Mother Lucia Tartara
Superior of Nasi Pani, Czech Republic
THE FIRST FORMATION OF CANDIDATES
1. Since my experience is limited, I obviously cannot make too many generalizations, in view of the very rapid changes of generations and cultural differences and above all because no two persons are alike. With the passage of time I come to agree more and more with the saying of St Therese of the Child Jesus: souls are even more varied than faces, and the differences between souls are deeper than those which exist between cultures and generations, especially today. Nevertheless it is not impossible to speak of shared features; the desire of the human heart is still deeper, and remains basically the same.
2. It is important to be aware that discussion of candidates brings one to pose questions also about oneself and one’s own community. For this reason I shall ask questions primarily about myself.
3. Every person who abandons their way of life and their relationships to enter a monastery is a miracle. Even if a candidate’s conscious motives are confused, a vocation comes not from the candidate but from God, and this is an immense grace. One should not therefore hesitate to ask a lot of God and his saints. Even before reaching the meeting-room prayer must be the context of the meeting. The way of conducting the meeting must be neither an intention to dominate nor scepticism nor fear. Discernment is first of all acceptance of a challenge, the search for the precious pearl of the true desire of the person before one, perhaps hidden under a thousand false motivations, for in today’s world the person who knocks on the door of the monastery is unlikely to have clear ideas of what God wants of her. If we discover in the course of time that God is really calling her to something else, we will not have wasted our time: we shall have encountered a hidden treasure and helped the other to find herself. This is why such a meeting should be characterized by a certain enthusiasm. The word ‘youth’ should indicate enthusiasm and ‘adulthood’ prudence. However, in recent generations this has not been the case. The young are hesitant and fearful. Hence in such a meeting it is for us to supply the welcome and enthusiasm which springs from happiness in one’s own personal and community vocation.
4. With the word ‘happiness’ we enter upon the challenge of the present day. In general young people of today do not trust their own desire for happiness. Secularism has made them more sceptical than may appear. A nihilist culture, even if it is not explicitly espoused, has been the breath which enters into the lungs and heart: ‘I have come from nowhere and I am going nowhere. I am a non-person.’ Of course they do not say this of themselves; they smile, they are polite, but one can sense precisely in this attitude a certain sadness. I call this sadness ‘polite cynicism’ or ‘velvet nihilism’. The year 1989 is formally designated as the year of collapse of ideologies, at the same time as the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Ideologies disappeared, leaving only contempt for humanity.
This should therefore be no surprise, granted that anthropocentrism has always led to the loss of humanity in the midst of nature. Christians have not escaped this. For example, first eschatology (‘where are we heading?’) disappeared, perhaps from fear of flights into the future. Consequently many hopes for the future have disappeared, for example, that suffering will have an eternal reward. In consequence not only the abstract concept of creation has gradually disappeared, but also a sense of selfhood, of other people and things as created, a sense that we are not responsible for our own existence, that we come from a Love creating us at every moment and leading us by the ways of history to Himself.
Young people not only lack family, but also a family which gives them an existential sense of being created by a greater Love. This existential mistrust gives rise to real traumas and acts of violence which are always accepted as normal: pornography, a morbid death-wish, a cult of the macabre and the ugly – witness the images we encounter in our cities. This can be read in their eyes, behind the superficial smile, the polite cynicism, sadness and fear which can often reveal themselves in a resigned passivity. Today’s nihilism is not the enthusiastic nihilism of the twentieth century which gave rise to explosions of affective forces. At present the active forces of personality are imploding, for instance in the use of sexuality, in a victim mentality, in dreams of becoming important without doing anything to deserve it, in a certain negligence and lassitude. ‘Nothingness’ is comfortable and leads to acidie. Even doing a lot to avoid being, or doing everything possible to show one’s ability are typical phenomena of today’s listlessness.
A moralizing response, ‘Don’t do this’ has little point. Reasons are more necessary than they used to be. Thirty years ago if young people asked and insisted on reasons, often finding their teachers unable to respond, today young people no longer ask for reasons, and settle for the moralizing proposal to change, provided that it does not overturn the deepest roots of the spirit and the heart. Precisely for this reason are we bound to give reasons and make such reasons attractive. How can this be done?
