+ Albert Rouet
Emeritus Archbishop of Poitiers


A local Church and monastic life

Rouet1When I left Poitiers at the beginning of this year, where I was bishop for twenty-seven years, I confided to the people of the diocese: "You have made me a happy bishop! " Two colleagues took hold of this and used it as a title for a book of interviews. Confidences are sometimes dangerous. The six contemplative communities in the diocese, for which the poor secular priest that I remain never managed to qualify, are high on the list of very real sources of joy! Religious life, consecrated life, monastery, convent, priory, abbey ... and I could go on! Referring to a community is just as complicated as remembering each community's specific way of expressing its communion. So I'll give up on that. But there is something to which I am attached: the six communities comprising the Abbey of Ligugé, which is welcoming us today, the Benedictine abbey of Sainte-Croix, the Benedictine nuns of Le Calvaire, the two Carmels of Migné-Auxances and Niort, the monastery of Augustinian nuns of Le Saint-Sacrement (who have now left). These six communities were real brothers and sisters throughout my ministry here, and for the whole diocese.  My presence among you is motivated by great gratitude. Let me say this publicly, with the trust that bound us together and with great joy.

I have been invited to speak about how I see the place of monasteries in the local Church. We could talk about this subject all night. With your consent, I shall limit myself to reflecting on a few points that dawned on me during my twenty-five years of episcopal office.  These points are interlinked and I shall group them somewhat artificially around two main themes. The first point concerns the nature of the Church, to which religious life belongs. The second point will tackle the significance of monasteries for the life of Christian communities. So as to limit myself to the suggested topic, I shall not deal with apostolic religious life, except for a quick word straight away.

Taking the image of a deck of cards, a religious "deal" gives rise to bishoprics and parishes, deaneries and local communities. The diversity of all this, which varies according to the diocese, is the despair of any geographer.  There is another card in the deal: communities of three or four sisters living in a council flat, deep in the countryside or on the edge of rough suburbs, with different types of evangelical presence and fraternal, humble and vibrant relationships. This card sketches a face of the Church close to the poor, outsiders and those who have been forgotten. It is essential for the Gospel and has an apostolic presence even though it does not have a permanent institutional structure.

So let's start by talking about institutions. Not from a Canon Law point of view, but by considering their very essence.


Shortly after my arrival in Poitiers, the abbot of Ligugé, loyal to Cardinal Pie's requests when the abbey was restored, informed me that provision had been made for the community to supply two monk-priests to serve the diocese.   I remember replying that our situation was so urgent that two priests no longer made much difference, and that the diocese really needed monks living their specific vocation.  Why did I reply like that?

My responsibilities as auxiliary bishop of Paris included taking care of male and female religious.  The liturgies planned for priestly and diaconal ordinations and religious professions had introduced me to what, by analogy, must properly be called "concelebrations". The call to orders or profession, the promise of obedience, the commitment to a congregation were the major superior's domain. The imposition of hands or the blessing of course came under the bishop. But the bishop didn't do everything. In other words, the hierarchical sacramental structure does not exhaust the fullness of the Church. No reality can express the fullness of the Church. To paraphrase a Pauline text, the Church includes apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and doctors for its organisation (Eph 4: 11-12), but these structures, necessary though they may be, retain their specific content, focus and function. Hence, in the same Epistle, reference is made to the reality of marriage as the form of the mystery: "This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church" (5:32).

RodinThis mystery of love between Christ and his own flesh, his Body (5:28-29) concerns all members of the Church. There is not on the one hand a structural aspect, the institution, and on the other contemplatives and monks.  It is a matter of "mystery", and hence of sacrament.  At the same time, the unity of this mystery must be placed in Christ and in the plurality of signs that make it visible and efficacious for the life of the body. In Rodin's sculpture, 'The Cathedral', the two hands forming the arch are both right hands. Two people are therefore needed to represent the cathedral. You will see the relevance of this for our reflection. The union of Christians living in the world and those consecrated by a religious commitment is wonderfully represented by this sculpture.

