Vedaste Vitchomo, OCSO, Mokoto, Rwanda

Conference on Formation for the Mixed General Meeting of 2011

groupeafricThe question of formation in the ocso is very complex, for the monk or nun is called to be formed throughout his or her monastic life. In our Order’s Ratio we speak of different aspects of formation, namely: the formative role of Cistercian conversatio, initial formation, continuous formation, specialist formation, formation in the spirit of the Charter of Charity.  This programme of formation is intended for all the members of the Order.
When I began to work on the present conference, I had just read the working documents on the subject, which the Central Commissions (at Tilburg in 2010) had requested of Mother Lucia Tartara, Dom David Tomlins (Tarrawarra), and Mother Magdalena Aust (Maria Frieden). I was also able to glance at a few Regional Reports that touch on the matter. I found these texts most interesting, but they did raise a question: What remains for me to say? When, in spite of my limitations, I have endeavoured to put some thoughts together, you will notice that I have drawn not only on my own ideas; sometimes I have also been inspired by the works just cited. For whatever differences may exist between our various Regions, we share the same concerns regarding the area of formation. Having said as much, my contribution, without being exhaustive, will touch on the following four points:

1. the formation of candidates for monastic life,
2. the formative role of the community,
3. monastic formation and the challenge of modern culture,
4. a few suggestions.

1. The formation of candidates for monastic life

Monastic formation begins when we receive candidates and integrate them into the novitiate. This stage is very important and calls for keen discernment. The community that welcomes the young must discern their vocation. In his fifty-eighth chapter, St Benedict gives us a few criteria for discerning an authentic vocation. First of all, we entrust the candidate to a senior […] who is skilled in winning souls, 
to watch over them with the utmost care. 
Let him examine whether the novice is truly seeking God,
and whether he is zealous
for the Work of God, for obedience and for trials.
 Let the novice be told all the hard and rugged ways
by which the journey to God is made.
Thus, the first stage of formation is an initiation that occurs with the help of a senior, here presented as the novice master. St Benedict asks the formator to attend to the motivations of new arrivals. He should clearly communicate to them the essential elements of monastic living, while at the same time speaking of the mortification involved.

In our monasteries, indeed, formation is not simply a matter of the mind; it involves exercise in self-giving. One must give one’s time to God in order to participate actively during the Divine Office. One must participate in the community’s humble work and in lectio divina. We find a biblical role model in St Paul who, in Acts 18:2-3, is said to have joined forces with a Jew called Aquila and his wife Priscilla, for they exercised the same profession as he. They worked together as tent-makers. This passage shows us that Paul, for being an ex-Pharisee, a man learned in Scripture, and a great preacher of the Gospel, was also someone who invested himself seriously in order to earn his living by the work of his own hands. St Benedict reminds us of this in chapter 48: ‘then are they truly monks,
when they live by the labour of their hands,
as did our Fathers and the Apostles’ (cf. Constitutions, 26).

Such an attitude is the monk’s antidote to laziness, idleness, and dependency. In this regard, we are exposed to a temptation at the level of both initial and continuous formation. It concerns the whole community. I mean the temptation represented by the principle of minimal effort, inasmuch as we receive financial support from our Mother House or from benefactors. On the contrary, the gifts we receive from them, the fruit of their labour, should spur us on to concrete application of the principle, ‘Ora et labora’. The young people who join our communities must be formed to this by the good example of the seniors.

2. The formative role of the community

The arena par excellence for our basic formation as monks and nuns is the community, understood as a school of charity. We are all called to spur one another on mutually as we work for the growth of our communities. Dom Eamon, our Abbot General, has pointed out that the purpose of monastic formation is the witness of a life based on love. His words echo those of Jesus, who said: people will recognise you as being my disciples if you love one another (cf. John 13:35). For that reason, St Benedict exhorts us to practise the virtue of mutual respect. We read that ‘the young should reverence the old while the old should love the young’ in RB 4, 70, and 71. When a younger person finds the community ridden with conflict, he or she will easily be discouraged. Each member is called to share in the responsibility of ensuring the community’s growth. The young, too, must collaborate in the enterprise of their own growth and in the growth of the entire community.

A monk who always has an excuse or pretext for not participating in community exercises does not build up the younger brethren. No, all the monks and nuns, with their different God-given gifts, must participate in the building up of their own community. We find this point stressed in Ratio, 12: ‘A community's ability to form new members depends largely on its having a unified spirit so that it can impart a single orientation to the upcoming generations.’ This is equally true in African tradition. When young boys are initiated into adult life, the method of formation followed is above all that of forming them in the community’s particular genius for living together [savoir vivre]. The cohesion of this community permits them to discover the various talents of their elders. Lovely examples drawn from nature likewise help them grasp the validity and sense of community life – e.g. the unity and organisation of bees and the excellent fruit of their labour, honey. In order to prevent the risk of harm done to social harmony, a series of sanctions punish transgressors. For example, an elder who dares to scandalise the group is sequestered; a young man unable to rise to the stakes of initiation is restored to his mother, where he may mend his ways before resuming initiation.

These African anecdotes permit me to speak of a number of similar challenges that are in store for us in the area of formation.

-  It may happen that we close our eyes to signs of manifest psychological imbalance in our candidates. For lack of vocations, we are sometimes drawn into the trap of simply wanting to make up numbers. We are bold to take on difficult cases in the belief that we are on our way out of the vocations crisis. There is no denying it: with recruitment of this kind, the future of the community is at risk.

