Older Monks and Nuns at the center of Monastic Comunities

F. Boniface Tiguila, OSB, Monastery of the Incarnation, Agbang (Togo)

‘In Africa, when an elder dies, a whole library burns!’ This affirmation of a great sage of Africa introduces us well with our theme. The title as stated is not complete; it is merely evocative. Allow me now to state the topic completely as I conceive it for this issue of AIM: How African cultures which have a great respect for seniors – and in this coincide so well with monastic tradition – allow us to appreciate the presence of old monks and nuns at the centre of monastic communities.

In developing this theme I will elaborate more on how African cultures value the meaningful presence of the elderly. The second part, how this approach can illuminate our lives with the elderly in our communities will be more succinct, on the assumption that the Rule and monastic tradition are well known by my readers and they will themselves have no difficulty in seeing the implications.

In Africa, when an elder dies, a whole library burns! We all know that one of the greatest features of our African societies is that at every level they are societies of oral culture and transmission: transmission of wisdom, culture, history, religion, archives, and the memory of an entire people. ‘Question your father, let him explain to you, your elders, and let them tell you!’ (Deuteronomy 32.7). As writing was completely unknown, oral transmission was the only way of ensuring the continuity, survival and perpetuity of the whole body of experience and centuries- old memories of the peoples of Africa. To speak of transmission requires on the one hand someone who knows and on the other someone who wants to know. We are confronted with a knowledge which has a past and a future.

Seniors are those who already have knowledge, already have expérience and pass on a way of life. To the young belongs the future. The présent must see a continuous exchange between the two facets of history. However, as the old proverb has it, ‘new cloth is woven onto the old’. The young need the old stem onto which to graft their contribution and so build up one continuous story. If this anchorage in the past is missing, there is danger of stumps, fragments, individual events but no history. A people without a history is no people.

In Africa, when an elder dies, a whole library burns! An elder is not a single book, but rather an encyclopaedia! Even more, an elder is not just an encyclopaedia, even well documented on a single subject, but a set of encyclopaedias on several, or indeed on every aspect of life. People come to an elder to draw from the well-spring of experience, of history, of culture, of language, of history, of philosophy, of genealogy, of agriculture, of cosmogony and of how many other matters! Besides this, the elder is like an archive of a whole human group, a whole people. As such an elder deserves full attention, full respect and full consideration. An elder has the importance of a library, a treasure-chest of good things held firm and closely guarded not only in memory and in stories but also physically in features and in objects. To see the photographs of an elder enables you to trace a whole history of the evolution of a milieu.

The precariousness of life, difficult conditions of survival, a very severe process of natural selection and a very low expectation of life among our people forces us to appreciate those who are left to us as witnesses to an era which has gone for ever, traces of a past of which they alone keep the memory, living proofs of so many pages of history which we can never turn again. Just as a library is invaluable in literary societies, so in our societies an elder is of inestimable value for orality and the transmission of wisdom.

African societies are on the whole initiation societies. We come into being by initiation, by transmission, by a continuous chain in which the previous link who is my reference gives me value, just as I later will be the reference which gives value to another. Orality and the transmission of wisdom personalize every transaction and give a taste to life.
Without reference to another we are nothing in time and space. So immediately the elder, by constituting a living and concrete link, transmits to us not just a life but a whole world of knowledge. By so doing the elder embodies a value far above that of a library, for a library does not create a living and existential bond between the one who transmits knowledge and the one who receives it. The elder becomes a Master of wisdom, a Master in the fullest sense of the word magister, from which our term ‘magisterium’ is derived.

Clearly age alone does not invest a person with this almost sacred authority of Magister. In this our societies know what they are doing. Just as an elder who worthily embodies a point of reference in the society is respected, courted, loved and obeyed without question, so an elder whose seniority consists in nothing but white hair is seen as spoilt goods and is looked after simply as an act of charity.
In Africa to have a fruitful old age rather than a bad end, a certain expérience of contemplation is needed. I would go so far as to say that our old people are either poets or cracked, philosophers or fools, contemplatives or completely spoiled and brutalized by our situation. However, the old people to whom I am here referring are those who have not come to a bad end, but rather have deep down a profound expérience of contemplation. Indeed, when a senior answers you with a proverb or a story about a tortoise or spider, or what the rock or the lizard said on a rainy day, this confronts you with an image on which you need to reflect or meditate at length. Is that such long distance from the expérience of contemplatives?

The presence of invisible elements in our culture brings tranquillity. What is striking in a careful study of the face of an African sage is the peace which it radiates, even through the wrinkles which suffering has etched on the face. The peace which emanates from it comes from its capacity for patience, for interior silence accumulated by hours of silence and contemplation. It is like seeing what is invisible. Is not monastic tranquillity also the fruit of contemplation?

