Dom Eamon Fitzgerald OCSO,
Abbot General

Monastic Fragility

An address to the General Chapter of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance
Assisi, 9th September, 2014


Dom Eamon reflects on some current difficulties experienced by ageing communities, analysing their causes and possible reactions for facing the future. He underlines the continuing or even increasing importance of the contemplative vocation to the Church today.


EFitzgeraldMy dear sisters and brothers, vote 71 of the Central Commission Meeting of 2013 asked the Abbot General to give a conference on this topic.  We have been talking about it openly for twelve years now (Dom Bernardo Olivera at the MGM of 2002) and at times of late I felt we were going round in circles.  But at the same time there is a growing urgency about the question, as communities become more aware of their increasing fragility and try to take steps to remedy it.  Like it or not, the topic is important not only for the communities who have immediate experience of this increasing fragility but also for those communities who will be affected by it: the Father Immediate of the fragile community as well as its daughter houses.  I noted that among the 48 older houses of the Order (where most of the fragility is present) are found the mother houses of 83 other houses of monks and 54 houses of nuns.  This means that the support that a daughter house might need (in terms of pastoral care, formation, people or economically) may be put at risk.

The working paper for this Chapter (by M. Ines, D. Bernardus and D. Richard), after a brief statistical survey, gives a very good overview of the initiatives and solutions that have been taken over the years in the Order: adaptation of buildings and economic structures; collaboration with other communities; collaboration within regions; collaboration with O. Cist and OSB; relocation of monasteries and annex houses.  It also speaks of challenges posed by this precariousness: living the situation in the light of the Paschal mystery; learning from experience and adapting legislation accordingly, and living the Charter of Charity.  It refers also to the Conference of Dom Bernardo mentioned earlier.  So I take this as read and I won’t be covering this ground again.  

We are talking here about the majority of the monasteries of monks and nuns situated in countries with a Western culture and industrially and technologically developed, as well as some countries of Asia.  The consequences of this growing fragility are seen, for example, in the following:

- Buildings out of proportion to the size of the community
- Few or no new entrants and lack of perseverance
- Difficulty in finding people for positions of responsibility
- Overwork for some and an increasing use of lay help
- A greater investment in care of the elderly
Impoverishing of the quality of community life, e.g., liturgy, formation resources, capacity to take initiatives
Diminishment of the ability of the community to form new members.

AssembleeThese elements have not changed since the last General Chapter and the situation can be said to have deteriorated, in that we are all three years older and while, hopefully, a bit wiser, we are also weaker - a growing fragility.  In fact during the past three years the number of monks and of nuns in the Order has dropped by 4% in each branch – there are 84 fewer monks and 74 fewer nuns, with the monks now at 1999 and the nuns at 1662.  Recently I discovered a statistic that came as a shock to me.  I noted that of the 96 houses of monks in the Order, 62 have 20 or less monks present in community.  And 24 of these small communities are among the older 48 houses of the Order.  Among the nuns 41 of the 73 houses have 20 or fewer sisters present in community (16 of these being among the 37 older houses of nuns).  So while we can presume that the younger communities will continue to grow, it seems that for the foreseeable future we are looking at smaller communities.  A big change from what many have been used to in the not too distant past.  This in itself is not a bad thing – small is beautiful –  it is the quality of community life that matters not the numbers; but it requires a different mindset to what still prevails in many of our older communities and a different dynamic in community.  And in the more fragile communities a significant number of the members are elderly while the younger members tend to be in their forties or fifties.

What I wish to offer you in this presentation is some sharing of experience of what I have seen and heard in visiting communities and participating in meetings, then some reflections on this and finally, if not conclusions at least some orientations for living now.

‘Seen and heard’

One of the characteristics that is evident in our Order and has been handed down by a long tradition is a sense of stability, faithfulness and perseverance in community living, a capacity to bear with difficulty and to continue to serve without complaint.  Many of our seniors witness to this spirit; some may be living peaceful and prayerful lives in the infirmary, others may be still active and continue to render simple and necessary services wherever they can.  Some can even continue to hold responsible positions into advanced age, and superiors are very glad to have them.  But there are also occasions when seniors won’t let go of their positions or can’t be dislodged because the ‘young’ are not ready or have no experience.  This can sometimes become a blanket dismissal of the younger generation who are seen as weak.  In some situations this can lead to a draining of confidence in the community and a difficulty in finding or accepting a superior from within the community.

