Conflicts and Reconciliation

Mother Marie-Caroline Lecouffe OSB
Monastery of Bouzy La Forêt  (France)

MCarolineMother Marie-Caroline Lecouffe is prioress of the Benedictine monastery of Bouzy-la-Forêt (France), a priory which belongs to the Congregation of Notre- Dame du Calvaire. This article is the Conference which Mother Marie-Caroline gave in the context of the formation of Frenchspeaking formators, ‘Ananias’. The conclusion of the article well sums up its theological viewpoint, ‘Even a wounded community is a sign of Trinitarian communion’.

‘The common life is impossible. One has to be grateful for five minutes together in peace and good temper!’ This outburst of a Dominican Father may seem disillusioned, but it must be taken for what it really is, simply an outburst! Nevertheless, it must be recognised that the common life is not easy; families and various groups in our societies have experience of the fact. It hardly surprises me when someone says to me, ‘How on earth can you live, ten, twenty or fifty women together the whole time?’ What is it, then, which enables us to hang on? What is it that holds the fabric of community together without tearing? The various types of conflict which we experience in community may be considered with reference to biblical texts which can throw light on such situations.

I. What are the conflicts which we experience in our communities?

a. Conflicts of opinions and ideas – Acts of Apostles, chapter 15.

On this point a forceful model is given in Acts 15 at Antioch, in the opposition between the brethren sprung from Pharisaism and Paul and Barnabas. There are two opposing conceptions of salvation, and the Judaising brothers are not necessarily in bad faith. They were born into Judaism and cannot reach the point of conceiving the gratuity of salvation as Paul had discovered it. Even knowledge of Jesus Christ cannot dispense the new converts from circumcision and the practice of the Law. We should not forget that Paul had to be thrown to the ground on the way to Damascus before he opened himself to salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. Luke as well, peaceful as he is in general, does not hide the fact that a conflict and pretty serious discussions ensued. This shows that the mark of a Christian community is not absence of conflict, without which there is a risk of totalitarianism or sectarianism, but rather the way in which the community lives through such conflicts, inevitable as they are in any social life.

freresIn our communities we stem from horizons so diverse that inevitably our family culture, our ways of thinking, our prejudices which we confuse with truth itself can set us against one another before enriching us. We categorize or label our brothers and sisters with sarcasm or more subtly damaging characteristics. In these days, now that we speak more in our monasteries, we are more open to one another. We have more opportunity to let our hair down; that is a good thing, but it is nevertheless double-edged unless we make the effort to get to know the other more and more intimately, transcending the snap judgments and unfo cused remarks of community recreation or even of community meetings. Indeed, our more frequent community interchanges lead us into direct confrontations on all kinds of issues about which we would formerly have spoken only with a superior. We find that the result is conflicts which last some considerable time. It is not easy to get out of the head of a brother or sister extremely negative judgments which result from a community meeting: ‘If that is what he/she said, then it shows what he/she is like!’ or ‘If that is what he/she said, he/she is putting the blame on me and boxing me into my difficulty!’

The proliferation of various means of communication encourages the expression of ill-considered opinions, after the model of the ill-considered generalisations which clutter up particular websites or radiostations. This is not necessarily a help to making judgments matured by prayer and reflection. Above all, this does not imply that it is better to know nothing at all, if this will save us from making a hasty or incorrect judgment, but simply that in today’s world we need to be alert and mature in order avoid being misled by the mass of information which the new media throw at us.

The plurality of ideas which we meet in our contemporary world and which unavoidably influence our communities, the pluralism of theologies and liturgical sensitivities can arouse conflicts which are all the more serious in that they affect the very essence of our lives, the expression of our faith, if not its very heart. Politics is often still a taboo subject in our communities, but happily the same cannot be said for biblical, theological and liturgical formation! Thanks to our grounding in the Catholic faith we can have deeply entrenched positions on matters which seem secondary to other people. It seems to me that where fifty years ago there was more uniformity, today there is a greater risk of confrontation because there is less force of authority – or at least it is less respected – to rely on, as Acts 15 makes clear, where the strong voice of Peter provokes a silence which checks his opponents.  

