Mother Henriette Kalmogo,
prioress of the Monastery of Notre-Dame de Koubri,
Mother Henriette is prioress of the Benedictine Monastery of Koubri. She took part in the session ‘Ananias’ for French-speaking formators. This article is an edited version of her talk. It well illustrates the need to envisage the proclamation of the Gospel and the transmission of monastic values in the context of that intercultural dialogue which is omnipresent in our globalised world. This African viewpoint brings out some essential truths and invites us make some necessary changes.
The modest contribution which I here propose has nothing original about it! My starting-point is earlier reflections on the same subject, and I rely also on experience of life in our monasteries. I would like to refer to a very fine conference of Dom Nicolas Dayez, former abbot of Maredsous, ‘Comment transmettre les valeurs monastiques’ and several other recent articles. The exchanges and sharing at the most recent Congress of Benedictine Abbots (September 2012) has contributed also to the background of these reflections, especially the conference of M. Hochschild, ‘Benedictines between continuity and change’. I have been asked to discuss‘Global interculturation today in monastic formation’, with special reference to my own experience in the African context as I perceive it. This theme will be treated in two parts:
• How to pass on today the monastic values which I received a few years ago
• How to pass on the values which I love and by which I live today to a young person coming from a different cultural milieu in this era of constant change, or perhaps one should say of identity crisis at all levels of socio-economic life and in the Church?
This was surely the lived experience of the French Benedictines who arrived at Koubri fifty years ago.
What in fact did our founding sisters do? They left France, more precisely Valognes in Normandy, and arrived in the Upper Volta which had only just achieved its political independence, in company with all its neighbours of West Africa. This was December 1962. There was good reason to ask whether this ‘proud Volta in the scorching sun’ (in the words of the national anthem) would be ready to open its doors to foreigners! But there was nothing to fear. Not only did the local Church have pretty good relations with the civil authorities, but also it had just received its second indigenous bishop, in the person of Mgr Paul Zoungrana, who two years later would be created cardinal. The missionary thrust encouraged by Vatican II, which was then in session, had already turned towards the contemplative life. Thanks to the openness and the human warmth of the people of the Volta, the arrival of the nuns aroused an extraordinary enthusiasm. The Benedictines from Valognes who had come to sow monastic life at Koubri therefore had the opportunity to give the most precious gift they brought with them: they were going to live their simple life in this new place, ready to welcome girls whom this life attracted. Is not this what ‘passing on’ means?
A few months ago I happened to be at Valognes, having come to share in the return to God of Mother Benedict Engelmann, the former abbess. I felt in deep communion with my French sisters. We felt strongly united before the mystery of the transition which every death is! Nevertheless, as soon as it was a question of putting into practice the continuous presence around our well loved and already venerated sister, I soon realised how different our feelings were. My secret wish was that there should be permanently around Mother Benedict two or three sisters, praying in silence or reciting a psalm together or occasionally singing a refrain, as we do in similar circumstances at Koubri.
In saying this I do not wish to assert that my sisters at Valognes or in other places in Europe have the custom of leaving prayer around dead sisters optional or spontaneous. Such an attitude in one place or another can be the product of particular circumstances rather than cultural background. This leads us to stress the need to consider prudently the differences of cultural milieu when we welcome Jesus Christ and his commandment of love, and then the Rule of St Benedict as the principal link of our fellowship.
‘We journey together, coming from different horizons, to unite ourselves in living an experience’ of listening, sharing and formation:
• Listening to Christ and his mystery, listening in our profoundest being as brothers and sisters
• Sharing and transmission of lived experience of our values
• Personal formation/transformation of the formator – a necessary precondition of this mission of formation.
Such is the objective of this ‘little reflection on Ananias’ proposed in this project! This includes a care to bring the theological and spiritual life into harmony, that is, how to articulate an understanding of the faith, of the life of prayer, of human life, into the life of every day. It underlines the importance of a global approach, human and spiritual rather than purely intellectual. Hence it has seemed good to approach this subject from the angle of witness rather than by theoretical teaching.
