M. Giovanna Garbelli, OCSO, Matutum, Philippinas

Formation to Unity in Truth

MGarbelliIf in the 20th century humanity singled out with certainty its greatest value in the word “freedom”, we can also say that the journey towards freedom – pursued with passion by modern men – has not actually created a freer world. Instead it produced a more unjust and confused world because freedom has been identified with the possibility of doing whatever one desires. In doing so, man’s desire has been dislocated from its goal: truth, goodness, beauty and eternal life.

If we have to identify the problem of contemporary thought marked by relativism, we have to say that this lies in the word “truth” or, better still, in the relation between truth and freedom. The falsehood of modern educative project lies in saying that “I am my own project”. Therefore the satisfaction of desire becomes my right. Every person has the right to pursue his own desire and no one – if he does not want to be branded as a tyrant - can interfere with this plan.

It is evident that if the truth imposed from the outside (authority, family, church, society, etc.) thwarts my desire, the truth is perceived as oppressive and therefore does not correspond to me, to my conscience. So we have left the young people at the mercy of their own desires. Not only that, but we have complied with and manipulated them through the media and fashions, reaping a fruit of death in artificial paradises of drugs, sex, alcoholism and pleasure. The elimination of authority is the abolition of the principle of growth, of the transmission of an experience, of the possibility to receive a legacy with which to confront oneself in order to build up, in one’s own turn, the good that we want to transmit.

The elimination of the “father” and, consequently, of the relation between freedom and truth is the great challenge to be faced if we want to educate our young people. The lack of the father is the great void which we discover as being behind their choice of not entrusting themselves and their “gentle” refusal to follow. They are afraid of being deceived once more and of undergoing additional violence.

On the other hand we find ourselves before phenomena such as that of the World Youth Day in which hundreds of thousands of young people participate and we conclude that the Church can still be their home.

Perhaps we have to concern ourselves more in listening to them or in understanding why gatherings such as these draw them.

A teenager from Moscow, for example, gives this testimony: “Why am I so keen in going to Madrid? The answer is simple: in the Church I have encountered something beautiful, and my life has been completely turned upside down. I go, therefore, to pray that this encounter be for ever. However, this journey is not possible by ourselves alone, we need stable points”.

For Tim, an Australian teen-ager of Sandhurst, this stable point was the word of his bishop Joe Grech. After the latter’s sudden death, Tim decided to continue his work with the young people and to devote himself in preparing and guiding them to the World Youth Day in Madrid, as well as to accompany them in a pilgrimage to Avila and Segovia only because his bishop was devoted to St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross.

At bottom, the heart or the conscience of the young people desires  fulfillment: namely, a project that fulfills their desire, and fulfills it for ever. They desire a true proposal that can change their life, that allows them to experience something beautiful, that brings hope, that is real and meaningful. They desire this from us adults, even though they do not know how to express it or are not able to entrust themselves: they desire to encounter true, authoritative persons. Someone who tells them the truth.

The truth – not the satisfaction of desire - sets us free.

The Cistercian charism is so profoundly rooted in the truth, that St. Bernard summed up the twelve steps of humility in his four degrees of truth.

In the Cistercian spirituality the restoration of the divine likeness takes the form of a journey from the misery of self-knowledge (to know oneself in truth through humiliation), to a renewed acceptance of oneself, sacramentally in the hands of Mercy (by which one’s own misery is accepted and loved), to the sharing of misery in the community of those who are in the hands of the same Mercy (by which the misery of the other is accepted and loved), to the contemplation of Mercy itself. This experience is also described as a continual conversion from one’s own to the common, that is, from pride to the mercy that we all receive, lived out in a stable community, dedicated to the contemplation of God.

So, how do we transmit this charism to the new generations who perhaps do not even understand anymore the terms that we are using to describe it?  

It can be transmitted only if we offer it as the experience that has given consistency and joy to our lives, either at a personal or communitarian level. It is not a question of competencies or of particular strategies, but that of entering into the creative and recreative action of the Holy Spirit. It is a question of fidelity to that which we were called above all as men, to our original destiny of priestly mediation between God and creation; of children in the Son through whom the whole universe acquires its voice to praise God.

To affirm the monastic life and the Cistercian charism as fundamentally ordered to make man’s essential vocation shine forth is the challenge which the contemporary world - that seems to have completely lost awareness of it - throws at us. 

This is why the anthropological question is more than ever essential. Education presupposes always a concept of man, a philosophy, and from this vision, it draws the method, namely, the way, the manner of accomplishing it (see working paper of M. Lucia of Nasi Pani).

Our Constitutions synthetically express the Cistercian anthropological concept, stating that the aim of the Cistercian formation is to restore the divine likeness in the person who enters the monastery to seek the Lord. It is evident that this work of restoration, and the Constitutions immediately specify it, is the project of faith and can be brought to fulfillment only within the sphere of faith and with the help of the Holy Spirit. This “form” which we want to restore in whoever comes to the monastery presupposes a vision of man in relation to his Creator, defined by the plan of salvation, which is fulfilled in Christ, leading the person back to the Father from whom he has strayed. 

From this anthropological concept based on Revelation is derived the method, the way. For us the method, the way is to give precedence to the liturgical sacramental life, the structure of which is already an image of that which ultimately we will be one day in heaven, a priestly people. In this way, which is the plan of God for us, we re-discover our true dignity, namely, to exist for the “praise and glory” of the Father, and not for power, success, pleasure and appearance.
Remaining at the heart of this fundamental vocation, we finally come to know who we are: children in the Son to the praise of the Father’s glory and with this dignity we live out all the gestures of the conversatio monastica orienting them to the glory of God.