Except that these two hands are not touching one another. They are not linked. They form a sort of cocoon, nest or ark of covenant, with an empty space in the centre. They are separated by a large space. Union and differentiation are placed together. The two hands do not fit together and their fingers are not crossed. They keep open a space, like the space separating God's finger from Adam's in the 'Creation of Man' by Michel-Angelo. Or like the space said to separate the two tips of the cherubims' wings on the Ark of the Covenant, and where God rests his presence, his Shekina.  The lovers in the Canticle of Canticles are constantly searching for one another.

In the same way, the two styles of Christian life come together to enclose an opening in the heart they form: the opening of a God who possesses nothing and whom nothing can enclose: "Do not hold me", said the Resurrected Christ to Mary Magdalene, who wanted to embrace him (Jn 20:17). We all know enough about ecclesiology to distinguish between the sacramental structure and personal vocations, between the territorial organisation of dioceses and the exemption enjoyed by monasteries. But this smooth running does not say everything. However justified an organisation may be, it remains - and that is the right word - an institution, with the risk and constant temptation of thinking that it embraces the whole of the reality involved. Even within the Church this is not true since, at the very centre of its life, the Church has to cut through and open up this institutional dimension so that an unpredictable wind may blow through it (Jn 3:8). The Church needs an empty space. Yes, an empty space, so that it can feel the merry lightness of grace(1), the living sovereignty of a God whom " heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain" (1 Kings 8:27).

The lightness of grace: a diocese is a large vessel that needs space in order to launch. It has its structures, tendencies and multitude of worries. Such a mixed bag, where many things are done for God, ranging from the purest (celebrations and proclaiming the Gospel) to the most worldly (finance and assets), can forget God as he is in himself.  This is because we can do the things of God and nothing for God himself.  A diocese urgently needs gratuity in the midst of too many obligations. It needs lightness in the midst of too much heaviness. A diocese must breath God alone, seeking him and being seized by the gracious gratuity of grace, whatever successes and failures there may be - two words that are not evangelical.  It needs to remember the one thing necessary (Lk 10:42).

Monastic communities send out this reminder to a diocese. Monastic communities serve no purpose, some people think, who are amazed that there are still so many priests without parishes in monasteries. This apparent uselessness is what is most essential: it provides air. This is what I was expecting from monasteries in the province of Le Poitou. We still have to describe the concrete relevance of monasteries.


The expression is drawn from the life of Elijah, when, pursued and shattered, he reached Horeb, where God was looking out for him (1 Kings 19:12). Forgive me if I begin with a confession: that of being rather amused! The easiest way to find out the latest news in the diocese is to go to a monastery.  There is the intricacy of rules and customs, the irrepressible eccentricity of one brother or sister ... all these details, on top of more serious and far more difficult issues, give the air of a family where we feel at ease! 

More seriously (although I'm not sure I've actually failed to be serious), the virtues of monastic life are something from which the Christian people would be well advised to draw benefit. I will not mention here those that people talk about everywhere: prayer, meditation, silence, the peace of the setting, etc. These things are certainly important but, by dint of being obvious, they can end up being akin to those curious museums that people enjoy visiting on holiday. My attention rests on other aspects: life in community, confrontation with God and poverty.

Life in community: lay Christians are acquainted with assemblies and gatherings, meetings and pilgrimages. These encounters are inspired by a specific subject or programme. They take place under the authority of a parish priest, leader or facilitator. All this does not make a community, even though we abuse the word. A parish is inevitably coloured by tones and sensitivities that, even without being in the majority, set the tone. If someone doesn't agree, he or she will go elsewhere and will have no hesitation about doing so. A small town always includes a hundred or so "fickle hearts" ready to forage for the finest pickings, without a second thought for their local responsibilities. Feelings get the upper hand.  A random example is when a conflict breaks out between the organist and the liturgy team, and the pastor intervenes. Sometimes he decides even before there is any conflict.  The horizontal relationships between brothers (if they know one another) are reduced to friendly relationships, acquaintances and close friendships. In other words, the majority of lay Christians have never learnt to live in community, that is, in reciprocity. This leads to a taste for power, even under the pretext of giving service, which is all the more caustic for being hidden, with no arbitration. Sometimes it is sub-conscious. The diocese soon realized this when it created local communities.

