Benedictine and Cistercian Monasteries in Thailand,
Saint Benedict in the Land of Buddha
14th August, 2018 Chiang Mai airport – little notices pretty well everywhere, warning tourists against abusing the image of the Buddha, punishable by law in this country which calls itself ‘Land of Buddha’. So we are warned that we are stepping into a country which is 95% Buddhist, whose national identity is inseparable from this tradition. There are some 380,000 Catholics in the whole country (less than 0.7% of the total population, despite three hundred years of presence) and these rarely belong ethnically to the dominant Thai race. They are to be met mostly among mountain ethnic minorities in the North of the country (for example Karens), among the descendants of migrant Vietnamese who fled the persecutions of the nineteenth century or took up residence a little later because of the wars of the twentieth century (mostly in the East of the country near the frontier with Laos). Equally there are descendants of Chinese Catholics. The two Christian monasteries are each set in the territories of the Thai Church, one in the North near Chiang Mai, the other near the frontier with Laos.
Fr Stephane (retired abbot of Thiên An and superior of the Benedictine monastery) is waiting for us, accompanied by a young Karen postulant. This was emotional for Fr Simon Hoa who was part of the group. Monk of Thiên Binh, he had been one of the founders of this little monastery in 2010 and looked after it until 2013 when the Abbey of Thiên An took complete charge of it.
Fr Stephane remembers that everything began in 2004 when, in the course of a General Chapter of the Subiaco Congregation at Praglia, the Bishop of Padua, Mgr Antonio Mattiazo, suggested founding a Benedictine monastery in Thailand to accompany in prayer the Italian missionaries sent to this country, especially to the mountain people. Those chosen to conduct this foundation were from the Vietnamese province, and more particularly from three of the four monasteries. After several visits and meetings the choice fell on a plot of 6 hectares near Chang Mai, which was bought by Mgr Mattiazo. In 2010 four brothers (two from Thiên Phước, one from Thiên An and one from Thiên Binh) and Fr Simon Hoa left Vietnam for Thailand. The plot had already a building of about 250 square metres which had served as a laboratory for plants and trees cultivated in the region, whose framework would serve the monks for pig-farming. At present they shelter chickens, ducks and geese. It had taken some time to clean, restore and set up this building which, in Fr Simon’s memory, had been extremely dirty.
At our arrival after a journey by road of about half an hour, at the end of a long avenue bordered by various trees and bamboos, we passed the gateway of a new enclosure wall and discovered a totally new white building surrounded by greenery. Begun in 2014, thanks to the diocese (whose bishop is remotely of Vietnamese ancestry) and the Benedictines, it harbours today the little community of Fr Stephane, three brothers of Thiên An, a Karen postulant and another Thai, temporarily professed, who has decided not to persevere but still lives with the monks. Other brothers of the mother-house (four of them while we were there) come regularly on tourist visas to help them. The little community has never exceeded six permanent monks, fundamentally because of the restriction imposed by the government on visas for missionaries. The two dioceses of the North (Chiang Mai and since April 2018 Chiang Rai) being mission territory for several religious Congregations, it is necessary to wait for the grant of an annual visa until ‘missionary places’ become free.
The government is not hostile to the presence of Catholics, who in fact render important service to the country in education and health, but it is careful to retain a clearly Buddhist and Thai identity, whence the quota and relatively strict control of foreigners who wish to take up residence in the country.
The monastery of St Benedict (being the only one in the country, it has no other name) is a haven of peace and silence, surrounded by nature and remote from the world. The contrast with its great, highly populated Vietnamese brothers is striking. Here the mission is special, truly centred on prayer to sustain missionary activity. It is impossible to imagine an influx of vocations, which would be inconceivable in the particular religious and cultural context. On the other hand, if the monastery had a guesthouse it would avail for Thai Catholics or foreign missionaries as a resource. This is one of the dreams of Fr Stephane, who would love to transform the old and hardly used building or construct a specific building near the entrance. He also imagines a lodge and above all a church, which he envisages on the left of the entrance. For the moment the new building harbours a chapel which suffices for the little community and squeezes in the score of faithful who come regularly to Sunday Mass. The same faithful (often of Vietnamese origin) help the brothers in case of need.
The brothers sing the liturgy of the hours from 4.15 onwards, at present in Vietnamese. At the request of the bishop they have accepted to change the colour of their habits from black (in Thailand too firmly associated with mourning) to white. Apart from prayer the monks have plenty to do to maintain the plot of land, where luxuriant vegetation threatens to encroach on the plantations of fruit-trees (longanes and bananas). The soil is poor, difficult to cultivate. A small pond allows them to breed fish for the table, and poultry live peacefully with two dogs which rarely bark. The silence is hardly broken by bird-song and the sound of ventilators when the heat becomes too crushing.