-  Another challenge in interpersonal relationships regards class conflicts or bids for power. For instance, since I am a monk-priest I consider the others as second-class monks. St Benedict warns the priest against the risk of a superiority complex. In his sixty-second chapter he says: ‘If an Abbot desire
to have a priest or a deacon ordained for his monastery, let him choose one
who is worthy to exercise the priestly office. Let the one who is ordained 
beware of self-exaltation or pride.’

-  Further, we must be on our guard against the dangers of nepotism and tribalism in our communities. If the superior, or the formator, creates a privileged class at the heart of the community in the pursuit of interests that are not explicitly acknowledged, the community runs the risk of being divided. As a result, the group that feels hurt will not experience the peace and joy of fraternal life. It may then happen that the young are turned away from the purpose for which they came to the monastery. If there is too much justified murmuring in the community, it will necessarily end up losing its formative vitality.

In Vita Consecrata, 67, Pope John Pau II calls to mind the privileged role of the community in the area of formation: ‘Since formation must also have a communal dimension, the community is the chief place of formation in Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Initiation into the hardships and joys of community life takes place in the community itself. Through the fraternal life each one learns to live with those whom God has put at his or her side, accepting their positive traits along with their differences and limitations. Each one learns to share the gifts received for the building up of all, because “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7)’.

-  Another challenge that sometime arises touches the delicate relationship between the community and its Father Immediate. To ensure a harmonious relationship, and with a view to its own maturing, the community should be mindful that transparent dialogue with the Father Immediate is necessary. It must no less be able to take onboard and put into practice his directives.

To sum up: the new arrival should find the monastery to be a haven of peace, dialogue and mutual assistance. It is the arena within which brothers or sisters are disposed to forgiveness during the conflicts that inevitably arise in human lives. The shared joy of festive occasions constitutes another way of defusing a tense atmosphere and of fostering unity (cf. Ratio, 13-14). Our own formation, as well as that of new candidates, ultimately depends a great deal on the atmosphere that reigns in the community.

3. Monastic formation and the challenge of modern culture

For a long time, one often spoke in Africa about adaptation and inculturation of the Gospel message, and indeed about the inculturation of monasticism. There was at the time a sense of the necessity, over and above inculturation, of deepening our faith by trying to make the Gospel take on certain traditional values. At the present time, there is less talk along these lines. Quite on the contrary: in the light of the phenomenon of globalisation, many people are fearful of being left behind if they refuse to play the game. We are currently living in a pluralist, multicultural world. A certain form of ideologically dominant globalisation is, in the name of secularity [laïcité], about to level humanity down to the lowest common denominator. We should like everyone to be like everyone else and to live like everyone else. Modern means of communication face us with an information highway running globally. Clearly, these means of communication can also, in some ways, be useful to us, but we must show great discernment in our use of them. Everything depends on what we are looking for.

The young people we recruit today are products of this environment, fascinated by a new global culture, a culture that develops at dizzying speed. We may ask ourselves what kind of formation we may offer these young people while remaining faithful to our Cistercian charism. Faced with the steamroller of a new global ethics, tending towards secularism, are we sufficiently well armed to safeguard our Cistercian identity?

cloitreAnother factor, arising out of the rapid development of our society, is the multiplication of educational institutions at university level, the working out of new sciences. Young and old meet at university [to prepare] for life’s battles. The race for degrees guarantees people a better future.

In the preparatory documents for this Chapter, it was said that formators must listen to those in formation. Sometimes they do not hesitate to suggest, for instance, that all the monks and nuns might benefit from specialist formation at university. In monasteries of monks, young brothers ask themselves why all the brethren should not proceed to ordination? Why could we not do what other Orders do, and send all the young in formation to seminary or university? It is not always easy to provide an answer that will satisfy. And according to the Ratio it is not beyond possibility that one or other monk or nun may follow a course of specialist formation according to the needs of the community. For the rest, for those who must pursue their formation at the heart of the community, we cannot escape a question like this: How do we form monks or nuns in a way that nurtures their flourishing in Cistercian life while developing their talents for the service of the community? When questions such as these are posed squarely, in a spirit of dialogue, they are welcome, for they challenge us to ask how we may improve the quality of our monastic formation for all. However, when they are posed by way of demand, in a spirit of possessiveness, they indicate a crisis of identity.

4. A few suggestions

This is what monastic formation requires of us:

1)  Cistercian conversatio as the basic element of formation;

2)  the necessity of ensuring adequate intellectual and monastic formation for formators;

3)  that we do not neglect continuous and personal formation in our communities;

4)  human formation in the sense of paternity/maternity (to use an expression of our previous Abbot General, Dom Olivera);

5)  that each monk and nun takes care to maintain the balance of community life by faithful participation in prayer, work, and lecto divina;

6)  access to correspondence courses through the Internet;

7)  spiritual accompaniment;

8)  recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation.

By way of conclusion: intellectual and practical formation is useful for monks and nuns, but the example of each monk or nun is no less a precious tool in the transmission of the Cistercian charism. In a world that is continuously changing, we must be able to discern the signs of the times. We must be able, not only to pass on a given theoretical know-how to the young in formation, but to teach them how to live as monks following in the footsteps of Christ.