THE GIFT OF SENIORS
Surrounded by a crowd of witnesses who have preceded them in the Kingdom of God, the seniors of our communities are the first sentinels of the dawn to come. How do they live this new stage of their lives? How do they pass on their experience? In the community of St. Bathilde at Vanves, home of AIM, the seniors are many, and at their side are young sisters and nuns from other continents who have come to study in Paris. The former carry with them their witness to history, to fidelity, to prayer, to the serenity and joy that mark them out; the latter have yet to discover other cultures, their own hearts, Paris itself, and above all the way in which a community lives in the presence of God and of one another. This is only one example of how the wealth of the monastic life can be communicated from one generation to another.
From the origins of monasticism, seniors have been visited, honoured, listened to. They are a gift of God opening the way of the Kingdom of God. The senior, or the ‘Abba’, is recognized as such by example, insight, wisdom. Younger monks also can be called ‘Abba’. The senior is a source of a tradition which is transmitted and endures to our own day.
In Africa, as in the deserts of Egypt, traditional cultures are based on oral tradition. The seniors are those who have experience and pass on a way of life; the young people are those to whom the future belongs. The present is always the perfect time for communication and, as Father Boniface Tiguila OSB reminds us, new cloth is woven onto the old. In addition, formation is an initiation and is always on-going. How can one live fully this sense of the first monks, ‘Today I begin’? What is the secret of a fruitful old age?
The strength of the senior is experience. Actions and words reflect the inner freedom acquired over the years. Each of our monastic communities treasures memories of its seniors. Times spent with them are engraved on our hearts, often with amusement, for their unique personalities reflect their character as well as their wisdom. The words and sayings of the Desert Fathers in their own way express the personality of an Abba in the transmission of a gospel saying, but would any of us be unable to produce similar sayings and actions from each of our own communities?
Age has its requirements, its gifts and its challenges for our time. Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, traces the roots of human life. What should our attitude be to this time of life? Fear of growing old or hope of a fruitful old age? ‘The evening of a life well lived brings its own light.’ ‘As we grow old,’ wrote La Rochefoucauld, ‘we become at the same time more foolish and more wise.’ Certainly, we become more aware both of the significance of things and of their inconsistency. By such reflections the author describes the two sides of this stage of life and its characteristics. This comes as no surprise to seniors! They will leave behind them the system of values which has marked their own commitment. How are such values to be passed on and even improved? This is the contribution of Father Nicolas Dayez, OSB. Before something is passed on it must first be received and loved. Great examples of such transmission are discussed, St. Benedict, St. Paul, Mary at the Annunciation, Christ. Those who love to beget, Michel Serres reminds us, enjoyed their own begetting. This truth applies to persons, but it is also a feature of a community. For the community is the place par excellence of formation, both conscious and unconscious.
Dom Denis Huerre provides invaluable testimony as a senior. He takes up a concept which the Benedictine Rule inherited from the Romans and from Philo, humanitas. He develops this in the context of a culture which respects personality, balance, moderation, discernment. In this way the senior is regarded as someone who has lived longer and is viewed as wise and as a gift to the community. Dom Denis sees in Christ the archetype of the senior, the First-born. He is the sign of a future which is yet to come.
A major pitfall to avoid or to overcome with the help of God is that well-known sadness, so often linked to the desire for God, which can itself become corrosive. This is analyzed by Dom Bernardo Olivera, former Abbot General, OCSO. In the face of frustration it is the lot not of seniors alone but of every stage in life. Our world is prey to so many trials that it is never superfluous to recall the basic temptations which threaten the faith and perseverance of the traveller on the way. To overcome them with the grace of God and the company of a senior begets peace and sweetness, removes all bitterness and reawakens the desire for God.
Other articles stress the gift which seniors bring to our communities. The story of the ‘Lovers of the Cross’, indigenous Vietnamese sisters, illustrates the family spirit of Confucianism, and even transcends it by the light of the Gospel. Sr. Marie Tuyet highlights the connections and differences which played themselves out there. From interreligious monastic dialogue in France and in Norway, passing by way of news of monasteries in the Argentine and in Ghana, we come to the ninth centenary of St Anselm of Canterbury. The Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy at the Pontifical Atheneum in Rome reports on this celebration, honoured by the visit of the Pope to the Abbey of Monte Cassino, and on his words there. We cannot but see that the past still lives in the present and that the present is rooted in the expectation of the return of Christ. This is the dynamic vision which once and for all transforms our daily words