FRATERNAL LIFE IN BENEDICTINE
COMMUNITIES IN VIETNAM
Sister Anna Trinh and Sister François Tra, OSB,
Our first reaction is to thank you warmly for your courtesy in asking us to work on this matter. In Vietnam there are several communities of Cistercians, men and women, and of Benedictines, four communities of monks and our own.
To speak of community is to speak of fraternal life. Since all these monastic communities live by the same Rule of St Benedict we are very glad to share this very rich and profound theme, even though each monastery presents a different style of life. To live monastic life in Vietnam is to live the life of which St Benedict speaks in the Rule with faith and in harmony with the culture of the people of Vietnam.
Among the riches of our culture we may modestly mention these points: silence, love, living in peace, a spirit of unity, solidarity, respect and affection, and in the family, filial respect. A proverb runs, ‘Drinking water means thinking of its source.’ It is precisely these radical values of silence and love which among the people of Vietnam form the structures both of communities and of individuals.
In their shared life the brothers or sisters must first of all and in all circumstances live in peace without forgetting this saying, ‘The heart and the mind complete each other in harmony.’ Thanks to the wisdom of the heart, monks know how to give themselves reciprocally and to live with justice. Bonds and relationships within a community therefore present a certain clear hierarchy in the matter of communicating and of living our relationships. If there is a dispute or a quarrel, a first reaction is to look for a solution; reconciliation and peace are the norm!
In Europe, if we are not mistaken, when young people reach adulthood they easily leave their family for a free and independent life. By contrast in Vietnam young people care lovingly for the old people, grandparents, parents, and help them with great generosity and devotion. This remains the case. To take an example, one day there was a problem on which our young sisters were asked their opinion, ‘Would it be a good idea to build a retirement home for our aged sisters?’ To our astonishment, no one supported the idea! They explained to us that for them the aged sisters were like their grandparents or parents. Similarly in daily life, the young sisters truly respect their seniors and serve them with great devotion.
It has been said that a person shows his or her true nature only in relationships and communication with others. The attitude of Vietnamese to relationships is that at the same time we show ourselves ready to speak and yet maintain a certain reserve. A Vietnamese welcome is always good. We welcome with joy and good will. We offer everything of the best, such as the best dishes, to the guests. We reserve the best room, the best furniture for visitors; even if the family is poor we look for something to offer anyone who asks. We never let anyone go away hungry.
The Vietnamese like to pay attention to other people. They like to understand concrete situations and often give the impression of being inquisitive! In the Vietnamese tradition we have great respect for persons: attitudes to elderly people and the aged, and respect in the manner of speaking and listening are important. In community life the brother or sister does not use the first person singular as in the West, but uses the expressions ‘con’, ‘em’, ‘chau’ for the person addressed, as in a family where there are father, mother, aunts, uncles, grandparents. The Vietnamese mentality is complex, preserving good manners and delicacy to the point of becoming complicated.
Festival and the Feast of the Têt
All Vietnamese people, rich or poor, celebrate the Têt! It is a festival of joy and good wishes (happiness, prosperity, long life). Our Church in Vietnam reserves the second day of the Têt for prayer and celebration of the Eucharist in memory of our ancestors, our grandparents, parents. In this way we observe filial piety, an important point in traditional Vietnamese culture. The principal feature is reunion of all the family members; children who live far away do their best to return and come together on these days of the New Year. Similarly the members of a community celebrate the Têt with warm fraternity in the same spirit. A few days before the festival we have the custom at chapter in the evening of asking pardon of each other for our inevitable failings.
Our community life with the Rule of St Benedict
Monks live together in a monastery. They serve God under the guidance of a Rule and an abbot (RB 1-2). It is through the presence of our brothers and sisters in monastic communities that we experience the values and the strength of fidelity and perseverance in good will. With the call of God to our Benedictine vocation we can say that our elders are like pillars to protect and hold our house firm at its high points and low points in the various stages of its history. It is this spirit of life which acts as cement to join the bricks together, so that community life binds the members of a community together. It is impossible to live in love and true peace if one leaves someone out or tries to suppress one’s neighbour. Thanks to the spirit of unity we are ready to live in common, considering ourselves brothers of one another, easily accepting the common life: ‘They will have a love for one another without egoism, as members of the same family’ (RB 72.8).
In the monastery each of the sisters is following the call of Christ and living in charity, respect and obedience, seeking the will of God together, with the features and colouring we have already mentioned. In short, the monastic vocation is a life of faith, although we still have limits, weaknesses and sin. It is exactly this spirit of life which shapes our religious identity, a monastic identity which harmonizes well with our Vietnamese culture.
In speaking of the culture of Vietnam it must be admitted that at the present time there are many varied deformations in different domains, in particular the problem of education and human formation. It is an age called ‘the age of speed, of immediacy, of crisis’. Thus St Benedict teaches us, ‘This is why we wish to set up a school of the Lord’s service.’ By patience, therefore, we will share in the sufferings of Christ and will thus deserve to be with him in his Kingdom (Romans 8.17). It is the love of Christ that gives sense to all our values and which demands conversion and detachment. We live in hope that our monastic life will help our people recognize the light of the Gospel.
To all of you we wish a good journey in Christ!