THE LIFE OF FRATERNAL COMMUNITY IN
THE MONASTERY OF THIÊN AN
Dom Jean de la Croix, OSB, Thiên An, Vietnam
Our Benedictine monastery of Thiên An has the blessing to have been situated in the province of Thua Thiên-Hué since 1940. I say ‘has the blessing’ because people say, ‘An odd kind of good fortune! What a future! To live in arid ground where the dogs and chickens eat pebbles.’ Hué is squashed between two mountain ranges, Ngang and Hai Van, which cut off Thua Thiên-Hué from the diocese of Vinh and that of Da Nang. The diocese of Hué is a strip of land bounded on the West by a range of the Annamite mountains and on the East by the Pacific Ocean. This Annamite range soars to a vertiginous height, while the Pacific Ocean is as boundless as a mother’s heart. So we are on our own! If you sit with your back to the mountains you can’t even stretch out your legs; the ocean prevents it. You are forced to draw up your legs in the posture of a thinker or a contemplative. For an oriental, geomancy is of the first importance, marking out the character and personality of an individual. The soul wilts under the pressure of the conditions of the environment. The poet Thu Bon has written, ‘A blocked river does not flow; it hollows out its bed and grows deeper’. That is what happens to our cultural basis. That is why I said of the monastery it ‘has the blessing…’ If you think again, is it not a blessing for a contemplative community?
2. The View from Outside
Yes, truly it is a blessing! Every year at the time of vows and professions, which fall on 6th August, the festival of the Transfiguration of Our Lord on Mount Tabor, friends and benefactors arrive in droves, one after another. Add to these members of the parish, religious, priests of the diocese and of different Congregations who pour in to take part in the Mass of solemn profession of the monks of Thiên An. After this it surely happens that some of them, moved by seeing the ‘spectacle’ of the professed coming forward to take their vows, shed tears at the ceremony of solemn profession (Psalm 132.1). After the Mass we often hear it said, the eyes sparkling with tears, ‘What blessedness, father! The sight of the community life of the brothers of the monastery is magnificent. May I live here among you? This would be a blessing for three generations of my ancestors. It is like paradise!’
Yes, objectively, seen from outside, the life of the fathers and brothers on this hill of Thiên An really is paradise in the world. But just come and try it! That is the truth for onlookers. To create such a paradise it is necessary for every monk to give his life to it.
3. The Typical Shape of Community Life in the Monastery of Thiên An
There it is! Every day is like every other. The life of Thiên An unfurls in the cloister, under the green tips of many fruit-trees and rows of pines, swaying in the murmuring wind. At 3.55 we rise to recite the Office and pray in the chapel. Then comes manual or intellectual work and a return to the chapel. After that we go to the refectory, then to class before returning to the chapel. We go to the Chapter-room and finally back to our cells with the ejaculatory prayers, ‘Now, O sovereign Master, you can let your servant depart in peace…’ and we fall into a deep sleep. It is a harmonious timetable of prayer, work and rest, as St Benedict wished. It is a simple timetable. Nevertheless, repeated endlessly, it becomes monotonous, and this monotony is a heavy burden. True community life is a flight which takes wing through efforts to overcome this monotony, to bring to the brothers a zeal for fresh nuances, really fresh because placed in the sparkling corridor of Christ’s love. We frequently encourage one another to be present where we should be, in the chapel for the Hours of the Office and Mass, in the refectory for meals taken in common, and always in Chapter, to share step by step in the experiences of community progress.
Fraternal communion flows from the mystery of the Trinity, actualized on the altar during Mass, which is the centre and source of fraternal communion in the community. Only the love which flows from God can purify and set free the heart of each member of the community into the freedom of the children of God. By contrast, fleshly love enslaves the object of love, possessing it like a thing. In other words, fraternal communion passes between human persons, not between things or objects. That is why St Benedict requires his children to ‘pay each other the debt of a chaste love’ (RB 72.8). Real love demands respect for the person loved so that this love may flourish at every level. I cannot achieve this without being in communion with God, and to this end serve the two sacraments which monks must frequent, the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation.
In choir, how can I sing the polyphony of harmony with my brothers under the prodigious baton of the talented conductor, Christ, if the individual life of each one of us outside the chapel is not in perfect accord with the rhythm of life shared by the community? In the Mass we must in our turn give to our brothers what Christ has given to us. This is why the meal in the refectory has a special significance, and St Benedict imposes a penalty for being late both for chapel and the refectory. For him, chapel and refectory are two places for showing the fraternal communion of the community: in one sense it is both high and deep, on another broad and long. The first dimension is of God, very high, transcendent, and the second dimension is with the brothers. We could say that in the chapel we eat and drink the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus, and in the refectory the sweat and tears of our brothers. In short, ‘we eat ourselves’!