The need to have vocations can be another pressure point in community.  This pressure can lead to openness to all-comers which may be seen as being generous and merciful and so evangelical but it can also be that necessity clouds discernment.  Sometimes it can be a bemused mystification before the modern person who is different from us and whom we don’t understand.  Making basic enquiries about the candidate’s past and learning from a life history or other information or
experiences seem not to enter into the initial assessment in some communities.  This can lead to painful experiences and grief later on for community and candidate, and give rise to much drama that could have been avoided.  It is true that one person can change the climate in a community and this can be true of a new member, or more so when the person is a superior or holds another important responsibility.  But often the undue elation at the arrival of a new candidate soon gives way to the desolation of a departure.  Having candidates is one thing and forming them is another.  And in these situations of frailty, formation is often shown up as inadequate, not just in terms of teaching but more importantly in terms of guidance – the capacity to give time to someone, to listen and to try to understand, to allow oneself to be questioned about what we do and what we say, as well as the capacity to question on our part and to make demands on the candidate.  To be non-defensive and to be firm requires that both parties stand on the level ground where both are disciples, intent on listening to another voice.  On a few occasions, thankfully few, I have seen that the desire to have candidates has led to efforts to entice members of another community to come join one’s own which has a ‘better future’.

In these situations of frailty it is evident that a good economy and financial resources can cushion the effects of diminishment on a community.  Work can be done by paid workers and so a diminishing and elderly community can continue longer than one where the community has to live by the labour of their own hands and the hands are few.  This slows down the process of diminishment but does not change it.

amphiIn all of this it is clear that the superiors have to bear the brunt of the adverse circumstances.  Many do this remarkably well and show great faith and fortitude, and seem to bear all with a light spirit and good humour.  But often it is a case of lurching from one crisis to the next, often provoked by illness or accident in community.  For many communities there are no new candidates on the horizon and little prospect of conditions changing.  Various initiatives have been taken to foster vocations and often results are meagre.  Often superiors have to make important decisions about the future or which will cost money, such as whether to renovate, demolish or rebuild or even transfer.  Working towards consensus is laborious and even when one has it we have no guarantee that we are doing the right thing.  We don’t know and we don’t like living with the angst of unknowing!  Maintaining a faith-filled and positive spirit not only for oneself but also in others can be difficult.  Superiors can also be the object of blame for the way things are, and personal feelings of inadequacy and the burdens of office can lead to discouragement.  Some superiors suffer from serious levels of stress and there are concerns about the physical health of others.

Some of the reactions to our present circumstances are, to blame it all on contemporary society, or on change in the Church, or on a decline in the quality of monastic life (we are not what we used to be) or to say that life goes in cycles and monastic history shows that there were highs and lows in the past and things will improve again, so we wait for better times.  Sometimes I get the sense that we can pick our spirituality to comfort us in our sorrows.  Today we hear a lot about kenosis, being poor, a small flock, lowliness and smallness, comforting us in our misery and identifying us with the Christ who suffered unto death.  There is no doubt that these are elements in the Gospel message, but at times I get the impression that we are canonizing inadequacy, a loss of zeal for the things of God, an acquiescence with the comforts of the world and the status quo and an inability to see that life has moved on and we are stuck in a time warp.  I was encouraged by a line in a book of an American Benedictine sister written nearly twenty years ago.  She said, in the context of the diminishment in religious life:  ‘Maybe people don’t enter today because religious see their life as in decline – not simply in a state of transition’.  I think this perspective offers us a very different way of looking at our present reality and one that is profoundly in line with reality.

