Dom Jean de la Croix Lê Văn Đoàn, OCist
Abbot of Phưởc Sơn
and President of the Congregation of the Holy Family
Father Benoît Thuận
Born at Boulogne-sur-Mer on the 17th August 1880, Henri Francois Joseph Denis entered the seminary of the Missions Etrangères in Paris in 1901. Ordained priest in 1903, he was posted to Cochinchina to the mission of Hue, where the Vicar Apostolic of Cochinchina gave him the Vietnamese name ‘Thuan’ which means ‘obey’, ‘consent’.
Once he had learnt the language and the customs he became a teacher in the junior seminary of Annith and in 1907 he taught Chinese. In 1908 he fulfilled his dream of becoming a missionary and was sent to the Christians of Nuoc-Man, already thinking of monastic life. The lifestyle of the reformed Cistercians appealed to him, and despite the difficulties a new monastery, which at that time was no more than a hut, was opened in 1918. There were two of them, Dom Thuận and a first disciple, Thaddeus. At the start there was no lack of difficulties for this foundation, which attracted young people without any monastic formation. During the fifteen years of his missionary life Father Benoit had become convinced that monastic and contemplative life suited the Vietnamese, and that his foundation would be a witness in the Church which would beam out a living image of the Catholic monk in a life of poverty and peaceful and joyous simplicity.
His congregation would bear the name ‘Holy Family’ bringing to light the importance of the family, which is dear to the Vietnamese. His community would be both cenobitic and familial.
Dealing with such a vast subject, I would like to limit my research to the analysis of the practical experience of our founder father, Father Benoît Thuận, in order to clarify the question of spiritual accompaniment in monastic life.
1. Fundamental Approaches
In order to accompany a person or a community living in a culture not one’s own it is important to approach it at a deep level. Otherwise contacts remain superficial and bear no interesting result. In the case of Father Benoît Thuận there are four approaches, or rather four steps of the one approach, language, customs, particular people and finally the soul of the people.
This is the first step. Learning the language opens up contacts and mutual understanding. It is in this awareness that Father Denis set himself day and night to learn the language. Vietnam has three written languages side-by-side: Han (in Chinese script), Nam (a system of transcription of Vietnamese words by means of simple or combined Chinese characters to note the sound of a Vietnamese word or its sense and sound together), and Quac Ngu (Vietnamese phonetically transcribed into Latin writing).
The second approach is to understand local customs and to live like the local people. There are two facets of custom, culture and way of life. Vietnamese culture, and especially popular culture, to a certain extent expresses the soul of the people. Father Benoit translated into French two volumes of poems, Trê Cóc and Lục Súc Tranh Công. With the translation he gives an explanation of the proverbs and the customs – this requires a definite level of knowledge.
Next there is the way of life of the Vietnamese. At the time Father Benoit lived most of the Vietnamese were farmers. Nature, relationships at the heart of the family, the activities of the village were expressed in the culture and daily life. He used the Vietnamese practices and assessed them with respect. This is an attitude entirely different from those who wanted to ‘civilise’ the natives. These saw the local people as barbarians and wanted to impose on them European culture. Father Benoit respected the value of the good customs of the country. He stressed a life poor, simple but rich in family love. All this created a basis on which to build monastic life.
C. Particular people
The third approach was to meet people. When he had been at the minor seminary of Annith and in the parish of Nuoc Man, Father Benoit had sought all possible means to meet people: he did not shut himself up in his room. He would see the people who came to him, or would go to them. Thanks to these contacts he got to understand their life, their burdens, their troubles and all their problems. By means of this understanding he had a realistic view, full of love and compassion, and knew how to help them efficaciously by estimating their priorities. The foundation of the monastery of Our Lady of An-nam is the result of the profound discovery of the soul of those he met. He saw the hidden signs of the bottom of their hearts.
D. The Soul of the People
The fourth step is to enter into the spirit of the people and be impregnated with the soul of the Vietnamese people, their religion and the spiritual need. Beyond magic and superstition the Vietnamese people have a desire to live in relationship with God or spirits. This is a perpetual thirst for the Absolute. Father Benoit discovered the depth of soul of the Vietnamese. Despite his attachment to the work of evangelisation he opened up an orientation of monastic life consecrated to contemplation. He recognised the profound thirst of the Vietnamese soul. By contrast, the European superiors, renouncing the invitation of founding a monastery on Vietnamese soil, underestimated the Vietnamese and had a negative view of their good will in deciding that they were not suited to monastic life and that they lacked the capacity for this kind of life. He accompanied them on the road of seeking God. In spite of difficulties he always had a positive view of those who lived in community, living a monastic life which was quite new to them.
