How are monastic values to be transmitted?
Abbot Nicolas Dayet, OSB

The author, Nicolas Dayez, abbot emeritus of Maredsous, gives us the key to his article: ‘before dealing with the “how”, we must make every effort to understand what “transmit” means and presupposes’. This protects us against the risk of trying to get recipes and answers at the beginning. This text contains the essentials of a conference, given in October 2008 to the Councils of some monastic congregations: Bethany, Benedictines of Vanves, Benedictines of Calvary, Sisters of Jesus Crucified.

This is the title that was suggested to me. I have retained it. But I must explain myself briefly on the matter. At the very beginning I must say that I am not going to define what are the monastic values to be transmitted. This would be the subject of another debate and indeed of another conference. Next I want to say that I am not going to spend much time, at least in the beginning, on the ‘how’. Evidently, I have no ‘recipes’ for the concrete manner of transmitting something. It is not that I try to avoid the difficulty. But before dealing with the ‘how’, we must try to understand what ‘transmit’ means and presupposes. In so doing we will clarify ‘how’, almost without wanting to. So the following reflections will concern firstly and above all the verb in the title: 'transmit'. This involves the risk of disappointing people about the means. However, if we have certain doubts today on the transmission, that may be partly because, we have moved too quickly onto the ‘how’ without reflecting enough on the transmission itself.

It will be clear that there is nothing original in what I say. I depend on what has been said by others before me. I am trying to restate it in my own way without making too much use of quotations so as not to overburden this exposition. 

Is transmission possible?

In these days we feel unsure about transmission. The proof is that we are talking about it here. While we were preparing these sessions someone wrote to me, ‘How do we understand ourselves when we speak to young people, whether it be to those who come to our guesthouses or to candidates for the monastic life? It seems that what we have to transmit has no interest for anybody because we are unable to make ourselves understood. It would be appropriate also to examine how the transmission of monastic values and of the history of our communities occurred in our foundations, and what the results have been.’

The unease is not only about the values or the culture to be transmitted. It concerns the very act of transmission itself. Do we even have the right to transmit? Is this not a restriction on liberty. And if one does transmit, how does one transmit something of oneself without imposing it? In May 1968, forty years ago, we heard the slogan, ‘No more masters’. It was a cry of protest from a whole generation against what was called the violence of transmission, the exaggerated weight of the authority of masters and fathers. It was as if there was no way to transmit without the abuse of power and superiority, by the very act of affirming the importance of what went before or what lay ahead.

The dream of those who talked like that was to be the agents of their own development. They wanted to do it by their own efforts without contracting or recognising any debt to any person or thing. They wanted to be the ‘self-made-man’. Consequently, on the part of those who had hitherto had the responsibility of transmitting, there was a kind of void, an abandonment, an almost complete cessation of transmission.

This is of course much too short and too little nuanced. I only want to draw attention to what was being questioned; it was not the manner of the transmission but the very transmission itself, the very wish to transmit anything. That is why, in the title of my paper, we must first consider the word ‘transmit’, as I have already said.

Some examples

In an effort to be concrete, we take some well-known examples of transmission which we will try analyse a little more than is normally done.

Saint Benedict

I will confine myself to the teaching on the abbot. In fact, one could give a whole conference on situations of transmission in the Rule and on how Benedict perceives them.

In short, the whole Prologue, with the word ‘Listen’ placed at the beginning, and therefore the whole Rule is nothing if not an expression of the desire to transmit something to the disciple who has just entered the school of the Lord’s service. In fact there is also a series of situations where this idea of transmission is clearly emphasized.

There is obedience and the transmission of commands, the institution of deans and the transmission of authority. Excommunication creates a break in communication; there follows the matter of restoring it. There is the matter of material goods and all that concerns giving and receiving. The signal for the work of God is a transmission. There is hospitality and the behaviour of the guests. An obvious transmission is the reception of brothers into the monastic life. The duty of the porter is to receive and transmit a message. Then there s the reception of the teaching of the fathers who have gone before us. This list is not exhaustive, but the analysis of the most concrete situations will also throw light on them.

Let us return to the abbot. St Benedict expects him to be learned in the divine law, so that he knows where to go to draw forth things old and new. The meeting of the old and the new seems to me to be the synthesis of all the questions that the act of transmission poses for us.

