Monasticism and the challenge of our age
Fr Martin Neyt, President of AIM
‘In these uncertain days one should re-read the well-known Rule of St Benedict. Its purpose is to establish a person in peace. The Benedictine spirit, like that of Virgil, is what the Greeks called the ‘mean’ and the Stoics ‘ataraxia’. It is the faith of Abraham and of Moses, but permeated with common sense; it is hospitality, the spirit of openness to all people and all things; it is affectionate intimacy; it is above all the beauty of every moment of the day, as if each of them was a little eternity’ (1).
Père Frédéric Debuyst writes, ‘These words of Jean Guitton perfectly define the memorable image which can be retained from a positive contact with the Benedictine life. They grasp the spirit of the vision of everyday life taught by the Rule with a sympathy and subtlety which unite the present time to history’ (2).
What is the secret of the monastic tradition, whose institution has lasted since the fourth century, which has filled Europe with monasteries which played such a large part in the cultural development of their regions, and which is now expanding into the whole world and meeting new challenges?
Monastic communities continue to grow, to take root in new territories and new cultures, and in the 40 years today being celebrated by the AMTM the number of monasteries has grown by four hundred. The communities which have come into being outside Europe and the United States show how much the profound respect in the Benedictine Rule enables it to fit into every culture and to join the heart of the gospel as that school of the Lord’s service which Benedict wished to found. The Benedictine life continues to this day to represent a school of wisdom, a school of prayer, a school of hospitality and of openness, where the monk prays and works among his brethren. I wish to discuss frankly among you the challenges of our age which affect the heart of Benedictine life. First, however, we must mark out the field, the vast monastic constellation on different continents.
Since the development of communities outside Europe began, the AIM has logged 465 new foundations since 1960 (3). This figure perhaps overturns our received ideas and herald a new spiritual dawn in our days. At the present day 30,486 persons are living in the Orders and monastic families which depend on St Benedict: Cistercians of the Common and Strict Observance, Bernardines and Benedictine monks and nuns.
In the last ten years a census taken by the organism founded by the monastic Orders sprung from St Benedict, the Alliance Inter- Monastères (AIM) shows a double movement, similar to the flux and reflux of the waves of the ocean. The flux is shown by 103 new foundations between 1997 and 2007. The re-flux stresses a opposite tendency, the lessening of the number of monks and nuns in the West, especially in the larger communities founded during the 19th and 20th centuries. These 103 new foundations divide as follows: 30 in Africa, 19 in Asia, 14 in Latin America, 5 in North America and 35 in Europe. Paradoxically, it is Europe (Nordic countries and eastern Europe) which has experienced the largest number of foundations! Other factors have played their part. The new intercultural exchange is impressive. For many years Europe saw it as one-way traffic, but now the West is called upon to be colonized by other cultures. In a recent meeting of the International Council of the AIM with the American Council it was noted that foundations had been made in the USA by France (Fontcombault). The Korean monks of Waegwan have taken over the monastery of Newton in New Jersey, the Cistercians of Vietnam have established themselves in California, as have also the Vietnamese Benedictines. Two centuries ago Boniface Wimmer and a few German monks established themselves in USA; in a later generation adaptation and inculturation have written new pages of the monastic story. This movement continues today amid many contemporary challenges.
Formation in the religious life is much discussed today. Monastic life itself is formative and generates a progressive transformation of the person. There is no need of a magic formula for a good formation; it is organic, both personal and communitarian. According to the Benedictine Rule and monastic customaries it is written into the rhythm of the seasons, of the week and the day. Prayer and work among the brethren is the key to every kind of community life founded on the gospel. The fundamental question arises at the beginning of each new day, ‘Why did I enter the monastery? Why do I remain here?’ or again, as the old monk recalled as he lay dying, ‘Today I begin.’ From one beginning after another until the beginning which knows no end, the quest for the Eternal is never satisfied. In silence, meditation on the scriptures, the recitation of the divine office, the Eucharist and manual labour monks carry out together the search for the Beloved Son revealed by the Father through the action of the Holy Spirit. This is the stuff of monastic life, the search for the essential, linked to the avoidance of any dislocation between the search for God in prayer and the quality of fraternal relations.