In September the newly-arrived monks destined to stay will go to take a course in Thai. It is no easy task to master this language with its very particular alphabet, but it is a condition for a prolonged stay, for the celebration of Mass, and of course for a successful entry into the local Church and society.
A few days later we took a flight to the extreme East of the country near the border with Laos into the third region most peopled by Christians (after Bangkok and the North) to find there the Cistercian community of Notre-Dame du Rosaire, founded by the Vietnamese monastery of Phước Sơn of the Congregation of the Holy Family. There Fr Joachim, still superior for a few weeks, welcomed us in a community temporarily reduced to three (four monks are in Vietnam). The reality of this Cistercian foundation in the province of Sakon Nakhon, belonging to the archdiocese of Thare and Nonseng is not fundamentally different from the Benedictine foundation, though different on some points.
To begin with, it is more recent (2014), made at the request of the Archbishop of the region, Mgr Louis Chamniern Santisukniram (whose grandparents are Vietnamese), who wanted to have a contemplative community to support by their prayer the missionary activity of his diocese and offer a place of retreat. He approached Dom John of the Cross, abbot of the flourishing monastery of Phước Sơn (which has 150 monks, not far from Hô-Chi-Minh-City and has just celebrated its centenary) and President of the Congregation of the Holy Family. To facilitate the foundation the archbishop gave the monks the use of a plot of land and material and financial help. The little community of seven Vietnamese monks will soon be augmented to ten, and has its first young Thai who intends to deepen his experience of monastic life.
This plot of land, owned by the diocese, first served an Italian Congregation who used it for drug addicts, then sisters who helped the priest of the village and assisted the poorest people. At the arrival of the brothers it already had a building, but the surrounding land was overrun with vegetation and rather marshy. It was necessary to clean and level a part of the plot with tons of earth to make it usable. Of the 30 hectares potentially available only 10 are at present in use. Fruit-trees have been planted, notably bananas, lemons, avocados and other tropical fruits. Rice-fields have been set up to nourish the community and eventually help the poorest people of the neighbouring village nearby, 95% of whom are Christian, but of whom half the 300 inhabitants work in Bangkok. The inhabitants of the village were generous in their help to the monks when they arrived and certain families continue to give them precious help.
One surprising feature is the existence in this region of a number of villages almost entirely Christian, constituted principally of descendants of Vietnamese or Laotians. At Khoksaad the bells of the church of Don Bosco are audible in the monastery morning and evening; they are rung by one of the villagers who lives opposite the church. A retired boxer, he is very proud of his role. Once a Buddhist, he became Catholic some years ago, in order to marry his wife, before the effects of Vatican II removing the obligation became felt. After the bells come prayers and hymns, recordings diffused by powerful loud-speakers. In the whole region (one of the poorest in the country because of its relative dryness during the monsoon season) Christians represent hardly 1.7% of the population, as in the North, that is, about 50,000 faithful. But the Church, as in the North, is extremely active. Congregations play a part in the matter of education, and other social work, and the faithful maintain a strong practice. In addition, being close to the River Mekong which forms the frontier with Laos, the diocese has a pilgrimage place of the seven Thai martyrs (six women, of whom one was a religious, and one man, killed by the police in December 1940). Finally, at Christmas time the Church organises three days of festivities known throughout the country, which bring together populations of all origins. The Christmas Star Parade consists of processions of dozens of highly-coloured and richly-decorated and lighted floats.
To return to the monks, whom enclosure prevents from taking part in these processions (although they go to see them), they are aware that they live in a region in many ways rather special for the Church of Thailand. For their food and also for sale, they farm poultry and fish on a small scale. In the end they plan to farm pigs also and they already have everything necessary for growing soya. But, having few material goods and a small community, this takes time, and there is no lack of hard work. In 2017 they built what now serves as a kitchen and refectory for the community, and they need also to improve the water-supply, especially to irrigate the plantations of fruit trees during the dry season.
In the coming months the first stone of what will be the monastery is due to be laid, further inside their land. The present buildings will serve as a guesthouse to receive guests, who are already not scarce. For special occasions when outsiders are invited (in large numbers, for example on one day in October, the month of Mary, to adapt a custom of the local Church in honour of Our Lady of the Rosary). The Office is celebrated in Vietnamese by the community. It seems that the faithful who have begun to come to Mass have little idea of the contemplative life and do not necessarily understand the idea of enclosure, which is indeed hardly visible. It seems that the example of Buddhist monasticism makes the notion of enclosure difficult to comprehend. Some of the brothers were upset by what they took to be an intrusion on their way of life. The balance between hospitality and enclosure will obviously be easier to establish when the new buildings have been constructed and permit a clear separation between space reserved to the community and space open to the public. It will then be possible to explain this to others.
Thus, for the two Vietnamese foundations in a country where the strong Buddhist tradition gives the Catholic Church a very special character, there are many challenges. But the mission is clear enough: to be a place of prayer and spiritual welcome to sustain a missionary activity which is far from complete.