F. Eamon, OCSO General Abbot

A view of the Order today

As an Order today (Jan. 1, 2011) we are 2083 monks in 97 monasteries and 1736 nuns in 72 monasteries giving a total of 3819 monks and nuns in 169 monasteries in 44 countries.  Among the monks there are 343 (16%) in initial formation and among the nuns 257 (15%).  In the past five years the number of monks has decreased by 165 and that of nuns by 22. The overall number of monks has been decreasing over the years but it is only in the past two years that this slight drop has emerged among the nuns.  This is an overall decrease of 5% in five years which does not seem very big on the long term.

Looking at the statistics from 1960 to 2010, a 50 year period, shows the trend of decrease more strikingly.  In 1960 there were 78 houses of monks in the Order (today there are 97) and the first 65 of these, apart from a few exceptions, have been in steady decrease numerically during that time. This is not to say that they are not getting vocations today but that the overall number is in decline.  These monasteries are all in Europe, the U.S.A., Canada, China, Japan, and Israel.  The only exceptions to this continuous decrease in numbers are in a few monasteries in Europe, pre-eminently Sept-Fons which has grown during that period and is the second largest monastery of monks in the Order. The houses that are growing numerically are in Africa, parts of Asia and Latin America.  

Looking at the same 50 years period for the nuns we find that there were 39 houses in 1960 (today there are 72) and among these the first 34 houses of the elenchus with a few exceptions show a descending graph in terms of numbers.  And these houses are again the older communities in Europe, Canada, Japan and the U.S.A.  There are a few exceptions to this trend the most outstanding being Vitorchiano which has maintained 70-80 sisters during this time even though they have made 7 foundations.  The growth areas are, as for the monks, some parts of Asia, most of Africa and Latin America. 

Another significant fact is that slightly over half of the monks and nuns of the Order are in the 91 houses that make up the 7 regions of Europe but only one third of those in initial formation in the Order are in Europe, while the other two thirds of those in initial formation belong to the 78 houses that make up the regions of Oriens, Rafma and the Americas.  So the decrease in numbers in the Order is found mainly in the communities of Europe and North America which shows itself in fewer young people and an increasing number of elderly monks and nuns. 

This statistical overview of the Order shows that most of the older and more established houses of the Order are under increasing pressure on several fronts manifested in issues such as the following:

- The difficulty in finding members of the community suitable for positions such as superior, novice director, cellarer and other positions.

- The need to care for elderly and infirm brothers and sisters means providing people and facilities to care for them whether in the monastery or outside it.

- The need to adapt economy and or enterprise to the size and capabilities of the community. This often leads to an increasing amount of lay help, either as paid workers and/or volunteers.  This of course affects the economy too and will also affect the monastic environment and this can be for better or worse.

- Where lay help is not used or is kept to a minimum and even when it is used the monks or nuns are still often overloaded with work.  

- With diminishing resources of monks/nuns the liturgy, formation and positive stimulation of community life can become impoverished, and life together can be reduced to a matter of keeping things going.

- The need to reduce the living space and the cost of maintenance of buildings no longer needed.  

- This sort of ambience can be morale sapping for some and also anxiety generating – we have to get novices and we have do things to make the place attractive etc.  This can lead to a lack of discernment in accepting people and keeping them, which can have other negative repercussions on the life of the community. 

These are some of the challenges faced in the context of lack of recruitment and advancing age in communities.

The communities of Oriens, Africa and Latin America which, in general, enjoy good recruitment have different challenges.  Oriens is culturally and geographically so diverse that it is hard to generalise about this area which has the greatest concentration of humanity on the planet and is home to all the great non-Christian religions, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and more.  The Christian and Catholic faith is in a minority in most of this area and language is an obvious difficulty to be overcome for many of our monks and nuns there in accessing the Christian and monastic tradition.

The monasteries of Rafma live on a continent that shows life and hope in the face of poverty and much suffering.  While there are many who enter the monasteries, there are also many who leave and there is much need of teachers who witness to a life faithful to our charism and capable of teaching it.  The monasteries reflect cultures where a sense of God and the world of the spirit are deeply embedded but there is much work to be done in integrating and confronting this world with the demands of our monastic and evangelical calling.

The Latin American monastic scene is in a strongly Catholic ethos but one which is being confronted with the march of progress and the inroads that secularism and globalisation are making.  The monastic world here is marked by vitality, enthusiasm and Catholic tradition.

The world around us 

The Order is present in 44 countries of the world and that world has its effects on the monasteries in different ways.  I mention just a few of these ways: The fact of instant communication, via 24 hour TV, internet, video, face-book, twitter, cheap air travel and the ubiquitous mobile or cell phone, has made the world a global village.  The dissemination of the Western lifestyle is encouraging materialism, consumerism and a levelling out of what we want in our shopping basket.  This information and knowledge makes people more aware of possibilities and of their human rights and dignity.  The recent so-called Arab Spring is a startling example of a combination of these factors where the action of one individual started a reaction that spread across North Africa and the Middle East.  And so the poorer nations are travelling towards the better off ones and we have the immigration issue.  The point I want to make in all of this is that this rapid change, not to mention the financial crisis, leads many to anxiety about the future and where it is all going to end up.   And these issues are not going to go away.  Change is here to stay, if you will pardon the expression.  So the two scenarios I have described so far are: the statistical view of the situation where many communities are dropping in numbers with the follow on effects and a world around us of rapid change.  This is not an environment conducive to solitude and silence though it may be very much in need of both. 

