Brother Edmond Amos Zongo, OSB
Koubri, Burkina Faso
An experience of interior Freedom
for union with God
In this short presentation I would like to try to say what religious life in the Church represents and, in consequence, what monastic life represents for me. To many young Christians in these days monastic life appears to be a way of religious life which belongs to a former age because for them a monk does not have a direct apostolate. I shall not attempt to justify myself, since for me monastic life has its source in the gospel, the living Word, present today. This is what gives monastic life its usefulness. It is easy to assess monastic life positively or negatively from outside, but to speak of a personal experience is both more difficult and more useful. I am young and practically lacking in experience to speak of the life that I am living. Only true monks, that is, those who have at least thirty years of religious life, could do this. All the same, I will say the little that I feel.
My name is Brother Edmond Amos Zongo. I experienced the call to the religious life, like many others, when I was very young. I spoke about it to the priest in charge of vocations in my parish. At first he directed me towards the minor seminary so that I should become a diocesan priest. But I told him that I felt called to a contemplative more than an active life. However, as I did not know any monastery in Africa, this seemed difficult. He told me that there was a Benedictine monastery in the diocese of Ouagadougou, and undertook to make an approach for me. God be praised! The first contact with the monastery occurred in August 1995. After various stays I definitively entered in October 1997. At the end of the noviciate I made my temporary profession on 18th October, 2001, and solemn profession on the 10th February, 2007.
Monastic life is a religious life like other forms of religious life, with the commitment to follow the evangelical counsels which history has summed up in the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. For monks who follow the Rule of St Benedict there are the vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life, which includes poverty, chastity and other dimensions of the religious life. Monasticism is much more ancient than the other forms of the religious life. For me its particularity is that it is more focused on prayer than on work. Our Order has the motto ‘Ora et labora’. Deliberately ‘Ora’ comes first. Tradition puts it in first place because St Benedict did not want work to dominate prayer: the natural human tendency is to put work in first place. A proverb among shopkeepers is ‘the client passes away but God remains stable’. In the same way, work passes, but you can always pray at any time you like. By the same motto ‘Ora et labora’ St Paul forcefully points out to Christians, ‘someone who does not work should not eat either’ (2 Thessalonians 3.10). God has put humans on the earth for the continuation of his work, ‘You shall work by the sweat of your brow’ (Genesis 3.17-19). Nevertheless, one of St Benedict’s glories is to have rehabilitated the love of work, ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul’ (Rule 48). In the monastic vows everyone has his own importance and plays a part complementary to others. However, the monk must pray constantly, even when fulfilling the charge of work.
As for poverty, first of all a clear distinction must be made between the poverty of which Jesus speaks and a certain poverty which is misery. In misery it is impossible to seek God. A proverb puts it well, ‘Someone gnawed by hunger is deaf to any word’. Evangelical poverty is a poverty freely chosen to reach the goal proposed by Jesus in the Beatitudes, ‘Blessed are the poor, for the Kingdom of heaven is theirs’. As a disciple of Jesus I have chosen this form of poverty to be free of all attachment in order to serve freely. It is only in Christian and religious life that poverty is seen as a virtue. Our world has a horror of this word, for everyone, young or old, wants to be free, while poverty forces a person to be dependent on another.
Chastity equally helps religious to consecrate themselves wholly to the service of the Church to be brother or sister to all without exception of race or tribe. Not having spouse or children we seek to love all people with the same love as Christ himself, ‘Love one another as I have loved you’. Without this vow of chastity I think it would be difficult or impossible for me to consecrate myself wholly to the service of the universal Church. I am well aware that this is the most difficult and the most complicated of the vows. At the present time one of the weaknesses of the Catholic Church is the result of this vow, which makes difficulties for men and women consecrated to the service of the Church. For me, only community life can help me to live this vow fully. It is very demanding and can sometimes make us very uneasy.
From this vow I pass on to the vow of obedience. St Benedict speaks of obedience in more than three chapters, 5, 68, 71 (for me 72 is complementary to 71). For me as a Mossi (one of the tribes of Burkina) obedience is not very difficult, for in our culture the child is constrained to obey older people. But is this the same obedience as that of which St Benedict speaks? I would say it is not, for St Benedict speaks of two sorts of obedience. In chapter 5 of the Rule it is obedience to superiors, whereas in chapter 71 it is a question of mutual obedience. That is where obedience requires discernment: it is difficult to obey an inferior. For this to become easy the monk must be truly impregnated with monastic life. He is obeying not a human being but an order from God, transmitted by his neighbour. Someone who reaches such a degree of spiritual perception no longer suffers from obedience.
Stability, a vow specific to monks, attaches the monk to a particular place. There, where the monk has committed himself, the community becomes a new family for him, more than an adoptive family; the community becomes for him a personal possession. The vow of stability helps us and even obliges us to cultivate a climate of peace, for we are thenceforth condemned to see the same faces, the same people every day. With the vow of stability we strip ourselves completely, for we can say that we know an individual because we have lived with him for fifteen years, forty years or more in the same monastery. Monastic life is characterised by this phenomenon. Stability is a value to be cultivated.