2. Organisation of a Way of Life
As initiator of monastic life for the Vietnamese Father Benoit wanted the foundation to be impregnated with the local life, not only from the cultural point of view but also spiritually and from the point of view of the Gospel.
A. A monastery typically Vietnamese
This is what was closest to Benoit’s heart. I quote a few paragraphs from his letters to the Abbot General:
‘Most reverend Father,
I hasten to send you a new letter asking for affiliation, signed by Monseigneur the Vicar Apostolic of Hue. I must emphasise to you, most reverend Father, that in affiliating us it is a purely Annamite Congregation that you are affiliating to the Order’ (Letter of 17.9.1932).
By insisting on the fact that the monastery – and later the Congregation – should be Vietnamese the founder highlighted the special mode of monastic life at Phưởc Sơn. This insistence was taken up again after his death, when the community of Phưởc Sơn wanted to be incorporated into the Cistercian Order. Dom Bernard Mendiboure
and the conventual chapter wrote on 20th July 1934 to the Abbot General to repeat the request, begun by the founder, for incorporation.
At the end of the letter certain words were underlined:
‘We would be very honoured to enter into the Cistercian family, but if it would be necessary to lose our own physiognomy we would renounce this honour. Recalling an old proverb, “Let them be as they are or let them not be at all”, our late lamented founder said this to us before he died. We regard this as a sacred tradition; we wish to continue living on the same line, with the same ideal as in the past. If we must transform ourselves on this point in order to be Cistercians we prefer to renounce this. We were born this way and we want to remain what we are.’
All these questions express the concern of the monks of Phưởc Sơn to keep their own physiognomy. They regarded it and lived it spontaneously in the sense of a rooting in the Vietnamese mentality, though this became a problem in the eyes of those who came from a European monastery and had received their monastic formation in that country.
B. Ambiance of the contemplative life
The concern of Father Benoit was to found a monastery whose life was totally consecrated to contemplation. As I said above, despite his attachment to missionary enterprises and his desire to convert those who did not know Christ, he chose another path, the hidden life. In spiritual instructions he insisted always on the mystery of the monastic life. For Vietnamese the contemplative atmosphere that he wanted to create in the monastery is the soul’s response. He himself led the way faithfully to the hidden life. He accompanied the brothers and the whole community in the fulfilment of this direction, and it was an accompaniment in depth.
C. Family love
An unusual point discovered by Father Benoit among the Vietnamese and applied to monastic life was family love. For the Vietnamese family love is the heart of the family. Negative aspects like slavery to the bell or paternalism must be cut out: family love remains the quality for a good and joyful existence. The family love which he achieved in the monastery had a special character: all are brothers and there is only one category of monks (no distinction between choir monks and laybrothers). That was a new path and a break-through long before Vatican II. It was also the reason why the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance refused his request for incorporation of Phưởc Sơn. The beauty of family love must be safeguarded and lived in a concrete manner for the present day in the bosom of the Congregation and of each community. It is thanks to this that we superiors and formators can accompany our brothers and sisters.
D. An apostolic soul
Monastic life must be animated by an apostolic soul. In the case of Father Benoit and his foundation this apostolic soul was clearly expressed. He was determined that the monastery and the whole of the life of a monk should be an efficacious contribution to the evangelisation of the Church. He wrote solemnly in the Constitutions which he edited that the second aim of the monastery was for the conversion by prayer and sacrifice of those who did not know Christ. This was the aim of the daily activities and devotions.
3. Principal Activities
After having encountered individuals to learn from them their deepest needs Father Benoit set about founding a monastery. He took extraordinary trouble about this foundation. He had to wait nine years to be able to try his monastic vocation, and most of the missionaries did little to help him any more than did the Vietnamese clergy; they viewed this foundation as a luxury in a mission country. But Father Benoit had understood the importance of the path he had chosen, and was convinced of it. When disciples joined him he accompanied them with all his devotion. From day to day the community gradually grew. Here are four methods which he used to accompany his community.