To pass on what I have received? Rather than passing it on, I need above all to live what is closest to my heart in such a way that my happiness is visible, and communicates itself as a message which speaks of itself, which questions or attracts. ‘You have received without cost, give without charge!’ (Matthew 10.9) ‘To pass on’ presupposes two people or two groups, or two banks of a river as Dom Nicolas would say, or in any case two realities invited to come close to each other, to nourish each other, to receive one from the other – and that is already a fine mission! In our situation, however, it is better, without losing sight of this act of interpenetration or mutual sustenance, to speak immediately of a witness of life with no other ambition than to be present. The essential factor in formation/transmission is simply to be present, an alternative figure to monastic existence.
We know that it was in the last twenty years of his life, towards the middle of the sixth century, that Benedict wrote his Rule at Monte Cassino. But it was in a cave at Subiaco that he began his adventure with God, having fled from a Rome too depraved for this young aristocrat. I have had the good fortune, I should rather say ‘the grace’, to visit these places on pilgrimage. The journey from Rome to Subiaco was for me just this, a spiritual adventure. The deeper our coach went into those lofty and majestic mountains, the more I appreciated the need to escape from such a thronged capital city as a necessary liberation, or rather an obligatory course to take in order to be able to taste the beauty of those peaks, and above all to make an experience of that Presence which irresistibly drew the young man. As we got out of the coach, the cry welled up from deep within me, ‘I understand why the message of St Benedict has challenged all nations and all cultures! For it is here that we come in contact with human nature in all its depth, here where the Spirit speaks a single language because we can each hear it in our own language, just as on the day of Pentecost. Whether we are yellow or white, black or red, we are brought face to face with this message and can relax into it! The only condition is to seek that Someone who has, deep in your heart, set you on the road, and to be ready to leave all behind, even yourself, to follow him. This Someone is Jesus, Good News for every person coming into this world (John 1.9), the gift of God for every person of every age, the Emmanuel at all times and in all places of our earth. More than this, since his Passion, Death and Resurrection, Jesus is all these cultures and all these eras. It is he who said, “Once I have been lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself ” (John 12.32).’
For each and every one of us this is the whole story! Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, Emmanuel for the salvation of every person here and elsewhere. His law of love has been given to us as the basis and goal of everyone who seeks true life. The Rule of St Benedict is the Gospel, translated by this disciple of Christ for those who wish to take the same road as himself in order to follow Jesus in living by his law of love. These, then, are the rungs of the ladder which are to guide our reflection. Here are certain elements for the rest of our paper:
1. We take as our startingpoint the text of Acts 2.1.11, a text fundamental in our project of global interculturation, the story of Pentecost.
2. Starting from this, we must try to ‘receive our own culture’.
3. I would like to dare to take a glance at the future and imagine an exchange with our brothers and sisters who will remember us in 2063 as they keep alive the flame which we will have passed on to them and which they in their turn will pass on.
I. Acts 2.1-11
This is a text which everyone should learn word for word as a present for their own hearts and for everyone:
‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’
• It is true for all of us, as for the apostles, that if we have a profound experience it can be expressed only in our own language and our own culture. And if we really allow ourselves to be seized by this experience, the Holy Spirit who is its author will give a simultaneous translation (as in great international meetings!) in such a way that our hearers understand, each in their own language and their own culture, not only what we are saying about God but also what we are saying on God’s behalf.
• Each of the listeners, in their turn, will undergo an experience which is not identical to ours, but according as the Holy Spirit wills for that person, for his or her own special benefit.
• Both speaker and listener find themselves in a situation of inculturation. Each in their own person lives out the meeting with a previous (already existing) and a new (just occurring) situation. This is the situation of the founder who arrives, is welcomed into a new place and opens the door of the monastery to a candidate for monastic life. This can be also our situation today.
• The most fundamental element is this total openness to the Spirit. St Benedict expects the abbot to draw the essentials of his teaching from the scripture, and to know from that how to link the old and the new in order to form a disciple. St Paul has a triple nationality – Jewish, Greek and Roman – and is known as the apostle of the pagan nations to whom he was particularly sent. In proclaiming the truth of the Gospels he says to the Galatians on one occasion, ‘All of you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave and free man, no longer man and woman, for all of you are one in Christ.’ It is thus, affirms Dom Nicolas, that, in creating a new and original community, Paul passes on all three communities which produced him (1 Corinthians 11.1).