The new and the old. We find it quite difficult to think of the two at the same time. On the one side there are the archives, museums, memories; on the other, projects, possibilities, openness. We imagine that one is contrary to the other. At best, they could follow one another, be beside one another but they could not exist at the same time or, even less likely, become united. That, however, is the question, the problem, the challenge. We must then find a way of bringing the new and old together into a unity, a way of uniting the two domains. We must find a way of soldering, of joining together the new and the old.

Soldering presupposes fire and heat, and these leave their mark, a kind of wound. But, as is well known, the tissues that have been wounded are stronger at the place of the wound, they have greater resistance. A bone that has been broken and mended will never again break at the same point. We must then find somebody who will solder the old and the new, who will unite that which is already done and that which is still to be done, what is behind and what is ahead, that which is mortal and that which will not end.

Where are we going to find all this, the fire, the heat, the resistance of a wound? Isn’t there someone of whom it was said that he is ‘like the refiner’s fire’ (Mal 3:2)? Was there not somebody once who spoke in tongues of fire? Was there not someone who said, ‘I have come to cast fire on the earth and how I wish that it were already blazing’ (Luke 12:49)? Was not he the crucible where the new and old were fused and became inseparable in the fire of love? Is it not he who bears the wound, the ineffaceable sign of the joining effected between God and humanity, after a wound and fracture that we call original? Is it not true that in him human oldness and divine newness will henceforward be indissoluble, inseparable? So it is not for nothing that Saint Benedict insists that the abbot be seen as Christ among his brothers.

Something new and something old. At equal distance from both is the monk we must instruct; we could even say the monk to whom we must give birth. So an abbot needs some of the skills of a book-binder. The one who has best withstood the trials (the senior) is to be bound to one who is still hoping (the younger). What is already accomplished must be bound to that which is still to be achieved. What is behind must be bound to what is ahead. This is the monk who can still take hold of what is to be hoped for, doubtlessly desiring to add to its intensity. The abbot ought to show him the only model capable of blending in this way, past life and present experience, that which has quietened down and that which is still simmering, that which is mortal and that which has no end. If this short circuit is to work the abbot must disappear. More precisely, he must cede to him whose place he holds in the monastery. The young monk must be set alight and burnt up by the abbot. In this way, in the language of fire, like the Spirit on the morning of Pentecost, he will himself become this fire whose message is guaranteed to convince, this crucible where the old and the new are fused and become inseparable, and are now united. The old and the new have become the indissoluble work of fire and love.

The Apostle Paul

‘I have received from the Lord that which I have passed on to you’(1 Corinthians 11.23).

St Paul is Jewish, Greek and Roman. He unites in his person the three great traditions from which the West was born. Jew: he was born in Tarsus; educated in Jerusalem under Gamaliel; respected the Law and cited the Torah, psalms and prophets, was a Pharisee. Greek: he writes in Greek, speaks Greek, occasionally cites a Greek author; refers with admiration to the wisdom of the Greeks; also has some fear of their intelligence. Roman: he boasts that he is a citizen of the Roman Empire like his father; knows Roman law as he makes an appeal to the courts of the Empire.

So we have a man who belongs to three different streams. It is he who will give rise to a branch which will be a new creature. He belongs to three communities, but will create a new, original one not belonging to any of those three. He transmits. He transmits as he experiences three setbacks. Among the Jews, his co-religionists, he is persecuted. Among the Greeks, the philosophers laugh at him and put him off till later. Among the Romans, he is judged and no doubt executed.

He insists that ‘there is no more Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female’ (Gal 3:28). To put it another way, whatever belonged to a certain culture, Jewish, Greek or Roman, henceforth belongs to all humanity. It is no longer tied to a genealogy, to a bond of blood. It is no longer tied to a language; Pentecost shows that. It is no longer tied to a contract, of which there were so many in the Roman world.

I would say that St Paul gave rise to a new branch from the trunk. It is precisely here that he reveals himself as a transmitter of genius. He does not break the trunk from which the branch springs; he is bound to it even if he comes out from it. ‘If you think of boasting, remember that it is not you who carry the root but the root that carries you’ (Rom 11:16-18).