Some observations on ‘seen and heard’ above

The world has changed!  Despite the prevailing evidence, this fact is often implicitly denied by attitudes that see the monastic life that we have known in the past as the real thing and present day existence as a watered down version of it.  It is often comes out as nostalgia.  We don’t expect much good to come from the contemporary world and we tend to see ourselves as victims of modernity or post-modernity.  But we are not the only ones threatened by change and the pace of it.  Think of the consequences of the financial crisis of a few years ago, the changing conditions of work for so many where job security is a thing of the past, or the amount of unemployment among the young, without looking at more global issues such as migration, world poverty and so on.

The Church is changing, falling numbers in the West, much alienation among believers, the closing of churches no longer in use, fewer clergy and religious and fewer monks and nuns.  We are not the only ones feeling the heat and adapting to this desertification of the spirit.  Inevitably there are fewer vocations to monastic life.  But we should not make martyrs of ourselves.  Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna spoke of this need to face up to change in a very personal way when speaking to Austrian Catholics.  He spoke of the need for the Church to find its place in a free society.  Its mission was to win the individual person for faith and therefore for Jesus Christ in freedom.  Then in speaking of the pain of letting go of the past he added: ‘it means saying goodbye to the Church of my childhood which is so close to my heart and is a goodbye that hurts’.

MesseOur relationship with the Church is also undergoing change.  In the not too distant past we saw ourselves as being on the margins of society, geographically far from the haunts of men.  We were explorers of the world of the Spirit, living on the frontier and maintaining a critical distance from the world.  And while monasteries were imposing institutions the accent was on separation and solitude.  Today the local church assumes a greater importance and the monastery is more a part of it, in important and sometimes in less important matters.  The primordial place given to the sacrament of Baptism sees us more in communion with rather than separated from, in the essential grace of Baptism, without denying the specifically monastic charism.  The changing and diminishing size of many of our communities can also affect how we relate to the local church.  It is less institutional, and more dependent on the more personal and less formal ties that tend to be the pattern with smaller communities and smaller monasteries.  

Our place in society.  Every monastery, even though it may be in a solitary location, has its neighbours, its visitors and its place in the local community.  This is a necessity of life and unavoidable.  We are less and less autonomous in the modern world.  Having our place means we have a certain status:  we can be known for our products, cheese or chocolate, beer or wine; or for our liturgy, or as a place of retreat and of prayer, as an employer for local people or a valued customer of the local bank.  Where difficulty can arise is that status brings with it certain expectations from people and can make demands on us.  If change is called for or questions about the future of the monastery arise we may find ourselves less free to act, or to make the hard choices that we might need to make.

How do we manage with young people?  We know that enculturation works not only across cultures but also across generations – the culture of young people today is not the culture of most of us.  How many of us have direct contact with young people?  How do we view what we see before us today or what we hear about it?  At times it can seem like a foreign country!  And that foreignness can seem most apparent in young people or the younger generations: the coloured hair, the pierced skin, the tattoos, without mentioning clothes, music etc.  Do we feel at a loss?  Or are we able to listen to a different voice – to cross the cultural divide and try to understand the language and to discern the things that matter to them?  Sometime last year I was in the metro going to a meeting in town.  Sitting opposite me were two young ladies – multi-coloured hair, paint and powder, rings and tattoos etc. talking.  Then a young woman with a baby got on and started begging and telling her story aloud to all.  I had seen her before and so I lowered my eyes and hardened my heart.  The two ladies across from me continued their conversation but both of them reached into pocket or purse and gave her an offering!  I suddenly felt I was on the side of the priest and the Levite and they were with the Good Samaritan!  So not only did I harden my heart but I had my prejudices too!  I sometimes get the sense that many of us have implicitly given up on the younger generation or generations.  We don’t expect much from them.  And like many unstated feelings, others sense them.  A slight consolation for us may be the fact that many parents can experience that generation gap, but being parents they probably have more patience and while living with the incomprehension continue to trust and be merciful.

So, in case what I am saying is not clear, I am suggesting an examination of conscience as to how we situate ourselves in relation to the world we live in, the presuppositions or even prejudices that we may have and our freedom to discern and hear what God might be saying to us in a world which, we believe, God still guides according to his purposes.  And maybe what we call tradition might be unwittingly an adherence to human regulations that prevent us from hearing a word of life, as happened 2000 years ago in Galilee and Judea.

