Bulletin 124: the Cistercian General Chapters
Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB
President of AIM
The Benedictine family is enriched by three elements which manifest themselves in many facets: the Benedictine Confederation with its 80 masculine and feminine Congregations, the Cistercian Order (OCist), itself comprising several Congregations, and the Trappist Order (OCSO). As every religious family, these three elements have their general reunion, the Congress of Abbots and the Symposium of the CIB for the first, General Chapters for the two others. These are important moments when all the superiors or their delegates of the regions or the communities come together for a period of intense sharing.
After the reports made necessary by restriction of movement, the General Chapters of the two Cistercian Orders were held in the course of the previous autumn. This number of the Bulletin gives an echo of their reflections, projects and perspectives.
We have also invited a contribution from a sociologist on the serious subject of abuse in the feminine religious life. Long ago denounced, not enough notice has been taken of these misdeeds. This account will perhaps attract some commentaries and, it is hoped, allow these voices to express themselves more freely. The AIM wishes to pay attention to this expression and as far as possible accompany the measures taken to balance such behaviour.
Fr Robert Igo shares with us his experience after many years in Zimbabwe, in becoming abbot of the founding monastery, Ampleforth, in a context very different from that of Africa. Fr Abbot Robert draws many lessons from this re-conversion which will be useful for us all.
The heading ‘Great Figures in Monastic Life’ evaluates the imposing example of Blessed Columba Marmion. Since his beatification he has become increasingly important in the Church and in monasticism. In the same way, Mother Josephine Mary Miller, formerly Prioress General of the Bernardines d’Esquermes, who was a long-serving member of the Council and Committee of AIM, is recognized as a great figure who gave her whole life to the cause of the gospel and monasticism.
We have also attempted to uncover the fine history and remarkable architecture of the monastery of Tautra in Norway. Finally we give news of the DIMMID, the formation-session Ananias and of several projects supported by AIM. May all these propositions lead us forward on our journey.
The Cenobitic Life
and Balance of Communities
One of the main features of our life is the nature of the cenobitic life. We live in community and together witness to the reality of the Body of Christ. In this there is something profoundly mysterious, for even if the human being is a social animal it must be acknowledged that the common life is not automatically easy. St Benedict attaches a great deal of importance to this problem.
Cenobites are those who life in common in a monastery and fight under a Rule and an Abbot. They are formed by a long period of testing in the monastery. Thanks to the support of many brothers they learn to strive against the demon. They resemble a fraternal army. In their behaviour they are free of worldly customs. They are enclosed not in their own sheepfolds but in that of the Lord. Their law is not the satisfaction of their desires. (RB 1)
They live their life with a stable link to their community, and normally within the monastery itself. This provides a preliminary portrait of the cenobitic endeavour according to St Benedict in the first chapter of his Rule.
At the beginning of his Rule Benedict concentrates on personal conversion. Community is one of the means of this conversion to experience the way of charity. But throughout the Rule, and especially towards the end, there is an opening to the specifically community dimension as a good in itself. If this community dimension is so important we must attempt to provide some means to advance it and notably to achieve the difficult balance of life which enables each individual to reach an appropriate position according to the personality of each member.
Functions and Persons
In every community the abbot has a role which it is almost impossible to fulfill. He is the vicar of Christ. That means that he must continuously point to the true father, Christ, who is delivered
as the Word of God by his teaching and his example. Much the same may be said of those who exercise other responsibilities in the community. One of the difficulties of our community life is to join the function which an individual plays and the way that individual himself or herself behaves. This is so true that someone who has no such office may have a complex about it or experience a real jealousy, consciously or unconsciously. It is as if such a person did not exist in the eyes of others, so great is the temptation to think that one is perceived uniquely by the grandeur of the office held. But the inverse temptation also exists, namely first to live one’s own life and exercise the responsibility only as an added extra. This is the best way of attributing to oneself too subjective a power as a way of seduction. It is a great illusion to present the personal interrelationship between abbot and community in this register. It seems to me important that one of the principal qualities of officials should be honesty in taking on a responsibility without, of course, denying what one is, but putting this at the service of what one has to do. In practice, the abbot must be a constant reminder of Christ. Because of this honesty he can exist according to his own personality, given to him by the Lord without too great a concentration of all kinds of comments which inevitable concern his behaviour and his activity. In this way it is possible to avoid an imbalance between the personal aspirations of the monk in charge and the legitimate aspiration of other members of the community, since all are called to put themselves genuinely at the service of others, without hiding behind their official personality or pushing themselves forward by imposing a personal stance.