Someone whose knowledge comes from the heart, someone whose expérience is within, has no need to speak, knowing that no word will suffice to express what that person sees. Someone once said, ‘Speak only if words are more powerful than silence’. This is what Job also experienced, ‘Before, I knew you only by hearsay but now, having seen you with my eyes, I withdraw my words’ (Job 42.5). We have the life of gréât heroes of prayer and of the Fathers of the desert to convince us that silence is the fruit of contemplation as well as the licence for it. Silence filled with a presence is enough to lift us out of the insignificance and triviality of the transitory. This is why it is possible in Africa to see old people waiting for hours without impatience: their silent inactivity is filled with a presence, that of every moment of life. To rest in the présence of the invisible, in the presence of nothingness, is the beginning either of madness or of contemplation. An invisible presence fills the vacuum and mediates an experience of fullness.

Past and future can be manipulated, but never the present. The hic et nunc (here and now) belong to God who gives them to us in such a way that we can only accept them. When it enters our head to manipulate them to our fashion, they are already passed and no longer present. Living the present moment gives us another experience, being in contact with what one is living and doing. I give myself wholly to what I am living at the present moment. This total presence to things, persons and daily realities is praise of Him who offers them to us, in the certainty that at the present moment I have nothing more necessary, nothing more precious to live than what I am living. I live it as the most beautiful instant, the whole reason for my existence at this particular moment. This gives such a meaning to living each moment of my life that I can never have the feeling of living a parenthesis in my life while waiting for true life. The problem of the meaning of life is a Western problem. For an African the question is not to find a meaning of life but to savour life more fully, to taste more the poetry which life is. How can one live the
present moment to the full?

Confrontation with an elder who embodies the authority of a person of significance in the life of a society engenders a reverence which amounts almost to awe at the sacred, at the mystery of life. One finds oneself before the tabernacle of a presence which transcends our profane world.
Such a person’s words carry the weight of a blessing or a curse, since they flow from a limpid source which in the course of age and the trials of life has been purified of all egoism, strained in the filter of patience and purified by reverence for the Creator and respect for the lives of others.
Listening to such people opens our hearts to the echo of the voice of the Creator and of nature which, through long hours of silence, have finally taken flesh by translation into human speech. The words distil like a dew the trickle of intimacy jealously guarded over the years in which the soul has cultivated the modesty of not unveiling to someone who cannot appreciate its value the treasure which must not be cast before swine. Obedience to such people gives us a share in the blessing of the long earthly life which they have received in order to be witnesses of the endless marvels of the Creator who rules the universe. The respect given to such people and the way they are honoured prepares the honour we receive from the respected members of our clan or people. The confidence which such people inspire marks us out as the recipients of a rich inheritance of the honey of wisdom which over the years they have laboriously gathered and elaborated from the flowers of every meeting and every experience of life. Finally, the right to claim such people as one’s own places one in the line of these pillars of wisdom on which rests the whole social system, a system which society will be proud to bequeath to future generations.

We have explained the place of elders in African society. This explains the pride of becoming an elder in African society. A person claims the honour of being considered a senior, an ancient, a patriarch. Thus it is that I myself at the age of 51 can proudly claim the honour of being a patriarch in my community, for the average age hardly exceeds 35, and in Togo more than 60% of the population is less than 20 years old.
You will therefore understand why in monastic life the teaching of the Rule and the monastic tradition about the seniors on the one hand, and on the other daily life in the monastery with the seniors have profound resonances with me. As I carry in myself, as though imbibed with my mother’s milk, a reverence for seniors and the elderly, I find no difficulty in the dialogue of monastic life at this level.
My teething troubles are over! This explains why I did not hesitate to accept when I was asked to share with you these few lines, dear reader. I am well aware that there are more capable brothers and sisters who would have produced a more valuable contribution, but I simply hope that these few lines suffice to produce a deeper and broader appreciation of the values shared by our African tradition and our monastic life.

On the basis of what I have said above, and what I have inherited from the African tradition, I have savoured the pages of the Rule of St Benedict on the seniors in the community, for I dream one day myself to become a senior in the community. ‘Listen, my son, to the precepts of the master and bend the ear of your heart. Accept willingly the advice of such a kind father and put it into practice’ (Prologue) Already this wonderful sentence of the prologue to the Rule of St Benedict takes me back to the gatherings in our village where, by moonlight, the household assembled around the elders, literally to drink at the fountain of the wisdom of the seniors in their tales, riddles and their own life-stories or those of the clan. For this reason I have no difficulty in imagining how the people of the desert would run to the Abbas to draw from them a word of life. And how many of their sayings can be compared to the wise tales which have nourished so many generations of Africans!

‘In the case of matters of less importance for the needs of the monastery, he will take counsel only from the seniors of the monastery, according to what is written, “Do everything with advice and you will not later regret what you have done”’ (RB 3) Taking counsel from the elders reminds me of the almost daily meetings of the seniors in the yard of the chieftain to discuss everything and nothing in the life of the village. Long hours of chatting by the elders to harmonize and authenticate the tales of the history of the village. It is on these occasions that the young man ‘who knows how to wash his hands’ may be invited to eat with the elders. Indeed the young man who is polite and attentive can overhear these long discussions, full of information, simply because one of the elders has brought him in by asking him to fetch his drum, his mat or his animal-skin to the meeting under the tree, or to go and light a pipe for him. The final story of the prophet Elijah, when he promises his disciple Elisha to give him a share of his spirit if Elisha sees him depart, fits these scenes of daily life among the elders.

