Dom Philippe Minh Tuy, OSB
Superior of the monastery of Thiên Binh
The Spatial Organisation
of a Benedictine Monastery in Vietnam
Preliminaries: The spatial organisation of a Benedictine monastery should facilitate the search for God to which the monks have committed themselves for life. In the course of history a model has more or less imposed itself in the Christian West: a monastery organised round a church and cloister with different specialised spaces. In Vietnam monasticism is very recent (towards the end of the 1930s), the country is chiefly Buddhist (Catholics represent only 7% of the population), and the political context of the last eighty years has been troubled, to put it mildly. To this should be added recent major economic and social upheavals with important spatial consequences (periurbanisation, pressure of population), not to mention an explosion of religious vocations.
In this special context how should the construction of a Benedictine monastery be laid out? What are the spatial logic and priorities which should be expressed, and what influences should prevail? The case of the monastery of Thiên Binh is particularly interesting in that it has at its disposal 23 hectares of land, and is situated in a very populous diocese on the edge of Hô-Chi-Minh-City and presents a number of peculiarities by comparison to its brother-monasteries, the fruits of particular circumstances and surely the visionary and profoundly spiritual insight of its superior since 2004. We record here his purposes, gathered in the course of several interviews.
1. The Origins
The monastery of Thiên Binh was founded by Thiên An in 1970, thanks to the action of Dom Thaddeus (1918-1995) who had initiated monastic life from the Abbey of La-Pierre-Qui-Vire during the 1950s. Situated some forty km north-west of the capital Saigon, it ran from the beginning a technical school for poor children. Thus it is faithful to the missionary tradition of its French elder brother (which also has a school), but at the same time bears witness to the tender care of the founder for the poor and his evangelical ardour which continues to inspire the community today.
The government of the time was favourable and the monastery has 300 hectares of land, playing fields for the young, largely occupied by rice-fields and bamboos. Some buildings of this period still exist, the little chapel and part of the present guesthouse, which at that time housed students. But in 1975 the arrival of the communists broke up this missionary monastic enterprise: the land was confiscated, the school removed and religious life prohibited, so that the little community was dissolved. Few monks remained, and they led a clandestine life of prayer, presenting themselves as simple, poor peasants. This period was very difficult, and they suffered greatly from hunger.
At the beginning of the 1990s the regime was liberalised and allowed the resumption of forms of religious life, especially if they served the pressing needs of education and health. The authorities asked Dom Thaddeus to open the school again. Considering himself too old and tired to undertake such a task, he gained permission to send two monks (one of whom was Dom Philip) to be formed in France at La-Pierre-Qui-Vire. Dom Philip remained there for six years, from 1994 to 2000. During this time he made journeys to several other monasteries and countries, which were to be real sources of inspiration for him. He discovered also in depth what monastic life was about, and on his return and even more when in 2004 he was appointed superior, he set about the task in the monastery he loved so much, where he had arrived as a pupil at the age of 12 in 1970. His aim was clear: he hoped to develop a monastic life in the service of the Gospel, solidly rooted in tradition, in meditation on the Word of God, with a missionary vision especially directed toward the poorest (as had the founder), compatible with monastic identity and the flexible enclosure which characterised it. ‘Monks should not go to the people, but should draw them to the monastery and respond to their needs.’ In putting his ideas, inspired by faith, by his experience, by his culture, his pragmatism, his empathy, into practice he attributed great importance to the overall spatial organisation of the monastery. This organisation was long pondered in community, in connexion with the Holy Scripture, with the needs of the many young monks for beginning the contemplative life with a well arranged, spiritual and attractive space. It must also serve the needs of the Church and Vietnamese society. On the basis of these ideas it needed many years of reflexion, work and experience to shape the details.
2. An overall Plan in the service of the Mission
The areas of the monastery of Thiên Binh, as of many monasteries, fall into three categories: a private space where the identity of each monk is built up, a semi-public space intended for welcome with care for conversion and witness, and a public space, open to all, where service of the poor is carried on.
The private space of the monks: this is the heart of the monastery and harbours a life centred on the search for God, where, as St Benedict says, nothing must be preferred to the love of Christ. In the matter of buildings the church is central, the head of the community as Christ is the head of the Church. Great and new (consecrated at the end of 2016) it is the pivot round which the new organisation of space will occur, with new buildings but the same logic: simple buildings, avoiding all luxury, favouring humility and poverty in the spirit of the Gospel, separated from one another but linked by corridors and in deep communion with nature. A cloister (to encourage silence) structures the space; it will gradually replace the present more disparate organisation, the result of successive additions. So it is a place still under construction, like any monastery where there are adaptations reflecting a strong dynamism. A little further off, on the other side of a road, the monks also have a small farm.
The semi-public space comes between the strictly monastic world and the ‘profane’ world. It is situated inside the curtilage of the monastery but outside the private area of the monks, to be used by both one and the other. In the first place it is a ‘spiritual park’ of peace and silence at the entry to the monastery (so used by all) and is furnished with alleyways and benches, statues of Christ and Mary, a Way of the Cross, and alley of remembrance of deceased donors. It is an intermediate space where one leaves behind all the cares of the world to prepare the heart for prayer.