This dimension of life, based on wisdom and daily routine, implies a capacity for and a dedication to alert listening. This alert listening stands to the interior life of every person as the first rays of the sun stand to the dawn, the first moment of day. Setting oneself to listen is a summons to transcend oneself, to communicate, to be transformed, to form oneself and be converted. Alertness brings light through the metamorphosis of daily rhythms, asceticism, purificatory trials, joy and wonder. The challenges are legion: silence? Enclosure? How to escape dependence on radios, telephones, skype, internet? How is one to find a balance between detachment from others and willingness to help? How to reduce everything to the essential, to prefer nothing to the love of Christ? How to teach the candidate for the religious life or the members of a community to live with humanity, in respect and sensitivity to others, especially the weakest? Some monasteries present a noble ensemble but do not seem to be aware of other people. One monk confided to me, ‘I entered this monastery because I saw there mutual caring, the monks respected and loved one another. That was what led me to enter here.’ Humanitas, the affectionate care issuing from sympathy and respect, is rooted in the heart of Benedictine life. Only then does the life of a monk open out, like the petals of a flower, at the light of the gospel in prayer and the Eucharist.
Benedict provides time for reading, meditation and the recitation of the psalms, but he adds, ‘It is not in abundance of words but in purity of heart and in tears of contrition and desire for God that we are heard. Prayer should be short and pure’ (c. 20). This leads the human heart to that single-minded depth where the Spirit of God is expressed, ‘The wind blows where it will and you hear its voice, but you do not know where it is coming from or where it is going. So it is with anyone who is born of the Spirit’ (John 3.8). The monk is born from above by prayer and opens himself to the ultimate meaning of things, receives a new way of acting and of being which is built on praise and intercession like the two wings of a bird.
How could women and men live together without transcending the differences inherent in their oppositions, their fragility, their cultural and social make-up? So many points of friction lurk in each one of us, and express themselves consciously or unconsciously! But this does not make monastic history a sad story. Every community, every Order, Christianity itself in its successive generations often rests on a single section of society.
In his Rule St Benedict calls for a unity of faith which transcends the various levels of society. There have been in the West and in Brazil laybrothers and choir monks; there have been tensions of race, ethnicity, caste, education, culture and social status. Christianity in India, in Africa and in Latin America still faces these challenges in marriage, in employment, in social status. The very word ‘Latin America’, linked to the dominant languages of Spanish and Portuguese, expresses the profound divisions which characterise populations. Africa, and to a lesser extent Asia, reflect linguistic, social and cultural differences. We speak of Anglophone and Francophone monasteries in Africa, even if the local languages are used in the liturgy. Colonialism has left its mark. To reread what Aimé Césaire wrote in 1955 can be a humbling experience and lead to conversion. Communist regimes influence the number of vocations in their own way: few in Lithuania, many in Vietnam, a discrete presence in China, where nothing is secret but everything mysterious. The foundation in Cuba of the Benedictine sisters of the Congregation of St Ottilien, directed by a monk from Togo, opens another way, but the fundamental principle remains the same: community life in a monastery must transcend these aspects.
The rhythm of prayer, by the recitation of the Hours and by personal prayer, creates a continual presence of the Master of History. Anchored in the present, the face of the one who prays is turned resolutely to a future built on faith, hope and love. Can one say that new foundations, little seeds, thrown on the ground and destined to become a mighty tree in which the birds of the air make their nests, have a vision of the future? In a society which has lost its way they are like the watchers for the dawn.
A discrete welcome, respectful of another who comes from elsewhere, is nurtured in the very bosom of the community. ‘The young brothers should honour their seniors. In this way we put into practice what is written, “Outdo one another in honour”’ (Romans 12.10). Hospitality carries a biblical dimension, like Abraham welcoming the three visitors at the Oak of Mambre. It is Christ himself who is welcomed. This sacred welcome has given birth to the Interreligious Monastic Dialogue (DIMMID) in the bosom of the AIM. From 1978 onwards commissions were set up, first in the United States, then in Europe, India and Australia. These spiritual exchanges give a special place to silence, hospitality, a lived experience. ‘The hospitality given by the Zen monks,’ writes P. Pierre de Béthune, ‘revived in me the Benedictine spirit of heartfelt and generous welcome. I discovered in the gospel energy for welcome which I had never developed.’ This sacred hospitality continues from Japan and India to the West. The memory of the Trappists who gave their lives in Algeria as a presence in the midst of Islam remains vivid in our hearts. A new experiment has just begun in Syria: the Trappistines from Vittorchiano in Italy have made a foundation in Aleppo.