I will begin by asking myself a question – myself and my community. Personally, what is my mentality? Philosophy and theology are not reserved to experts, but are also the concern of the man and woman in the street. What is my philosophy? What is my theology? Is it that I want to take seriously what I believe and what I do not believe in order to grasp these beliefs more deeply even at a rational level? Am I aware that otherwise my life – including my relationships and my sentiments – will be impregnated by these beliefs without my realizing it? We know that young people undergo considerable confusion, intellectual, spiritual and moral: intellectual, for example, in today’s practical mentality of justifying absolutely everything, the principle of non-contradiction is no longer certain, to give but one example. Spiritual, for example, it is one thing to pray and another to talk to oneself. Moral, sin is one thing, to feel guilty is another, or again, virtue is one thing and hypocrisy another, charity is one thing and taking things easy another.
Confusion demands clarity. In initial formation one often has the feeling of undoing a thoroughly knotted skein of wool. In order to enlighten others I generally start with myself: does my ‘thread’ follow directly on Christ’s path? How can I know? Are there parts of the creed that I appreciate and parts that I gloss over? Which are they? Do I believe in eternal life? In the value of suffering? Or is it for me something negative, as it is for this young person in front of me? What is my anthropology? Am I too tempted to reduce her person (or mine) to psychological mechanisms? Or even to faults in that mechanism? Do I believe in the possibility of educating (above all by grace called forth by prayer) the feelings themselves so that both she and I can change my instinctive way of feeling into that of Christ? And so on.
Study is important for clarifying ideas, but what we teach in our courses will form mentalities and habits of life only on one condition, that we pass on what we and our communities really believe and – with all our incoherencies and sins – we want to live. On this matter it is important that we do not take up outmoded positions. Often it is characteristic of us as Christians that, precisely in our desire to be up-to-date, we remain behindhand. Perhaps precisely because we are not conditioned to fashion. I give some examples: I can be afraid of a very devotional way of praying because 50 years ago it was unliturgical: the rosary was recited during Mass; or again, one did not pay attention to the readings at Mass, but simply waited for the sacred moment of the elevation. The liturgical fashion of 40 years ago was anti-devotional for the same reasons. This does not mean that a young person who today wants to pray the rosary or likes Eucharistic adoration is wrong. Avoidance of living in ideology means knowing how to accept and value positive heartfelt desires of candidates, and to integrate them into the broad and rich vision of Cistercian life.
Even a certain kind of psychologism and of ecumenism are outdated. Weak thinking, the methodology of doubt are outdated responses. Young people, even if they do not say it, realise this. It is a challenge for us. According to the position we take up (those of Christianity and of the Church, which are always fresh with the freshness of Christ, or those of the fashion of the moment which quickly becomes old), we understand or fail to understand the problems of young people who come to the monastery, and we have for them either an attractive answer or an old and outmoded one.
5. Young people and every person spiritually young, even though not believing in the possibility of happiness, can scent happiness, and it is the scent that moves them. If in the Church today almost all the bishops are talking about what is called ‘an educational flowering’, some credit for this must go also to the young people themselves, who in many ways are hungry for education.
One advantage of the collapse of ideologies is that young people are less prejudiced. Of course they have perhaps never heard a word of the most basic knowledge of the holy Scriptures, but they are ready to listen. A non-Catholic periodical, commenting on how young people flock to meetings with the Pope, wrote, ‘European societies have spent too long in a devastating period of existential superficiality, and feel torn apart by the lack of a vision, a utopia.’ This is why young people are seeking in monasteries a level different from what they find in the world around them. It may seem paradoxical, but despite their velvet cynicism they need great ideals. The word ‘holiness’ speaks more to these semi-pagans than to us. What then is the need that young people of today hold in their hearts?
As we often do, let us take a step backwards: what does my community require of candidates? From time to time it can happen that the needs of the candidate and those of the community not only fail to coincide, but seem to clash. In such a case it is vital that the community should face up to its expectations: does it feel that it should accept people who are at peace and well educated, and is it scandalized by someone who does not have a good education and has ‘lived in sin’? It needs people who will work, and is faced with people who have never done any responsible work. It needs people who are mature, and God sends it very young candidates, or, the other way round, it needs young strength and is faced with people of a certain age. And so on. There is no question of refusing someone who does not fit with us, nor of accepting every one who comes. Rather it is necessary to go deeper, in a process which, in the meeting between candidate and community, brings an evolution to both one and the other. Sometimes it happens that the false needs of the candidate coincide with the false needs of the community, for example, in the case typical of female religious communities who accept ‘good people’ who hide behind perfectionism or an infantilism which fit the community, but in fact do not help anyone to grow. The true need of the community is that the person sent by God (if it is indeed God who sends them) should provoke in everyone a positive change, a greater truth, love and fidelity. As in marriage, both parties must learn and change.
