Impressions of Monastic Life in Vietnam
After passing nine months in the monastery of Thiên Binh to teach a little English and French, and having visited other monasteries in the South of the country, I offer a few reflections such as a French woman may have from the observation points which are the guest-house and the classroom, based on different exchanges with several partners. These are only impressions, personal analyses certainly incomplete and faulty and surely not original. Their purpose is to share the discovery of the many difficulties which the monks and nuns of Vietnam undergo and of which we in Europe are unaware, and at the same time to share the discovery of their admirable courage. They aim at an improvement in mutual knowledge and understanding.
1. Key elements of the historico-social context in which the religious communities live.
The context in Vietnam is determined by the combination of the coming to power of a Communist regime, the evolution of this regime in a world-context and entry upon a liberal capitalist consumer society.
At least three dates have a crucial importance in the recent history of the country:
1954 North Vietnam became Communist and many Catholics from the North migrated to the South.
1975 The country was re-united and became totally Communist. The boat-people left the country, notably Catholics, and diasporas were set up in neighbouring countries, the United States, Europe and Australia. The religious communities of the South were stripped of their possessions, religious were dispersed, arrested or lived more or less clandestinely, recruitment
was forbidden. This was deeply traumatic for everyone and particularly for Catholics and the numerous religious communities which the previous régime had supported. A certain number of them were firmly planted and owned considerable property. From one day to the next they lost everything and experienced persecution, poverty, famine. The memory of this remains very vivid in religious aged over 50, whether they were already religious or still adolescents at the time.
Since 1989/90 With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism in Europe the régime became a little more liberal. A new tolerance of religious communities began to be seen, especially when the work of these communities had a social impact. On occasion the government asked them to take part in education and health ministries, two key sectors and often weak ones, especially in the strong demographic increase of the time. Communities were then able to re-form, buy back little by little some territories which had been confiscated from them and re-commence recruitment. New communities were progressively able to come and take root in the country.
Nevertheless liberalisation does not mean total absence of control. Even if ideology yielded a little to pragmatism, the power throughout local authorities kept a real surveillance over religious communities, and problems could arise or quarrels erupt, especially when relationships were not good. Many aspects of the life of communities were also subject to authorisation and so arbitrary.
It must be stressed that the country entered upon an economic model already adopted by its neighbour China especially in the south, close to Vietnam: capitalism, economic liberalism, consumer society. This economic opening initiated from 1986 onwards was given the name ‘market economy of socialist orientation’. This brought huge reversals to society in a context of strong demographic growth with the pursuit of demographic transition, ways of life more and more urban, even though the country remained largely rural. An exodus from the countryside to the cities to find work provoked a very strong urban growth and fairly anarchic extensions of towns on the periphery.
In addition, for some years now, linked to the development of the capitalist consumer society everywhere on a worldwide scale, money became the dictator. Everything (or nearly everything) was for sale. Law took on a relative character. The poison of the cult of money infiltrated into the hearts and spirits and posed many problems of conscience, particularly when problems arose: pay to get out of a crisis and gain time, or not pay and face difficulties? To keep a clear moral and spiritual orientation was not easy, especially for Catholics who kept in mind the command of Christ not to have two masters, God and money (Matthew 6.24). Among the young the seduction of material goods was equally very strong, as well as use of the internet and social media. Vietnam was not alone in this.
2. Repercussions of social change on communities
Periurbanisation, basic problems and the influx of vocations and consequent difficulties are the direct consequences of the recent evolutions.
Periurbanisation and basic problems
The strong growth of towns initiated some twenty years ago had consequences for religious life. It either limited the possibility of extension when communities were near a town or produced the risk of isolation for those more distant. Communities near towns found themselves with new neighbours, roads nearby, in fact a totally changed environment (for example Thiên Phuoc or Thủ Đức). Land which before 1975 could have belonged to already existing communities was progressively invaded, bought, occupied by families which set themselves up in the vicinity. The strong demographic growth and especially the exodus from the countryside accentuated the pressure. From the beginning of the liberalisation until today monasteries have been in competition with others to buy land and build quickly to prevent encroachment. Apart from the noise problems brought by this galloping urbanisation it has been necessary to protect properties and possession by expensive walls and be certain that the legal rights to territories are clear. All this has for a score of years demanded constant vigilance in the heart of communities and their budgets.
In certain cases (e.g. the monastery of Thiên An, on the periphery of Huê) the basic problems become major and there is an open conflict with the local authorities; so they put themselves more than ever in the hands of the Providence of God. This urban growth also creates a difficult geographical environment. This applies especially to the communities situated at Hô-Chi-Minh-City or in its large suburbs. To the heat and humidity of a tropical climate is added all the stress of life in a megapolis where traffic is very dense and air-pollution and noise intense. The Vietnamese travel principally by scooter, with the consequent fear of accidents. For example the student brothers of Thiên Binh attend courses from Monday to Friday in Hô-Chi-Minh in the Franciscan seminary and spend one-and-a-half to two hours in this dangerous traffic. Some of them admit their fear of accidents. This creates a real stress which I experienced once only, making the return journey to the main city on a scooter behind one of the brothers.
