M. Josephine Mary Miller OC
UMS Conference Hawkstone Hall - October 2003
I'll start with two comments. My brief is to talk about chaos and peace in the monastery from an experiential point of view, bringing in the reality of change, heaven and eternal life to which we are supposed to be witnessing through this reality of change, and celibacy ! I have also been advised to avoid heavy theology and be anecdotal! In the light of that, I'm inclined to say that that brief is a good recipe for chaos, and you can blame the UMS council for what may result !
Secondly, and on a less flippant note, I have found over the last few months that the title of this talk came back into my mind quite frequently. This means that it touched a chord somewhere in me, probably because I and all of us here present know we are living with a fair amount of chaos in our lives, and that peace seems to elude us most of the time. We struggle against forces that are too strong for us, over which we appear to have little control, at first sight anyway, and we wonder where it is all leading.
So what follows is a simple and personal reflection on what I live and on what I see happening around me. It will inevitably be superficial, but it may provoke a few reactions.
I don't need to tell you that we are living in an era of change, that we have to change, and that we are changing, whether we want to or not. This fact is the basic challenge and reality of our times, and it is the context in which we live out our balancing act of chaos to peace and back again. Thus, it is the context in which we have to live out our vow of conversion of life or manners. Sometimes we make things worse than they need be, because we forget that every generation has its problems. Uncertainty did not begin in our time. We have little sense of history today, and some of those for whom we are responsible are unwilling to listen to and to take advice from those who have gone before us. Yet such words as these from one of Cardinal Newman's sermons can help us, if we let them. He knew what it was to accept and live radical change with all its consequences.
"Act up your light, though in the midst of difficulties, and you will be carried on, you do not know how far. Abraham obeyed the call and journeyed, not knowing whither he went ; so we, if we follow the voice of God, shall be brought on step by step into a new world, of which before we had no idea. This is His gracious way with us : He gives, not all at once, but by measure and season, wisely. To him that hath, more shall be given. But we must begin at the beginning. Each truth has its own order : we cannot join the way of life at any point of the course we please; we cannot learn advanced truths before we have learned primary ones." (Plain and Parochial Sermons)
He is reminding us that, in the apparent confusion of our days, there is a pathway that we can discover if we are content to go one step at a time, and do not insist on having all the answers immediately.
Monastic life has already survived many periods of change which were, in their own time, just as threatening as anything we can experience today. So, we have to change once again not knowing really how to go about it, nor what forms of religious or monastic life will survive. What will die, what must die, what has already died, despite appearances, what will emerge purified, more humble perhaps ? Will my monastery or congregation survive ? etc.. etc.., we really do not know.
Like society around us, pressurized by the medias, we play the numbers game, and we somehow think that what happened to David when he did that does not apply to us. That says something about the quality of our faith and about our elementary understanding of the way God does his work with and in redeemed humanity. The history of many of our monasteries and congregations show how much God was able to do through a simple individual or a mere handful of ordinary but faithful monks and nuns in very unpromising circumstances. All this should perhaps make us stop and ponder awhile in our hearts.
The world is changing and the church is changing. The church is not always a beacon of light, showing clearly the way ahead. She too, is having a lot of difficulty sorting out the essentials from the various forms of expression that have become prisoners of a particular culture. This is a huge subject that I only mention in passing because it is part of our daily experience, and reinforces our feeling of living in chaos. But there are pointers.
Cardinal Kasper, talking recently in England about the way forward for Christian Unity, recognizes this present confusion and shows the only possible way to move on.
"Many people no longer understand our scholastic terminology ; even central concepts for them have become meaningless and devoid of sense. It is our duty to imbue them with experience ; this means we must translate them not only into modern language but also into everyday life and experience. But we must remember that the Holy Spirit may not be so naive as many suppose. The Holy Spirit as pioneer of the ecumenical movement calls us to reflect upon the nature of our journey, for the Spirit is dynamic ; is life ; is freedom. The Holy Spirit is always good for a surprise. Which is why it is not possible to draw a blueprint of the future unity of the Church. The light the Spirit casts is similar to a lantern that lights our next step and that shines only as we advance."
