Sister Daniela D. Romero, OSB Priory of Manila (Philippines)
Having participated in the course ‘Ananie 2015’ I can only be amazed that the grace of God gave me the chance to share in this three-month course of monastic formation intended for Benedictines and Cistercians who hold positions of responsibility. It was a very full programme, not only a formation which aimed at the acquisition of knowledge and methods which each participant could then effectively pass on to the community, but also a course which aimed at the personal formation and enrichment of each participant by living the same experience as the other participants during this time of sharing. It offers the possibility of deepening monastic life and growing in the desire to live it better,
The composition of the group was itself already an invaluable exchange of presents: eight monks and sixteen nuns, originating in France, Belgium, Vietnam, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Burkina Faso, Haiti, Madagascar, Philippines, Togo, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Benin. Each had something to contribute, experience of monastic life, culture and a special personality. Such diversity brought beauty and opened up a rich growth for each in community life.
Mother Loyse Morard (Ermeton, Belgium), a member of the Ananias team, who accompanied us for three months, opened the programme with a reflection on the meaning of the name for the programme: Why the name Ananias? ‘Ananias’, just like the name ‘John’ means ‘the grace of God’. In the Acts of the Apostles two people of that name are presented, one bad and one good. The former, the opposite of a model disciple, the husband of Sapphira, hid from the community that they were keeping for themselves a part of the product of the sale of their goods (Acts 5.1-10). Lies and hypocrisy are incompatible with the life of a true disciple. The other Ananias is the icon of a formator. He is a Jew of Damascus, pious and faithful, who helped Paul to regain his sight after his meeting with the Risen Christ. He initiated Paul into the life of Christ (Acts 9.10-19; 22.12-16). We need to avoid the former and allow the latter to accompany us.
The programme was divided into four parts, each corresponding to a general theme on which different sessions were based:
• Celebration and Prayer
• Passing on the Tradition
• Completing the Tradition
• Community Life.
We had the happy experience of living in four different monasteries, each for three weeks. This allowed us to experience varied aspects of Benedictine monastic life.
Celebrating and Praying the Word (3rd-24th September)
The first part of the programme took place in the beautiful and peaceful monastery of Sainte-Marie of La Pierre-Qui-Vire, located between Paris and Lyons. Dom Luc Cornuau, abbot of the community, and three of his brothers animated a series of sessions aimed at deepening the function of the Word in our monastic life. Dom Luc shared with us his conviction that monastic life is a life under the Word of God, and that our deep joy is to learn to live under the Word. In order to listen to God, who every day sows his Word in us, we must open ourselves to what the scripture gives us personally in the Liturgy of the Hours and in Lectio. In this sense Dom Patrick Prétot led a session based on the liturgy, Dom Matthieu Collin spoke particularly of the Psalms and Madame Anne-Marie Pelletier spoke on ‘entering into the scripture’.
It was underlined that the Holy Scripture is a pedagogy of God to visit the human heart, to lead the human heart into the scriptural way of thinking and have a real knowledge of God – the experience of the people of Israel. This is the invitation from God to each one of us whenever we open the Scriptures: to discover who we are and allow us to put ourselves in God’s sight.
To live according to the Word of God is to enter into the movement which the Word aroused in the life of our monastic fathers. Dom Jean-Louis Verstrepen helped us to enter into the history of monasticism, to look once more at the vital stages of the development of monastic life, its failures and successes. We are the heirs of a great history, a way of life, of words of wisdom and practices which are the fruit of the opening of the monastic fathers to the Word and to the work of the Spirit in their lives.
It was a special bonus to have an evening with Dom Denis Huerre, the former abbot of the community. Each of us was impressed by the way he answered every question, building upon his long experience of a life faithfully lived under the Word of God. He died at the age of 100 on 8th March, 2016.
Pastor Pierre-Yves Brandt, professor of the psychology of religion at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland) was given the task of helping us to review our experiences from the viewpoint of transmission. How do we pass on what we have received? How can we use this to give a meaning to events? It is important to have certain and trustworthy markers like the Gospel, the Rule of St Benedict and our Constitutions. By studying particular cases and by presenting real situations he led us into the dynamic of passing on our experiences.
Passing on the Tradition (25th September to 15th October)
The community of sisters of Notre-Dame d’Ermeton-sur-Biert in Belgium welcomed us warmly into their home for the second part of the programme. The monastery is 30 minutes walk from the Abbey of Maredsous, the monastery where the Blessed Columba Marmion lived his monastic life and where he is buried. Dom Armand Veilleux, Abbot of Sourmont in Belgium, began the series of subjects of this second part of our formation. He introduced the great theme, ‘Transmission of the Tradition’. He stressed that the community is the prime agent in this transmission; the real teacher of this transmission is the life lived by the community which receives the candidate.
