimate Presence: fear of dying to oneself, of being stripped of sentiments, emotions, one’s own thoughts and desires in order to become open to something unknown which cannot be mastered by one’s own powers. Far from yielding to this fear, it is good to seek out the attraction of this Presence, to deliver oneself to it in confidence, in faith and to make it the foundation of one’s life. The Risen Christ encourages us to this by saying, whenever he appears to his disciples, ‘Have no fear’.
4. Living the Presence
After a long journey it is possible to believe that this attentive silent listening truly opens us to the essential Presence which manifests itself to us as a source of life. For us believers it is the presence of God. When it is recognised it arouses a feeling of peace, but also a realisation of the distance which separates us from it. ‘God is present but I knew it not’, said the Patriarch Jacob after crossing the River Jabboq. In the spiritual tradition this enlightenment gave him the name of ‘fear of the Lord’. Far from being a paralysing fear, it is rather an awareness of living in the presence of him who loves us and whom we love above all things. The desire impels us to be aware of being present to the Presence. This is a reflex of love which directs our whole life, a life rooted in listening, openness to the other, a sharing of the Presence.
An essential element in this formation is a welcome to this vital consciousness which according to the ancient tradition is the basis of wisdom. It is the first step in a life of righteousness, traditionally known as ‘humility’.
Our condition as creatures sprung from the earth and water by the slow process of evolution can nourish in us a sort of humility – the more so because we know practically nothing about what makes us what we are. We constantly seek to assess our condition, but the assessments we make are well below the reality. None of these assessments is sufficient in itself; they are merely sketches. My assessment is no better than that of others. Humility consists in recognising the picture we make of others and ourselves. This recognition allows us to relativize what we hold to be absolute and not to fear an exchange of richness and of the weaknesses in ourselves and others. This unveiling is part of human intercourse as a precious way of access to another.
The indications which St Benedict gives in his Rule on the subject of humility accompany this process so that we may recognise in it the grace which Christ offers to the world:
• Firstly, living in the presence of God.
• Secondly, renunciation of all self-will, a preference to live by the movements of grace in an exchange of relationships with others.
• Thirdly, obedience in an attentive attitude of listening in all circumstances.
• Fourthly, patience when this causes difficulties, in suffering and in the obligation to act in a way which one would not have chosen by one’s own free choice.
• Fifthly, keeping open the possibility of speaking freely to someone who helps us to remain on this level in the depths of the heart. This is called openness of heart to spiritual accompaniment.
• Sixthly, awareness of the gap between the reality and the deep desire which should be our true guide.
• Seventhly, recognition that one is no better than others, combined with a great openness of heart to others.
• Eighthly, in this context one becomes able to do what is required according to local customs wherever one lives. One does not look to justify oneself and one’s point of view at any price.
• Ninth to twelfth, the whole life of the monk rests on this basic experience. A life which grows from this foundation is full of vigour and originality.
Here is to be found the attitude of Christ who passes on the life which he receives from his Father and in every detail of his life and even to death makes use of it not for himself but for others. Thanks to the interior authority of his humility Christ is above all the one who lives.
Everything said so far constitutes a movement of prayer. An attitude of listening, bending the ear of the heart in the deepest interior silence, living in the essential Presence, available for a sharing of relationship in obedience and humility constitutes an attitude of supplication, praise and thanksgiving. God, our source of life, gives us his whole self; we receive him in the depths of our being and share it with others, not keeping it for ourselves. St Benedict insists in the Prologue to his Rule, ‘Whatever you undertake, ask God with insistent prayer that he bring it to a good conclusion’. In fact there can be nothing authentic in life without this recognition of its source in the divine inspiration of our lives. That is why the whole of life is a prayer.
Monks commit themselves to a life of prayer both individually and as a community. They practise listening to the Word of God from day to day in a thousand ways. This listening leads them to experience the silence of the heart in order to be fully at the disposition of the presence of God who permeates the scriptures. They are thus ready to live this same prayer also at the heart of community life in obedience and humility. The liturgy joins together these different dimensions as a community exercise. It is not a separate exercise but a way to develop a life in the presence of God and the very heart of a fraternal community.
7. Monastic Work
In this way the whole of monastic life becomes a work, an ascesis (the word ‘ascesis’ means exercise, training) of attention in order to life in the essential Presence. It could be said that everything in such a life becomes a work of re-birth. Activities of service and of money-earning work fit into the same programme. Of course everyone must work to live and no one can feel dispensed from this occupation. Monastic life comprises many hours of practical work each week. No one can pretend that he has entered a monastery to escape work. Whatever the activity of a monk is, all his life is a work. It is a work of conversion so that, entirely turned towards God and towards his brothers and sisters of humanity, by stripping off his illusory disguises, the monk really becomes what he is.
Monastic accompaniment consists in being present as an elder brother on the road of conversion by personally living and sharing all these dimensions. It is a paschal road and its demands are not inconsiderable.