THE INTERNATIONAL COMMISSION
OF BENEDICTINE WOMEN
LIVING AS A NETWORK
Mother Thérèse-Marie Dupagne (Hurtebise, Belgium), with Rosy Demaret
Delegate of the CIB (Communio internationalis Benedictinarum) is a particularly remarkable position for its activation of the Benedictine network. The delegate of the European Region answers some questions put by a laywoman closely associated with the monastery of Hurtebise. This gives an opportunity to renew an understanding of this organism which can play an important role in the contemporary monastic landscape.
This witness is presented in the form of a dialogue between Mother Thérèse-Marie Dupagne, regional delegate of the CIB and Rosy, a lay member of the movement called ‘Reliance’ an authentic community of faith and life with the Abbey of Hurtebise.
Mother Thérèse-Marie: Reflect on living as a network? I would like to reflect together, and why should we not write together? OK?
Rosy: If you prefer, and thanks for the idea of writing as a network!
Mother Thérèse-Marie: Good! Tell me, what does living as a network mean to you. Explain it to me, for initially this expression hardly speaks to me.
Rosy: A network is a small net which can grow large and has no limits. It is in two dimensions. It has no knot (either a person or a community) which is above or below. Each knot is interconnected to all the others, and, if our net has no real edge, interconnected with other networks. We are not talking of a hunter’s net but perhaps a tennis net or hammock (in some languages it is the same word). For me ‘network’ suggests relationship...and is not our God Relationship?
Mother Thérèse-Marie: From this point of view that seems to me clearer. I can recognise in the CIB, as in the UBB, or in the group of Reliance of which you are a member, places for living as a network, and this makes sense to me – more sense from the fact that the networks are multiple. To live in a single network would be to risk shutting oneself in, making this network – whatever its dimension – a place closed to other people. By contrast, the Christian life is a network open to the arrival of the Kingdom, because it is open to communion. In eternity this communion will finally be full, it will be universal. We will take with us nothing of this earth except the ties of communion woven in the course of our lives. You know that I particularly love the saying of St Peter in his Second Letter, ‘You should be living holy and saintly lives while you wait and long for the Day of God’ (2 Peter 3.11-12). My participation in the CIB, my commitment to the service of the communion at various levels is underpinned by this waiting.
Rosy: Yes, it is right and just, this name which the CIB has adopted, International Communion of Benedictine Women. When I hear the word ‘network’ I think also of ‘relationship of fraternity’, and this is all the more true for sisters. In addition, since the network is open, brothers and sisters in a wider sense, ‘you are all brothers’. There is a single relationship where all have something to contribute and something to receive. In this connection, when I read the accounts of the meetings of the CIB one thing astonishes me as much as I admire it. I mean the activities which you undertake outside the working meetings. Why is it so important in the Philippines to meet the families which live on the rubbish of the ‘Smokey Mountain’, to travel the Slave Trail at Ouidah in Benin and to pass on foot the checkpoint into Palestine?
Mother Thérèse-Marie: You mention the ‘Smokey Mountain’, the huge rubbish dump of Manila. I think that our visit to this place is one of the key moments of my life at the CIB. When we meet in conference we are at least a score of Benedictines, apostolic sisters and nuns, from all over the world. Each one represents a region of the world, delegated by the communities of that region. Our mission is to make the CIB take shape, to weave humbly and patiently to make this communion a reality. That is our purpose in meeting every year, every alternate time in Rome (with the Symposium of Benedictine Women or with the Congress of Abbots), and the other time in one of the regions. To move around the regions is an important factor in getting to know one another better. In our meetings there are moments of ‘administrative’ work, but we also ensure that there are shared experiences, not only around the table or in lectio, the liturgy, prayer. So many exchanges occur not through words but by a sharing of life, by the discovery of the stance of another, of the challenges to which one must face up.
Our sisters of Manila are extraordinary women. In their missions they care for the smallest and the poorest. That is why they have established a day-centre on the dump itself. At the time of our meeting in 2007 they invited us to meet the families who live on the dump. For me it was a eucharistic encounter. There I entered into communion with the life-force, the faith and hope of our Philippine sisters. There I heard the call from the heart of our God. I can never forget it. Since then I feel myself clothed with the need to witness and live differently.
We travelled the Slave Trail at Ouidah on the final day of our meeting in 2011. We had been somewhat stretched by the long road we had travelled for 15 days. But I realised how important the Trail at Ouidah was for our African sisters. On their part it was a sign of confidence to take us there, a profound sharing, the opening of a wound which remains a sore to their people. They were able to invite us because we had already been sharing for long days. I was shattered by sharing with them the stages of this pilgrimage.