St Paul liberates the message, he makes it explode without destroying it. In a certain way, he gives us this universal concept that we call globalisation which is on everbody’s lips nowadays. The church, the body of Christ, is going to welcome the Jews, the Latins, the Greeks, the Barbarians of every nation, all men, all women, children and slaves, free people and foreigners. The Law and biblical prophecy continue and do not die, just like Greek science, just like Roman law. Paul did not destroy that to which he belonged. He transmitted it.

The Annunciation

There are other figures on which we can meditate: Mary and the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation. What do we see in this account of the Annunciation? Above all it is a dialogue. In the gospels it is pretty unique. Here there is a dialogue, with questions and answers. It is not without relevance for the theme with which we are dealing.

Mary is a creature, mortal, ordinary, occupied at her daily tasks. The angel is an unexpected creature, exceptional (it is even an archangel in our terminology), a holy creature. He brings the Word of God to Mary who says she is unworthy of it and she actually is. What is being transmitted here is the Word of God himself. On his side, the messenger, angel Gabriel bows humbly, (I salute you, Mary) before her who at precisely this moment becomes the mother of God whom she carries in her womb (The Lord is with you). Both are filled with respect. Mary respects the divine sign which is transmitted to her by Gabriel, the waiting messenger. Gabriel respects the divine conception which has taken place in Mary; he confines himself to his role as messenger, he does not keep back for himself any of the message he has to transmit.

Here the coming and going (the transmission) takes place between two persons, horizontally. And in this movement, in this visible and figured reciprocity, there is a third presence: we become aware of it because it is immense, but it is also invisible and image-less. This third presence is God, who covers the scene with his bright shadow; under the appearance of the angel and Mary; everything happens as if God were facing God. Our eyes of flesh see Mary and Gabriel but faith contemplates in spirit, the Apparition faced with the Incarnation.

The Word announced by Gabriel becomes Flesh in the womb of Mary. It is as if there was a transparency which is revealed by the dialogue or the conversation between Mary and the angel. In reality, it is a presence that invades the two figures: Gabriel and Mary are visible but they disappear so that God may make reverence before God himself, so that God the Word makes reverence before God in Flesh. Mary and Gabriel have fixed their eyes on the One who is there. Only humility could produce such a symmetry. The angel becomes transparent in relation to the message he brings. He prostrates himself before the one who receives the message and Mary prostrates herself before the message. Both humble themselves before God. She bows to the infant whom she already has within herself. He bows before the word that he himself is bringing. Dialogue, respect, humility, transparency, self-effacement before the message. Those are so many aspects to be considered at length in this account of the Annunciation.

Christ himself

God knows if there is somebody who has a message to transmit. It is a matter of transmitting nothing less than the life of God himself. It is a matter of transmitting the very life of God himself, neither more nor less. The angel Gabriel carried a message; Christ himself is the message. Situated between God and humanity, he is this third person I was referring to, between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, with this great difference, that this person is visible. He is both transmitter and receiver, in an indivisible way.

In his very being, Christ is seen as a kind of ideal transmission, one to which we can only approximate. He is at the same time and in an indivisible manner the one who transmits and the one who receives. He is God transmitting his own life; he is a human who receives the life of God. In this he is in some way a model; it is towards this that we must tend in our efforts to transmit. Not only must we place our selves in the place of him to whom we are transmitting, not only adopt his practices, his culture, his way of seeing things, but to be truly him, while remaining authentically ourselves. And this without a disastrous division between the two. Without dividing but not without some tearing. St Paul says it very well in his letter to the Philippians: Jesus agreed to empty himself for this reason. Another way of saying it is: whoever wants to save his life must lose it; whoever loses his life is sure to save it. That is what St Paul will also say: that is why God exalted him and gave him a name that is above all names.

Christ is a model transmitter. But this model is not static. It must be seen in the whole of his life, in the whole of his progress, from the beginning to the end, insofar as there is an end. In other words, we will have to come back to it. We must not skate over anything of the progress represented by the life of Christ which is in itself and of itself a journey of transmission. If I could put it this way, it is as if the verb 'transmit' were to be 'conjugated' in all the tenses and in all the voices.