• That is how our founders, having left their countries and the communities of their profession, spared no pains to hand on to us the torch of this monastic life – just as a life is passed on! They themselves had received it without payment and found happiness in it. In the same way they found joy and happiness in passing on this life, accepting from the start all the demands of selfgiving and renouncement which this giving birth demanded.
• And now we, today, in this here-and-now for all of us, what should we do and how should we do it? On the day of our first profession the abbot or prior spoke to us in these terms, ‘N., on the day of your baptism you were consecrated to God by water and the Spirit, do you wish to be united with the Spirit more intimately by monastic profession?’ This is the startingpoint to which we must constantly refer. Only the Spirit of Jesus who links us intimately to him, and makes us alive with his life, grants us to bear fruit: ‘Abide in me as I abide in you! Without me you can do nothing’ (John 15.4.5). ‘Go then, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, teaching them to observe all that I have laid down for you. And I will remain with you all your days, even to the end of time’ (Matthew 28.20). ‘Listen, my son, open the ear of your heart, willingly accept the advice of a father who loves you. It is to you that I am speaking, whoever you are who renounce your own will and take up the strong and noble armour of obedience to fight under the command of Christ the true king, our Lord’ (RB Prologue and 1).
As the branch to the stem, remain strongly united to Jesus, in all time and in all places, for he is the way, the truth and life, master of time and of history. ‘He has risen from the dead, the Son of God, our brother. He has risen, free and victorious. He has taken our destiny to his own heart to fill it with his presence. Let us not seek elsewhere in our lives to find his way, for he joins us on our way’ (Easter hymn). He alone can show us the meaning of our story and the deepest roots of our culture.
2. Welcoming our cultures
‘Welcome your culture!’, says Dom Nicolas. In fact we must love our roots, though prepared to refuse or question one or other tendril which is not a real help to us. It would be useful at this moment to see in what way the Gospel and then the Rule of St Benedict encounters each culture, to ask in what way that culture helps us live the Gospel and then the Rule. A whole practical task would be necessary to win a clear view of what is at stake. Communities should be encouraged to undertake it.
3. Towards tomorrow?
It is our task to leave behind for future generations the heritage of this monastic life which is our blessing. In these days we speak of the world as a large village within which real and symbolic distances are both reduced; this reality has its advantages and disadvantages! We all experience many challenges from the new means of communication always more effective. At the same time as rendering a great service to us they are also a threat to enclosure, for silence both interior and exterior, and so for our solitary life. And even some of our cultural values are often severely tested by them! What will happen tomorrow?
• The Rule is a fixed script, and its basis does not change. However, we are aware that its transmission is chiefly oral, that is, it occurs through life and witness. We reach its heart and its message across various inculturations according to countries, cultures and eras through which it has passed before reaching us. This makes it less easy to discern what might be the kernel which constitutes the essence of the Rule to be passed on. If the habit presents our exterior appearance, much more our practice and our concrete lifestyle characterize us as authentic disciples of St Benedict.
• The abbot, prior and novice master (or their female equivalents) whose business it is to ensure that the practice of this Rule have their personal lifestyle. St Benedict requires the abbot to teach by example: ‘He should show by his words and even more by his example everything good and holy, and when the abbot explains to his disciples what is wrong he must also show it by his example (RB 2). As for the novice master, he is an ‘elder brother, capable of leading to God, devoting himself to the novices with the greatest care and watching them attentively’ (RB 58). It can be said that the formator already imparts a personal interpretation at the very level of the transmission of the monastic tradition. Even the community itself as a whole finally puts its mark on how the Rule is lived. One is a monk of community X, not of community Y. Nor should one forget that in any community, if the novice mistress is officially charged with the formation of a new entrant, it is often the sister who entered just before her who is the strongest influence. All this confirms that however much the Rule is a fixed script, it is still a living tradition which lends itself to evolution.