It remains to define what is meant by honesty. St Benedict describes several aspects: to foster a double teaching by actions rather than words. Elsewhere St Benedict says that the abbot must be the first to apply the Rule in its totality. He must be chaste, sober, merciful; he will always have before his eyes his own weakness and he will not break the bruised reed. He must not be turbulent or restless. He must not be excessive or opinionated, neither jealous nor suspicious. In this way he will perhaps be able to avoid acceptance of personalities, loving one more than another, preferring a freeman to one coming from slavery – or other social or cultural categories, for, slaves or free, we are all one in Christ and bear the same arms in the service of the same Lord. He will give evidence of the same charity towards all. He will consider how difficult and laborious is the charge of souls, and will adapt to the characters of many in the tasks which he distributes. He will behave with discernment and moderation, and will remember the discretion of the holy patriarch Jacob who said, ‘If I exhaust my flock in driving them too hard they will all perish in one day’ (RB 64).
This honesty of life is a difficult task, but it is the key to a free existence according to the will of God. If ever as abbot I find difficulty in experiencing such a liberty of life, the root cause is lack of honesty. If this word ‘honesty’ seems insufficient, it comes from St Benedict, who writes in chapter 73,
‘This Rule which we have just written will suffice for observance in monasteries to ensure a certain honesty of behaviour and a beginning of monastic life. Whoever you are, hastening towards the heavenly homeland, accomplish with the help of Christ all this little Rule, written for beginners. In this way you will, with the protection of God, attain to the highest summits of virtue of which we have been speaking. Amen.’
St Benedict wants everyone to find his place in the community by giving his opinion. This is the sense of chapter 3, On Calling the Brethren to Council. ‘What leads us to say that all the brethren should be consulted is that God often reveals to the youngest what is better.’ But this consultation must be done with great wisdom: ‘the brothers will give their opinion in all humility and submissiveness.’
In fact this dimension is not always easy to put into practice. On the one hand, questions relative to the life of the monastery are many and cannot all be debated. This is anyway why the council exists. On the other hand, it is fairly rare to find a community where all the members are good at listening to one another. One is too conscious in advance what will be the view on a particular question – to the extent that certain views are not sufficiently taken into account.
Nevertheless everyone in the monastery has a special place. Each one has a unique intelligence, nourished by a different experience and a different life. One is completely natural, with no complexes, and speaks whatever comes into his head without too much reflection. Another is able to reflect on the principles involved, another on the practical consequences of a decision. This mutual listening is crucial for community life. It has a place not only in Chapter meetings but must preside at every moment of life. It is often noticeable that some keep away from community life because their opinion is not sufficiently heard. Everyone wants to express something, such is the originality of human nature. If it cannot be achieved in the group where one lives the person stands side and sometimes looks for a more sympathetic audience. Those who think they have something more interesting to say than others must make an effort to be patient in order to hear something which they think is less appropriate, but which is still useful. In this way each can play a part in this dialogue which is an element essential to love. Of course everything must be done with discretion and discernment. It is not a matter of random comments to random people on the pretext that one simply needs to express an opinion.
A consequence of mutual listening is obedience, the quality of listening, one to another:
It is not only to the abbot that the brothers must render obedience. They must be obedient to one another. They will know that it is by this way of obedience that they will go to God. (RB 71)
Is anything more beautiful than a community where the brothers or sisters, regardless of their age, milieu, early formation, obey one another? Rather than eying one another as they indulge the temptation of external power which leads to nothing but incomprehension, conflict, even deep injustice, it is wonderful to try to listen in every sense of the word, to serve one another and to find in this a real mutual service.
It is unfortunate that often we regard one another with a certain jealousy. We all have different gifts, so why should we want to possess the gifts of another rather than bring to fruition our own gifts which are always infinitely precious for everyone? One person has a superb gift for welcoming guests, another for organization, a third for singing or teaching, a fourth for accompanying others through a bad patch, a fifth for a fruitful silence or putting up with illness in holiness, giving a good word, driving a tractor, repairing a car or driving it perfectly. Some know how to write books, others how to make a splendid dish in the kitchen or keep a place tidy. None of us is without qualities or gifts, but they are at the service of the community only when one accepts to use them for that and develop them, and especially when the community recognizes them and welcomes them.
This means that no negative stance is acceptable in the common life. We too often hear judgments on others, even sometimes rejections. The more one refuses, the deeper becomes the chasm. Love is the measureless hope of the confidence despite all the temptations to refuse. In this way one may obey positively, welcome one another, love one another, recognize one another and pardon, build one another up and find a good balance in an open community where the impossible becomes possible for an amazing witness and the spread of the Good News: Christ has broken the wall of hate. This is the true joy of conversion of the heart.