Basically, he is saying what we all know : that the only way to unity is through the chaos of the present moment, looking hard together at the questions as they arise one after another, and trying to find some ways of responding, accepting that our solutions will only be partial, and perhaps, in human terms, at least, apparently unsatisfactory .
What is true for the future of Christian Unity is true for the future of Religious and Monastic life. Change, then, brings chaos at many levels. What do we mean by chaos ? I take it to mean in the first instance experiencing forces that are out of order, that we cannot control and that are threatening to diminish and destroy us. How do we experience this in the monastery on a day-to-day level ? In a great variety of ways, it seems to me and on all sorts of levels, from the most superficial to the deepest :
. clearing out someone's cell when for 40 + years the brother or sister has never thrown anything out,
. endlessly juggling our time tables, and adjusting our priorities, trying to fit everything in, and never quite managing,
. coping with evolving activities and difficult economic questions, with reduced numbers in our communities and sometimes insufficient competence, etc.
. coping with problems of formation, and with those who are recently solemnly professed, and who can be experiencing difficulties...
A lot of our daily experience is concerned with trying to keep control, mastering things, (and people where possible) ; in other words, engendering more chaos by attempting the impossible, falsifying slightly our relationships with God and with others, trying to be what we are not. The very fact that we so often talk about ‘making time for prayer' indicates our western tendency to dualism and other forms of disorder. On a deeper level still lies the question of our own disordered, wayward hearts, and those of our brothers and sisters in community.
We have a lot of difficulty disentangling the psychological from the spiritual and from the sinful. Without in any way wishing to minimize the importance of good psychological insights and understanding, it sometimes seems to me that we do not have the faith or the spiritual insight necessary to face up to the sin we meet in our own hearts and those of our brothers and sisters. If we cannot do this, neither can we really open ourselves to the mercy and peace of Christ. Mercy is not some kind of psychological ointment, and St Bernard is very clear on this point in the early sermons on the Song of Songs, where mercy and justice meet and intertwine constantly. The one shows the meaning of the other. We can only truly receive mercy when we recognize the injustice in our hearts. As superiors, we can suffer a good deal of distress and disorder because of other people's sins as well as our own. In Ps 30/31, we pray in the Grail version : "Affliction has broken down my strength and my bones waste away". A more literal translation would be "Sin wastes away my strength and gnaws at my bones". We know what that means. St Benedict also clearly recognized this, as we see in the Rule, in the chapters on excommunication, on the abbot, on the deans etc...etc... At Compline, for centuries, we heard every night the verses : "Brothers, be sober and watchful, for your enemy the devil prowls around, like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him strong in your faith." (I Peter 5).
Our predecessors in monastic life were wise and discerning. It is precisely this readiness to face evil and sin that allows us to entrust it to God's power and mercy, and so sing : "I will lie down in peace, and sleep comes at once". (Ps. 4). Many of us also experience considerable anxiety (obviously depending on temperament) when faced with choices and important decisions. The outcome of so much that we decide today is uncertain, yet we have to decide, knowing that we and those who may come after us will bear the consequences. It can be hard to remain objective at such times.
In Roman Catholic women's religious and monastic communities especially, the changing pattern of the celebration of the Eucharist is leading us into uncertain territory. Many of our communities no longer have daily Mass ; this situation will certainly become more widespread in the coming years. It is not easy to help communities of different countries and cultures to accept this situation, to live peacefully with it, and to develop new forms of communal celebration. We are having to rethink our eucharistic theology and practice, our liturgical principles and practice with only limited help from the Church. From one country and diocese to another, theory and practice differ.
