5 LESSONS LEARNED
IN 18 YEARS AS ABBOT GENERAL
Everything that starts comes to an end. I remember that at the very moment when I was elected Abbot General, as the sound of applause filled the hall, I thought to myself, “Remember how it will end.” It was not a pessimistic updating of “Memento Mori: Remember Sister Death,” but a helpful realization of our limited being and doing, a realization that leads to freedom. What at that time was in the future is here today.
As a “Goodbye”, I will try to share with you a few lessons which have enriched my life in these recent years. This is without any pretension on my part, but simply as a brother who returns what he has received.
Because of a basic discretion and a certain spiritual shyness, I will not go into all I learned from the assassination of our brothers of Atlas for their faith in Christ, nor from what I learned through my own bad health, from the possibility of dying and from the Spirit’s whisper within my own heart. For totally different reasons, I will not go into all I learned from several outstanding teachers, namely, from our older brothers and sisters, from having a sense of humor, from the many unfinished projects, from the failures, setbacks and the acceptance of my own mistakes.
1. Service in the “Central Government”
First, a brief word about my general experience while serving in the “central government” of the Order. For the sake of putting us in context, we are, canonically speaking, a monastic Congregation which at present unites 97 monasteries of monks and 72 of nuns. According to the statistics of January 1, 2008, we are 2,185 monks and 1,782 nuns, for a total of 3,967 persons living in 47 different countries. It is easy to imagine how the Abbot General has 170 “autonomous” Superiors over him, whom he should obey.
In 1990, at the beginning of my time as Abbot General, we were 2,797 monks and 1,876 nuns, making a total of 4,673 persons. So it is easy to see that today we are 706 persons fewer. In contrast to this decline, we also see that between 1990 and the present there have been 11 foundations or incorporations of monks and 13 of nuns, which means 24 new communities. And there are 4 more projects for foundations in the works. However, 3 autonomous houses and 2 foundations were closed during this same period.
The multiplication of foundations deserves special study and analysis. Simply their existence has taught me many lessons, but that is not what I want to discuss here.
We usually say that we are a decentralized Order, but it is clear that this does not mean a disordered Order, nor does it mean a lack of organization or not having a “central” authority. This central authority resides in the General Chapter which meets every three years. When this Chapter is not in session, the Abbot General acts as its Vicar, according to the Constitutions. His service is, above all, pastoral. It is supported by his right to make canonical Visitations and the possibility of taking exceptional decisions in special situations. This pastoral, subsidiary service is carried out in the context of three other functions which are also important, namely being a bond of union among the communities, the protector and promoter of our patrimony, and the sparkplug of spiritual renewal. In other words, his is an authority which corresponds closely to the nature of an Order or monastic congregation formed by “autonomous” monasteries related among themselves by bonds of filiation and paternity.
Since we are a “decentralized” Order, it is easy to see that the temptation or accusation of “centralization” is something really serious. History teaches that it is easy to succumb to this temptation, on the central level and also on the local level.
History also teaches lessons which we are not always aware of. Here are three examples. It could happen that we confuse things and call “centralization” what is really just pastoral and administrative efficiency, or promptness in acting when circumstances require it. On the other hand, however, it could also happen that we point our finger at the “higher” echelons, without realizing that the fault lies on our own level of authority. We have all known authoritarian abbots or abbesses, who accuse the Father Immediate or the Abbot General of “centralization” without being aware that their own communities accuse them of precisely the same thing. To be fair, it should be recognized that all this can be applied as well to other higher levels of government. There will always be those who accuse “Rome” for its centralization and protect themselves by justifying a certain autonomy for themselves, which is really nothing else than an unjustified monopoly of authority.