A welcome for young people has developed Benedictine education from the earliest years to universities in America and the Philippines. When the Congolese Benedictine sisters in their turn embarked on a foundation in the Muslim territory of Chad they were surprised to see how many children, for lack of anything else to do, remained glued to the gates of the monastery. There was no alternative to teaching them the alphabet and giving them some formation. At Santiago in Chile, building on the Benedictine tradition, a lay group (Manquehue) has founded three schools; these have an on-going link with the Abbeys and Colleges of St Louis in USA and Ampleforth in Great Britain. Nor should we omit to mention numerous Benedictine schools in Germany, such as St- Ottilien, in Austria, in Switzerland, English teaching given by Collegeville USA in Taiwan and in mainland China, courses given at the University of Fu Jen in Beijing, translations of biblical and theological works into Chinese, and so on. These are among the activities which go beyond the framework of the AIM, but underline the influence of this organic formation which flows out from monastic community and liturgical life of the monks.
Monastic work is another aspect of community life, and to how many projects it has given birth! There is a French saying, ‘That is work for a Benedictine!’, such as ground-clearance, drying out marshes, irrigation, creation of milk products, Trappist beers. All these spring from the industry and ingenuity of monks, to say nothing of the copying of manuscripts and the scholarly work of the Maurists. In his Rule Benedict instructs to ‘give to each according to his needs’. In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate Pope Benedict XVI also stresses how human institutions should observe the rules of fairness and charity.
In its modest way the AIM witnesses to the steadily increasing gap between rich and poor. In its reporting on the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change the newspaper La Croix gives a special place to the warming of the earth in Africa, Latin America, India, Bangladesh and Burkina Faso. The monasteries of Africa, Latin America and Asia are experiencing great economic difficulties. How can we help them earn their daily bread? By signing up for a dynamic programme of participation in the development of their region? Increasingly, the relevant experts are an invaluable help and are gradually helping the AIM to overcome certain challenges, to evaluate the solidity of various economic projects, of construction, of development projects. Just as the shape of a tree is the consequence of its free interaction with air, ground, sun and rain, so each monastery is similar to a shrub planted in a culture provided by its history. May these fragile communities become places of enduring development and resource for the impoverished populations around them.
A Benedictine monastery is a part of a federation, and the twenty Congregations form the Benedictine Federation (4). The secret of monastic life consists in the independence and the unique identity of each monastery with its own usages and customs. Autonomy is irreplaceable, and marks a life of profound diversity, founded on its unique manner of living the gospel.
At a time when the world is becoming a great village, links of solidarity are indispensible. In its own way the AIM contributes by encouraging regional, national and international gatherings among monasteries of both men and women sprung from St Benedict. It supports their human, Christian and monastic formation. With the help of experts it seeks to contribute ever more richly to the development of these communities. In this service our friends in the AMTM play their part. They are always there, devoted, effective, supporting the growth of more than 400 monasteries. Their President, Vice-President and each Member may be sure of the deep gratitude and prayer of the AIM for their intentions. In forty years of presence, devotion, service and creativity the path that has been journeyed since its origins in immense; the current needs are no less so.
A new era is beginning and your presence here this evening invites us to take a longer view, to share with us your prayer, your talents and your resources. May the Living Christ remain at the heart of these communities. May he help them to turn towards the future in praise and intercession, welcoming and inventive, so that those who live around them may also receive from these places of prayer and work a constant support in their own development.
(1) Jean Guitton, preface to J.H. Newman, Les Bénédictins (Paris, 1980), quoted by F. Debuyst,
Saint Benoît, p. 5.
(2) Frédérick Debuyst, Saint Benoît, un chemin de discrétion, Cahier de Clerlande no 1.
(3) 136 communities in Africa, 143 in Latin America, 186 in Asia.
(4) It is regulated by a lex propria and directed by the Abbot Primate, Notker Wolf, OSB.
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