Situations evolve and change very rapidly and there are consequences for the whole monastic way of life. I am often struck by how quickly first practice and then apparently theory, adapt themselves to the latest happenings, and I wonder about what we are all really understanding and living. It is too soon to draw conclusions, but it does not make for comfortable living. Thus we see just a few different areas where chaos or disorder threatens us today, and we could go on for hours, finding more and more examples. There is, however, another meaning to chaos ; "Primeval forces that can be brought back into some kind of order and from whence can spring new life". (Dictionary of Biblical Spirituality). This would mean that opening ourselves and our communities to the potential chaos brought about by change will certainly mean suffering, possibly humiliation, patience and a lot of hard work, but it could also, eventually, lead to new life, life purified and renewed in the fire of God's grace. Accepting that we have to change means we are willing in the first instance to accept diminishment. Joan Chittister says in "The fire in these ashes" :
"This is a great moment for those whose souls are still alive with God. Diminishment requires more life of us than we have ever known before. It leads us to be ourselves, to give everything we've got, to know the power of God at work in us far beyond our own strength, far beyond our own vision. Diminishment gives us the opportunity, the reason, the mandate to examine our lives, to begin again, to dredge up what is best in us, to spill it recklessly across the canvas of the earth, to bank within us one more time the fires of commitment. Diminishment, arch-teacher of the soul, seals the entire enterprise. We know now that we are no more about our own work than were David, Joseph, Ruth, Esther, Judith, the Israelites in the desert or the exiles in Babylon. No, diminishment throws us back, whole and entire, small and trusting, aflame and afire, on God.. And a life in God is anything but dead. It is glory beyond glory beyond glory".
So this evolving situation, that we find threatening, is a great grace, if we only have the faith to see it.. We are being forced to redefine our priorities, and to ask ourselves how, concretely, we are putting our search for God first, in our ordinary daily lives.
Another way of saying this would be to recognize that God is inviting us, through the diminishments that we are presently experiencing, to give a more explicit witness to the values of the Kingdom, values which our world needs to see. We could pick out many different values, but I shall confine myself to three, in order to try and keep within my brief. Many people today sense that we in our day are only going to live the first stage of a very deep transformation that is going to take a long time. The answers to many of the questions we have today will only come long after we have died. Perhaps it's a bit like the situation of the Catholic Church in these isles in the 18th century. The persecution was more or less over, but the new life had not yet begun. Yet without the stubborn fidelity of the very few, the flowering of the 19th and 20th centuries would never have happened. René Voillaume seems to point in this direction when he says in his "Testament" :
"Perhaps we are going to enter into a period of the history of human race which will be the era of compassion, powerless as we will be to find the answers to the problems we face. More than ever, we shall have to offer ourselves through intercession, in communion with our Lord's sacrifice, plunging into his Eucharist in order to beg the Lord to pour out his mercy on humankind. More than ever, it is the time for us to be faithful to our founding charism". (R.Voillaume October 1997)
So the first value to which God is asking us to witness is fidelity to our essential charism, come what may, and no matter what that might mean in terms of choices to be made. The monks of Oka in Canada recently put on the internet the following statement :
"To strengthen the contemplative dimension of our life, our Community has made the decision to establish the monastery in a new location. The decision has come to a maturity in a process of communal reflection and discernment. Our Community is composed of thirty-one monks actually present. One half of the monks are more than seventy years old living in a monastery that was built for one hundred and seventy-five monks. The material structure has become more and more a burden to carry and to manage. We have made the decision to establish the monastery in a new place - not yet determined - which offers the proper environment and in buildings better proportioned to the needs of the Community. We want to give ourselves and our energies to the heart of our Christian and monastic commitment rather than maintaining a patrimony which does have a beauty and a value in the context of history. It has not been without much real heartfelt pain that we have made the choice to leave the place of our deep roots after more than one hundred and twenty years of presence in Oka. We are living this important moment of our history in an attitude of faith and hope."
Living out this kind of decision seriously implies in a very concrete way that we believe that this way of life as we know it now is not the last word. Our fidelity to God, his fidelity to us may need to be expressed in many different ways in the course of our lives and the lives of our monasteries. It is only by relativising everything that is indeed secondary, that we can point to the really essential values that endure forever. This attitude of mind and heart is one way among others of witnessing to our belief that there is something beyond our present experience, something much greater that we call eternal life. This belief in eternal life is a second value that our materialistic world needs to see. It really is not easy to talk about heaven and eternal life today. Yet the subject fascinates ; we can see that all around us.
