Edward Vebelum, OSB
St John’s Abbey, Collegeville (USA)
BEAO – Benedictines of East Asia and Oceania
Thanks to the initiative of AIM, representatives of the many East Asian Benedictine and Cistercian communities met together for the first time in Bangkok in 1968. Present at the meeting were monks who had already become involved in interreligious dialogue. Among them was Thomas Merton, whose paper, given just before his accidental death, increased awareness of the ancient and rich monastic traditions of the East and helped to ignite enthusiasm for Christian monks and nuns to become involved in dialogue with their Eastern counterparts.
Abbot Odo Haas, OSB, of the St Ottilien Congregation, who was Abbot of Waegwan Abbey in South Korea at the time, took part in the meeting and pushed for the creation of an organization titled Unio Monastica Asiae. It met in 1970 at Waegwan Abbey. An additional gathering was envisioned at a planning meeting in Bangalore in 1973, but nothing materialised, and no other meeting would be held for another 25 years.
In 1995 Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, OSB, of St Vincent’s Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and Abbot Timothy Kelly, OSB, of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, encouraged a second attempt at creating an organisation that would coordinate communication among the East Asian monasteries. These two American abbots were responsible for small foundations in Taiwan and Japan, respectively. They recognized the value of co-operation and conversation to support the many small, independent efforts at monastic missions to strengthen monastic witness in the region.
Prior Nicholas Koss, OSB, of St Vincent’s Archabbey and Wimmer Priory in Taishan worked closely with Prioress Beppo Wang of Saint Benedict Monastery in Tanshui to actualise this goal. They organised a gathering at the Tanshui Convent from October 24-26, 1995, twenty-five years after the 1970 meeting. Abbot Odo Haas, who was now at Saint Benedict’s Monastery in the Philippines, would attend the meeting and chair the first session. Also present was AIM representative, Fr Mark Butlin, of Ampleforth Abbey in England. Father Mark and Prior Nicholas would continue on the path and attend and help coordinate every gathering until the present.
Superiors and other representatives from communities in South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan were in attendance at this ‘silver jubilee’ gathering in 1995. Participants gave reports on the state of Benedictine monasticism within their respective nations. They explored together issues of community life, inculturation, monastic literature, formation, approaches to monastic life in China, and interreligious monastic dialogue.
The group would take the name Benedictines of East Asia and Oceania (BEAO) and would continue to gather each year for the initial five years and every two to four years after that. [...] In addition to Korea, the Philippines, Japan, and Taiwan, representatives from Vietnam, Australia, and other nations began to attend.
There are monastic congregations like the St Ottilien monks and the Tutzing sisters that have several communities in East Asia. However, there are even more communities that are small in size and/or have no other congregational affiliate in the region. In either case, communities have an obvious attraction to co-operation and conversation on the monastic journey. Gatherings always include reports from each region that give basic information about the various communities as well as regular updates. Reports by Father Mark on the work of AIM, and other international monastic organizations such as DIM/MID, the Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique/Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, inform and update communities on the collective work being done.
The common language for meetings and prayer is English, but there have also been traditional hymns, clothing, and even dance from the various cultures represented. At a gathering in the Philippines, Japanese sisters joined their Korean counterparts in a Korean liturgical dance. This was a simple display of established friendship and unity between members of nations that were once at enmity due to historical imperialism and political conflict.
The location of the BEAO gathering is rotated between the various nations represented. This allows participants to experience Benedictine life in different cultural settings and to see the local flavour amidst the universality of monastic life. The tradition of sightseeing also allows participants to get a perspective of the larger context of the region. For example, a tour to small tribal communities around Malaybalay in the Bukidnon region of Mindanao gave participants a greater understanding of the context of monastic life at the Monastery of the Transfiguration, as well as the context of tribal colour that inspired the creation of the eloquent priestly vestments by Fr Martin of that monastery. Similarly, visits from the Pusan gathering to convents in Seoul and Daegu and the monastery in Waegwan, a tour of the Pusan Sisters’ historical museum, as well as the coordinated cultural dance of the novices of the Pusan community which awed participants with the remarkable vibrancy of Korean Benedictine monasticism.
BEAO participants converse enthusiastically with one another with a clear joy at meeting others on the same monastic journey. Participants often speak of being encouraged and eager to share their experience with their own communities when they return. The informal connections sometimes produce assistance between communities, deepen connections among communities within the various nations, create bonds of collaboration on common projects, and exchange resources to use in one’s own community.
 This article is published in ‘So far yet so near, Monasticism for a new World, AIM 1961-2011’, 2012, p. 265-268.