As I rethink the question of how long the Abbot General’s mandate should be, now that I am free to give an opinion without fear of being personally involved, it seems to me that the most adequate solution is an indeterminate mandate with the possibility of an evaluation after 12, then 15 years, followed by the presentation of his resignation after 18 years. I base this opinion on four reasons which are backed up by lived experience: the first reason is to have, ad intra, a certain sense of continuity avoiding ossification. Secondly, it is to let him know and become known ad extra, above all in Vatican circles. A third reason is to free the General Chapter for treating themes which more directly concern the life of our communities. And fourthly – I might as well be frank and I trust that you will take this with a grain of salt – it is to avoid too frequent encouragement of personal ambitions!
2. The value of cultures and of interculturation
The human person is “unique in relation to others.” We are “autonomous” in order to be “interdependent.” And this is so in a context which is historically determined by time, geographically determined by place and culturally determined by the form of life one embraces. In fact two more realities can be added: the generational factor of one’s age in life and the sexual determination of being a woman or a man.
We human beings live and have our being in a concrete culture, but the culture does not explain everything. There is something in us that transcends our culture, despite the fact that the immense majority of persons are children of a determined culture, while those who are its fathers or mothers are very few indeed.
We all know what is popularly meant by “culture.” It is made up of the ways human life is cultivated on the basis of certain preferred values. According to this definition, we can speak of a “youth culture,” of a “feminine culture,” of a “Christian culture,” and of a “monastic culture,” according to different forms of cultivating existence, forms oriented by certain basic values.
The fact of the plurality of cultures has two results: we become interested in what others have, but at the same time, it is difficult for us to understand those of another culture. This is where the reality of intercultural relationships enters into the picture. It means dialoguing between and among the different cultures, which implies accepting the differences, mutually sharing their values and coming to an agreement on basic values which are held in common.
We usually say, correctly, that monasticism is a “transcultural” phenomenon, since no culture has a monopoly on it and monastics very often withdraw into solitude on the margin of their society and culture. There is something true here, but it is also true that monasticism is a cultural phenomenon, since it exists in a given culture and creates a subculture within the context of that broader culture. There is no doubt that we monks and nuns, within the context of different cultural traditions, cultivate our existence by emphasizing its dimension of interpersonal relationship with God through very specific intermediaries.
Now the monasteries of our Order are in different places, both geographically and culturally. The process of “inculturation” of our monastic life officially began in 1969 with the approval by the General Chapter of the Decree on Unity and Pluralism. Several factors have helped us keep and even increase the unity of the Order, despite the warnings of certain pessimists and prophets of doom.
Any of us who assist at a meeting like this one can observe a very simple fact: there are different languages, a variety of countries and cultures from which we come, a diversity of ages – the young, the mature and the old-timers – and different genders, that is, men and women. If we pay attention to what goes on among us, we will easily see that the cultures from which we come cause different life-styles, in the sense of measuring time, relating to authority, resolving conflict situations, discerning how others are feeling, what value to give to our traditions and to monastic observance, to procedural problems or to the daily program, and… a long etcetera.
The bottom line is that, if we want to keep growing in this dialogue between and among our cultures, we will have to tear down our frontiers, emigrate out of our own personal horizon, embrace plurality, reconcile and reassemble our differences. Interculturality is the new name of monastic koinonía and Cistercian communion.
3. Complementarity and the Order’s Unity
It is a fact of experience that, from a very early age, we humans perceive life from an elemental “binary code” of male and female, man and woman. This difference is universal and goes beyond any concrete content it may have, which can vary from one culture to the next. The longings and projects for equality, which are so typical of democratic societies, have not eliminated sexual identities and the need to codify and affirm them. The passage of time has shown that “Unisex” was born without a future. The most eloquent proof of this, at least in the contemporary western world, is the esthetic primacy of the woman over the man. Beauty, as an inherited feminine trait, has conquered all democratic egalitarian ideology. Women want to be able to do everything like men, except be like them esthetically! Whether we like it or not, we cannot ignore the modern value given to personal identity and the postmodern emphasis on personal differences.