I remember a Religious Studies lesson with a GCSE class - one of those marvellous classes you get every 10 years or so when you are teaching. We were talking about heaven and eternal life and the subject did not appeal. It was, to them, meaningless, because they had only ever heard of it in anthropomorphic terms, clouds and harps and wings etc... Then we came across the words of Jesus in Jn. 17, 4 : "Eternal life is this, to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent". That really sparked. It made sense because it spoke of eternal life, of enduring values in a way that they could identify with, in terms of a relationship. Maurice Zundel takes the same line when he writes :
"Heaven has been seen as a reward ‘outside' our lives, while it is in fact love meeting us for eternity, just as hell can only be the eternal crucifixion of God by us. God does not punish, he allows himself to be crucified... Immortality is God... thirsting to live in us forever... Our response of love to God allows him to live in us forever... Christ says : ‘He who believes in me has life forever. As soon as man opens himself to an act of goodness, he opens his life to eternity'. A Saint is the most personal manifestation of eternal life. One might say he has eternal life, he is in eternal life, even that he is eternal life". (M. Zundel "Témoin d'une présence")
We do meet people like that from time to time. They are sometimes young, but mostly elderly. The faces and expressions of some of our elderly monks and sisters bear witness to God's transforming power, and give us a glimpse of something beyond our present experience. All this means that one of the best ways of bearing witness to eternal life is by personal holiness of life and by extension, the holiness and fraternal communion lived in our communities. A community united in love and mercy gives a very powerful witness, even in a very unbelieving and divided world. Without knowing Chapter 72 of the Rule, people expect us to live by its teaching. But it cannot be any kind of love.
Our communities are celibate communities (my 3rd value), and we are living our celibacy in a context that is indeed chaotic. It would be quite beyond the scope of this talk to go into the questions that many of us have had to face about sexual abuse, by whoever, about homosexuality, and also certain difficulties of relationships in community ; for example, the dangers of too much emotional desert, or the stifling and almost tyrannical emotional power that certain personalities can wield over others. There is a great deal of anguish in all this that is certainly not life giving. If it is not easy to talk about eternal life, it is even harder today to venture a word about celibacy. Discussions, and arguments about celibacy are so often sterile in the extreme and convince no one of its value, because they are disincarnate, and they tend to appeal too much either just to the intellect or to the emotions depending on who is speaking and in what circumstances. Celibacy today as in any age only speaks positively and convincingly when a person's whole life bears witness to its meaning. Celibacy too, like eternal life, has to be seen as a relationship, with God and with other people. It is only in this way that it can be understood, even dimly, as a witness to eternal life. In a recent reflection in "La Croix", Guy Gilbert makes this point when he says :
"I have refused several television discussions on this subject. To cast the mystery of love that is celibacy in front of the camera or the microphone makes it, in my view, even more incomprehensible, as we oppose the pros and the cons. What the celibate... lives interiorly, offering the whole of his life to the service of his people and of all humanity, cannot be put into words. Only his whole life offered in the sight of men and women, can give meaning to his total availability and to his life grafted on to Christ himself". (Guy Gilbert - "La Croix" 24/06/03)
That is a masculine view. For a feminine approach : Celibacy lived as an expression of faith does have meaning, even if it takes courage to try and purify our faith in order to receive it once more as a gift of God, for us and for the Church. And as the years go by, and we realize more and more the cost of our celibacy, it takes courage also to allow the Holy Spirit to purify all the different layers and aspects of our emotions - emotions that are so battered today by the pressures of the societies in which we live, and remain so wayward in the daily living out of our vow of conversion. The experience of faith will mean for any Christian, and a fortiori for us, all our lives long a whole series of everdeepening choices that will exclude other choices, departures from those we love, breaking off from people and places and activities, all good in themselves, in order to follow the Lord more closely and in truth. Celibacy is a part of this whole. We accept it because for us it is the only way of being faithful ; it is the way we very concretely put Christ first : it is the way we show that for us, nothing in this life except Christ can ultimately satisfy us. We try to accept the "absence" in the depths of our hearts, not just as a sterile emptiness, but as the sacred place where we await and meet the Risen Christ as the women did outside the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection. All through the Easter Season we are reminded of absence, and of a presence that overwhelms us with love, but that we cannot grasp, we may not hold on to, even less possess. We accept to remain vulnerable, to live this painful yet joyful paradox, and thus we witness to our brothers and sisters that each one is lived by his or her name, by someone, by God who cannot be possessed, and yet who will never fail us. Our solitude is for the glory of God and in order to bring blessings to others. It seems to me that if our celibacy is not thus founded on this basic but life giving theology, it has no meaning whatever.