• ‘Tomorrow’s community? God can see it,’ St Francis used to say to his disciple and brother Tancred who was worried about the unfortunate course which the Order was taking in crisis. Dom Leclercq was amazed at the history of Benedictine monachism and its power to regenerate itself after a period of decline (cf. M. Casey, OCSO, Conference at the 2012 Congress on autonomy). The Rule, lived and transmitted for centuries, cannot cease to nourish, bear fruit and life just because the more rapid rate of change throws us off balance, or because generations are climbing on one another’s backs and we are taken by surprise by the sociopolitical and ethical choices presented to us.
We have already mentioned the dangers of globalisation with the arrival of new technologies at every level of social and economic life. At the beginning of our 21st century we are aware of changes in sense of values, new conceptions of interpersonal relationships, relationship to authority, obedience, etc. More than this, some people find they are being challenged by a surprising question, ‘Have we even the right to pass on tradition? Is this not a restriction of liberty (cf. Dom Nicolas Dayez)?’ What will be the answer tomorrow – in fifty years?
We imagine that the era of St Benedict was free of disturbances. Far from it! A Qaeda had other names! It was not for nothing that an experienced monk, capable of making judgments, was stationed at the door of the monastery. Probably all kinds of people could be seen passing, whose real intentions were not easily discernible. Nor were their deepest motives clear either among those who came to the guestquarters or among those who presented themselves to lead monastic life. In order to foil the tricks of the Adversary it was important to pray before letting anyone in! When our father St Benedict wrote the Rule he had envisaged that his huge monastery would be ruined. But he had a vision also of the whole world in a single sunbeam. So what should we conclude from those words which nourish and strengthen, ‘They will prefer absolutely nothing to Christ, and may he bring us all together to life with him for ever!’ (RB 73) And this final exhortation which sustains the heart of a disciple both loving and brave: ‘You will reach... the summits’!
Yes, the Rule is a living tradition. ‘To look to the past is as important as to look to the future’, says M. Hochschild. Let us live in such a way that, by the legacy we leave them, future generations are inspired to run more quickly and with their heart even more widened on the road of salvation!
‘Listen, my son, lend the ear of your heart... and you will reach the summit of perfection’ (RB 1 and 73). Where and how could a better way of inculturation be found than that opened by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost? That every individual should be confirmed in his own culture, his own language and customs, in his own place, his milieu and his own epoch would need the intervention of the Holy Spirit who disposes minds and hearts! Necessary also is the good will of the thirsty soul. This is the same road as that taken by our God in making himself one of us for the sake of our salvation. ‘And the name of the virgin was Mary. The angel went in to her and said to her, “Rejoice, so highly favoured! The Lord is with you...The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow.” Then Mary said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me as you have said”.’ The action of the Holy Spirit is primary. The answer no less than the call which occasioned it is a gift of God.
For someone to hear the call, to be aware of the demands it makes and to choose freely to enter upon them, the strength of the Holy Spirit is needed. Only the Spirit can break down walls, break fetters and chains. Only the Spirit can join the new to the old and definitively open life to God for ever. This is the heart and summit of inculturation! ‘The Son of God joins us on our path, and, beyond death, it is he who is waiting for us on the opposite bank’ (cf. Easter hymn). Yesterday as today the human heart remains fundamentally the same. Made in the image of its Creator, it yearns always to be united to its deepest being, and it is only when it reaches an intimate communion with God that it will find rest in the fullness of its being (cf. St Augustine). The Gospel is the Good News of salvation for everyone, and the Kingdom of God is suffering violence... conquering even the strongest. St John, visionary and apostle of love, saw from afar the days of confusion which would follow. Nevertheless, he ended his exhortations with the great vision of the New Jerusalem, beautiful and all apparelled for her marriage with the Lamb! The ending of the Book of Revelation is the great cry of an appeal aroused by a great thirst, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ (Revelation 22.20). Jesus is the summit of history, the beginning and end of all things, the heart of inculturation at all times and in all places. ‘Worthy is the Lamb sacrificed on the Cross to open the Book and its sealed pages. Nations and peoples hymn his reign for ever! To you be honour, glory, power and thanksgiving for ever and ever!’
 Lien des Moniales, no 177.
 Lien des Moniales, no 191, especially the article of Abbot David of En-Calcat.