Brother Anselm Sayer, osb,
Inkamana Abbey (South Africa)



7-12 november, 2016



becosagroupeImagine white-walled, thatched huts set on a manicured property carved into thick bush on slopes overlooking an expansive dam bounded by mountains. This was the Good Shepherd Retreat Centre, close to Hartbeespoort Dam, the venue for a five-day formators’ workshop, organised by the Benedictine Confederation of Southern Africa (BECOSA) and sponsored by AIM. The theme for the workshop: Monastic Formation in the Twenty-First Century. Attending the workshop were twelve formators from eight Benedictine communities in South Africa and Namibia, with Fr Mark Butlin OSB from AIM as presenter and facilitator.

After Lauds, Mass and breakfast, the formators began the initial session of the first day with lectio divina. Fr Mark then listed five key elements in monastic formation: Love of Christ; Christian charity expressed in tolerance and understanding of others; a positive attitude towards community life; moral integrity which involves honesty with oneself and others; and self-discipline leading towards monastic discipline. It was noted that all too often we have turned monastic formation into ‘monastic information’ coupled with an assessment on how the novice performs in relation to work, study and community.
Rather we should see formation as allowing both formator and formatee to enter into a vibrant relationship with God, since religion, first and foremost, is about a relationship with God. To achieve this, our focus must be on Jesus, on how Jesus talks to and relates to others as revealed in the Gospels. Our task as formators is to kindle a fire, a burning desire, in our formatees to want to relate fully to Christ as Saviour, Teacher and Friend who invites each of us to live with him here and now. The very heart of monasticism is an encounter with Jesus, and if we formators can pilot those in our care to Jesus, then monastic life will seem attractive to aspirants and candidates who come knocking at our door.

The formator’s task is to convince the person in formation that God really loves him or her. But how do we achieve this? We looked at John 4.1–30, in which Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well. Here Jesus, in the way he handles the woman, gives us some valuable tips for formation. Jesus places himself on an equal level with her, is completely free of prejudice, and focuses his entire attention on her as an individual. We formators must do the same with each formatee, by focusing on the individual rather than the group.

Several other important aspects of formation were touched upon. The first is to ‘prefer nothing to Christ’, which is absolutely key to the process of formation. So is learning to live life in community as a shared experience, as well as seeking Christ in the community. Seeking God is not seeking God ‘out there’, but seeking God in the community, the members of Christ’s Body. Jesus lived with his disciples, and to be like Jesus we must be truly human in our relationship with others. Consequently, developing our humanity is a signal part of formation, a part that all too often in the past has been ignored. Once again, we stressed the importance of honesty with self, others and community as a foundation for human development within a monastic community.

In the days that followed, these and similar themes expanded upon. It was pointed out that a formator’s task is not an easy one. In Galatians 4.19 we see that helping people can be a painful experience. And so, being a formator can be a ‘way of the Cross’ or, as Fr Mark put it, taking Jesus seriously might ‘take you into deep water’. This led to reflecting on the subject of Baptism. Religious life is essentially baptismal life in that it is a way of living out one’s baptism. Moreover, monastic life contains all the essentials of baptismal life. A monk or nun, after all, is a genuinely dedicated Christian who is making a life-long commitment in following Christ and this is what the candidate or formatee must be brought to understand. In the end, it is not will-power that helps us keep our vows but our relationship with Christ, Christ living in us.

Sacred Scripture must be allowed to shape our communities and here daily lectio plays a vital role. Both formators and formatees should, either as individuals or jointly, do lectio divina each day and, in so doing, listen to what God is telling them. Indeed, formation must be built on a living relationship with the Word of God. We are living in a time of confusion and so, naturally, we are apprehensive, frightened and worried. But it is precisely at a time like this that we need Jesus, that we need to be led by the voice of Jesus. And the voice of Jesus is found in Sacred Scripture. Fr Mark reminded us that the Rule of St Benedict is always in second place to the Gospel. The Rule on its own is not sufficient. If we formators spend too much time teaching the Rule, it can prevent the formatee coming into real contact with the Gospel and forming a close relationship with the Living Word.

Monastic life is about being changed, being converted. The question we need to ask: Is the candidate ready to be converted? Does he or she really want to undergo radical transformation? This conversion is not immediate but rather a life-long process. At this point, we reflected at considerable length on the chapter dealing with humility in the Rule. Each step on the ladder of humility brings formatees closer to conversion of heart and mind, opens the door to the Holy Spirit, and thus prepares them to encounter Jesus as a living and loving presence accompanying them at every moment of their lives.

The first session on the morning of the day before our departure began, as on every other day during the workshop, with lectio divina. Here we reflected on John 13, with special emphasis on vv. 34-35. Themes that emerged from our reflection were love, mercy and forgiveness. We were reminded that St Benedict intended a monastery to be a ‘school in the Lord’s service’ and, as such, it is a training place for how to love. Love finds its expression in gestures and actions (such as a hug or a pat on the shoulder), in humble service to others, more especially to those in our communities. In the second session of the day, Fr Michael Morrissey OMI, who has worked in Southern Africa for many years, shared with us his experience in formation and training formators. While the call to religious life is a gift from God, Fr Morrissey said, we need to understand how individuals respond to that call. Here Christian anthropology together with psychology and sociology can be useful tools for the formator in assessing and aiding candidates and those in formation.

Despite suffering from a bout of laryngitis for one or two days, Fr Mark’s input throughout the course of the workshop was both extraordinarily stimulating and inspiring. The success of this BECOSA formators’ workshop was in part due to Fr Mark’s enthusiasm, energy and extensive preparation of the subject matter for each session. Those attending the workshop also contributed to the various sessions. At some stage each day participants broke up into small groups to discuss one or other issue and then give a report back to the whole group. Each evening a group of formators met voluntarily to study a text relevant to the theme of monastic formation in the twenty-first century and then deliberate on how it pertained to the formation situation in their respective communities. It became clear from all the group discussions that most of our communities faced problems relating to formation. These problems ranged from superiors interfering unnecessarily in the formation process, finally professed openly siding with one or other formatee against the formator, and difficulties integrating certain formatees into community life.

On the evening before our departure an impromptu birthday party was held for Fr Daniel Ludik of the Anglican Benedictine community at Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. It was a happy and lively occasion with snacks, drinks, party games, singing and dancing; a fitting conclusion to an intense and thought-provoking workshop.

The following morning we took our last look at the Hartbeespoort dam and mountains to the north of us. It was a vista so reminiscent of the French Riviera or Dalmatian coast. After breakfast, the Namibians left for the airport and their flight home. The rest of us set out on what would be a five or six-hour road journey to our respective communities. With us went the clear message that our Benedictine monasteries and convents must be places where people meet Christ. Our monastic communities would then be not only places where conversion takes place but also places of love and joy.