But at the same time the communities have been much helped by the influx of young people who want to join in the religious life. The opening of the 1980s has provoked an influx of religious vocations which must be recognised and welcomed.
An influx of vocations to be welcomed materially, humanly and spiritually
This is a known phenomenon which is beginning to settle down. At the moment, with the end of the population growth, numerous families are less frequent, particularly in the South and in the cities. Those who enter now or entered a dozen years ago often come from families of five to ten children, in general fairly poor, especially rural and peasant farmers from the North or central part of the country. The diocese of Vinh in the centre remains an important source of vocations. It numbers around six million inhabitants of whom 500,000 are Catholic (periodical La Croix, 24.05.2017), one of the poorest areas of Vietnam.
In the face of this influx of young people the difficulty for communities is to discern the origin of the call: genuine call from God to a consecrated life or a search for social self-improvement? This vital question is not peculiar to Vietnam nor typical of this period; communities in Africa feel it too, as did Europe in its time. The doubt arises particularly when the candidates come from poor families. In the case of Vietnam for men the status of priest is highly valued, apart from certain cases of diocesan priests, as a measure of material success. However, for some time past, and faced with the influx of candidates, diocesan seminaries are laying down conditions of entry: competition and university diplomas requiring six years of study. This in fact excludes the poorest families. Those who had not been able to study at university and aspire to become priests seek rather to enter religious communities with the idea of studying and becoming priests – which can create problems later if this does not correspond to the service required in the community.
The question of discernment of vocation is therefore central and difficult for the candidates themselves as well, though obviously God can use any means to bring people to himself, and it is well possible that those who enter for ‘bad reasons’ may end by becoming true disciples of Christ. Again, there is nothing unusual about this question, but what is striking in the case of Vietnam is that it must be asked of very numerous candidates at the same time. The explosion of vocations in a short time poses the question for any visitor to Vietnam. The reasons, as I have already explained, lie in the conjunction of a precise political situation and certain demographic and social situations, on top of an old historical basis of opposition of Catholics to the political powers, witness the strong cult of the martyrs. Since the seventeenth century the Church of Vietnam has built on the blood of martyrs, and the minority in the Catholic faith (today 7% of the population) is a strong identity factor, especially in the context of a hostile government. Young Vietnamese Catholics have therefore plenty of reasons to wish to become religious. However perhaps a strong breath of the Holy Spirit and the plan of Christ, head of the Church, should also (and especially) be seen: ‘My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55.8-9).
Whatever the causes, the major problem is the reception of these vocations. Concretely this means building new buildings on reduced and cramped lands, feeding, forming and accompanying the young. For a good dozen years this has been a major problem for communities. At the present time this concerns above all apostolic congregations and orders, especially international ones (Salesians, Redemptorists, Franciscans, Dominicans) and a little less male Benedictine monasteries (the contemplative life is not necessarily well understood in Vietnam). Cistercian monasteries have also had to face an influx of vocations pouring into monasteries of one or two hundred monks or nuns (for example Phưởc Sơn and Vĩnh-Phước). For Benedictines less than seventy monks means that the monastery is considered small, and has made the choice to remain of a modest size. Everywhere formation is a central question.
As far as I was able to see, the young people are keen to study; they are curious and really deserve to be encouraged and helped, in view of the fact that they have not been able to study in their own families.
Unevenness of population and generational conflicts
Another difficulty created by recent history: there is a gap in the age-pyramid corresponding to the virtual absence of entries between 1975 and 1995: monks between 45 and 65 are not numerous, monks born between 1975 and 1995, who have known only the communist regime and especially that of the 1990s. Apart from the difference of generation and its classic effects in all the monasteries of the world, there is above all a very different relationship to religious life and to life in general, which creates plenty of misunderstandings and tensions. The elderly monks have very consciously lived through the communism and the traumas of the years 1975-1985; they suffered persecution, hunger, poverty, and keep a lively memory of them which makes them very sensitive to the present misery of the country people who have arrived in the towns. They have also learned to struggle and to put themselves in the hands of God; they have learnt silence and mistrust.
The young people have grown up in a different context, less repressive, less purely ideological, more pragmatic, more individualistic and directed to money and consumerism. They do not always have the same patience and tenacity as the more elderly and have difficulty in understanding themselves. The young people complain that they are not listened to and understood, the more elderly lament the attitude of the young, whose self-justifications seem to them misplaced and contrary to the religious life. In this Vietnam is not alone. The power is in the hands of the elderly, but they are not numerous and the pressure from the young is very strong. The threat of an explosion is not an illusion.