This liturgical sacramental vision, that is, this clear orientation to Christ, becomes transparent in the way in which the community lives out the conversatio monastica.  The way of the liturgy is also the way of the Word of God, of lectio ordered to the Mystery, of work to support ourselves and to be free from external conditionings, of the tradition, of love for the beauty of the place and of the service to the community. In this vision, everything, from the humblest to the greatest gesture of our life, is held together and acquires meaning. It is the way to unity. By this way all of us re-discover ourselves finally in the house of the Father, children, all prodigal, forgiven and invited to the celebration of mercy. This way which is offered by the tradition of the Church and by our Cistercian Fathers who made of it the center of their contemplative spirituality is the royal way that leads us to charity and to unity.

Dom Timothy, in our visitation card of last July, wrote that Father Chrysogonus of Gethsemani frequently said that the praises of God were as important to the early Cistercians as charity and that the two could not be separated.  This path must be continually re-taken and become the common project of the community, its common vision, the vision by which everything is oriented towards the celebration of the glory of God, by which all the observances are continually referred to this end. In our dialogues therefore we remind each other simply about the essentials of our vocation, with patience and with friendship and this continual mutual exhortation towards our common destiny creates a strong and enduring communion.

In this sense it seems to me that this vision surpasses the apparent dichotomy contained in the affirmation: “We have passed from a community of observances to a community of communion.” By now it would be better to say, we are a community of communion through the observances or that we live out the observances in (a spirit of) communion. The spirituality of communion, Blessed John Paul II said, consists in abiding at the heart of the Trinitarian mystery which dwells in us and in seeing God’s light shine on the face of every brother and sister who is beside us, in regarding our brothers and sisters in the faith as part of the Mystical Body and therefore as a part of myself, to whom I can offer a genuine friendship. To offer genuine friendship, Blessed John Paul II goes on to say, means to affirm the positive and to make room for the other; in one word, to live out mercy.

This vision moreover permits us to surmount the dichotomy between Lectio Divina and Liturgy and to find once again the unity experienced by our Cistercian Fathers between the ruminated word and the celebrated word.  

The future springs up from common convictions and from common experiences, capable of giving form to our existence, from a common vision based on tradition and re-embodied in the present, in such a way that it can become experience for others. A liturgy lived out personally and as a community appeals to the young people. Many of our young members enter because they are struck by it, by its beauty, by the experience of the glory of God which has spurred them on to seek further, to question themselves on their future.

However, this common vision on the purpose of the monastic observance is not automatically transmitted. It implies a constant effort of reflection and choice in order that fidelity to Christ be continually renewed and sustained. Only in this way can the vision become experience. It becomes experience in verifying oneself with the tradition of the house and its authority, with the patristic and Cistercian tradition, with the magisterium of the Church. This verification must be carried on through honest dialogues and sharing of thought and responsibility in such a way that we can support one another in living out together the mystery of being the mystical body of Christ. The objective unity of the community is the foundation of education to truth in freedom because this unity is always a celebration of mercy that constitutes us and keeps us together.  To educate to truth means to introduce (a person) into a life of mercy.

- If the journey of self-knowledge that one undertakes in the initial years of formation is clearly a journey of faith by which one encounters the mercy of God who saves us from our misery and sheds new light on our existential poverty  and on the power and beauty of grace;

- if this journey is the return to creaturely dependence and is experienced in the welcoming acceptance of a community that receives me as son/daughter and is lived out in a spirit of openness to a spiritual mother or father who is sign of the heavenly Father’s forgiveness, guide to the internalization of the conversatio and intermediary to relations of friendship with the entire community,

then the person finds the way to truth and can express him/herself freely with total dedication and responsibility.

Only the son, - Jesus warns us, and St Bernard knows it well when he says that in order to love gratuitously we must be sons, not slaves nor mercenaries, - is free. The son is free because he belongs to and acknowledges a center outside of himself.  This center outside of himself becomes principle of discernment by which he can judge and decide, he can heal the ambivalence of his will and bend it decisively to the common good. Thus, the experience of mercy becomes a fount of thought, a capacity to ask ourselves every day the essential questions (“Ad quid venisti, Bernarde?”) both at personal and communitarian levels and, therefore, it creates persons responsible for their own choices and capable of self-giving.

This is why to teach mercy to the young, it is necessary to teach them, first of all, to discern, that is, to give a right judgment on reality and on persons. The young do not know anymore how to think because their education is highly technical and they are accustomed to stop at appearance. Only the person who learns to discern can make responsible choices. Oftentimes, the young, even those who seem to be very independent, are not free but are conditioned by fears and what others say of them. The relationship with an authoritative person who encourages openness of heart and poses all the existential questions, and the dialogues, starting from the novitiate period, educate one to a true discernment.

When a person knows the reasons, then he/she can walk on his/her own and becomes in turn a source of authoritativeness for others. He/she knows how to go against the current (conversion), and embraces obedience not passively, but in order to build up.

In addition, this person is no longer afraid to welcome persons who are poor and fragile. I am always amazed at the variety of persons whom St Bernard welcomed into his monastery with the conviction that the house of God is the place of peace for all, even for criminals...

I think that this welcoming acceptance is the tribute that we can offer to contradict the violence of the world. A community that assumes its weakest members is truly a community in which formation (to become school of charity) has been internalized. Mutual forgiveness and the patient acceptance of all: is this not perhaps the anticipation of the eternal life towards which we run together?