Rouet2But you have to live in community. If not, the monastery breaks up. To do this, you have developed procedures that create fraternity. Firstly, the elections. Voting to establish a leadership team in local communities was something new for lay Christians and for certain priests. The example of monasteries, who elect their abbot, prior, prioress and counsellors, the fact that the abbot does not have divine right but must take counsel from his chapter, in a word, power regulated by rules, are all things from which lay Christians are very far removed. These procedures, however, give personal recognition and responsibility to each individual. It is a matter of dignity.

You carefully cultivate fraternal life that is always to be built up, by the place given to the smallest among you. This is profoundly evangelical since God looks beyond human qualities. This fraternity is also shown by welcoming guests, especially if they are living through difficult situations that are open to criticism.  In the diocese's monasteries, I always encountered hospitality for difficult cases that was uncompromising yet full of hope.  Men and women could bring their faults to monasteries and accept them, thus discovering that they were greater than their faults. "God is greater than our hearts" (1 Jn 3: 20).

I would be annoyed with myself if I were to forget work. Work provides for the life of the community without crushing the worker. It humanises without enslaving, and is undertaken to the extent necessary rather than to achieve output. This is a great lesson for today.

Confrontation with God: it is not easy to live in God's company. Liturgy is beautiful, it attracts us. We sing and move about during the liturgy. But silence, that great silence of God, that unending desert with its briny, dried-up fruits and sand storms, etc. For a few minutes of consolation, there are many torments before achieving peace. By peace I mean peace of heart and not tranquillity of setting. 

I fear that our age thinks it easy to access God, and that all we have to do is sing a few alleluias. Here too, simplistic ideas are confusing people. The idea that there is a sort of hotline providing direct access to a God who is immediately available. The spiritual life then becomes an easy familiarity with a divinity who is lovable but who ends up holding no secrets for us, whose ultimate will we soon know.  An emotional mirage grabs hold of believers and showers them with certainties. Unfortunately, I am not joking or exaggerating the traits.  These tendencies soon satisfy the narrowest sectarian fundamentalists: all that remains is strictness, customs and rites. This satisfies frightened souls. The mystical dimension vanishes from such feverish types.

Christians who want to be faithful listen to these excesses and emotions. They show goodwill and believe in their best aspect. They ignore the drifts where you sometimes find a leader, who has gone on ahead and is drawing people a little further. There are too many guides and not enough vision. The spiritual life is being fed on formulas. We may suggest a historical reason for this: traces of ageing Jansenism, which stressed a rigid ethical code and obligatory practices, mixed with vestiges of the Enlightenment and its anonymous God ruling history. Many of the faithful are deists rather than Christians. We are witnessing the collapse of this edifice. Searching for God and following Christ make a less vivid impression than complying with external norms.  So we can understand why many people wish to rediscover a genuine spiritual life.  This, in my opinion, is a main issue in our ecclesial situation. Instant answers are seductive; it is no less certain that they take root in the depths of our hearts.

Monastic life, at odds with ordinary life, places us directly before God to live by the desire to encounter him. It places us before faith, as though before a demanding gift, a constant purification of the heart so as to receive and bear its fruits.   In so doing, it shows the unfurling of baptismal life in the believer. The monk becomes a sign of self-delivery into God's hands. By depriving himself of descendants, the celibate confronts God when he dies to show that God is the source of inexhaustible life.

The Christian people need this witness. Even better, since a testimony is sometimes no more than a beautiful image that sounds wonderful and involves externals, this people must receive, within itself, an attraction for God (Jn 6:44). The attraction wrought by Christ leads the heart towards a shift, an exodus. During the course of this process, images of God are purified and we learn to deliver ourselves into God's hands, however tough the stages may be.  That was why the diocese regularly organised spiritual training days in monasteries for local community leaders, who responded eagerly. The real training requirements are not for catechetical or leadership methods but concern rather the spiritual life.  How are we to answer the following questions: "I am responsible for pastoral activity and my children make fun of me", "I don't understand how reading the Word of God can nourish my faith," "I am a catechist and am not seeing any results"- the answers are of a spiritual nature.