In addition, the relationship to authority in Vietnamese monasteries and more widely in all religious communities seems, at least from the outside, particularly complicated. It seems that to a certain extent the rules are made to be broken, as in a game of cat-and-mouse. It is a game which seems to me to reflect the general attitude of the population with regard to the law, for it has lost its absolutism. One can get round it by paying or simply not observing it in a spirit of resistance and muddling through. In religious communities the ‘game’ of getting round the rules concerns the use of cellphones, access to the internet, smoking, alcohol and other types of nourishment, or even the possession of certain consumer goods. Obedience, a central value of the religious life and in particular of the Benedictine life, is much harmed; and a great deal of psychology, discernment and humility is needed by formators and superiors to manage the situation which is already delicate, sometimes ready to set up priorities among the regulations and close the eyes to what can be considered secondary.
A diversity of geographical origins and cultural models
Other tensions linked to geographical origins and cultural models also exist. Because of the history since 1954 communities are more numerous in the South of the country, but the majority of recent vocations come from the North and the Centre. Although it is one country it does not have exactly the same language or the same culture. Local dialects are numerous and accents strong, and religious from the South have to accustom themselves to speaking to people of the Centre which they often do not understand. Tastes in food are not exactly the same nor, for example, the attitude to money; thus people of the North can consider that those of the South waste money and do not know how to administer it. This can create an opposition between the young people of the North and the more elderly of the South. We should not forget that Vietnam was divided between 1954 and 1975 and had opposing political regimes. This must have had repercussion on the perception of life among the parents of today’s monks and nuns.
Thus, if one combines the differences of age, geographical origin and culture, it is difficult to maintain concord and unity. The differences can be many between the constituent groups, isolated superiors, frequent complaints and sometimes disagreements which break out into more or less open view. Nevertheless, doubtless because of the presence of the Holy Spirit, stronger than all human spirit, the communities are advancing and being built with great vitality despite all the difficulties. One cannot but be impressed by the work of construction which is being done in these communities. We can only stress the courage of the monks and nuns, and particularly the superiors who go forwards in these difficult circumstances, and in unshakable faith in divine Providence seek to overcome all obstacles.
3. Other Challenges
Other challenges may be circumstantial or structural:
A first challenge is set by the Formosa scandal which has consequences for religious communities. It is a question of the pollution of about 200km of coastline by a Taiwanese factory in April 2016 in the centre of the country. Hundreds of tons of fish died, emperilling the survival of local populations. The region affected is one of the poorest, most rural, agricultural and centred on fishing. It is also at present a reservoir of religious vocations. The families of some monks have been particularly affected on the level of health in their already weak financial resources or simply in their daily food supply. This is a disturbing factor for the young monks concerned. This health catastrophe has affected vocations also: young people both boys and girls wanting to give their life to the Lord have already fallen sick and been obliged to return home.
Another even more serious and more structural challenge has struck many communities, that of finding resources. We know that the Rule of St Benedict requires work to supply the needs of the community, but in the disturbed context both interior and exterior financial autonomy is difficult to attain, especially for monasteries of men. All are desperately searching for a reliable means of subsistence, without being able to find one. They multiply little varied products (fish sauce, products produced from cassava or curcuma, cattle-farming, etc) and in certain communities there is strong pressure for work. This can feed tensions, especially when the balance of tasks is, rightly or wrongly, perceived as unbalanced.
This impossibility of maintaining subsistence also brings communities into dependence on benefactors, especially those of the American diaspora. Without their gifts or loans no project of construction can be completed, and even the survival of the monasteries is put in danger. This makes it necessary to keep up a special link with donors, a link made by journeys to meet them, meals and presents of thanks, multiple spiritual gifts on the part of the monks, in particular Masses for the dead, permission for statues, monuments or other constructions requested by the donors (plaques, named benches, etc).
This creates at the same time a fine exchange of gifts and a dependence which is not always comfortable. In any case it is transitory and risky if one takes into account that new generations brought up in the diaspora are far from having the same faith and the same emotional link with Vietnam as their parents. Probably the descendants of the boat-people will see less and less need to help religious communities of Vietnam. However, the Providence of God is inexhaustible.
To conclude I would like to insist both on the multiple difficulties with which the monasteries are confronted and at the same time on the courage shown by the monks and nuns and especially superiors, who are obliged to struggle on so many fronts at the same time. With a young monastic movement and a concentration at this moment in time of multiple problems the construction of monasteries and of communities poses a number of challenges which they set about meeting with courage and unshaken faith in divine Providence. In view of this state of affairs it seems to me important not to be indifferent to their situation, but to listen to them (for I think that we also have plenty to learn from them), encourage them and notably encourage
them to formulate their needs, while at the same time seeking to bring them the help for which they ask when they do ask.
May the Lord of peace, unity and love help us to establish this solidarity and brotherhood beyond distance and difference.