THE FUTURE OF MONASTICISM AND
THE ROLE OF THE AIM
Dom Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori, OCSO.
Dom Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori is a witness to the evolution of the communities which depend on the Cistercian Order of which he is Abbot General. Here he expresses his understanding of the situation and stresses the need for a real solidarity between the monasteries of each Congregation, each Order and even between the Orders. The AIM can play an important part in this matter.
One Great Family
When I reflect on the present and future of my Cistercian Order I take care not to forget the simple words that Pope Benedict XVI addressed to me after my election as Abbot General, when the General Chapter had an audience with him as a body, ‘You are one great family.’ At the end of the General Chapter I said on this subject, ‘We are one great family. The true nature of a family is not to be a group of persons turned in upon itself, defending its own solidarity and interests. The true nature of a family is to be a link in a chain of generations, that is, a group of people who come to birth in order to give birth in their turn. This process of giving birth occurs through a shared life, in which the members love one another, educate one another and open themselves to fruitfulness. The family is a place of common life and work in order to grow towards a love ever more authentic and generous. It is a place where people work together to grow in knowledge of the truth, in the experience of goodness, in the contemplation of beauty. All this implies growth in unity, in the sharing which gives an opening to truth, to love and to the beauty of being drawn up into a life which circulates between persons and gives itself to the world. St Benedict offers us and asks us to live and grow in this experience, in which Christ responds to our hearts’ thirst for blessedness on the personal level and on the level of each of our communities and of the whole Order. To define ourselves as ‘one great family’ does not mean measuring our size, but means being aware that even when we are little and fragile the Lord is calling us to grow, to grow in life, to grow in love in communion, to grow in the gift of our life for the Kingdom of God which is unity and salvation of the immense human family. Moreover, this occurs even through death, since in Christ the law of life is the paschal mystery’ (Speech at the end of the General Chapter, 10th September, 2010).
In the course of three years as Abbot General I have come to see that the situation of my Order is not as simple as that. Even if on the occasion of the General Chapter and other meetings of superiors we live some very beautiful moments of communion and sharing, I have become aware of the fact that we are still very far from being really one great family. The suggestions of the Pope Emeritus are rather a task to accomplish than a reality already attained. God grant that it was a prophetic word! One thing is sure, that to be ‘one great family’ is and always will be a labour, a task to take up ceaselessly, a vocation to which we must respond ever anew, a building-site to be worked at every moment, by every generation, to respond to new challenges thrown up to us by the realities of life and of our time. Often the temptation is great to lose courage, to cease to believe in a common ideal of the whole Order. Perhaps already the separation between the Cistercian Order of the Common Life and that of the Strict Observance broke something vital to our identity, to our charism. In fact the Cistercian Order was one of the first to be fully aware of being, even juridically, one great family of monasteries and communities. The Carta Caritatis belongs to our charism, perhaps even more than the desire to observe the Rule of St Benedict more faithfully than it was observed at Cluny.
The Charism of Humble Love
The desire to be better than others is never a Christian charism. A charism is Christian when it presents two fundamental characteristics: humility and love. It was perhaps exactly at the moment when we were too fixed on observance, on comparing ourselves with others, that we deserted our charism, because we parted from humility and the love which nourishes unity, communion and friendship between monasteries, which had marked – at least in desire – Cistercian communities of the earliest decades.
Then, after collapses, crises, divisions, the Holy Spirit again began to nourish the charism anew, to call us to it and to make it possible, even in the new form that a religious family, an Order, was by human fragility and historical influences able to take. It is, however, important never to lose sight of the fact that in one way or another in order to live a charism and make it fruitful in the Church we must always convert ourselves into a human and loving community. Sometimes – indeed perhaps often – crises and periods of fragility or persons, communities and Orders have been times of grace for recuperating the source of human love which nourishes communion. Nevertheless, this can happen only if we refuse to cling onto the ruins of power and lost pride which weigh upon us heavily enough to sink us to the bottom of the abyss.
Those who think that they are getting on well on their own finish by going wrong, even if they are unwilling to admit it. This is something I have observed in these last three years. Communities which think they are doing well because they have vocations, success, wealth, and therefore think they do not need other communities, sooner or later come to ruinous falls and catastrophes. To work alone is to work badly; this is made clear by St Paul’s theology of the mystical Body of Christ. One member can be the most noble, the most beautiful of the body, but if he separates from it he dies and decomposes. On the other hand, a weak and wounded member which remains attached to the body continues to live and always receives from the body vitality and rejuvenation.
Monastic life today has basically everything it needs to allow monasteries to be part of one great family, to be places and leavens of communion in the richness and variety of charisms. But it does not have the structures to impose this. Anyone who listens, who accepts and asks for help, will be helped and will get on well, even though facing great problems. Anyone who does not listen, who prefers to go it alone and is content with what he can manage on his own, will remain truly alone, at the mercy of his own fragility and his own problems, especially when he is unwilling to face up to them. As St Paul writes to the Corinthians, ‘Whoever thinks himself steady should beware of a fall’ (1 Corinthians 10.12).
Communion of Listening and of Formation
The great challenge of monasticism in our day is, as for the whole Church, the challenge of the liberty of vocation. St Benedict teaches us that obedience is born of listening to the truth which unites us in the Word of God and the Church. The duty of superiors is ‘to spread it in the spirit of his disciples as a leaven of divine justice’ (RB 2), that is, a word of liberty which challenges the liberty of persons so that they may be helped and attracted to obey the truth with their whole lives, following Christ in love.
This is true for a particular community as for a whole Order. It seems to me more urgent than ever today that every community and every Order as a whole should be nourished by a common teaching, because over time this creates a unity of intention, of judgment (Ephesians 4.15), that is, to move towards a community of truth in oneself and in the reciprocal relationships which an Order often fails to cultivate thoroughly within itself, whether for structural, cultural, historical or other reasons, always marked by human fragility. This is why tight and transparent collaboration between the central organisms of the different Orders and the AIM is very important. Yes, I think that the essential role of the AIM will and should always be that of helping us to ‘do the truth in love’!
We are always at a Beginning
I would like to finish by taking up the last line of the Rule of St Benedict. This is perhaps the starting-point from which our monastic life should always be moving if it wishes to remain faithful to its charism and be certain of a fruitful future. Benedict has just been speaking of the examples and the rules of the Fathers of monastic life. They should stimulate us to a heroic life of rigorous asceticism. But Benedict must not be a dreamer; he has before his eyes the men of his time, monks and their communities. Of course, it would be fine if all were saints, models of monastic life. But humans are human, and Christ came to save all people and to offer them a life of all possible fullness. So St Benedict pretends to be severe and scandalized by our fragility, but in reality he believes more in mercy than in rigour, more in love than in ascetical perfection, and at the end of the Rule he brings us back to the road of following Christ, to the new beginning always possible and always perfect, because the perfection of teaching and virtue which we must attain comes to meet us in Christ who journeys with us. ‘We are slack, unobservant and negligent, and should blush for confusion. Whoever you are, hastening towards the heavenly homeland, put into practice with the help of Christ this very little Rule written for beginners. That being done, you will arrive at the protection of God, to the highest summits of doctrine and virtue of which we have been speaking. Amen!’ (RB 73)