Then there was a conference on the Rule of St Benedict by Mother Hannah van Quakebeke, prioress of the monastery of Bethany in Belgium. She gave us the chance to rediscover the Rule, to respond to its appeal for dynamic conversion as a way of life. Nevertheless, the Rule is not, from this point of view, a finished laboratory product, but is the outcome of life-experiences, of the process of conversion from a hardened heart to a heart opened by the practice of obedience in a community of brothers and sisters.
On the theme of ‘Authority and Obedience’ Dom Nicolas Dayez, former Abbot of Maredsous, reminded us that the whole Rule of St Benedict and monastic life must be lived through the prism of obedience. It is not the automatic execution of an order, but is the responsible and free realisation of a command. Obedience is a relationship, something which passes between an abbot and his brothers, between brothers themselves, and in the last analysis is a relationship with Christ. The final goal of obedience is God. Consequently the use of authority must envisage personal growth, a gift of greater life to the other.
Dom David d’Hamonville, Abbot of Saint-Benoit d’En-Calcat, and Mother Marie-Rose, of the Trappistine Abbey of Chambarand (France) led us into a profound debate on monastic poverty and an economy which reflects the deepest values of humility and transparency. We saw clearly that monastic poverty and economy cannot be lived in renunciation, sharing and rational management of the resources of the community without a strong sense of responsible obedience.
Mother Marie-Madeleine Caseau, prioress of Sainte-Bathilde at Vanves, helped us to a fuller understanding of spiritual accompaniment and counselling. As monks and nuns this accompaniment is part of our monastic life. We are accompanied by the Word which the Spirit has given us so that we may receive, understand and live it in practice. We ourselves are also accompanied by the Rule and the abbot, who guide us on the road of love and conversion which leads us back to the Father. She described spiritual accompaniment as a real visitation, a spiritual tool, a mirror, a vale of tears, a grain of wheat, an operating theatre and our own Mount Tabor.
We are most grateful to Dom Henri Delhougne, monk of the Abbey of Clervaux in Luxemburg, who gave us a talk on the methodology of theological elements. This will certainly help us to take notes, acquire a bibliography and do the research necessary for writing an article.
Completing the Tradition (16th October to 5th November)
The Benedictine abbey of Notre-Dame de Jouarre (Seine-et-Marne) welcomed us for the third phase of our formation. The town of Jouarre is located on a plateau 150 metres high, with a valley, open fields; it is near the gates of Paris. The abbey was founded in the sixth century and is now listed as an historic monument because of its unique Merovingian crypt. The conferences of this part bore on the integration of tradition: we must ourselves be capable of passing it on. It is a matter of self-discipline, an interior work which implies liberty of spirit, a capacity to speak openly and honestly about our own life, our thoughts and intentions, the temptations which arise and our personal struggle. It is essential that, in the labour of self-integration each of us must be able to speak of our emotions and identify our feelings, express our inner movements and sexuality and relationships with others. On this subject Madame Florence Assier de Boisredon (psychologist), Dom Michael Davide (of the Fraternity of Koinonia, of the Visitation in Italy) and Sister Siong Tjoa (of the community of Grandchamp in Switzerland) spoke to us with one voice of emotion and celibacy as a call to live in Trinitarian love. The Lucan passage (10.26) ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your strength, and your neighbour as yourself’ and the image of the Trinity of Roublev were the refrain which invited us to understand our sexuality and the love which we are called upon to incarnate in our relationships with others.
To help us penetrate more deeply into our interior life Dom Luc Cornuau presented Evagrius to us as ‘the seeker of God and explorer of the human soul’. The works of Evagrius are most useful for us in our spiritual journey. Thanks to the archaeological researches of Guillaumont, Dom Luc led us passionately to Egypt, especially to Kellia, with rich visual support, in order to trace the footsteps of Evagrius, who tried to understand his experience of God by the conception of a possible journey. This was an explorer who witnessed that human beings were created to serve God and that there was great beauty in our inner search for God. For this second part Pastor Pierre-Yves Brandt came for sessions on reviewing cases presented by each of us. The aim was to help us view different possible reactions to particular situations by looking at motives, seeking references in the Gospel, the Rule of St Benedict and our respective Constitutions in finding the best way of treating these situations. It was a work on ourselves, which the group thoroughly appreciated.
Sister Elie Ruel, prioress of Notre-Dame de Jouarre helped us to enter into a three-day retreat on the desert fathers. She led us to reflect on the source of wisdom to be found in the Apophthegmata which show how the fathers of the desert contemplated the Word of God and incorporated it into their daily life. A meditation after each session showed us all clearly that the way to progress in the spiritual life is composed of few and ordinary things, which can still serve as an excellent source for the love of God and of one another.