It is a very obvious truth that there can be no peace in a community which does not at least try to sort out the relationship between celibacy and silence, celibacy and truth, celibacy and warm friendship, celibacy as gift and sacrifice, lived as a path to freedom. So I have finally got to peace. When I say I would like a week's peace from time to time, what I really mean, if I am honest, is a week where no one steps out of line, no one gets on my back, nothing happens that can't be disposed of in two minutes, and especially no question arises to which I cannot give an answer... All that is a mixture of tyranny and idolatry. The Lord in his mercy never lets that happen, fortunately. But this mindset does illustrate a fundamental misunderstanding of what Christian peace really means.
The dictionary definition of peace is "a state of one who lives in harmony with nature, with himself, with others, and with God". We are back to relationships again. Peace is hard work and involves combat, and it is our principal task in the monasteries for which we are responsible. The letter to the Colossians reminds us that Christ won peace for us by shedding his blood on the cross. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who certainly knew what he was talking about, tells us :
"There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. Peace means to give oneself altogether to the law of God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won where the way leads to the cross". (Dietrich Bonhoeffer : "No Rusty Swords" - Letters, Lectures and Notes 1928-1936)
There are many monasteries living this very literally today. That little passage shows us what it will mean to promote the real peace of Christ in our monasteries, and where our priorities must lie : risky adventure, trust, total gift of self, faith and obedience to Almighty God. I find all that more than a bit daunting, and so, I imagine, do you. What actually helps us in day to day living ? Where do I find a peace that nourishes and strengthens me, that becomes my daily bread ? I can only share what I personally find helpful. In thinking about this, I was struck by how very ordinary and undramatic are the ways to the true peace that only Christ can give us. We need look no further than our daily experience. We can find real peace in the ordinary living of the Rule, in fidelity to monastic life as it is lived in our particular monasteries.
"Monastic stability is for us a way of responding to the unshakeable fidelity of God by our own fidelity, wherever He wants us to seek Him. ‘He who calls us is faithful'." (Our Constitutions 12)
As superiors, and perhaps especially as time goes on in positions of authority, we can be tempted to live by different standards from everyone else in the community in just little ways, particularly in lifestyle. (I'm obviously not talking about what our work obliges us to do, differently from the rest of the community). I'm referring to little temptations resulting from a touch of "vainglory" or perhaps "tristitia". Those of us in charge of monastic communities have, to my mind, a primary and elementary responsibility to show both to our brothers or sisters, and to those outside the monastery, that we really believe in our way of life. It is through our ordinary fidelity that we meet Christ daily, that we live in him, that we form community and deepen our communion in him and with one another. It is, in other words, by this type of fidelity that we show our belief in God made man, here today in my monastery, and also our belief that what we live in such an ordinary way is already an experience (a very faint one !) of living the reality of eternal life. Real peace is experienced when together in community we try to accept reality as it is, and work with it. There can be great peace in sharing a difficulty, in trusting our brothers and sisters enough to tell them the truth, and in accepting help. When I have to tell a community something it doesn't want to hear, give bad news or whatever, I often find both peace and strength in the way the sisters accept what is happening, and try to be supportive. Perhaps we sometimes forget to recognize and welcome the good sense and real support that are there on tap in our communities. We can find real peace in accepting our personal limitations and weaknesses, give up trying to be God, pretending to be able to cope with every conceivable situation, and allow God to do his work precisely through our faults and weaknesses, letting him answer the questions for us, on his terms. Teilhard de Chardin says :
"Above all trust in the slow work of God. We are, quite naturally, impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability - and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you. Your ideas mature gradually - let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don't try to force them on, as though you could be today what time... will make you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming in you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete."