I shall long hear one of them whispering to me, ‘You see that we are not worth much if this can be done to us.’ Scales fell from the eyes of my heart. In my approach to my sisters of West Africa this pilgrimage remains a beacon, an invitation. To carry this wound with my sisters, in order to be healed of it with them. To open my eyes to new forms of slavery, to be alert – this is what weaves us into communion.
The checkpoint at Bethlehem was another experience of sharing. Ever since the building of the wall across the Holy Land, across Bethlehem, I knew that our sisters were living just beside it, sharing the lot of the Palestinians. But this remained only a remote idea. To be together in that passage, because our sisters wanted us to have a little knowledge of their daily life, that carried a larger message than any words. The lived knowledge of the reality of their life gives me a closeness to them which is beyond words. Just opposite the monastery, as an act of resistance, an icon of Mary has been painted with the design of a door. I can share this gesture of hope, share their prayer and spread it. Selling at Hurtebise the crosses of their workshop is only a modest gesture of support, but it keeps us in communion with them and the Palestinian families whom they support, beside whom they wish to be a presence of peace and hope.
Yes, if we want our communion to be profound, words do not suffice. There must be a sharing of life, of experience. Even if this will always be limited, such meetings mark and change my heart, convert me. I am no longer the same person. My insertion into the Benedictine family is quite different, my insertion into humanity is quite different. In these meetings I hear the heart of God beating. I find it vibrant with the sufferings and joys of our brothers and sisters in humanity. I make sure that my heart is there too.
Rosy: In these meetings, so rich and so necessary, you make sure that the maximum number of persons – well beyond the Benedictine sisters - learn from them. Thank you for the various stories you publish, by which we can enter into communion with the people you have met. However, how was the CIB born? You spoke of a long germination.
Mother Thérèse-Marie: It is a long story. The CIB is eleven years old, but its gestation was much longer. If you want to know more you can read the article which Sr Judith-Ann published in the Bulletin of the AIM on the occasion of our tenth anniversary.6 She retraces the whole adventure. It was a long gestation which began in 1966. At the start Benedictine structures at the world level included only the monks. Next there was a commission of sisters and a commission of nuns. Little by little the two groups joined up – which was profoundly enriching – and formed what is now officially recognised as the CIB. When I first took part in the CIB the first question always asked at a meeting was, ‘Are you a sister or a nun?’ Now we are so much members of the one family that this question has frankly disappeared. Little by little the statutes were formed, they are still subject to revision, because they follow life, rather than the reverse. At the same time as the international network was being formed, the regions had to do the same, since the international builds on the regional. Where no link existed between communities of a region, the delegate had to work to create opportunities for meetings and exchanges. Where such structures did exist, they served as a basis for a local network. You should know that the question which I still ask concerns a real communion. In our society we communicate a great deal, we inform (or misinform), but we must go further and live in communion.
Rosy: I am aware that living as part of a network demands a great deal of vigilance to prevent the flow of our relationships drying up, and plenty of hope too, or such a work is beyond our own powers. However great our desire, it runs up against many questions, quite apart from the inevitable sluggishness. For example, the question of language: the statutes make provision for two official languages within the CIB, French and English. But, like the whole of society, it is surely a victim of ‘le tout-anglais’. And how to cope with the multitude of languages, between effectiveness, communication, recognition, need of translators, despite the fact that communities must be hiding a great deal of richness on this level! Nor do I suppose that the question of finance is any easier, with the cost of travel, more or less difficult according to the regions and the communities. How to ensure that the expectation of payment be too heavy for the ‘richer’ countries, that the relationship of mutual assistance function in varying directions?
Mother Thérèse-Marie: You raise important questions. The question of languages is a real challenge. When we meet in a large group in Rome (more than a hundred), then translation has been arranged, into five languages. This means that a good number can participate. But we must not be starry-eyed. Talks and round tables may be translated, but for the rest we just have to get along. Corridor-conversations can be an opportunity for real exchanges, and this is important. It builds community. We need to have the courage to learn at least one other language. For a good quality of exchange it is good that everyone should be able to speak her own language, put her money on one group for later translation. How can you express your deepest thoughts in a language you have not mastered?