Poverty: living on love alone is a Utopia that does not last. Human existence requires us to manage the means for its endurance. Our society is not suffering from consumerism. That is too easy a diagnosis! It is suffering from a more serious illness called saturation. Everything is readily available: some people can buy whatever they want, while others think that they are poorer since they have to do without these things and cannot reach what they are being offered. Our age is severely marked by this contradiction. The sound management of consumption is therefore what is at stake since humankind is wounded by both riches and misery. The rich expect religion to support whatever order works to their advantage, hence their conservatism. Other people want to encounter a Church that keeps to their level. The budget for a diocese, however scanty and inadequate it may appear, is not on everyone's level. The budget for the diocese of Poitiers is equivalent to the budgets for a town of 5,000 inhabitants, a college of 600 pupils or a football team in an average town! Popular opinion regards poverty as an individual matter. The life of a monk is significant in this respect.

Sharing goods, the value accorded to all things (from a plate to a broken statue) transposes the personal possession of objects to the function they represent. Objects receive a certain dignity from their function. This transfer concerns beauty. Beauty is far removed from making money, defying commercialisation and thus speculation. I mean here that beauty, even though the art trade has got a grip on its expressions, does not depend on its fluctuating market value. Poverty and beauty, the object in its nudity, go together like justice and peace. This also what people who long to be free from having things come to seek in a monastery. Another dimension of the human element, a hunger that two hundred deniers cannot exhaust, but which nurtures sharing (Mk 6:35-44).

Everyone is well aware of the need to plant, eat and build (Lk 17:28). Everyone also wants to find that space or impetus where we see that what is human is greater than a world of things.  Everyone is divided between their obligation to earn a living and produce objects that, used properly, make the world more human ("To make, and in making, to make oneself", wrote Jules Lequier), and aspiring to a "life of the mind" that is evidence of this humanity. This agonizing struggle points towards an aim that has been linked to monasticism from its beginning: eschatology. I shall simply quote a sentence from St Serapion of Thmuis: "You too, who live together, you are anticipating the future of your desire"(2).

Anticipation: I shall end on this note. We are not talking about weather or financial forecasts, nor about future directions. Just as origin as source is distinguished from chronological beginning, anticipating is distinguished from forecasting. Forecasting calculates and plans whereas anticipating involves living, savouring and heralding in the here and now (Eph 1:12). The relationship between a monk and baptism is not expressed in a sense of "more" (poorer, more obedient, more enclosed, etc.) that other less privileged lay Christians cannot live. It is found in hope, in a future life that is already real, that of the Kingdom. It is therefore found in inner freedom. Moreover, this sign involves both the Church, the sacrament of this Kingdom, and the world, where the Spirit is at work, directing us to this Kingdom. Anticipation places monastic life at the joint of the two hands. This is because these two hands, whose palms form a nest or secret garden, are turned outwards as a result of their backs. The world leans against them. The back of the hand provides support. The palm closes, the back of the hand is laid open. The hand is thus read from the inside out.

A diocese and a monastery lean on the world of their time. The world, seeing these two raised hands whose backs it cannot see, like Moses behind God (Ex 33:23), may let dawn within it a desire to discover the empty, available space that the open palms cover with their wings (Gen 1:2). It is here that the strongest solidarity between a diocese and a monastery is formed. Both parties evangelize, both of them pray and work. But in the accepted odds with everyday life, by their shared search for a God who is always one step ahead, by that poverty that embraces beauty, it seems to me that monasteries force us to hollow out within ourselves the presence of the Kingdom, a new land of peace. It was this anticipation that I expected from each of the monasteries in the diocese.

(1) This empty space is also what Simon Weil says must be created within ourselves to draw God, like a flue action (Gravity and Grace, of course).
(2) Saint Serapion: « Lettre aux moines », 7, dans « Lettres des Pères du Désert », Abbaye de Bellefontaine, S.O. 42, 1985, pp. 137-138.