Why do monks withdraw from the world to live separately? The more the soul is disengaged, the more it is free and more apt to reach its Creator and disposed to welcome God’s grace. Jesus himself shows us the importance of withdrawal for a time to be face to face with God. When Jesus withdrew it was not to go and relax, but to go and beseech the one whom he called Father. Monks did not invent prayer and withdrawal in order to unite themselves with God. Every time Jesus had something important to do or to decide he withdrew onto high mountains. For me these heights symbolise the desert of which the ancients speak. Every religion has its prayer: it is the special place of silence which makes it possible to enter into contact with God above all. Every day the monk cultivates this climate of silence in himself and around himself. It is the love of silence that pushes the contemplative to take a step backwards and retire into the desert. This silence allows him to be alone with the Alone. By withdrawing from the world I have more time to praise God and at the same time to implore the divine goodness for all humanity. What pleases me most in monastic life is community life, prayer with its dimension of silence, and work. Life is made to be shared. The cenobite is never alone. God is with him, and he is attached to a community. In community life I live with the brothers; we lean on each other to try to go forward step by step together, following the rhythm of each individual, day after day, towards perfection. This genuine support and sharing touches every domain: service given, mutual linkage, and especially the love which we have for one another. In this community life I find the type of family which I have left behind. It is in prayer that the community draws the strength for fraternal life. A community which does not pray cannot be a true religious community; at best it is an association for a particular purpose.
It is by work that the community of brothers makes its living, for our father St Benedict wished that ‘the brothers should live by the work of their hands’ (Rule 48.8). For me monastic life is for the universal Church what breath is for the human body. Without a life consecrated entirely to prayer for oneself and for others our world would be in the grip of the Evil One. I am very glad to be a monk because I am convinced of the usefulness of monastic life; even if my ministry is invisible, it is vital and irreplaceable. My own ministry is to pray for the whole of humanity, and only God knows whom and how my prayer can help. God shares in my small efforts of every day. Even if the Church no longer keeps schools for the instruction of children, every country can and must take up this responsibility, even if this is not the case for prayer. Even in religious countries the state cannot impose prayer on everyone. Prayer belongs to monastic life: in monastic life we give to God our life, our faith, our whole being. It becomes our security, our strength and simply our source of life. I can be betrayed by my neighbour, but never by God. My faith and my confidence rest upon the Son of God, dead and risen to save humanity, beginning with myself. What could be more normal than for me to show him my gratitude? God is merciful and this divine mercy makes itself strongly felt in monastic life because every day I count on him. I make bold to say that the originality of our life consists in showing that agape (love) is concretised, or should be concretised when we love ourselves as God commands us. Above all when I sing Psalm 132 (How good and sweet it is for brothers to live together in unity) I see the joy of the monastic ideal which is so difficult to fulfil. In prayer I meet God and can chat with him as my Master and Saviour. I was created to live in the continual presence of God: that is how I respond to my title of religious. The religious is someone linked to the supreme Being, who wishes us to discover him more and more. In this form of life how can a human enter into contact with God except by prayer? In my prayer of each day I always think of those who put their confidence in God and I implore the mercy of God for those who need such a prayer. Monastic life should bring us closer to perfection every day. My great happiness is to know God and love God.
Now I would like to mention another point in the prayer which is so special for monks, lectio divina. The concept of lectio divina needs precision, for this term may mean study or reading a spiritual book. In fact its true meaning touches the reading of the holy scripture. Other religious traditions know meditation, but lectio divina is a reading which opens out onto meditation. Digestion comes after eating. Meditation is the appropriation of something in the memory. Lectio divina opens onto meditation, transforming it into prayer or contemplation. Meditation on the scriptures is like chewing food. This ‘chewing’ of the text consists of reading the text and allowing oneself to be transformed by it. From this enlightenment of the text springs its spiritual sense, the gift of Christ. Every monk should be a specialist in this reading, for each day he does his lectio. It is an art which must be learned. It is not the sort of reading which comes merely from deciphering the alphabet. In lectio one already knows the profit.
Since I have been in monastic life I am normally wholly at ease, though every form of life has its problems and difficulties. The proverb says that no country is better than any other; you just need to know how to live and fit in. When I entered religious life I took on a project which I still have, to seek perfection. To live without an objective leads only to discouragement. If you have an objective you can conquer discouragement. Dear brothers and sisters, to end this work I ask your benevolence, for it is the experience of a young monk, not of anyone experienced. I know that some people will find this account edifying and others will not. What can a novice bring to people who have devoured the writings of great spiritual authors like St Benedict, St Anselm, St Dominic and many others? A sincere ‘Thank you’ to any who have found interest in this reading.