‘Venerate the elders, love the young (RB 4). So the young will respect their elders and the elders will have affection for their juniors. Even in the matter of names, no one shall be allowed to address another by his name alone, but the elders shall call the young ‘brother’ and the young shall call the elders ‘reverend’ to show the deference due to a father (RB 63). Wherever the brothers meet one another the younger shall ask a blessing of the elder. When an elder passes by, the Young shall stand and offer the elder a place to sit, and the younger shall presume to sit with him only at the invitation of the elder, in order to fulfil what is written, “Outdoing one another in courtesy”’ (RB 63). Among us, when a young person behaves discourteously, one asks, ‘Does he not understand what a senior is?’ For it goes without saying that closeness to the elders breeds in us an attitude of respect and courtesy that so shapes us that we are haunted by fear of lack of respect. The presence of the elders is a real school of life. It teaches us how to temper our wilder enthusiasms and realise that our life, our energy, our vigour will not last for ever.

‘The eighth degree of humility is that the monk does nothing which is not recommended by the common rule of the monastery and the example of the seniors’ (RB 7). Tradition is a very important element in African societies, where, as we have seen, one comes into being only by initiation. Putting my footprints on the footprints of another is what guarantees me a good journey in this passing world towards the fatherland beyond, where I shall find again all those who before me have also faithfully made this journey. For us the example of seniors is the best school of life. After all, the definition of being a disciple is putting my footprints in those of my master. Since the monastery is a school where one learns to serve the Lord, it is entirely to be expected that the relationship of master to disciple is the norm. One lovely feature of initiation is that not only are you told to follow an example, but you are often taken by the hand or the foot, or your head is forcibly bowed down so that you do what you ought to do under the very hand of your instructor.

‘A brother who shows himself stubborn, disobedient, proud, discontented or refractory to any point of the holy Rule, and despises the instructions of the elders, should be admonished by the elders in private a first and second time, in accordance with the command of Our Lord. If he does not amend he should be reprimanded publicly before everyone (RB 23). The Abbot should take very care of recalcitrant brothers, for “it is not the healthy but the sick who need a doctor”. He must therefore, like a skilled doctor, use every means: he should bring into play the persuasion of wise and senior brothers who will discreetly help the brother who is in a state of uncertainty and show him the way to hum-ble reconciliation, consoling him “so that he does not fall into excessive sorrow”, but, as the Apostle also says, “he should redouble his love towards him” and all should pray for him’ (RB 27).
The role of elders in mediation to bring back the recalcitrant to reason, to repair the tissue of society each time it is damaged is well-known in our societies. An elder who know how to put in a good word, express a good proverb, recall the right story at the opportune moment and in the opportune context can easily clear a blockage which long discussions or judicial pronouncements would only complicate.

In every case, whether it is in our traditional societies or in our monastic communities, the presence of elders is a blessing. Certainly care must also be taken in our African context that certain rights of age do not extinguish youthful bounce, enthusiasm and generosity to the point of compromising the harmonious relationship between generations. Furthermore, if one pays careful attention, it is not the ‘dear old seniors’ who have difficulty getting on with the young. I am constantly amazed to see the extent to which the seniors remain young at heart, eager to learn from the young, and open to anything new. Besides which, do we not say that the ear is never too old to learn? Often enough there is a real bond between the very young and the seniors. The real difficulties come from those who are still vigorous enough to enter into the struggle for power. These are those who have not aged well but destructively arrogate to themselves a certain right of age which is in fact no more than a way of hiding from themselves the reproach of not have succeeded in acquiring the authority which would have made them respected and a point of reference in their society or community. I would go further, and say that making the most of any occasion to show one’s importance is often the result of failure to deepen an intimate and interior spiritual life. If my life is filled with the presence of Him whom I came to seek in the monastery I have no reason to complain if I am passed over: ‘In the eyes of my Saviour I have a price, and that is enough for me!’ On the contrary, we know that the Fathers of the desert often fled a little further into the desert to escape the crowds which besieged them and stole their precious hours of solitude with the only treasure of their life. Even more in African societies will the experience of contemplation make our elders in monastic life spiritual Masters to whom crowds will come to slake their thirst. Abba, give us a word of life! In the evening of life to know that people come to us to be initiated on the road of service of the Lord will be proof that we have not wasted our time.

As I gently advance towards also becoming an elder in my community I have been reflecting aloud for myself. I pray that we who carry the heavy burden of being the elders in the young communities of Africa may become truly points of reference for our brothers and sisters. I always remember my first meeting at Chevetogne in Belgium with a monk whose years of profession were more than double my years of life! It was a matter of astonishment and gratitude for me to see that it was possible to live out commitment to the Lord for a whole lifetime. In the spirit of fraternity.