A. A joyful presence
Father Benoit was an ascetic. The ascetical aspect was very clear in his life, all the time he was in Vietnam, but especially in the monastery of Phưởc Sơn. It became clear in the geography of the landscape, hard and arid, with an inclement climate, restricted food-supply in a rudimentary building. But this place, the monastery of Notre Dame de Annam, was more attractive than others, Why?
In his spiritual instruction he described in a simple way ‘the blessedness of the monk’. To live with the Lord, be his companion, speak to him as to a father. In his letters the founder again and again wrote that he loved this isolated place, his monastery and his community. By this love he remained present to the brothers at every moment. If his responsibilities took him away he was sad to leave the community and sought to return to it as soon as possible. When he was present among the brothers he showed all his joy, the deep and realistic joy of a soul nourished by contemplation. All the brothers who lived with him testify to this. He was serious, but at the same time joyful and happy. This is surely one of the most effective ways of accompanying the brothers. Why joy? Because the happiness of living among brothers is always present despite problems. It is the joyful presence of a life shot through with the Gospel. When we want to be present somewhere it is because we value the place. In my opinion we must reflect on this if we want to accompany our brothers and sisters.
B. Nourishing instruction
To accompany his community Father Benoit devoted considerable time and effort to nourishing the brothers by his spiritual teaching. This is one of the most demanding tasks that Benedict imposes on the abbot. Father Benoit gave spiritual instruction twice a week to nourish the community, to enrich the community with monastic spiritual knowledge and experience, and the community took them to heart. These instructions were not systematic, but sought simply to respond to the concrete needs of varied situations.
I would like to mention here what concerns culture and atmosphere. Father Benoit was extremely sensitive to milieu: his language was as refined as his action. He knew the person to whom he was speaking. So he used a language adapted to his listeners, his brothers, in order to help them advance on the spiritual journey. This raises the question of discernment.
It is obvious that Father Benoit had read much of the Cistercian Fathers, for the superior of the monastery of Notre-Dame du Phare at Hakodate in Japan had given him spiritual works. As we know, the Cistercian Fathers used the language of love – language of European culture – to express the love between spouses, Christ and the soul. For the Vietnamese, living in another culture, this was a shock. Therefore Father Benoit was wise enough to express the loving relationship of the soul to Christ creatively in images current in everyday life. He could grasp the essential elements of Vietnamese culture, the milieu and the level of understanding of his audience. Indeed, to catch the interest of others it is necessary to know how to build the spiritual building. He did not simply transfer the patrimony of the Church and the Order onto Vietnamese soil but transposed it. This is a challenge to ourselves. To achieve this we must invest considerable effort and reflection, with plenty of ideas and initiatives.
C. Living examples
There is another way of effectively accompanying the brothers and sisters, namely service, not only the ministry of superior and formator, but also in what concerns monastic duties, that is, fidelity to the vocation and to the activities of the monastery. Father Benoit spoke often about the observance of the Rule, which he had taken on with love and sincerity. It was a question not of legalism but of fidelity itself to the monastic life. By observing the Rule he could understand the brothers and their problems and so accompany them.
Another service which he fulfilled for fifteen years in the monastery was cleaning the toilets. This was a great example for the whole community; one may imagine that at the time the toilets were rudimentary and not very hygienic. What had led the father to choose this kind of service? For us, Vietnamese, when we receive some title or reach a slightly exalted position we feel superior to others and give up any services which we think are below our rank. If we act like that we are running away from our task of accompaniment. This does not foster comprehension or compassion, for we are putting ourselves above our brothers and beyond our commitment. Our estimate is inadequate and mistaken. Father Benoit accompanied the community in everything humble and simple. Example is more effective than any theoretical instruction.
D. Confidence in peaceful prayer
There is something else we can learn from Father Benoit, his unfailing confidence in God when he could not achieve something for the community. In his accompaniment of the community what he found hardest was if the brothers became upset. In his letters he returns to this point more than once. At the same time he realised that this sadness was an epiphenomenon. He wanted the brothers to live in joy, a joy growing each day, and that of monastic life and its demands should not leave any room to seeking transitory joys and an easy life. He insisted that a monk must each day kill the old man and that the brothers should help one another to do this. He directed the community towards the blessedness of the Lord, not towards the passions of the flesh.