The Vietnamese are utterly realistic. We begin everything with a meal. We eat to work, we eat to study, we eat to play, we eat to sleep, we eat to fast, we eat to dress, eat and speak, we eat at New Year, we eat at wedding-feats, we eat alms, we eat ideas, we eat to pay our debts, we eat to steal. Eating is a prefix to about 160 words in our language. This list shows the importance of a meal for the Vietnamese mentality: ‘Di thuc vi thiên’ – eating comes in first place. On this point Gospel culture and the culture or spirituality of St Benedict coincide. Among these words is ‘eating at New Year’. This is where I would like to bring out the feature of new beauty for the Benedictine monk of Thiên An. At each return of spring we have the custom of making rice-cakes to eat at New Year. On a suitable day, after the preparation of the ingredients, we all, great and small, superiors and inferiors, whether we know how or not, without exception all of us, we do what our ancestors cooked since time immemorial and handed down to us. Made by skilled hands or beginners, the cakes are well or badly shaped. Some are fat, others thin, some large, others small, some too long, others too short, some tightly packed, others hollow. But all have been hand made by monks of Thiên An. They express the state of soul and represent the ability of each of the brothers. In other words, the finished product bears the signature of its maker. Is this not rich in ideas? Yes indeed, this is fraternal communion. It is the originality of each individual which ensures that we are men, real human beings. Besides the values of human persons, the cake represents our human culture: to live the morality of filial piety. The New Year cake is a symbol of the respect and recognition that descendants owe to their ancestors, to their parents, and eventually to the source which is God.
This is tantamount to saying that fraternal communion shows itself in three places, the chapel, the refectory and the chapter-room. But also in recreation, volley-ball, football, a game of chess. In any competition there are winners and losers. In neither case are these criteria to evaluate the monk who plays the game. What is important is that the game demonstrates fraternity.
4. Spirituality of Living Fraternal Communion
From time to time visitors to the monastery put this question: ‘This God whom you worship and seek, whom you proclaim as all-powerful and a God of love, how is it that he has allowed so many evils to descend on innocent and honest people? Is it true that you are hypocritical?’ It is very difficult to answer such objections, isn’t it? I must truly say that in such situations I tremble when I say: the God whom I worship became man and is now present in the innocent and honest sufferers whom you mention. Indeed, our God, whom we worship and seek, is incarnate in every human being: ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting’ (Acts 9.5). My itinerary in the vocation to the Benedictine monastery is to see the face of God in every person, in each of the brothers living in front of me. By learning to see God in others I discover my own person, the man created by God in his own image, who resembles him (Genesis 1.26). For me to become holy is to become man, to seek out and live MAN, in capitals.
At this point I think of the bonze Minh Duc, a well-known poet and calligrapher. His age and Buddhist status already make him special among septuagenarians. Moreover, he has written a phrase which struck me, ‘Life is tiring even without walking’; my hand trembles whenever I write the word ‘man’. For a calligrapher to write ‘man’ means to make man. For him, although he is a septuagenarian, he still finds it difficult. It is difficult because to become man is the same as to become Buddha, and according to Catholics to become one with God.
The Gospel says, ‘Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God’ (Matthew 5.8). The itinerary for a man to discover God is also a process of purification of heart, an itinerary of self-humiliation. The monk must go on learning from Christ until his heart becomes ‘immaculate’ so that he can yield ‘a chaste fraternal love’ as St Benedict recommends. The process of self-humiliation will free the monk from attachment to creatures. Only then does it become clear why St Benedict, as did later also Father Casaretto (1810-1878), the reformer and founder of the Subiaco Congregation, insisted on poverty and mortification in the common life. Ever since then our Subiaco Congregation has practised the rite of swearing an oath to live in community, based on the Rule of St Benedict (Chapter 33).
To resume, the spirituality of fraternal communion is a trajectory marked by personal humility, accepted and voluntary according to the example of Christ. It is the process of purification of heart to discover God in Man, homo-Deus. The Rule of St Benedict brings the human heart to identify with the heart of Our Lord Jesus Christ, so that the heart of the monk, beating with the same rhythm as the Heart of Christ, can adapt itself to every form of culture.
5. Ephphatha! (Mark 7.34)
Thanks be to God that it is possible to open one’s heart to the brothers, that is, to have confidence in them as helpers whom God has put at my side to help me reach Christ. To believe in someone makes that person grow, and allows oneself also to grow. What misery to live with someone who is mistrustful! You will go from bad to worse, and so, even more certainly, will your brother. Mutual confidence creates a good community.
The present community is fairly numerous, about 90 monks, young and old. The division between old and young is pretty clear, the result of 21 years without vocations (1967-1988). Nevertheless, this makes absolutely no difficulty of living together. In any case, the first generations have reached the age of 80 or 90. This is the phenomenon of the full moon growing again! Age turning to youth! Of course the renewed youth of aged monks is not like the childishness of adolescents, but is a youth which never grows old in the children of God the Father, who is an eternal springtime. Journeying towards humility, the monk’s heart is freed and adapts to circumstances, weeping with those who weep, rejoicing with those who rejoice, young with the young, old with the old, in order to be all things to all people.
According to the Rule of St Benedict and the Gospel precepts, fraternal life runs the risked of being trampled down if any member of the community fails to purify his heart day after day, fails to be aware of the reason for which he is in the monastery. Day after day the monk takes care not to transform his cell into a treasure of temporal goods, lest he should hermetically seal the door of his soul. It must be open to the light, to God and to the brothers.
6. By Way of Conclusion
From time to time I hear sung these lines to describe the monastery of Thiên An:
Thiên An is beautiful, poetic
Thiên An is romantic as the dreams
Thiên An is empty at both ends.
After two realistically descriptive lines the third is a joke rich in meaning. In the mind of the people of Hué ‘empty’ means ‘poor’. Beautiful, poetic, romantic as the dreams, but poor! There is nothing satirical about it; to be a monk is to be poor. The poverty of a monk is detachment from creatures. The monk must empty his heart. Tao Te King says, ‘This is why the holy man has a rule to empty his heart’ (Chapter 3). To be empty is to remain free, to remain as open as possible , and this is the delicate meaning of the line ‘Thiên An, empty at both ends.’