Dom Robert Igo, OSB
Abbot of Ampleforth (United Kingdom)
The Grace of Making a Foundation
and the Experience of Return
When I was asked in 1995 to go to Zimbabwe and make a monastic foundation, I had five good reasons why I was not the person. Thankfully I listened to the voice of the Holy Spirit and said ‘yes’. If I had listened to the voice of doubt and fear, I would have missed the greatest grace of my life. Four years of careful investigation by the Ampleforth community led the brethren to take a step in faith, yet few probably fully appreciated what that decision would mean, not least those who were asked to go and make the foundation. There are no books that clearly outline the basic ground rules of making a monastic foundation. It really is a journey in faith.
Foundations are far from easy and like giving birth they are messy, painful, full of fear and anticipation, but at the same time they are life-changing. What has 25 years taught me? The simple and truthful answer is I have learnt more than I can say in a short reflection. The time in Zimbabwe opened my mind and my heart and deepened my Christian faith and my understanding of monastic life.
From the outset we went to Zimbabwe respectful of the new culture we were adopting. We learnt early on to be flexible and creative, leaving ourselves open to what daily experience presented to us. We were convinced however that we needed to be very clear about the essentials of our monastic vocation that we wished to share with others: A life of faith, based on the Word of God and guided by the Rule. A life nourished by the Divine Office and lived in a strong community which lived by the work of its own hands. We felt we had a seed called ‘monastic wisdom’ and that our priority was to listen and learn about the soil into which this seed was to be planted. Listening and a willingness to learn were key values.
Even before we set foot on Zimbabwean soil we had begun to go back to basics and look again at the different elements of the Rule of St Benedict. This corporate reflection led to us to a conviction that we needed to be a community who were ‘in formation’ so that we could become a community able to form others. For this reason, we placed great importance on forming ourselves into a genuine community of brothers, a family who not only prayed together but who worked together taking responsibility for cooking, cleaning, and maintenance etc. We believed that it was our life together that was the greatest tool of evangelisation. We decided that we would not accept postulants into our community for ten years, giving ourselves time to learn the language, culture and building together a family into which others could become a part.
Trying to become such a community, while adapting to a different culture and climate was not always smooth or comfortable. It involved time, tolerance, mistakes, misunderstandings and perseverance. People do not necessarily become a community simply because they live in the same building side by side. We constantly reminded ourselves that the community came first and from that strong basis our apostolate would flow.
Thinking and reflecting on formation was a further gift. Through our reflection we realised we wanted above all to transmit life not just customs. I learnt in a concrete manner the danger of inviting people to become members of a group rather than taking people on a journey of discipleship. This common reflection was itself a vital formation of the community. Eventually our formation document ‘A Life of Transformation’ came to birth and in a real sense formation was ‘owned’ by the whole community and we were certainly enriched by the whole experience.
The third seminal experience was the relationship with the wider church and the locality in which we lived. Through the retreats in the monastery and elsewhere, through the sharing with our visitors and the trust that the bishops showed we felt part of the wider Church and therefore appreciated much more the challenges and problems that others face. That was equally true of the people in the surrounding area. Our charitable outreach, helping to finance children to go to school, feeding families in need, the little medical assistance we could give, enabled a real relationship with the local people to grow strong. People in the area knew the monastery and they knew the brethren. We had become part of their life.
A living journey of faith in a setting where faith was vibrant, alive, and growing was exciting and full of challenges, but it was not without its problems. Each day we had to put trust in God. What I have found on my return to Europe is a Church that often appears to be tired and ageing. A Church that seems to be bound by its infrastructure, which all too often determines its mission. A Church where the conversation is about falling numbers rather than future possibilities.
Coming back to a monastery with a long and settled tradition, larger in size and facing a time of transition, has not always been straightforward. The contrast between a small evolving community that allowed for spontaneity and a sense of family to a community steeped in institutional ways of living has required me to be patient, humble and sensitive. Comparison is never helpful if it leads to giving preference to one thing over another. I have learnt to respect difference and to see it as an opportunity not a threat. I have always loved my community whether it be in Zimbabwe or Ampleforth. In fact, one of the greatest lessons I have learnt is that what is essential is the quality of our life together, no matter where we may be. The witness we give to faith and the care we give to one another is our testimony to the Gospel of life. My time in Zimbabwe in a young and developing monastery has allowed me however to dream dreams.
I dream therefore of a monastic family, not just a collection of monks who live in the same building. A family who are passionate about the Gospel and who enjoy a living encounter with Jesus. Disciples of Jesus whose life of prayer is a doorway that draws them and others into the great thirst for God and service to the world. A community of brothers who recognize the individual gifts, needs and limitations of each one of its family members caring creatively and practically for one another, working at building mutual understanding and trust. A community where love is not just a pious word but a lived and felt experience. Where we work to create a sense of belonging.
I dream of a monastic fraternity that is welcoming and is open to others, especially those who are searching for faith, meaning and purpose. Sons of St Benedict who see the faithful living of the vows as its prime tool of evangelization and who have a genuine mission to bring others into a relationship with Christ. A community that is a vibrant spiritual resource for the Diocese and beyond, and that looks for opportunities to celebrate faith together with a variety of people. A community that wants to be holy and encourage others to do the same. A community who wants to live life to the full.
This is what my experience of being in a foundation has brought to me, the ability to dream of something different and my experience of returning to where my vocation began, now as Abbot, is to humbly share this dream with others.