To return to the need of the young person: what is it? I imagine it is the same as in every age, the need which propelled Augustine to conversion: to get to know myself, to get to know You. First of all the young person wants to be himself or herself. This is a personal need. I have seen many young people who entered a monastery thinking that they wanted to give their life to the Lord or wanted a life of prayer, only to discover that almost every sentence they formulated began with ‘I’. This does not mean that their desire to live for the Lord alone was not genuine; it was more genuine than they realised, for God himself had this desire for them. Simply that in the monastery they began to know themselves and to see that, on their side, they were too egocentric. If they (and their formators!) succeed in getting over the scandal of so many false and passing images (and unfortunately it sometimes happens that the formator is no less afraid of reality than the postulant), the ‘I’ that they see before them turns out to be a poor thing. Only if we start from the second question, getting to know You, do we discover a great dignity.
To know oneself in God: to pinpoint, for example, one’s own false desires and to be able to go forward to the deeper desire, the good and true desire which the false desires hide from us. ‘Sin itself is a call to the state of innocence’, said John Paul II. To take a concrete example, behind a particular jealousy can lurk a lack of affection in childhood, but that in not the whole story: is there perhaps also a need for power, an egoism and certain particular sins? Nevertheless, however, at a deeper level the person does not want this sin in itself, but wants to be loved and to love. This is a longing hidden by the sin, for only in loving is it possible to know that one is loved. So this jealousy sends the person back to something greater, more noble and possible in God. The Gospel and the Rule show the way to discovery.
To know oneself, to know You: the Church is part of this desire, for it is the body and blood which lives from this You. It is not possible to know oneself in God without knowing oneself in the community. To know oneself through others, to know these others, to learn to love, to become one with the others and with the community, to identify with the Church of Christ, to become one with the person of Christ in the Holy Spirit. This is the real longing. ‘Nothing else?’ asks St Augustine. Are we really sure that the candidate wants nothing else? Success? An important position? Do I want anything else? Augustine’s answer – and he was human like ourselves – is ‘Nothing else’.
6. How then to foster, how to bring out this real longing? I have not yet read the book of the Italian Episcopal Conference, The Challenge of Education. This text and so many others can give the answer better than I can. I can only share my experience as novice mistress for 22 years. Education must be a priority in the community. From experience I know that when a community has other problems (in our case, for example, the construction of the monastery) it is tempted to put the work of formation in second place: that is a serious mistake. Another mistake is to leave the task of education to others, by courses, by recourse to a psychologist, etc. In general the candidates have already been ‘abandoned’ by their own family, the family has left it to a school, to a psychologist, or has given material objects, fine clothing, various indulgences (this depends on the financial standing of the family, but the heart of the question remains the same), to avoid giving love, that is, education. Do we not sometimes run the same risk by giving positions or allowances instead of formation at this critical moment? Delegation is not merely a sin of omission; it is not a lack of formation, but an erroneous formation, leading to a false state of affairs. In the monastic community all are called to love personally, and so to educate: every person has the task and the way of fulfilling it which God has given.
‘The educational relationship is a relationship between and authority and a liberty’, said Cardinal Caraffa. I know by experience the risk that there is of conceiving the educational relationship as a relationship between two liberties and nothing more. Cardinal Caraffa continued, ‘Liberty and the exercise of liberty is not a supreme absolute value. Truth dictates what is good and what is bad. Truth precedes the exercise of our liberty and is the criterion by which this exercise is judged. Why does one person take on the duty and the responsibility of guiding another into a particular way of life? Only in the knowledge that this guidance is true.’ Candidates need to know what their authority is, whether they need to be their own authority, whether there is a more authoritative way and someone who knows it or not. Even people of previous generations can have little sense of authority and can generally place themselves on the same level, or, on the contrary, behave childishly (the two modalities can co-exist in the same person), while still wanting a true leader.
What is the basis of authority? Is it personal gifts? What is the life-proposal put forward by an authority in the belief that it is true? True on what grounds? Simply the subjective judgment of the authority? Depending on the answer to these questions we shall have either authoritarianism or relativism or subjectivism or individualism (these are the current ideologies), or true education. In my experience only that person is trustworthy who accepts an authority above him or herself. A father or mother must see themselves as a son or daughter of the Church.