b. Conflicts of power – Letter of James, chapter 4

These are conflicts where our personal responsibility is most involved, where we see evil, the sin deep in the human heart, at work. In this context it is worthwhile re-reading the Letter of James, chapter 4. St James is trying to explain the origin of conflict; for him it is the consequence of the division inside ourselves between our friendship for the world and our love of God. We favour love of the world at the expense of God, we allow our evil desires to dominate us. ‘You want something and you haven’t got it, so you are prepared to kill.’ This is the way envy works, so that jealousy undermines the human heart and can lead even to murder. This was the case with Cain and Abel. If we do not go as far as this in our communities, jealousy, if it is not hunted out and more or less tamed, can quickly give rise to unbearable conflicts, intolerable oppositions. We are only too familiar with what James is describing. If St Benedict forbids us to kill, it is certainly because he envisages that we are capable of so doing, not physically perhaps, but by our tongue, by abusive words, by calumnies which destroy a person. This is the mark of sin, the sin of others in ourselves and our own sin. We are not wholly responsible for this division inside each one of us. If we have been too deeply scarred by the sin of those around us, to the extent that this interior division has become a permanent feature in ourselves, if the abuse done to us has taken a hold which distorted our psychology as children, it is possible that this may show itself in permanent conflicts in community life. Wounds which remain unhealed do not rule out a life of discipleship to Christ, but do perhaps rule out monastic life. The time in the noviciate must feature a care to discover whether, despite the best will in the world, there have been wounds so incapacitating that they prevent a reasonably balanced life. It matters little that St James does not make the modern distinction between sin and psychological incapacity. Conflicts of power stem from our psychological imbalance which, to put it bluntly, restricts our freedom to love and be loved. Our own responsibility comes into play in what we do about this imbalance: do we work it out on those around us, or do we accept to face up to it, so as to learn to live with a deep understanding of ourselves and our brothers and sisters?  

c. Personality conflicts – Acts of the Apostles 15.36

In my mind such conflicts are inherent in our humanity. Incompatibility and differences make it inevitable that confrontations produce sparks. Differences of character, ways of behaviour and education can produce innumerable great and small conflicts without any fault on either side. This sort of conflict may be seen in the Acts just after the one we have already discussed in Acts 15, when Paul and Barnabas have a confrontation – apparently quite violent – over John Mark. The gentle Barnabas probably could not work for long with the fiery Paul. This is rather a clash of characters working itself out violently and preventing a common life. Separation seems to be the only possible solution. That is what Paul and Barnabas do at Antioch. Barnabas sails for Cyprus, while Paul ranges over Syria and Cilicia. However, it is interesting to note that in important, essential matters Paul and Barnabas walk hand in hand: they are sent to Jerusalem together to solve the conflict between the brothers at Antioch. But when it comes to a lesser matter – whether or not to accept John Mark’s company – they cannot agree and have to separate. We know to what an extent we can be terribly upset by differences of temperament, behaviour and rhythm, to the point that our nerves can take no more and life in common becomes a burden. When one party is naturally authoritarian it is very difficult to make that person work with someone else, and conflict arises rapidly. Alternatively, we are tempted to allow ourselves to be crushed – and this is not necessarily any better!  

II. Reconciliation

What is to be done in the case of conflicts, whether more or less violent? The gospel and the Rule make it look quite simple! In chapter 4 St Benedict simply says, ‘Do not let the sun go down on your anger’. Sometimes, indeed even often, this can be achieved, as we regularly find. It is always a pleasure to see our brothers or sisters ask forgiveness either individually or before the community in chapter. This is how minor conflicts are resolved, by a humble and sincere request for forgiveness and by pardon offered. This allows a new start without the harbouring of an enduring animosity which can last a lifetime. For me this is a tangible and concrete sign that our community life ‘is not a human construct but is a gift of the Holy Spirit’ as the document Fraternal Life in Community (1994, #8) puts it.

And if the conflict is not resolved? We can see that this is sometimes the case, despite pardon offered and accepted. I would like to mention a few points which can help towards reconciliation.  

a. Prayer

There is no doubt that a climate of faith and prayer is the first impetus to reconciliation. I have just said that community is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We must, then, believe in the power of this Spirit which comes into play through our weakness, our difficulty in forgiving, our animosity, in order to achieve the marvels of reconciliation. So it is in reliance on the Holy Spirit that we are enabled to get over lasting conflicts and patiently wait for some knot to untie itself. Continual prayer, like that of the Importunate Widow, is the sign of our patience, our hope in the other who can change, of our faith in our God who can pull down the walls of our own stubbornness or that of others. That is simply how things go! I have seen really fierce tensions resolve by patience and the prayer of sisters who are very often in conflict, and of the community which patiently carries the burden of this conflict.  