In accompanying the community if he discovered in the brothers some negative aspects, he did not condemn them cruelly. With frankness and love he helped the brothers to see them. He placed his hope in their good will and left them time for a true conversion. Why did he do this? Because he trusted in the peace of the brothers and the community and the mercy of God. In his spiritual instructions he spoke often of humility and peace. He kept his eyes fixed on the Lord and his work rather than on his own activities and their results. Again and again he attested that if the foundation came into being it would be by the grace of God, and if it did not it would be his own fault. He was conscious of his responsibility. In Vietnamese culture, in which the good is shown and the ugly hidden, the reaction of Father Benoit was questionable to us: in order to be converted it is necessary to look truth in the face and start again.
4. Beyond accompaniment
Accompaniment is the work of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit inspires both the accompanier and the accompanied. I will not linger on this question which has been discussed elsewhere in one way or another. Accompaniment plays an important part and is very useful, but at a certain moment the accompanier must give way and fall silent so that the Holy Spirit can speak and guide the accompanied brother and the community. How did this occur in the case of Father Benoit?
A. A peaceful parting
While he lived in the community he had just founded Father Benoit neglected nothing. He accompanied the community in all its activities and on the spiritual level. He knew who was upset or joyful and why. He knew the bottom of their hearts. In a letter written on 15th July 1934 to the Abbot of Notre-Dame de la Grâce, Father Willibrord
had relayed the words of Father Anselm, ‘Our Father who has died knew this very well, and it was precisely something which he had arranged, and our Father was, you must know, the light of our lives! What a holy man of God he was! How well he knew us!’ In the same letter he went on, ‘The good Father could not have put it better himself. They are Annamites, I am a stranger, even a member of a different race. But our Father, their venerable founder, did this and I was beside him, a little novice arrived from a cannibalistic country. Their Father had lived among them for so long, he understood them, he saw to the bottom of their hearts, and I do not yet know their tongue.’
But at the same time Father Benoit knew that at a certain moment he would have to yield his place to another superior. Deep down he wanted the Vietnamese brothers to be directed by Vietnamese brothers. In letters written to the superior of the Abbey of La-Pierre-Qui-Vire in response to a request for information for a future Benedictine foundation in Vietnam Father Benoit made the suggestion that it would be necessary to send not a large number of foreign monks but only two or three. These brothers should be pious and fervent. He confirmed that in the monastery of Phưởc Sơn there were no more than two foreigners. It is in fact important to all the brothers to live and accompany each other from within the same culture in order to follow Christ at the heart of the monastic vocation.
In his final testament Father Benoit spoke of his departure in peace. Did this imply that he meant that the accompanier should withdraw, yield the place to others and in particular to the Holy Spirit?
B. The brothers accompany one another
Here is a project for accompaniment: the brothers advance together. When Father Benoit founded the first monastery for the Vietnamese he wished that the community should be given the first place. In his spiritual instruction he insisted strongly on the fact of walking together. Spiritual accompaniment is achieved and bears fruit in community, and always has a community dimension. The young knocking on the door of the monastery share the same way of life, the same activities, the same feelings no less than the veteran seniors. All this is the basis of an effective accompaniment.
When Father Benoit decided to withdraw he insisted on the maturity of a community whose members were nourished by a single culture with common sensibilities. Aware of this he parted in peace. More than this, he had discovered a light capable of lighting the way for each member of the community.
C. The will of God, a light
The whole life of Father Benoit was directed to acceptance of the will of God. His name ‘Thuan’ expresses this idea. The will of God remains the greatest light by which the brothers advance together without losing their way and also expanding in their monastic
vocation. In fact in accompaniment both partners need to search for the will of God without the intrusion of any human will. All the members of the community must be concerned to find a process which enables them to welcome the will of God and put it into practice. This is one of the chief aims of following Christ. The same applies to discernment in particular cases. This occurs more easily if the members of the community share the same sensibility, guided by the same culture. However, accompaniment bearing a community dimension must be practised in a milieu lively and spiritual, not merely in the same geographical space.