Meditating on the life of Christ in this way is surely the most fruitful way to discover what is the word ‘transmit’ entails. This presupposes time, plenty of time, a journey continually recommenced and always growing more profound and so a large dose of patience. In this way one learns that all transmission comes at a price.

Two vigorous sayings

I have suggested that we look at some figures or icons, indeed that we should contemplate them: St Benedict, the Annunciation, St Paul and Christ. There would be others, to be sure. I have offered some suggestions, too short indeed, which would help to prolong this meditation. I would now like to cite and comment on two strong sayings which are of a kind that would lay a basis for our reflection. Once more, those are not obvious concrete recommendations: one should do this and not do that … These sayings do, however, indicate a direction and they are of a kind that would result in concrete options in the area.

The first saying is this: ‘Those who love to beget enjoyed their own begetting’ (M. Serres, Le Tiers Instruit 93). In other words, those who love to transmit are those who have loved what people would transmit to them; they love to transmit who love to have others transmit such a thing to them in such a way; those love to transmit who one day would love to find themselves in the situation of someone to whom something will be transmitted. Those who love not just that someone transmit to them, but even more the very fact that one has transmitted to them and the way in which it was transmitted, those in their turn are gripped by a passion for pedagogy, by a passion to transmit.

The first inevitable and necessary thing to receive is one’s own culture, without later rejecting it or even questioning it. There is no way to evade this need to put down roots, and once it has been successful one must love one’s roots. ‘I cannot love other cultures and absorb them unless I know and deeply practise deeply my own culture’ (M. Serres, La Guerre mondiale [Le Pomier, 2008], 192). If we despise our language, our usages, our religious rites, we commit a sin of arrogance; we criticise and perhaps abandon something we do not understand and we believe that we understand something we cannot control.

We have just seen the illuminating example of St Paul. He splits off from the branch on which he is planted, but he does not abandon it; he continues to love it, to such an extent that he says he would wish to be anathema so that his brothers would follow the way on which he has himself embarked (Rom 9.3). He transmits without abandoning.

Before loving to transmit, or rather, so as to love to transmit, it may be necessary first to love to receive, to love having received. Receiving is an act less passive than one might think, an act that leaves traces, even scars and wounds. Apprenticeship is always a difficult existence which demands active support for the passivity of receiving. After a hundred shipwrecks one emerges strengthened.

Is that simply theory, fine words more or less incomprehensible? Without wanting to throw a stone at anybody, without wishing to minimise the extraordinary work that has been done with the object of transmitting, without wishing to ignore all that is done today to reach the generations whom we think may be escaping us, is it wrong to ask if we show enough love for the fact that one day we ourselves were in a situation of receiving, in the situation of those to whom a heritage was being transmitted?

This kind of love is not to be confused with an intelligent conservatism. In all the personal examples cited in the first part, there is a moment of rupture, a moment when something was abandoned. Are we saying, for all that, that there is a moment when things should no longer be loved. Perhaps, (I say, perhaps) in the way that we left aside so many things that had become superannuated, outmoded and which in the end were paralysing us, we did not invest enough love. Perhaps this word would apply to us; we ought also meditate on it at length: ‘We do not know whither progress is leading because we have forgotten its starting-point’ (M. Serres, Statues 46).

We could put it differently: we have forgotten how to transmit because we have forgotten not what was transmitted to us but we have forgotten that it was transmitted to us. To love the future that is before us, it is necessary to love its memory (what we sometimes call history).

Here is a second vigorous saying. ‘The word is a dead letter if it is not transmitted from one mind to another’ (1). I content myself with citing it, for it will need a long meditation. One could evidently go back to what Newman said in this sermon, one of the best given before the University in 1832. It certainly makes clear that the language of ‘witness’ is better than that of ‘teacher’.

Communication and Transmission

If we are preoccupied with transmission, it is because there are generations that follow one another. Some die and others enter into life. There is a sort of game of hide and seek between the one and the other. Some realise they are going to die, that they are not eternal, that they will disappear; they wish then to leave something of themselves to their successors, something of that which they hold dear. Others need to learn, have a need to receive, need their elders to transmit something of their knowledge.