b. Humility

Prayer can get nowhere unless there is also a desire for conversion, to rebuild the broken communion, and so to repair our positions. In Benedictine language this is called humility. Indeed, for St Benedict the great remedy seems to be humility and in particular the practice of ‘satisfaction’. If someone is puffed up with pride and has provoked conflict and dissension, it is humility, that is to say, recognition of the fault and determination to correct it, which will allow a new start and will put the community back on its feet. St Benedict counsels the abbot, the bursar, the prior, the craftsmen of the monastery to be on their guard and to combat pride. Why would St Benedict ask this unless he knew that pride inevitably breeds contempt for others and so very soon serious conflict? For most of the time it is the refusal to recognise one’s faults, mistakes and ignorance which puts the poison into a disagreement. We also note that, provided there is plenty of humility, one brother or sister can say a great deal to another. Even if chapter 7 of the Rule has little to say about fraternal relationships, its capital importance in the teaching of St Benedict seems to show that humility is at the heart of a determination to make the school of the Lord’s service a true service of fraternal love. There is no stinting on humility if one truly wants to build up a community. A novice who shows great hu mility may be more easily accepted even if this is accompanied by a considerable psychological weakness. In my opinion humility can compensate to a certain extent for even a damaging weakness of temperament because the novice will recognize an injustice done, wish to correct it and so have the possibility of forgiveness and setting off again on the road of community life. St Benedict condemns not difficult temperaments but rather the pride which puffs up.  

c. Mercy, again and always

Obviously it is difficult to make any progress without forgiving seventy times seven times. This is an interior attitude which must be built up in us little by little. Prayer, attention to the Word of God and especially contemplation of our God who never ceases to forgive his rebellious people are the prime remedies for entering into this climate of forgiveness and hope in the other with which one aims to begin each day afresh. This is not achieved in one day, but is built up from the noviciate onwards, when openness of heart can allow the novice-master to alert beginners to this jewel of mercy. It is a two-sided jewel. God has mercy on me, unbearable though I be, for the Lord, and thus teaches me to bear the burden of others. He supports me every day by his great goodness. It is by knowing our own heart that we learn to love those of others.

soeursHere we must say a word about the concrete exercise of mercy in our communities. It can sometimes upset young people to ask forgiveness in public in the slightly formal context of a chapter. (One day a young sister did not understand why it was not always possible to make a reconciliation face to face with the sister she had offended. She did not understand that fear cannot be overcome in this way simply by goodwill, and that the other is not always ready to accede to a request for forgiveness. If the wound is too deep, time is sometimes needed before accepting a request for pardon in peace.) I think it is salutary to retain the formal places and occasions for asking and receiving forgiveness. This does not necessarily replace meetings face to face, but it does permit the mediation which for some is indispensable to dare to engage upon the process of forgiveness and reconciliation. St Benedict carefully explains excommunication, that is, the temporary exclusion from the community in various degrees; it is a question of a mode of reparation for sewing up the torn fabric, and soaking up the conflict which has cut the brother off from the community. We no longer practise excommunication as St Benedict describes it, for example in chapter 44. Without wanting to apply the practices of the Rule literally, it would nevertheless be a mistake to forget altogether the whole idea of satisfaction, reparation and at least an explicit request for forgiveness. Père Guillaume, former abbot of Katsberg, shows how reparation can be a means of restoring a true relationship; otherwise, by denying the wound, the situation is merely poisoned, at the risk of corrupting community relationships.[1] If one acts as though nothing had happened one is respecting neither the community nor the person who has taken advantage of the kindness of his brothers. It is even a sign of no longer believing in the brother, of failing to give him his due place. Passing over the incident too easily brings no growth, and ends by breaking down mutual confidence. Insistence on forgiveness and reparation amounts to saying, ‘There you are. You have taken your place again. You yourself are more important than your failure.’ This is a firm footing on which to start again. The brother (or sister) who is at fault shows that he has seen his fault and wishes to overcome it, while the community renews its hope in him, instead of shutting him up in his weakness. If someone genuinely recognizes his errors or a difficult aspect of his character, even if he does not manage to change it much, he can change his attitude to it by asking for forgiveness. He then more easily arouses the mercy of the community and the acceptance of his character by showing that he wants to change and believes in his conversion. That helps the whole community to believe in it and preserves an atmosphere of hope for difficult brothers and sisters.

All this shows the importance of preserving opportunities for asking and receiving the forgiveness of the community. When there are such times and places laid down this facilitates the process. The chapter of faults plays a part in a mediation which helps those who have wounded the community to acknowledge their failures. Brothers or sisters who are afraid to approach their abbot or those whom they have hurt feel helped by this moment of the evening chapter at which they can ask forgiveness for their anger, their refusal to help, their bad temper. Some communities which have given up the chapter of faults are now looking for places of reconciliation. Even if these are sometimes rather formal, that is much better than nothing! I can bear witness that some magnificent events happen in the chapter, that truly ‘love and truth embrace’ and allow personal growth in each member of the community.  

d. Appeals

In Acts 15 we can see that the conflict remains and is not so easily resolved within the community of Antioch. So then external appeal comes into play: the authority of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem is acknowledged by everyone, and within the College Peter’s word has special importance. We can put our finger on the extent to which Peter is guarantee of unity, while still recognizing that his word is not necessarily the last word to which no one has right of reply. James has freedom to nuance Peter’s proposal. This is a true dialogue, where each brings his own part and where a fair decision is finally made which settles the conflict.