Next comes the hospitality which is divided into two categories: a classic guesthouse, near to the church and the oratory, intended to offer to all the experience of a life lived in solitude, which the monks lead. A second area is more distant, in the forest and intended for welcoming groups, notably young Scouts, where they can camp, play and sing without upsetting the community. The space mixes welcome and the work of the monks, since the monks have there a fish-farm. There is also a chapel and other places of prayer. Just beside it are some individual houses, remnants of a previous age when the land was taken over by individuals. Since the land belongs more or less tacitly to those who occupy it, the monks have been obliged to build an encircling wall and construct buildings to preserve those possessions of theirs which they have been able gradually to buy back. This has involved considerable expense and worry, but today the area of the monastery seems to be better protected against encroachment from urban pressure. The possibility of living a Benedictine monastic life of work and prayer seems for the moment to be guaranteed, and the monastery thus offers people from the outside, both religious and lay, a very precious place of physical and spiritual repose. This also responds to a need of the local Vietnamese Church.
Next the public space for the living and the dead. This is situated outside the curtilage of the monastery but on land belonging to the monks. First there is a dispensary to treat free of charge the poorest people, whatever their origin or confession, many of whom come pouring to the monastery three times a week. This dispensary is the cornerstone of a gospel monastic life in the service of the poor. It also responds to a request of the authorities to provide a service to the local population in a very defective sector of the country. Several brothers work there, including a doctor specially formed in traditional medicine. Laypeople are also employed there and many volunteers come to help the monks. This mirrors a practice widespread in Buddhist monasteries, where the sick are often cared for and lodged, which is a source of inspiration and encouragement for the monks of Thiên Binh. If for the moment it is beyond the resources of the monastery to feed the sick, anyone who desires it may drink the water provided free of charge at the side of the dispensary. This is an entirely free evangelical service provided for the very poor and any who desire it, distributing drinking water (‘the water of heaven’) free from a well sunk in 2005. Its quality is controlled by the Pasteur Institute of Vietnam. These two services next to each other are places where the monks respond to the demands of Jesus to give drink to those who are thirsty and help to those who need it. They are also key places for encounter between Christians and non-Christians. Those who are looked after repay the monastery willingly for what they have received in material gifts sometimes by work, sometimes by other services. ‘If one gives generously, God gives generously.’
Finally another remarkable feature of this public evangelical space, the cemetery, whose function needs a lot of explanation. It includes dozens of tombs, only three of which are for monks of the monastery (including Dom Thaddeus). In fact the first six bodies to be buried there belonged to a poor family killed by a bomb in 1975. Next religious sisters, members of the family of the founder, lay friends of the monastery, members of other religious congregations who asked to be buried in this place which has become a reflection of the diversity of the Church and the openness of the monastery to such diversity. It is well known that the cult of ancestors flourishes in Vietnam, and it is here spiritually linked to the communion of saints, with the idea that the dead need the prayers of the living and in return souls that have reached paradise can intercede before God to uphold and protect the monastery. Again, it is a mutual exchange, to which the Mass celebrated on 2nd November, commemoration of the dead, perfectly responds.
3. Nature and Harmony at the heart of each Space
Nature must be omnipresent as a key element of contemplative life. There is a natural harmony between human life and the life of the universe. Monastic life must be able to contemplate all the aspects of creation. It is essential to watch grass and plants growing, both for monks and guests and for all who are linked to the monastery. This link with nature is written deep in the Asiatic heart, and especially in their manner of speaking.
Also the monks have planted (and continue to plant) many trees in the areas described. Not only do they provide shade and freshness; they also serve to create a micro-climate which has considerably modified the very arid countryside of the 1970s. Ponds have been dug to gather rainwater and permit fish-farming. The natural spaces progressively created constitute a little island of greenery, calm and biodiversity which is becoming a luxury in a global environment ever more scarred by tarmac and concrete. It has also become a refuge for varied fauna pushed back by urbanisation, fauna which Dom Philip will not allow to be hunted. Even snakes and scorpions are respected at Thiên Binh. All this greenery helps contemplation and prayer and offers an essential resource, allowing the re-creation of the natural harmony between humans and the universe created by God.
The notion of harmony is also at the heart of the respect due to the dead, in the duty of memory of the dead by the living which should be shown in prayer, in regular visits to the cemetery and the offering of flowers and incense. Plants placed at the tombs also witness to the link between life and death. The dead person is dead but still living. A number of palm-trees grow in this place, plants of curcuma which will be used to make traditional remedies. But no one can deceive themselves about the permanence of life which is flowing on. All this is a deep reminder of the Christian faith in eternal life, death conquered by life.
Nature is also at the heart of the care so generously given in the dispensary. The monks no less than their lay helpers consecrate a lot of energy to growing the medicinal plants or searching the forests for those which are lacking. The synergy around nature, harmony, fraternity and prayer is, then, multiple.
Despite a context difficult from the very origin, by the grace of God the monastery of Thiên Binh is a stimulating witness to an attempt to organise a spiritual space, integrating many dimensions and seeking to respond in harmony with the Gospel to very diverse needs. Let our prayers accompany them!