Everyone, even among the laity, recognizes that formation is global, a formation of the whole person, if it is to occur at all – all the way between making one’s bed in the morning to discovering the Holy Trinity. Here, in no particular order, are some comments in this direction, based on the needs of new generations who need and (provided that they find real educators) have the taste for education.
• Careful, responsible and attentive work, avoiding distraction and exhaustion, but earning the satisfaction of having used head and hands to good effect.
• Attentive study, analysis and synthesis of the reality (attentive to the symbolic value, not merely a technical study), with imagination and an aesthetic sense. Requisite are a study of philosophy and logic, literature and the arts, a knowledge of the elements of humanistic education in past ages which even the simple peasant had imbibed and which is now lost to our technological and information civilisation. Everything which monks have always passed on in creating a culture. For a kitchenworker the arrangement of a plate is also an art.
• Reading a personal history as sacred history. For some time now there has been no theology of history, and the young (perhaps including myself) have lost the sense of their history as a history made by God, especially as regards the more painful events. They can be helped by a study of biblical history, monastic history, history of the Order and of their own community, of their own country, of the world, of the Church and the lives of the saints who shaped their own world. However, the most important element is not to know the facts but to know how to read them as God’s own plan.
• To learn the meaning of the sacraments, for example the meaning of frequent confession, not as a deliverance or liberation from faults but as an experience of re-creation. Candidates have often lost the Christian sense of sin and see it in the optic of atheistic moralism. To learn to love the Eucharist. The need to discover the ‘mysteries of faith’ by lectio and the study of theology and the liturgy.
• To learn giving, service, selflessness. To learn how to put oneself in the place of another; they need to be taught this by role-play, since love is learnt by loving. To get to know chastity as beauty. To learn true friendship.
• To learn confidence too, for example by opening the heart. For today’s young people this is not something which seems to offend their conscience. They do not see is as an obligation; they hanker after it in order to discover that for the love of a father or a mother there is nothing that is ‘too bad’, and that the greatest evil is nothing before the love of God. If the formator does not check this desire through fear of hurting his or her own conscience or, on the other hand, through curiosity (but these are problems of the formator, not of the person in formation) this can lead the person to the discovery of her own dignity in confidence and love. This will lead to the experience of responsibility, for true repentance is not devoid of consequences, but leads to taking responsibility. Among all the points here listed this is perhaps the most difficult. Most candidates have little experience of entrusting themselves to someone else. Or better, the great majority of them have had the experience (perhaps only once, but that is enough) of entrusting themselves and being let down. Or perhaps they have opened themselves to someone who did not take them seriously, who put a hand on their shoulder and said, ‘Poor dear’, without making them responsible. From this the young person gains no confidence and merely thinks, ‘If they are interested only in appearances, it is better to keep one’s wounds to oneself and put a brave face on it.’ If, fifty years ago, one could say, ‘Lord, better death than sin’ (perhaps not entirely sincerely), nowadays no one would dream of using such a formula. It is replaced, especially among women, by ‘Better death than cut a poor figure’. Behind the longing to ‘cut a fine figure’ there is also something positive, namely the desire to be loved and valued for what we really are, that is, our great dignity as pardoned sinners.
• Not to find in authority the figure of a grandfather, who welcomes, justifies and has no idea of correcting or improving. Not to find in authority a like-minded brother. In our competitive society equality does not exist: either you win or I do. To offer young people an equal rather than an authority is a way of unconsciously constraining them to give a proof of strength, just as they did in the world: which of us two is going to win? Young people need someone who knows how to ‘gain their soul’, that is, to win for God their potential, affective, intellectual and spiritual, by the path of conversion.
• To have with Christ a personal and bridal bond which does not have any reserved elements, hidden away in a drawer, but which meets Christ just as much in personal prayer and lectio as in the liturgy, as was the case, for example, with St Gertrude. Not to be afraid to propose this to candidates.
This may seem contradictory, but what young people of today want most of all is trust, that trust demanded by Jesus of tax-collectors and prostitutes so that they might become saints. The proposal to aim high, at the truth, at holiness. Confidence in their highest spiritual possibilities. ‘The happiness of young people, no less than older ones, is something which is worth the price paid with one’s whole person’, wrote a girl, a non-believer, as she emerged from nothingness of drugs. To my mind this is the greatest paradox and the challenge to today’s candidates.