Paradoxically, accepting to live with an anxiety that will not just disappear is not incompatible with experiencing peace. In the same way, when a community finally accepts that it can no longer cope with a particular work, or building without seriously compromising in the long term the fundamental values of our life, and then realizes that the world will not end, and neither will the community necessarily, if major change is envisaged, then there can be peace.
Difficult community meetings and chapters can actually be much closer to true peace than we imagine sometimes, if everyone is seeking the truth, and trying to put God first. Community meetings where everyone is far too nice, or where silence covering up the truth prevails, are ultimately more destructive. Peace means setting our relationships in order, trying at least not to close the door to a necessary reconciliation, letting God re-order love in us, as St Bernard teaches, and that will inevitably mean combat and suffering. Above all, it means trying to have the humility to start afresh everyday, really believing that grace is at work in us, as it is in our community. God can give us the gift of peace in our prayer, and there are indeed times when we know in our hearts that despite the dreadful events we are presently coping with, God really is with us, and we have nothing to fear. St Augustine, commenting on the calming of the storm in Mark's Gospel says :
"It is true that the storm rages... Is your boat tossed around ? Perhaps that is because within you, Christ is asleep... Your heart is rightly troubled if you have forgotten him in whom you believed. And your suffering is unbearable if all that Christ endured for you is far from your mind. If you do not think of Christ he sleeps. Wake up Christ ; call on your faith. For Christ sleeps in you if you have forgotten his passion, and if you keep his passion in mind, Christ keeps watch with you".
This passage also points to the peace we can experience in faithfully sticking to our "lectio divina", in accepting the daily combat of wrestling with the word of God. It is one of the most important ways of keeping our reactions, our judgement, our instincts, our thinking open to Christian and monastic values that will inform and guide our decisions. In the end, a peaceful monastery is not one where all is well and there are no problems. That could only be a cemetery in a ruined building ! But it should be a place where we can remain open to the great and the small questions that life throws up ; a place too where others may come and be helped to face these same questions, these ancient questions of integrity. A peaceful monastery is one where, no matter what happens, the mercy of God has the last word. That is surely the best way of pointing towards eternal life, the life in abundance that the Lord wants to give us.
I'd like to end with a little meditation written by an elderly sister in a community which has had to accept moving out and away. She is over 80, hard headed and full of common sense, and God really comes first in her life. May it be so for all us. " The heart of our journey here in this monastery, the living spring which has kept us going and that we have kept listening to has always been the word of God". This is what really counts, listening to it, obeying, being disciples of Christ, believers. We have been doing that here for the last 100 years, and we are still listening.
God does not cease to speak to his Church or to us. Any glance behind that thinks of the road travelled so far, must also look to the future, listening once again to the Lord who speaks again and pushes us on in the service of his word, the word who created us and sent us here to be his disciples and to serve. The powerful breath that comes to us from the word speaks to the Church and guides her as she sails over the deep seas of history. It instils in us the strength and courage to look ahead and dream of the tomorrow that God has prepared for us. So let us once again welcome with joy the invitation in the Pope's letter for the new millennium to ‘put out into deep water' (Lk 5), to start anew from the Word, to communicate the Gospel in a changing world, with an attitude of openness to the future.
The temptation to look back, to console ourselves with the fruits of our service achieved through the Spirit is something we all like to do. But the Holy Father reminds us in his letter that the new things of God lie ahead. We are being called to a new experience of grace, a new following of our Lord and master. There must be no nostalgia, no lamentations, no evasion of the needs of the present : let us rather be animated by a burning hope, by a deep passion for the Kingdom that is coming and by a commitment that is able to express today the beauty of God's promise for the Future. Heartened by the Breath of the Spirit let us live in a humble and thankful way, encouraged by a sense that there is a task to be undertaken. We must trust now, just as we have done in the last years, in times of consolation and of difficulty, in darkness and at dawn, and in the ‘burning heat' of the Midday Sun. In our lives today, that are sometimes a bit restless, we trust in you Lord, and we know that in any trials that await us your Holy Spirit will be there. Just as you have led me and my community in the years gone by. We trust that you will guide us in the future along the ways of your Peace.".