There is, then, a bond between transmission and the idea of death, the prospect of disappearing. If we succeed in guaranteeing to future generations the memory of what we hold, the anguish of disappearing will at least be diminished. If we consider monastic values, then what is involved for the most part goes beyond our persons, our generations. The fear that this would disappear goes well beyond a particular group of persons, a particular monastery, a particular institution. For all that, this does not diminish our real anxiety. Probably, it even augments it. That we personally should disappear does not affect us in the same way as the eventual disappearance of the monastic life. Further, the question is not just to know how to transmit, but also, at least in certain parts of the world, the question is to know if there is anyone to whom we could transmit.

As I have briefly recalled, today it is the very fact of transmitting that raises a question. Who any longer has the authority to transmit? By what right can one do it? Today when the word 'globalisation' is on everybody's lips and in every domain, what values – even what monastic values – does one transmit to those human groups who do not have the same heritage? Who are the inheritors, what are the heritages, what are the arguments that would convince by being transmitted?

In the face of such questions the temptation is great to stick to the present, to close in on oneself. But we realise too well that this is not a solution. There is a great temptation to take refuge in information, to be content with communication, and to neglect transmission. Information is immediate and does not demand any great reflection; transmission is slow and presupposes some critical reflection. Communication is in the domain of image, in the broad sense the word, a fire on the stairway; transmission is more abstract, it supposes listening, the silence of contemplation. I have distinguished between communication and transmission, between information and transmission. I believe that we should meditate a little longer on this distinction. This distinction can already be seen in the 'vigorous sayings' that I have cited, especially that of Newman.

Transmission presupposes people who pass on; this is altogether different from what is needed for communication. Someone who passes on helps to negotiate the obstacles on the way to acquiring knowledge and of the necessary assimilation. This process needs time, the acceptance of the complexity of the world and of humanity - and all this with a view to enriching the future and providing the means of influencing the future. So we see at once where one must be situated if one speaks of monastic values to be transmitted to others. We see at once that the attitude to be adopted – that of the passer-on – supposes a real asceticism to resist everything that goes in the opposite direction today. That is why after meditating for a long time on the distinction between communication and information on the one hand and transmission on the other, we ought meditate at length on the attitude of the transmitter. This is the time to recall the suggestion made about meditating on the person of Christ, the supreme transmitter.

A very ordinary example speaks very strongly. Think of crossing a river. When a swimmer or a boatman crosses a wide or a dangerous river, his journey is divided into three parts. When he keeps his eye on the bank from which he departs, he remains there at least in the sense that he can always return. When he looks to the other side, where he is to arrive, it is as if he were already there. Between these two moments of the journey, there is a third (you remember me talking of the Annunciation and how I mentioned a third presence besides that of the Angel and Mary). Right in the middle of the crossing there is a decisive moment. At equal distance from either shore, for a longer or shorter time, we are no longer on one side and are not yet on the other. Or rather we are on one side and the other simultaneously. It is an uncomfortable situation that could give rise to disquiet. Navigation is as it were suspended: it is too late to turn back, too early to be sure of arriving at the other side. Here is a space that is rarely or never explored.

It is precisely this that I meant when I said that we do not ask often enough what is the very act of transmitting. We ask ourselves what we are going to transmit (the shore from which we depart), how and to whom will we transmit (the shore of arrival) but only seldom do we ask what it means to transmit (the intermediate space). The rower lives thus a certain transition, a 'betwixt and between'. In this transition, at once neutral and mixed, the walker or rower joins two natures within himself; also two languages, two cultures, perhaps it goes so far that he is dissolved or lost in it. It is at this moment that we must recall the words of the Gospel: ‘Whoever wishes to save his life must lose it.’ The rower must lose the first bank if he wants to reach the second. If we dedicate our lives and our good will to dialogue exchanges, to messages, to relations, we cannot but experience this space of passage. But since the position is uncomfortable we have no desire to try to describe or understand it.