D. The vital milieu of the Rule
The vital milieu put forward by Father Benoit puts the Rule in the first place, the Rule of St Benedict with the constitutions and customary of the community. He repeated again and again that the Rule must be observed. He would repeat this solemnly in his final testament. But this rule of life must be incarnated in a particular culture. It is for those who live in a particular culture, with their special sensibilities, to understand it and put it to work in particular circumstances.
The foundation of the monastery of Notre Dame d’An-nam (Phưởc Sơn)
To conclude my presentation I would like the return to the monastic foundation in which our founder invested so much effort. We have mentioned several times the matter of adaptation as one of the specialities of this foundation. In an era when European models had a monopoly of every sphere, even monastic life, Father Benoit chose a monasticism rooted in a local culture, civilisation and mentality.
It was a question of the incarnation of the values in the Church of the monastic tradition and the incarnation of the monastic tradition in local practices – a sort of interpenetration of values. However, this incarnation is the fruit of years during which Father Benoit exercised his ministry in the very heart of the Vietnamese population. Besides, granted that he had never received any monastic formation, his foundation clearly bears a Vietnamese character, not only in its practices but also in its manner of thought and translation of spiritual and mystical experiences.
However, this incarnation is not the only dimension which moved Father Benoit when he was founding the first Cistercian monastery in Vietnam. We have in mind spirituality. Monastic life must be seen from the viewpoint of spirituality, that is, that monasticism is a way of living out the Gospel. After fifteen years of missionary activity Father Benoit blazed a trail by which Vietnamese Christians could live out the Christian religion in its depths. This spirituality is not characterised by extraordinary spiritual phenomena such as ecstasy, which are reserved for certain initiates, but it is offered to all, even the ‘poor little nhà quê’, a class to which Father Benoit paid especial attention. It translates, in the language of Vatican II, a holiness offered to all, for all Christians are called to holiness.
Wider still, spirituality is one of the most important factors in an effort to implant the Church in Vietnam during the era of Father Benoit and still today. In fact non-Christian Vietnamese see the Church as a society well organised at the international and national levels, a charitable and educational organisation. That implies that charitable works are seen as essential activities of the Church. By inspiring the mystical dimension in Christian life through monastic life Father Benoit wanted to provide the essential element on which the Church can be built in Vietnam. Far from being an individual option, spirituality has an ecclesial dimension. Thanks to monastic spirituality– a way of living out the Gospel – the Cistercian foundation of Phưởc Sơn, discretely but effectively, can contribute to the life of Vietnamese Christians. We are of the opinion that this was a perspective which our founder had in mind.
We have spoken in two ways of building the Church in Vietnam, incarnation and spirituality. The two are linked and are interdependent. Dialogue opens the way to this double task, dialogue between cultures and religions. In the time of Father Benoit the term ‘inculturation’ was not yet in use. The word ‘adaptation’ was used. This meant an effort to incarnate the Christian life and message in a specific culture. As for the ‘adaptation’ effected by Father Benoit in his monastic foundation, the task was not limited to exterior expressions such as clothing or food – as most of his contemporaries thought – but touches the very heart of the mentality of the Vietnamese population. That is to say that he entered into the most profound layer of the personal constitution of this people, the world of religion. Religion cannot be separated from culture. In other words, no culture is neutral. Any culture carries a particular religious dimension. Since at the epoch of Father Benoit interreligious dialogue was not yet the order of the day, the angle of dialogue with culture was a particular initiative. The researches of Father Leopold Cadière of the Missions Etrangères of Paris on religious sentiments formed a part of the missionary task, and the results of his enquiries helped missionaries greatly in their apostolic work. Father Benoit was far from being learned in this subject, but his understanding of the culture and mentality of Vietnam allowed him to develop a certain dialogue. The Christian monastic foundation in Vietnam can be seen as a first step in a deeper and broader dialogue.
All this allows us to glimpse that Father Benoit in a certain way sowed the first seeds on the soil of Vietnam so that we, his heirs, may faithfully treasure his spirit and at the same time have the courage to find new initiatives for our own time and our own contemporaries.
 According to these instructions knowing the land where he is should be very important for a missionary, for from now on this country is his country, the language of those who live there is his language. This first step demands openness, a change of heart, since the language expresses to a certain extent the mentality of the People. For the missionary this apprenticeship expresses another dimension which dominates all others, namely the love of Christ which the missionary is proclaiming to the people. The love of Christ is at once love for Christians and for those who do not yet know him.