New Cistercian Solidarities: The Experience of an Encounter

Mari Paz López Santos

Lay Cistercian of Santa Maria de Huerta, Spain.

The third meeting of lay Cictercians took place at Clairvaux from the 1st to 7th June, organised by the Fraternity of the Grange of St Bernard, Clairvaux, and gathered together about seven hundred people for a week. A first meeting had taken place at Quilvo, Chile, and a second at Conyers (USA). Now the third, but the first in Europe, was taking place here at Clairvaux.

Clairvaux played a predominant role in the expansion of Cîteaux. A few years back, certain lay people felt called to go more deeply into the spirituality of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. This Fraternity of the Grange of St Bernard of Clairvaux normally holds its meetings on the site of a grange of the former lay Brothers, men who lived at once in the world and in the monastery. Coincidence? Maybe, but life is full of significant coincidences. At this meeting the Holy Spirit was so close that we could feel his presence with us and among us.

Among our number were a score of monks and nuns from various monasteries. Dom Bernard Olivera, Abbot General, was with us from beginning to end with a quality of presence whose warmth and closeness touched us deeply. The monastic Community of Cîteaux was there, in the presence of Dom Olivier Querandel, the Abbot, Fr Bernard who led the singing of the liturgy, and other Brothers to be with us and to share with us.

We lay people came from a great variety of lands: Chile, USA, Ireland, Low Countries, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, France, Spain, Cameroon, Morocco, Indonesia, the Philippines, and New Zealand. During the conferences, liturgical celebrations, daily exchanges, meals, small group-meetings and other meetings, we used three languages, French, English and Spanish. Language is not a problem when there is a desire to communicate and share. The lay and monastic participants provided simultaneous translations. Words and gestures do help understanding, but are only aids to a superior language - love. We lived that out at Clairvaux.

The Meetings opened with a Eucharist presided over by Mgr Marc Stenger, Bishop of the diocese of Troyes, where Clairvaux is situated. He presented Bernard of Clairvaux as one who 'incarnates, in a particularly remarkable way, the figure of the monk apostle, a seeming paradox. This great herald of the love of God, a love which lights up human life, inviting us to discover the truth of our being'.

Dom Olivier, Abbot of Cîteaux, gave a talk entitled 'Cistercian Diaconate'. Playing on the words servire, invicem, solatium, and mandatum, he led us to move from the service of the Lord to fraternal service, a service which becomes aid, relief, consolation and takes flesh in gestures which have an unmistakable evangelical value on a level with the washing of the feet.

The whole afternoon of the second day was spent in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the oratory. This was a time of prayer to ask the presence and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit during this meeting.

The co-ordinators and representatives of the Fraternities shared their experience for two days: who they are, how they started, what drives them to persevere, how they organise themselves, what they are lacking, what difficulties they encounter, and what are the specific characteristics of their fraternity.

We heard people from different countries and cultures express how they feel they belong to a single Cistercian family, how they experience their link with their monastic Community, how they hope to advance on the path of prayer, of lectio divina, in simplicity, their understanding of work, of openness to others. We find the same charism poured out in the hearts of the lay people and fraternities living ‘in the world' and in monastic Communities. It is evident that the Cistercian charism is not reserved to those living within the enclosure, that monastic Cistercian life has significance for lay people. So let us live it together, in mutual respect, awareness and enrichment, inviting others to discover it. Our life as lay people and our presence in the world are not an obstacle to living in communion with one another.

We were able to measure the diversity of experiences and life-styles within a same charism by examining the concrete reality of each particular lay person or fraternity. Some monastic Communities support the lay people, and go forward with them; others are not too clear about this movement, and still others perhaps have had an unfortunate experience, and do not dare go forward. Some lay people are integrated into a Fraternity, some are not, either by choice, or because in their Monastery there is as yet no Fraternity. All that is normal because the path is waiting to be created, it will be created as we walk along it. Discovering so many experiences opened us up to dimensions that are world-wide and attest to the fact that we are members of one great family. Our Brothers and Sisters in the Monastery are no doubt more used to the idea, because for centuries now they have been present on the world scene. But we, the laity, are this little branch which has grown up from the great centuries-old tree which is Cîteaux, and it is a branch which needs to be acknowledged.

I was surprised by two aspects, which I found particularly significant:

  1. Cistercian lay life can open up to ecumenism. The representative of a Community in New Zealand explained to us how in his country Anglicans and Catholics together live out the same Cistercian spirituality: 'The Rule of St Benedict and Cistercian spirituality predate divisions.'