Over the past three years I have visited 90 of the 169 monasteries listed in the elenchus: 15 in Oriens, 8 in Rafma, 22 in the Americas and 45 in Europe.  My overall impression is positive in that the majority of monks and nuns live generous and dedicated lives: they work hard and earn their living.  I have been impressed by this especially in houses of nuns – they seem to have more creativity in terms of ways of earning a living.  The liturgy is given attention and performed well and very well indeed in some communities.  The quality varies obviously depending on resources, talent, degree of sophistication of the community and cultural background. The majority of monks and nuns seek God in their lives.  There are, as St. Benedict says, the strong and the weak, and, I would add, a lot in between.  There are community histories and personal histories that can make life difficult for some and leave others unhappy or unsettled in their monastic lives.  Older communities have a tradition which gives a certain stability but at times this is not enough to stave off a sense of discouragement and anxiety about the future.  Others, however, while being fragile in this sense can accept their situation and get on with living with energy and facing up to life as they find it, happy to live their reality with faith and trust in God.  One does get a sense though that people are under pressure and probably overstretched.  Younger communities naturally, have a lot more energy and drive and tend to have more conflict as a result.  This is normal where people are finding themselves and their place in a new community.  But conflict is not limited to younger people.  In Africa, which is the fastest growing region of the Order, special attention needs to be given to discernment (of vocations) discipline (monastic observance) and direction (the need for spiritual guidance, for teaching and for teachers who live what they teach).  What became evident to me in my visits and in listening to people was that the big challenge in daily life is not doing or not doing things, it is living with others in a peaceful and positive way.  The big challenge is to love one another.  It is relationships - to live in a loving way with my brothers or sisters. 

Many communities have done much work in over the years in learning how to dialogue and to work together on issues.  They have used facilitators, group dynamics’ experts as well as personal therapy and counselling.  They have taken courses and read books and acquired skills which have improved the quality of their lives as communities and helped them to work more effectively together.  They relate better and are probably more human and understanding with each other.  This is good and helpful and something to be grateful for, but it is not enough.  The foundation of our love as Christian monks and nuns is our faith (and hope) in God.  And our love of others needs to be rooted in this faith.  God has spoken to us, the Creator of all, revealing to us that we, and all people, are his children, that he is our Father and that we, and all that he has made, have a future and a hope.  We have a value and a dignity given us by God.   In Jesus he has shown what God’s love is like in a human being.  When we begin to understand this we are humbled at what we mean to God and what others mean to him and we can begin to act in a humble way and become loving people.  We see God, the world ourselves and other people differently.  Faith in God offers us a new way of looking at reality.  It is a call to see things as God sees them.  This way of seeing things is exemplified in the person of Jesus as revealed to us in the Gospels and the New Testament.  Jesus calls this change a conversion.  It is a change of direction, a turning upside down of our view of reality, a change in our thinking, our affections and our actions.  This faith is a gift of God which enables us to believe not just intellectually but to entrust ourselves to God and his purposes for us.  Faith in Jesus as God is fundamental – in him God speaks to us.  I think of this as a “sense of God” which gives stability and a direction in our lives and which forms the basis of our choices and actions.  I see it in the “timor Dei” of the Rule, what Benedict looks for in the monk to whom he entrusts responsibility.  Pope Benedict talks in a similar vein in his “Verbum Domini” – the Word who became flesh is the same Word who was in the beginning, the absolute beginning, and through whom all was made.  We can only truly understand ourselves, he says, in accepting the Word and what he reveals to us of God and of ourselves. In the RB it is this “sense of God” of being responsible to God that is important in the maturing of the monk.  Chapter 7 of the RB describes the way we have to go to arrive at this love.   We learn there the patient love of God for us who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. The older I get the more I see that a lot of loving has to do with bearing with rather than doing things for others.  It has to do with being a life-giving presence to others, not pulling down but building up or at least not getting in the way of the building.  When I look back at the people who are respected and really looked up to in my community I think especially of two brothers who are these kind of men:  both of them are discreet, not reactive, not loud, easy to be with, good humoured, people who can listen to others, who don’t threaten or speak about others; they are people whom the good and the wayward can talk to without any sense of being judged or taken to task.  They are both men of the word and of prayer; full of good sense and down to earth – fine human beings.  They are men who are happy to be monks. 

The other thing that has struck me over the last three years is the number of visitation cards that speak about empty scriptoria and/or a lack of lectio and a lack of silence.  I tend to see these remarks as symptoms of an illness rather than its cause.  Are they not perhaps indications of a lack of depth in our lives, a weakening of our relationship with God and consequently of our seeking Him?  If our faith and hope in God is weak then it is no surprise that we have trouble in loving one another as he has loved us. 

To sum up then: I spoke first about statistics and the areas of numerical growth and decline in the Order and the consequences of this for monastic living today.  Then, secondly, I spoke of the world today and its effects on our life – anxiety and unease with one’s life and the future.  Thirdly, I mentioned my own experience of visiting monasteries, describing this as basically positive but also indicating difficulties and challenges that are there. Finally I spoke of the main challenge as the challenge of loving one another.  Related to this is the need for a deepening of our faith and hope in God who has first loved us, so that we can love as he has loved us.  To conclude, when I give what may appear to be a very simplistic statement of the challenge today, I do so not denying that we need to do many things today, earn a living, adapt our monasteries and ways of doing things, read the signs of the times, get to know ways in which we might attract people to our lives.  Monasteries are doing these things and that is life but the most important thing is that we live a Christian witness of community now, that we find our happiness in living the gift of our vocation in the circumstances in which we find ourselves and with the brothers or sisters God has gathered together.  This is Christian love and this spirit needs to inform what we do, otherwise we labour in vain.