The real transition takes place in the middle. True transmission takes place in the middle. The traveller who crosses learns about a second world, that towards which he is going, where a different language is spoken. Above all he discovers a third world, that through which he passes, that through which he goes. This is doubtlessly one of the secrets of transmission: to have the patience to rest in this third world, where the first from which we are departing and the second towards which we are tending intermingle. Not only is there another shore that we can see, another language, other customs, another culture, but this place what I have called the third is the bond of union. To meditate on the word ‘transmit’, on what it is to transmit is to meditate on the unifying bond, on the hyphen. In a word that includes a hyphen, the hyphen is nothing of itself. Its true reality is to be at once the two words that it unites, the two realities that it holds together. It is poor because it is nothing; it is rich because it is impregnated by the two banks (to take up again the image of a river to be crossed). It is at once a thing of no meaning and at the same time it carries the whole of the meaning.

Uncomfortable as this position is, we must have the courage to dally there for a while. It is there that one learns what a passage (a Passover) is, what an apprenticeship is, with the anxiety of a possible shipwreck if one does not reach the other bank and if one cannot get back to the first bank. Hitherto, I have talked about adopting the point of view of the person who has something to transmit, rather as if he alone was obliged to leave one bank in order to arrive at the other, as if he alone was obliged to experience the discomfort of the bond of union, of the hyphen. There is something missing here. The recipient of transmission must undertake a similar journey. He too must have the uncomfortable experience of the hyphen, of the bond of union. He cannot be satisfied simply with receiving, for the act of receiving is not a matter of simple passivity. So there is a moment when both giver and recipient of transmission need to find themselves between the two banks, each one having left his own side. I speak as if it were a question of moments that succeed each other chronologically. That is in order to clarify (I hope) the explanation. But it is obvious that in reality, things do not turn out like that.

You will remember that regarding this hyphen or bond of union, I said that it was poor from a certain point of view of no longer having the meaning attached to that which it is leaving and not yet having the meaning of that to which it is directed. In itself then, it is meaningless, but its purpose is to get them both to meet, to unite them one to the other. In other words, universal, able to receive everything, to integrate everything.

Probably for us the most fruitful bond of union is that which we place between Jesus and Christ. In this way we relate a Semitic name (Jesus) to a Greek name (Christ). We unite two cultural families. We transmit the one to the other, reciprocally. Is it exaggerated to think that a long and profound meditation on this subject would bring us, not solutions indeed but their root, on which it would be possible to build a solid foundation?

Transmission and Creation

‘We have forgotten the spiritual… God, lost in the bank beyond, notices what I lack. I need a bridge. Only a man-God, with two natures, can re-build it. Will we rediscover the body of Christ? Will we in this way recreate our own body?' (M.Serres, ‘L'art des ponts’, Homo pontifex, 2006, p.204). This quotation introduces the ideal of creation or re-creation. This is the last element that I will briefly mention, because we do not associate it automatically with transmission. Can transmission really create? It does create by transforming the carrier and the receiver of the message, a transformation that takes place or at least begins where they meet one another between the two banks, to resume the image we were using. Without this, transmission will be no more than a copy, a repetition.

It is time to finish. We will review the most important of the elements we have discussed. What constitutes transmission? I will talk a little in images. Our motorways offer models of transmission, with those interchanges that are often so large. To a lesser degree the roundabouts or the point-duty police also offer a model of transmission. Do we notice it often enough? To go towards the left, to be transmitted to the left, we need first of all to turn right, thus seeming to make a detour. Transmission involves us in those surprises, those apparent detours, those changes in our reactions and usages. Football players (or other team ball-games) know that the game consists in not holding the ball to oneself but transmitting it as fast as possible to the bestplaced player and so on to the end. Transmission has something of that; one must not hold on to what one has. Whoever wants to save his life must lose it. There is in transmission an aspect of detachment, of dying to oneself. It is necessary to lose what is transmitted so as to save it .

The Olympic Games of 2008 allowed us to see the flame leaving Greece and being passed on successively to a certain number of countries before arriving in Peking. What we transmit is less a message than a torch. We are invited to speak continually in the language of fire. Only the message that is aflame will pass on. Finally, the transmission must be done beautifully: ‘In fact, whatever you transmit, if you do it with ugliness, the ugliness alone will remain and the content will vanish, leading on to violence. If you give birth in beauty, the transmission will vanish, the content will remain and this need for beauty, while it is propagated, allows all to live in its vicinity.’ (M. Serres, Atlas, 1994 p.16).

(1) Newman, Sermons Universitaires 5 (Desclée de Brouwer, 1955) 122-42.