  1. This lay Cistercian life can be a path toward unity, as Dom Bernardo Olivera said so well: 'The lay element can be an important one on the road leading to Cistercian Unity.' The meeting at Clairvaux brought together lay people attached to different branches of the Cistercian family; that did not prevent us from praying and sharing together. No doubt we lay people do not carry in our flesh the wounds of the past Maybe lay Cistercian life is less conditioned by structures inherited from the past years and centuries. Maybe we will have to go forward 'little by little, step by step', as the Abbot General put it. We know that in monastic life, time takes on a different dimension.

There were also conferences dealing with Cistercian spirituality. Thus, Puri Mendoza of the Atlas Fraternity (Morocco) spoke to us about poverty, Francisco Ambrosetti of the Fraternity of the Holy Spirit (USA) dealt with 'Community', and Denise Guerber from the Grange Clairvaux spoke of the Rule of St Benedict in the daily life of a lay Cistercian.

In the course of these three days, the representatives of the Fraternities met to elect the new International Committee. This Committee will be responsible for preparing and animating the next meeting in 2008, will present to the General Chapter what took place at the Clairvaux meeting, and will ensure that no Fraternity is absent through lack of funds, as was the case this year of the fraternity of the Equator.

One question was taken at an open meeting with the Abbot General, a question coming from fraternities and individuals attached to Monasteries. Dom Bernard said: 'I think we are facing the first question of the next meeting of lay Cistercians: Can one be a lay Cistercian without belonging to a lay fraternity? We have three years to reply to this question. Let us hope we will let the Holy Spirit breathe on us and lead us on the right path, by trying to give shape to the unquestionable reality of the lay Cistercian movement.

We all know that every human activity needs some form of structure, however minimal, This structure must not stifle the Holy Spirit; it should allow diversity to be a source of riches, so that differences do not become a cause of anxiety. It must encourage a greater closeness in which we can continue to advance together. The essential elements must not give way to organisation. This is a demanding task, but also a great adventure if we live it confidently, staying in touch, keeping the lines of communication open, gradually, moving forward in joy and discernment, committing everything to prayer.

At the end of the session we visited Clairvaux, part prison (which of course is not open to visitors), part ruins. We returned deeply affected and saddened. This place to which men retreated freely to consecrate themselves to seeking God has been transformed into a place where other men are forced to stay away from society as part of their sentence. The cloister of Clairvaux, the symbol of paradise has become a prison.

On the last day we went to Cîteaux (about 200km away) for a day of celebration with the Community. The Abbot of Cîteaux with a few of his Brothers came right out into the grounds to welcome us, and together we went to the Church for prayer. Dom Olivier and two of his Brothers with aprons round their habits, and with a big copper basin of scented water, jugs and white towels went along the two front benches, kneeling and washing the feet of some of the lay people who had taken part in the meetings. Liturgy becomes life when life has been prayed about, meditated upon, and given into the hands of God. It was a moment of great intensity. Dom Oliver in his talk had introduced us to the idea of service and hospitality, and so we were ready to open ourselves to the emotion, the tenderness and the deep sense of understanding of the sacramental implications of this liturgical gesture.

The day went on in a festive and fraternal atmosphere. We ate with the Community in the guesthouse, we visited the historic buildings such as the library and the definitory. Then Brother Joel, the Prior of Cîteaux, read extracts from Stephen Harding's 'Charter of Charity', while we sat on benches around what would have been the edge of the original oratory of Cîteaux, where Bernard of Clairvaux made his monastic profession. We ended with the inevitable family photo with the Founders in the background. If practically nothing is left of the original monastery, the essential remains. At the end of the day, 'it's the same heavens, the same God'. The monastic heritage remains intact.

I cannot but mention one final detail: the Community of Cîteaux gave us all a rosary made of wooden beads fashioned by the monks in the infirmary. That reminded me of something Aelred of Rievaulx said: 'To all this we must add our prayers for each other.' I can just imagine these Brothers, in the infirmary because of their age or ill-health, stringing together these wooden beads, transforming this work into prayer for each other.

By way of conclusion, we can only thank the Brothers for these hands and these prayers, as we put into practice the advice of Aelred of Rievaulx.

Translated from the French by Sr Mary Philippa Manweiler OC, Monastery of Our Lady of Hyning, Carnforth, Lancashire, England.