Knowledge of juridical laws and principles made and applied by the hierarchical authorities of the Church is important. Dom Hugues Leroy, prior of the Abbey of Sainte-Marie de La Source in Paris seduced us by the way he discussed the general presentation of Canon Law and – with concrete examples – the parts which affect the consecrated life. Our day with him left us with a thirst to know more. The same applied to the half-day which we had with Mother Loyse on the subject ‘Reference points of biblical history’. Mother Loyse opened up for us the principal stages of biblical history. She ended by saying that the Bible and the liturgy are really the heart of each other. Between them the two are the source and guide of our prayer. The Bible refers to life, the life of the people of God and of ourselves, and life is enlightened by the Bible.
Community Life (6th to 26th November)
The noble Cistercian Abbey of Notre-Dame de Timadeuc, in the heart of Brittany, a foundation of the Abbey of La Trappe in the nineteenth century, received us for the final part of our formation. The fields, the magnificent view of the countryside and the remarkable monastic atmosphere of the abbey made us, during these final weeks together, a really perfect community.
As Dom Luc had said during the first session, to live according to the Word of God consists in receiving it thanks to, through and with our brothers and sisters of the community. The Word of God calls us and brings us together to make a living body. This was the major theme of the final phase, the life of the community. Our reflection on inculturation was initiated by Mother Henriette Kalmogo (of the monastery of Notre-Dame to Koubri in Burkina Faso) and Dom Simon-Pierre Arnold, monk of the monastery of Wavremont, who lives in the Belgian mission in Peru. Dom Simon underlined to us the importance of an inculturation in which all cultures are equal, an none dominates, none is dominated. A certain mental decolonisation is necessary to set us free from cultural colonialism. In the same session Mother Henriette, using the texts of Pentecost (Acts 2.1-11) underlined the role of the Holy Spirit as the moving force and guide of inculturation. In Christ, the incarnate Word of God, who set his tent among us, we salute our cultures and accept our roots, laying them open to the light of the Spirit, which allows us to take hold of the Gospel and apply it to life.
What is the teaching of St Basil on fraternity and the vision of monastic life? Sister Marie Ricard, of Martigné, presented to us some texts of St Basil called The Little Ascension and The Great Ascension. They consist of a series of questions put by Christian communities, and St Basil’s answers. If the first Christians were called brothers and sisters, and ‘the brotherhood’ was the proper name of the Church, an assembly of the baptized and the Body of Christ, it has been since then an ontological reality, a reality which precedes us. The Body of Christ remained intact, for none of its bones were broken. We have a practically unlimited potential, but we will never break this brotherhood, for it is in the image of God. Brotherhood is a gift and a promise of God.
The theme ‘community life’ was opened up by a team of five speakers. The first was Mother Loyse, who used Chapter 4 of the Rule of St Benedict as the basis of her reflection. She showed us the essential reciprocity between community life and spiritual life. The quality of our relationships within the community depends on our personal relationship with God. The second speaker was Dom Benoît Briand, Abbot of Timadeuc, who spoke of violence and its conflicts. Preferences and jealousy engender tensions and conflicts. The way of reconciliation and forgiveness give liberty to our soul. The third speaker was Mother Béatrice Blanloeil, abbess of Notre-Dame des Gardes, on the theme ‘From fear to confidence: jealousy and praise’. Our fears paralyse us and upset the community. We are called to confidence in Christ, who walks with us. Interior healing of our jealousy, which can come only from Christ, makes us capable of singing a song of praise. The fourth speaker was Mother Céline Guilbot of Martigné, who delved into the subject of ‘Unity through difference, are our differences in community a source of rivalry or of unity?’ What means do we use to transform the differences on the road of belief and unity? Unity in Christ is fundamental. The final speaker was Dom Simon Hoa Ly Seng, prior of Landevennec, who shared with us his personal witness to a multicultural experience. He explained that a good opinion of oneself is a tool to improve our fraternal relationships. It was a very rich module!
Monastic theology was the object of another module, with four experienced monks and religious, Mother Loyse, Dom Benoît, Dom Luc and Mother Marie-Madeleine. It was a moving experience to share in a large group our personal convictions on essential questions of monastic life:
1. What, for me, is the search for God?
2. Friend, why have you come?
3. What makes me carry on?
The subject was treated from different angles, anthropological, theological and ecclesiological. In view of the different means of communication offered to us by the modern world, what attitudes should we adopt? What are the criteria of discernment for the good of the community? Mother Béatrice and Dom Benoît shared with us the conclusions of the general chapter of the Cistercian Order on strict observance in such matters.
Pastor Pierre-Yves Brandt concluded this final meeting with us with the words, ‘The final objective of this programme of formation is to convey the sense and the values of monastic life to the generation which we are receiving into monastic life.’ I could say that only one question will remain when I return to my community, ‘How can I convey the bases of monastic life by my way of life and by the exercise of my responsibilities?’ As Dom Nicolas stressed forcefully, there is no authentic transmission if the transmitter has not integrated the message personally. I cannot of course transmit a message which is not in me, which I have not assimilated, understood and digested.
Gratitude is the memory of the heart (Jean Massieu). We deeply acknowledge the hard work of the organizers of Ananie 2015. May God reward you a hundredfold !