Orientations for living now

What is clearly emerging for many communities in the situation of increasing fragility is that the way forward is the path of collaboration.  This is what underlies the initiative of the Spanish Region in establishing a health care facility, and now the regional programme for the formation of novices.  It is the recognition of the fact that many monasteries don’t have the resources themselves for adequate health care and for initial formation.  The French houses of monks and nuns (OCSO France) are doing something similar for novitiate formation.  Looking at the viability of communities and the innate resistance to moving towards closure, some monasteries in the same geographical area or region or filiation, are exploring the possibility of closer collaboration by sharing their resources, while continuing to live in their respective locations.  Between them they are more likely to be able to provide someone competent for formation or finance etc.  It could be seen as a local network or a non juridical version of a province that we find in other Orders.  The purpose is to ensure the continued existence of the Cistercian charism in a given area, as the Commissions dealing with the Irish houses of monks put it.  What is needed, in my opinion, is the benefits of solidarity, the stimulation that comes from hearing the experiences of others and the ideas that can come from a wider group, as well as working more concretely on projects in smaller groups united by geography or shared concerns.

Some time ago I visited a small community of monks (less than 12 members) which, from what I had heard, did not hold a stellar position in the Cistercian firmament.  In the course of the visit, when talking to the Superior, he said to me: ‘There are three things that I insist on – prayer (office, lectio and personal prayer), work and how we treat one another’.  And, sure enough, I noticed all three in action:
attendance and participation at the office; personal prayer in common morning and evening; a common work (which they are
fortunate to have), and the way the brethren treated one another and related to me: friendly, respectful, relaxed and ‘real’.  Our Cistercian heritage and monastic tradition is very important and I don’t mean
to minimize it in any way in what I say, but I sometimes get the
impression that we are carrying a lot of excess baggage, accrued over the centuries, regulations, usages and the unspoken mass that makes up our communities.  There is a real danger that we miss the essential.  What do we want to live and what do we actually live?  What do we offer to people so that we can say that these things matter to us and we insist on them?  What do we stand for?

Asking myself this question I turned to St. Paul and his first letter to the Thessalonians, which as you know is the earliest document of the New Testament.  Paul is at the beginning of his missionary career and he was bringing what he experienced as good news to a pagan world.  What was it to be a Christian?  This is the earliest written evidence that we possess of how a Christian saw his life and saw Christ and explained to others what it meant to be a Christian.  What do we find him talk about?  Well after the initial greeting the first half of the letter is one long prayer of thanksgiving to God for how these pagans had believed the message and how it had touched their lives.  They were living in faith, hope and love while suffering for their beliefs.  They imitated Paul and the Lord Jesus in their selfless dedication and witnessed by their different way of living and by their suffering to the power of the Spirit in their lives.  People talked about the change in their lives.  Their faith was not just words. Paul then encourages them to keep living according to their beliefs and gives them further teaching as they await the coming of their Lord and Saviour.  To know God was to be changed by the Holy Spirit and to live differently in imitation of Jesus – holiness of life or personal transformation was the goal.  Interestingly enough, in the closing verses of the letter there is a triadic exhortation which had an important impact on monastic tradition even though it is an exhortation addressed to all Christians.  It is one we know well:

Be joyful always,
Pray continually;
Give thanks in all circumstances,
For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
(1 Thessalonians 5.16-18)

You know that in computer language we speak of ‘the default setting’.  As I understand the term it refers to the basic set-up of the computer so that it has a fixed orientation and will perform the prescribed directions and return to the same base.  I would suggest that this triad could well be Paul’s ‘default setting’.  And I think it may have something to say to us today, as we face the challenges of our time and take our place in the work of new creation that God is bringing about in our world and in our time.  It is the default setting that might help us not just to resolve our problems or make the right decisions but help us live this time, our time, well and in the joy of the Gospel, as women and men who know the blessing of the Beatitudes.