In our communities it seems to me that appeal can often be made to the abbot. Of course he is within the community, but nevertheless he has an authority which can help two brothers to accept the solution he envisages, can accept to work more or less together (until the next disagreement) because this is what is requested by the abbot into whose hands they have committed their vow of obedience. Sometimes this is impossible precisely because there is already disagreement between one of the brothers and the abbot. In this case it is necessary to choose the right person who knows the brothers well and can function as mediator.  

e. Signs of strength

Especially when there is a fairly heavy atmosphere of conflict at the heart of a community some striking gestures can be suggested which help to escape for a moment from the ordinary situation of tension and so discover the quality of the other at his best and so support him despite his annoying features.

A period of shared lectio, of profound sharing around the Word of God, can be a good means of seeing that the other also is living the Word of God, is prepared to allow himself to be shaped by it, that he is greater than the little foibles so easily visible in the daily round of monastic life. A time of community sharing on the fundamental topics which force us to penetrate to what is deepest in us in order to seek there the best, the most true, the most beautiful equally gives a new insight into difficult brothers and sisters. At regular community meetings on the classic themes of our monastic life, like listening, obedience and so on, mutual understanding is genuinely enriched. If we have the courage to open ourselves in truth and humility, real discoveries and even admiration can develop over and above what we normally feel with regard to a brother or sister. Because these exchanges concern the essential aspects of our life, if they are treated seriously they can reveal a depth of spirit and so transform the image of ourselves which we present to the community. This can also help others to alter their judgment and so resolve conflict. This is not a magic formula which always works! But it can help a community in which personal clashes or conflicts of ideas are always recurring, for one can gradually come to understand why the other always reacts like this in opposition to myself. We can come to realise the root of these convictions, why the other person thinks like this. In this way an opening is made in my spirit, and helps me towards a broader and deeper sensitivity than whatever was setting my teeth on edge.

piedsAnother type of sign can also help, a washing of the feet or a little paraliturgy of reconciliation such as certain counsellors propose. I think it is in the communities of l’Arche of Jean Vanier that washing of the feet has been restored to a place of honour, and all the members of the community wash one another’s feet. It is not only the abbot, as in our communities, but all the brothers and sisters wash one another’s feet. One of the sisters gives the following testimony on the subject: ‘The community was living a difficult patch, we were going through a bad moment when conflicts and misunderstandings were rife. Someone proposed a community washing of the feet, and this has marked the community till this day; the community was truly renewed.’ Elsewhere, a liturgy of reconciliation performed in chapter during a community retreat has been a moment of strength which allowed certain sisters to emerge from latent conflictual situations to enter a situation of at least mutual respect, of seeing the good intentions of each sister and no longer feeling threatened by the other. There is more balance in the relationship; there are still some sparks, but they do not deteriorate into the destructive atmosphere of permanent suspicion. In this liturgy the body is involved: the sisters are invited to make a gesture, to bring an object, to move from one position to another, and I think this is an important feature. It is not merely an exercise of the Word, but the Word must be accompanied by a gesture. These gestures, this participation and the body, can help to change our attitude. The mediation of the body can bring us out of our shell, out of our customary hardness, and open us more easily to the grace of reconciliation. The washing of feet, a liturgy of reconciliation where the body plays a part, can touch in us more vulnerable zones ready to accept healing, zones where we have less defences ready to spring up the moment we feel threatened, and where the Lord can pass more easily, like a thief who has found a gap in the wall. These are, however, exceptional moments, and cannot be repeated every month! In general there is a natural feeling of readiness to receive the grace which can pass by this unusual way of approaching our brothers and sisters – provided of course that they are not entrenched and armed to the teeth.

Conclusion

Even a wounded community is a sign of Trinitarian communion. This must keep our hope alive. Love is not merely politeness. The important thing is not to fall into fatalism, to retain hope and to believe that forgiveness and mercy will eventually triumph in the inevitable conflicts. To end, by plagiarising the Exultet which sings, ‘Blessed fault which won for us such a Saviour’, one might say, ‘Blessed the conflict which enabled me to understand something of my sister and of myself, which enabled me to grow in humility and also in humanity, in the image of the perfect man who is Christ, the beloved Son of the Father.’

[1] Dom Guillaume Jedrzejczak, Sur le chemin de liberté, commentaries de la Règle de saint Benoît jour après jour, Anne Sigier, Paris, 2006.