FRATERNAL LIFE IN THE MONASTERY
OF THE GOOD NEWS
Mother Paul Galland, OSB,
Priory of the Monastery of the Good News, Ivory Coast
How do we live out fraternal life in our community? Probably with the same joys and same difficulties as other Benedictine communities across the world! Nevertheless, the attempt to answer this question has allowed us to reflect on the fine daily life which God offers us, and we thank the committee of the AIM for its request.
Home is the monastery of the Good News at Bouaké on the Ivory Coast, founded 50 years ago by the Abbey of Pradines in France. We are about 20 sisters, ranging from the age of 30 to 78 years old, drawn from 5 different nationalities (Ivory Coast, Benin, Congo, Burkina Faso and France). Among the sisters from the Ivory Coast at least 7 ethnic groups are represented, so a fine diversity with a shared language, French, except for the liturgy, where songs in various languages are often used for the Eucharist. The story of the Ivory Coast in these last ten years has not been without effect on our fraternal life: events have at one time or another disturbed us, led us astray, provoked us, weakened us and finally, we hope, strengthened us. We thank God for everything which he has,allowed us to live through together.
The first element to note in response to the question put to us concerns the relationship of the community to our families. That is, the importance of the right relationship to the family for a just and right fraternal relationship in community. We know one another’s families: at the first visit of a family we all go to greet them; at our evening meetings we easily exchange important family news; at the death of parents the sister in mourning is always accompanied by several sisters. Often we seek as a body to help a sister to work out how to live the necessary family solidarity in particular circumstances. In fact we take on ourselves a great deal, both emotionally and spiritually, of family worries, and that sometimes raises questions.
The stages of the monastic journey are also strong moments of our fraternal life: acceptance for profession is given to the young sister in front of the whole community, which responds by a kiss of peace and a song. To live the final years of temporary vows the young professed sister leaves the noviciate escorted by her young sisters who carry her luggage, and she is met at a strategic ‘crossroads’ by her older sisters of the community, all with songs and dance. On the eve of perpetual profession she is invited into the chapter of the professed sisters, each of whom gives her a word for the journey; this is a very beautiful moment. On the evening of her profession she is accompanied, with appropriate songs, to her cell, where presents and cards are laid out.
We also mark anniversaries of profession (temporary or perpetual, according to the wishes of each): the sister concerned sings in chapter the Suscipe, which is taken up by all and followed by a prayer for vocations. In the course of the day she finds flowers and little signs of affection on her passage.
In daily life we try not to miss opportunities to show our fraternal affection, to strengthen it or repair it! There is, of course, the name-day of every sister: on the eve she is embraced at recreation with joy, songs and whatever flowers can be found; at her place in the refectory she finds flowers and a little ‘extra’ offered by the bursar, which she of course normally hastens to share out.
We try also not to miss asking forgiveness and thanks: requests for forgiveness (apart from those between two sisters alone) and faults may be made at the meeting of each evening. Thanks which we want to give publicly are reserved for Sunday evening. A particularly strong request for forgiveness is that of Holy Thursday, after the Mother Prioress has commented the Gospel and washed the feet of each sister. After this request for pardon the community climate is quite changed, light, open, airy, full of good will. It is a lovely entry into the celebrations of Easter.
We make it our business also to be particularly attentive to absent sisters; they are often mentioned in the litanies, the telephone frequently allows us to keep good contact. At the return, each one finds her cell clean and decorated with flowers, even if her absence has not been long. But we have to make an effort to re-cycle her better after her return, and allow her to take back her place in daily life easily.
Our work should also be mentioned as a locus of fraternal life, but this would take too long in the framework of this article. Let us simply say that there is plenty of work for our small numbers, in particular numerous requests for help from a small commission for mutual help. All this compels us to make daily exchanges, to speak to one another, to become engaged and above all to help one another. In the face of a superfluity of work, in the face of the unexpected which overturns our programme, it is always a joy to pass from a rather timid, ‘What can we do about this?’ to gratitude towards the sister who helps her sister.
A word concerning the guesthouse where, let it be said, the fraternal life of the community overflows. Our buildings favour a certain proximity with the guests, with the advantages and disadvantages which result. Our guests say they feel really welcomed by the community, and consequently a certain style of relationship develops between the guests themselves.
In the second part of this article we would like to evoke briefly the indispensible humus which nourished this fraternal life, at once so strong and so brittle.
First, our daily liturgical prayer, this repeated return to the hearth which gives rhythm to our days – the Eucharist and the Divine Office – is a return to the heart of each sister, of the community, of the heart of God, of Jesus Christ from whom we draw life, pardon, respect, mission. This is indeed the continual source of our fraternal life.
We note also that our community, without looking for it, finds itself pretty regularly welcoming sisters for various reasons from elsewhere, from other communities, other countries, other Christian confessions. The hospitality is a great grace for us: it keeps us open and simple; it keeps us moving and enriches us, and also challenges us. Would that we could welcome one another in the same way as we welcome sisters from elsewhere!
We find also that our fraternal life is nourished and strengthened by an ensemble of elements connected with the word:
• The sharing of the Gospel once a fortnight, a practice we have taken up again a little more than a year ago, after a retreat at which we discovered how far a community is built round the Word of God. The community is divided into three groups which meet at the same time in three different places, but near each other. Even if we do not succeed in keeping this up every fortnight, we would not willingly forego these sharings.
• Another important sharing of the word occurs after a session experienced by one sister or another, or after the 2 years of study of 2 of our sisters; we share what can be handed on. This is very beneficial, if only we can find the time, which is not always easy!
• For some time now we have had the chance to live out, in the framework either of the noviciate or of the community as a whole, sessions of self-knowledge, conflict-resolution, healing of wounds, etc. This is certainly a grace for fraternal life. We thus learn little by little to put things on their true level, not to mix things up, not to dramatize too quickly, in fact to know ourselves better. This allows us to speak more freely, more frankly and respectfully, to listen to one another more openly and more respectfully. Of course, this is far from being perfect, but this grace of being able to speak and listen to one another brings us joy every time we are allowed to experience it.
• At the beginning of this article we mentioned the very difficult years lived by our country. The years were difficult for our monastic community, as they were for all the other Christian communities. But during these years we were several times able, with help from outside, to speak frankly and with confidence and respect, and equally to listen with respect, openness and confidence. These were real moments of grace from which we emerged, we hope, more closely sutured to one another by the wound. God is good!
Yes, in religious life fraternal life is the most beautiful thing. And the most difficult thing is fraternal life in community! ‘How good and how sweet it is to live together as brothers in Christ’ (Psalm 132).