Introduction to the 12th Latino-American
Monastic Assembly (EMLA)
Dom Enrique Contreras, OSB
President of EMLA
Six years after the previous meeting of monasteries of Latin America (EMLA), held in Mexico, we experienced another meeting on monastic life in our continent. The organisation of the meeting had been entrusted to the Conference of Monastic Communities of the Southern Cone (SURCO), since the service revolves between the three zones into which the Latino-American Monastic Union is divided. The two others are ABECCA (Benedictine-Cistercian Association of the Caribbean and the Andes), which includes the UBC (Benedictine and Cistercian Union of Mexico) and the CIMBRA (Conference of Monastic Exchange of Brazil).
A Monastic Encounter
The custom of monastic encounters is very ancient in Christian monachism. From the origins we find evidence of this practice. Thus in the foundational text of our monastic life, the Life of Saint Antony by Athanasius of Alexandria in the middle of the fourth century we find:
On a certain occasion the monks begged Antony to come down and visit them and observe them, as well as the places (where they were living) for some time. He set off with the monks who had come to look for him. A camel was carrying food and water for them, since this desert was very dry and devoid of drinking-water except on the isolated mountain where it had been found, and where Antony had given himself up to asceticism. On the way the water gave out. It was very hot, and all were in danger. They went around but could find no water. They could go no further and lay down on the ground, leaving the camel to wander off. The old man, seeing that everyone was in danger, deeply afflicted and groaning, went off by himself, knelt down and stretched out his hands to pray. At this very moment the Lord made water spring up at the very place where he was praying. So all drank and renewed their energies. Having filled their gourds they looked for the camel and found it. In fact the ropes were tangled on a rock and the camel could not move. The monks took it in charge, watered it and loaded it with their provisions of water. Then they could continue without danger.
When they arrived at the more distant monasteries everyone, seeing Antony as a father, embraced him, and he, just as though he had brought provisions from the mountain, nourished them with words and distributed to them spiritual goods. In these mountains there was great joy and zeal to make progress and comfort from their shared confidence (cf. Romans 1.12).
The text here given gives certain important pieces of information, but above all the desire to share the life-experience and the teaching of a great saint. Nevertheless, for this desire to be fulfilled it was necessary to make a long journey, not without danger and serious difficulties. Once these obstacles were overcome the meeting allowed them to profit from the great joy of a blessed exchange.
In the course of the years the Latin American meetings have many, many times confirmed the importance and the happy desire to share the pains and joys of our common vocation among monks and nuns. That is the main objective of our structure of EMLA. I add immediately that the history of this structure has not always been easy. However, the need to encourage one another has always prevailed in a fruitful exchange of our expriences of the monastic charism.
The Life of Saint Antony shows that travelling, even if today it brings less dangers than previously, should not be taken lightly: long distances, long hours of travel by air, bus or car, long lines of waiting. The current dangers, perhaps greater than previous ones, test the monastic patience of which we hear so much. Nevertheless, the difficulties are always compensated by the great advantage which we receive from our meeting. We can sum them up in the words of the Psalmist: ‘How good, how pleasant it is when kindred live in unity’ (Ps 132.1).
The Fruits of EMLA
The Life of St Antony sums up admirably the fruits of the fraternal encounter. For a start, a share in the feast of words which brings us a fine spiritual benefit. Next, the joy and ardent longing to make progress in the spiritual life. Thirdly, the encouragement flowing from mutual trust. Thus in our meetings we nourish one another with the bread of the Word and the bread of the Eucharist. This precisely was the central theme of the twelfth meeting of EMLA: Eucharist and monastic life. By chance, this meeing began on the day celebrating the memory of St Jerome, that great lover of the Word of God. Equally we shared the nourishment provided by the conferences, the round-table discussions, the group meetings, plenary meetings, personal exchanges. And all this with the absolute certainty of gaining spiritual nourishment.
We also found, not only in this meeting of EMLA but also in earlier ones, the profound joy of discovering that we were not alone on this path of following Christ. We want to renew ourselves in the sincere and ardent desire to make progress in the life of the Spirit.
The Life of Saint Antony spoke to us of strengthening, thanks to shared confidence. At our twelfth EMLA this was fundamentally translated into two words, simplicity and harmony.
A simple harmony typified our daily life in our meetings and especially in our pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Cura Brochero, like an invisible cloak over the spaces of the pastoral and spiritual house which José Gabriel de Rosario Brochero founded and animated, and which is fully active. Comparisons are often odious, so I resist any way which might suggest, ‘It would have been better if…’, despite our many human limitations. The twelfth meeting confirmed the need to travel in order to come together, meet one another and share and dialogue. We were enabled to uphold our spiritual progress with joy, making use of the talks which encouraged and renewed us to follow Christ with ever greater devotion.
A Wish and a Worry
It seems to me that our twelfth EMLA aroused an almost spontaneous desire to deepen our experience of lectio divina. The matter was mentioned sporadically, but several times as it arose during the meetings, but it deserved a treatment more thorough and more profound, which would open the way to a renewal of the practice so essential to monastic life.
At each EMLA I feel a pre-occupation, perhaps too personal: What about our return to the sources, to the teachings of the monastic
fathers? It is true that the demands of our times are numerous, as well as the challenges we must face before the realities of a complex age. But does this exempt us from paying careful attention once more to the teachings which our fathers in monastic life have left us?
In all these cases EMLA confirms again and again for each one of us, with a new and greater urgency, the need to meet one another in order to continue to grow in the confidence and joy of knowing that God the Father loves us to the end in his Son (John 13.1). It is this which sustains us in our shared monastic vocation.
As the Life of St Antony teaches us, relying on the teaching of St Paul: ‘Let us be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, yours and mine’ (Romans 1.12).