Thus we can state the following: men and women are equal as persons, free and responsible for loving in the truth, and they are also different sexually, as women or men. The difference between man and woman is ordered to reciprocity: they are different in order to be mutually collaborative. This mutual relationship disqualifies any type of subordination which takes difference to mean deficiency.
The experience of the Order, formed as it is by nuns and monks, has shown me the truth of what I have just said, and the years I have lived in the Generalate, which is the only community that is mixed to a certain degree, have let me learn from daily life who women are and how they react. I trust that this apprenticeship has been mutual.
On the domestic level, I can say the following: for us men, money is usually an opportunity to do business, but for women it is rather a possibility to go out and buy things. For us men the Generalate is a house of residence, for them it is a home. The habit, like clothing in general, is a means of protection, but they consider it above all as a means of self-expression. And we could continue with other homey examples.
On the level of spirituality, for us men the objectives to be reached are primary; for women the important element is the overall perspective. When it concerns ethical behavior, we men refer to institutional decisions, such as laws and constitutions, which clarify rights and duties, whereas women take very much into consideration the affective resonances, the natural bonds and many other forms of relationship.
It is easy to imagine what an enrichment it would be if these differences, and many others, could be experienced in reciprocal complementarity on the different levels of the Order.
I would like now to develop a theme that interests us all, namely, the different models for the unity of the Order. Simplifying the matter, it can be said that, in the past, the differences in the Order were treated in terms of separation and subordination. There were different Constitutions and a single General Chapter of Abbots, which exercised authority over the nuns as well as the monks. The Abbot General was the Vicar of this Chapter. It was thought that this was how the unity of the Order could best be preserved. This model of separation and subordination entered into crisis on the occasion of the Second Vatican Council.
The new Constitutions – drawn up at the Chapters of Holyoke, in 1984, and of El Escorial in 1985, then approved by the Holy See in 1990 – formulate another model of unity. At present, we can say briefly that we have two interdependent General Chapters which usually work together in a Mixed General Meeting, a single Abbot General as Vicar of each of the two Chapters, and Constitutions which are almost identical.
Our efforts to take a new step in order to have a single General Chapter of Abbots and Abbesses, as accepted by our last General Chapters in 2005, was not approved by the Holy See, which had its own reasons for its negative decision. This lets us continue to reflect on the subject, but we can first ask ourselves the following question: Is it worthwhile to go ahead with our project and our request? I myself think so, but we must realize the importance of having our Constitutions respect our complementary diversity. If they do, then we could talk about a third model for safeguarding the unity we need. In synthesis it would be this:
-A single General Chapter of Abbots and Abbesses with the possibility of their voting separately + an Abbot General as the Chapter’s Vicar + complementary Constitutions which respect the differences.
The fundamental reason for a single General Chapter lies in the unity of our Order, which is formed by monks and by nuns. A body, although it has different members, needs a single head. And the proposal of having complementary Constitutions is based on accepting the irreducible differences between the “feminine genius” and the “masculine genius.” It would be easy to offer examples of this. We could simply think of how they each live the relation of authority to obedience or, even more deeply, of the “sense of belonging” and what it implies for monks and for nuns in their approach to monastic consecration, stability in the community, enclosure, dispensation from their vows, and requests for exclaustration.
There is, however, another weighty reason in favor of complementary Constitutions which respect our differences. It is the “criterion of cohesion” between life and law. Several items in our present Constitutions are lived very differently by the monks and by the nuns. The nuns are the ones who usually have to twist life to fit the letter of the law, or else act on the margin of the letter. The most notorious example of this is the case of separation from the community for the sake of the latter’s peace, as in ST 60.B. Very few Abbesses have used this statute as a solution to a conflict situation, yet there are many more nuns than monks who do not live in their communities of profession.
There is one theme that remains hanging. Will it be possible sometime to have an Abbess General as Vicar of a single General Chapter? The time is not ripe for this, both within our Order and on the outside. But it will ripen. Many persons already think that the criterion of “capacity and competence” is much more important than “masculine gender.” And there are some canonists – and non-canonists – who think that this possible Abbess General could have a Vicar who exercises jurisdiction within the Order, or that the Abbot of Cîteaux could have this jurisdiction.