The question of finance will not go away. Travelling is expensive. A stay at Saint’Anselmo in Rome is more than burdensome. At each of our meetings this comes up: how to generate enough income to provide a fund for sharing. This is impossible without the participation of each region. Sometimes it is suggested to hold the meetings elsewhere than in Rome, but the stays at Sant’Anselmo provide a chance to meet our Benedictine brothers which is not to be missed. The CIB must not cut itself off from the masculine Benedictine world. Although we regret that the place of women in our Church is not sufficiently visible, we must not on our side reproduce the same model of separation. It is good that women are organising themselves into the CIB, but it is important that this should issue in a closer communion with our brothers. It is my dream that we should invite to our meetings not only the Abbot Primate but also other brothers. One could dream that one day there might even be a ‘Benedictine communion’ including both brothers and sisters!
Rosy: And what is true for Benedictine brothers and sisters is true for many other associations.
Mother Thérèse-Marie: Yes, we saw this recently in Belgium. The male and female Religious of Netherlandish language met together in a single association, and the French-speakers have just done the same by founding COREB. It is a great enrichment to join forces in this way, to join our dreams and our ideas. Singing differences creates a rich harmony, and it is the same in our Church life: we need to create communion. It is because we live in a monastery that we are obliged to withdraw into ourselves. The community of faith which we live with the layfolk who have chosen Hurtebise for their insertion into the Church is for me a wink from the Spirit. From the moment when we allow the Spirit to live in our hearts he does not cease to weave us into communion.
Rosy: The network must always aim at more openness and more interconnection. At the same time, it must remain solid! Every stitch must be a local mini-network where communion is lived with all the strength of fraternal love. In relationship to the CIB one can surely expect that each community should welcome any echoes coming from the world as a result of your meetings, as a result of all the information and wishes which can circulate. That every sister should be informed is no small matter, but the saddest thing is certainly when there is a break somewhere in the chain of transmission, or that particular ideas that are too rough paralyse the possibility of a meeting: for example, a living idea of enclosure is necessary if it is to serve communion rather than the opposite. But I would like to finish on how it is possible to live out solidarity. In concrete terms, what are the challenges to concern for solidarity?
Mother Thérèse-Marie: You mentioned the question of money. This brings in another challenge: what exchange of communion can there be between our communities at a global level? I am aware of the ever-present danger of presenting the West as a generous benefactor and the South as an eternal scrounger. This links to what I said to you about the Slave Trail. Our brothers and sisters of the South must be aware of their value, of their gift, of their talents. And we must be more aware of the exchange, the reciprocity. Wherever we are, we must all share our needs and try out exchanges. But each exchange must be carefully thought out and must be respectful. There is no point in wasting our energies, sacrificing the young people of developing nations in order to prop up our dying communities. They certainly can help us, but in the context of a carefully-planned project, rather than coming to our aid so that we don’t need to reflect or prepare for the future.
Rosy: Of course the mission of the CIB is not to impose solutions. Rather it is to inspire. If the local network is lively the experiences tried out there can serve as a seedbed to bring growth to the whole network of the CIB. Is this not the case with the project ‘Ananias’ of which you spoke?
Mother Thérèse-Marie: It is often said that a Christian alone is a Christian in danger. I would like to say the same of a Christian community. A community turned in on itself is in danger. Nowadays, when communities in the West have become more fragile, they are opening themselves to collaboration. This has been forced on us by necessity, but I am convinced that there is more than necessity. Openness to collaboration is a duty. We cannot simply take everything for granted. The sisters more particularly linked to the CIB as delegates cannot respond to all the appeals which are from within communities. But if we initiate a movement, if we try to create links, the whole Benedictine family can allow itself to be questioned, and can become engaged. The ‘Ananias’ project of which you speak sprang from the Benedictine Congregation of St Bathilde of Vanves. Our sisters conceived it on the occasion of a chapter which urgently needed to oversee the formation of formators. A programme existed at Rome in English and they dreamt of organising one in French. Their reaction was quickly to open the project to Benedictine and Cistercian brothers and sisters for development and participation. Now the cycle is in progress. It is a fine fruit of collaboration.
However, our dialogue just goes on, and I think it is time to finish. As for a conclusion, you know that I prefer an opening. Shall I leave the last word to you?
Rosy: May all our networks go on expanding, interconnecting and spreading our ideas and our real solidarity. As at Ouidah or Bethlehem, let us be able to open doors of hope and from there encourage people to walk in joy with our God.
 Union des Bénédictines de Belgique. This union comprises 11 communities of Benedictine women, wishing to help one another to live an authentic monastic life in today’s world.
 A faith community formed from lay people and the Benedictine sisters of Hurtebise.
 See Bulletin 91, or https://sites.google.com/site/cib5benelux/les-rencontres-internationalesde-la-cib/2007-manille#_9_septembre.
 Bulletin 100 (or soft copy on the AIM website).
 Conference of Religious in Belgium.