Dom Marie-Bernard de Soos, OSB
Homily of Dom David d’Hamonville, OSB, Abbot of En-Calcat
Two words provide the framework of our Gospel reading: to know and to make known. Jesus wanted to make known the incomparable Father whom he knew incomparably, and at the moment of his passing he turned to the Father once more, and once more prayed.
This was the major axis of the life of our brother Marie-Bernard: to know and to make known Jesus Christ, the Gospel, the whole Bible and God. This was indeed what animated him, right up to his final day among us, when, without counting the cost, he gave himself to meeting with our brothers and sisters the oblates – and indeed many others – as he spent long hours preparing his conferences and retreats. This link to the laity already had great importance in Togo, where Dom Marie-Bernard initiated Benedictine oblates. I know that they warmly unite themselves with us today.
As Jesus led his disciples to the Father, so Dom Marie-Bernard led others not to himself but to another, to him whom he loved and made known, Christ Jesus. The first condition of making someone known is to know that person oneself. In just this way Dom Marie-Bernard never ceased to seek, to study, to pray. One month ago, when three sisters of Dzogbégan (Sister Jean-Baptiste, Sister Scholastica and Sister Gertrude) came to see him with Brothers Joseph, Innocent and Cyprian who are with us, they asked him, ‘Abba, give us one word!’ His answer was, ‘Seek his face, seek the face of Jesus.’ That was his last word, nothing more.
This expresses perfectly the life of the monk: he wants to make Jesus Christ known to the whole world, but he knows only too well that he does not yet know him well enough, that he still has everything to learn. He stays indefinitely on the bench of the primary school, a school which, as it happens, gives no sort of certificate. One merely stays there, repeating year after year in the hope of getting to know him a little better. It is not lost time, for, as Jesus says in our Gospel, ‘Eternal life is to know you’. The finish is no different from the starting-point!
So one thing alone counts, to start off, to set out on the road to goodness, like Abraham. Dom Marie-Bernard set off at a very young age, seriously and with determination. Even then he knew well that he would have to make several starts, he would frequently have to leave, and for a time to be a monk ever on the point of departure, dedicated to long journeys during the 15 years of the AIM when he circled the globe. The most unexpected point of departure, which turned his life upside-down was in January 1961 when Abbot Germain sent him to Togo as founder, with Brother Serge as his sole companion. He was 36 years old.
An odd life for a monk: in theory the ultimate in stability, free of all change, but in practice capable of producing such reversals, such adventures! Monastic life was planted in Togo as the little cutting that it was; it took root slowly and with difficulty. Reinforcements came only by drip-feed. When in 1981 Dom Marie-Bernard was asked to leave again, many things were in place, but the African community was far from being set up! Things had hardly begun seriously, with the year of St Benedict, the previous year. The brothers had traversed the land to make monastic life better known, and only then did monastic vocations begin to flow in. This makes it understandable that it was a wrench to leave.
‘To leave the house of one’s father’ is already difficult, especially when family roots are strong and fine, but to leave what one considers one’s own house, built with one’s own hands, one’s own head and heart, one’s whole being! God often asks this of founders. To hand life on fully it is essential to be able to cut all the ties by which a child has been nourished; the child must be set free. Today, 30 years later, the child has grown up, the community of Dzogbégan has become an abbey of more than 30 monks, 100% African.
Dom Marie-Bernard returned more than once to Togo, notably for the funeral of Abbot Mawulawoe in 2006 and then a year later for the blessing of Abbot Theodore. On this occasion I had the pleasure of accompanying him, and I remember that, in the middle of the solemn Mass of blessing, the Bishop of Kpalimé, Monsignor Benedict Alowonou, greeted him with a verse of Psalm 91, ‘Growing old, he still bears fruit’, with a great smile of admiration. In fact, when he left Dzogbégan in 1981 he had far from finished bearing fruit. As Secretary General of AIM, serving monastic life in countries of young Christianity, he was to give much more fruit.
In 1998, Dom Marie-Bernard, you took your leave for a last time; it was to take your leave where you had begun, at En-Calcat. You hesitated. As you admitted yourself, this departure cost you dear. ‘How can one be born again when one is old?’ The community had changed, you had changed, times had changed. Nevertheless, you risked everything, because Jesus and the Gospel had not changed. Dom Marie-Bernard, as you take today your final leave, you leave to us your passport, valid for all departures, ‘Seek his face, seek the face of Jesus’.
Still guide our attention to the Ascension, towards Him who draws us to himself irresistibly. Help us to stay on course. Pray for us! Amen.