But there is no need to be alarmed. Evolution is slow. We should peacefully do our share of the work and leave it to future generations to do theirs. Rome was not built in three days. Life grows slowly and we must know how to wait without ever losing hope.
4. The ABC’s of Monastic Life
The new monastic foundations in the southern and the eastern countries of the world, the communities in a precarious situation within the northern hemisphere, and our charism being shared by lay Cistercians of both sexes, have taught me a lesson that I look upon as a true treasure, namely that monastic life is a simple, essential type of life. There can be no doubt that everything that is simply essential is permanent, universal, and therefore pertinent for us today, not with the novelty of the “latest news,” but with an urgency based on history.
The foundation of Christian monasticism is none other than Christ himself. Nothing is to be preferred to his love, because he died and rose again for me and for all. The “radical texts,” which point out the road on which to follow him, are also necessary and trustworthy guides for us. They all lead to the same root: dying in order to live, recognizing the gift we have received so as to turn it into a gift we offer. For the person who lives this way, all our life with its joys and sorrows becomes beatitude. Those who live like this dwell in the heart of the Church and become that heart.
Our Father St. Benedict was simply trying to take the Gospel as a guide, which is how he established a school of the Lord’s service, a school of love of God and neighbor. The heart of Benedictine spirituality consists in this: affective love for Christ which becomes effective through active participation in the Liturgy, assiduous lectio divina, concrete fraternal communion and an integral conversatio or form of monastic life. In other words,
Affective and effective Christocentrism: preferring nothing to his Person and his project.
Liturgical celebration: for the glory of God and the salvation of humanity.
Lectio divina: a loving dialogue with God who is Love.
Fraternal communion: in order to be Church, the Body of Christ in the Spirit.
Various observances: as embodiments, manifestations and proofs of charity.
That is to say, the ABC of the monastic program offered by St. Benedict in his Rule consists in the sincere search for God by means of prayer and renunciation, a search which is authenticated by zeal for the Opus Dei, for obedience and for trials. At the end of his Rule, Benedict wanted to emphasize and condense what is present in all of it, like its soul, namely the burning love which leads to God through communion with one’s brothers and sisters.
The first Cistercians said this in a few words by simply wanting to keep the Rule in all that it demands and to follow it according to the purity of its observances. The purity of the Rule’s observances is what essentially makes it what it is, namely, a practical, monastic form of living the Gospel. Thanks to the wisdom of its balanced alternation of the traditional monastic exercitia, the Rule offered a straight way of evangelical perfection to our first Fathers. The dura et aspera and the observances are useful intermediaries for arriving at purity of heart and contemplative quies or union with God.
And besides what I have just said, the medieval Cistercian monks and nuns also offer us a deep experience and reflection on the sacrament of the Eucharist. What they wrote with love, they lived with passion. The Eucharist is the sacrament of the Spouse’s self-surrender. So it is not strange that some writers describe the Eucharist with the symbol of an embrace and a kiss. It is especially the nuns who cry out, “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth!” In any case, without the Eucharist there is no communion and no Christian community.
This is the lesson which, in different ways, I have learned from monastic foundations, from communities in a precarious situation who have accepted their circumstances as an opportunity for self-renewal, and from lay persons who share in the charism of Cîteaux. There can be no doubt that all of these persons and communities show us, from their different life situations, what is genuinely traditional.
5. Desire and Spousal Mysticism
Every human person, sooner or later in life, asks questions about himself or herself, and about others. In other words, we all have something to say about being human. This is how anthropologies, the different theories concerning human existence, are born. To the question, “Who are you, man?”, different replies have surfaced, such as: an individual nature which is rational and free; a being that is historically related to other beings and therefore exists; a being that can give meaning to its existence; a relation that can give birth to relational individuality; and so forth.
Our Cistercian Fathers knew how to formulate a solid anthropological teaching as a support and as nourishment for spirituality. Before commenting on the Song of Songs, they took pains to draw up a treatise on the soul: De anima.
Now every change of epoch requires an adjustment or change of the meaning and perception of reality. And the first reality that needs an adjustment is the vision we have of ourselves. That is, a change of epoch always brings with it an anthropological change. This is confirmed by the present proliferation of pop-psychologies and the more serious interest in the teachings of psychoanalysis.
Contact with our Cistercian Mothers and Fathers, openness to present currents of thought, and thinking about some of the departures from monastic life have taught me the importance of desire as a key element of any anthropology that is relational, integrated, realistic and transcendental. The experience of desire is a transcultural experience and one which ignores the frontiers of one’s age or sex.
To say that we are “needy beings” is to state that we are, at the same time, “beings of desire.” This structural, fontal desire is for God, because we come forth from his hands and tend toward Him. The history of sin, both original and particular, buried our desire for God and fragmented this fontal desire into an infinite number of desires. Some desires betray us and separate us from God, like the traditional “capital sins or vices,” while other desires are neutral, their goodness depending on the orientation we give them. The fact remains, however, that God is not the only beauty that attracts us. We enjoy and suffer from a multitude of other attractions.
Heterosexual attraction is the most natural and basic form in which we experience the strength of desire, but the promises of complementarity and happiness which the other sex offers are not lasting. Their enchantment is limited or not always achieved. Desire can find another dimension in religion, where our deepest longings can be satisfied. It is easy to see that the problem here consists in putting what is natural and basic in us at the service of what is supernatural and transcendent. We spend a great part of our monastic life reducing and integrating our desires so as to unify our being in its fontal desire for God. The annulment or repression of erotic desires often results in persons that are unmarried, but lackluster or, even worse, that sooner or later end up in debauchery. The integration of erotic desire, by means of the virtue of chastity and by divine grace, results in persons who are celibate and happy in their search and discovery of the Lord and in serving their neighbor. St. John Climacus, the well-known author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, did not hesitate to affirm that: Happy indeed is the person whose love for God is like the eros of a lover for his beloved! (EE, 30:5).
The spousal mysticism taught by our Cistercian Fathers – and lived intensely by medieval nuns! – is the ripe fruit of this integration of eros into charity. The Humanity of Christ – or, as we would say today, the Historical Jesus – is the nuptial road leading to marriage with the Divinity: reciprocal reception and self-donation in fruitful communion. For males, this is not easy, but for God nothing is impossible. Many of today’s monks, and certainly more than one nun, still have a task to fulfill. The Shulammite of the Song of Songs offers us a free course in ahabá, in eight lessons, which I hope we will take advantage of.
If we can learn the lessons that anthropology and spirituality teach us about spousal love, we will be able to live in a permanent process of renewal. Perhaps one of the causes of the present “dark night” or “hibernation” of consecrated life might be a certain “concubinage with secularism” and/or a “spousal widowhood.” The good news of spousal mysticism can shake us up and give us new life. It can also free us from the sloth of acedia, from sterile chastity, from loveless intellectuality, from stagnant novelties, from disembodied spiritualism, from soulless ritualism and legalism without the spirit.
This good news presents the sacrament of the Eucharist as a spousal self-surrender, which invites us to return to our first love, the original and primal one. This is that exquisitely passionate love that moves us so deeply and gives life back to us. It brings the inner drive to engender this same love, so that others, too, might live it. It is from this passionate love that structures change, tradition is enriched, the Church flourishes, and the world becomes young again.
At the beginning, I said that everything that starts comes to an end. It also holds true for these words of farewell. May Mary of St. Joseph, she who is full of grace and Mother of Cîteaux, continue in us the work that her Son has begun.
Bernardo Olivera - Assisi, September 2008