Dom Eamon Fitzgerald, OCSO
an experience of continuous formation
What I most like about the program Experientia is the way it came into being. I have, in fact, been an interested bystander and witness to its evolution since the General Chapter of 2014. For me, it has all the signs of the parable of the mustard seed in the Gospel. At its meeting at the end of the General Chapter of 2014, the Central Commission elected Sister Marie Mouris of Val d’Igny Abbey as Central Secretary for Formation. Her first task was to listen to what was said at the General Chapter about formation and the needs of the communities in this area. To gather such first-hand information, she wrote to the abbots and abbesses of the Order to inquire about their desires and needs, and also to see whether they could offer members of their houses who would be free and willing to help needy communities. Among the replies Sister Marie received, there was a suggestion that a newsletter should be published to share information on what is being done both in Regions and in communities in the area of formation, such as sessions, courses, and workshops. That suggestion was followed up at once and now the Newsletter is in regular circulation among the Order’s secretaries for formation and beyond. This initiative is much appreciated. It allows for the sharing of information, stimulates thought, and encourages communication and relationships among the secretaries, while also fostering possible collaboration among them.
Sister Marie not only listens; she also reflects. During the year 2015 she asked: ‘How can we get the Regions to work on the intuition that came out of the General Chapter of 2014 in the area of formation?’ The intuition she had in mind was in the form of a question posed by a Capitulant: ‘How can we promote an integral mystical formation?’ Sister Marie then managed to persuade seven abbots and abbesses to write on this topic from their experience, and the result was a booklet that was warmly welcomed.
Our ‘Guidelines on Formation’ (Ratio Institutionis) speak of the community itself as ‘formative’. This assertion, together with Sister Marie’s own conviction and the experience of some Regional meetings, led to the thought that it would be good to devise a simple proposal for the continuing formation of sisters and brothers of all ages. This would provide an opportunity for us to return communally to our Cistercian roots, to deepen our sense of identity, and to encourage individual study and lectio.
The Central Commission, meeting in 2016, in its discussion of Sister Marie’s report, encouraged the project and advised looking for someone with the skill and experience necessary to see it through. The Commission proposed Father Michael Casey of Tarrawarra Abbey for the task, and he happily accepted. A group was set up to work under Father Michael, and together they developed the program. Sister Marie described its contents and methodology in some detail to the General Chapter of 2017. The Capitulants then voted their support and encouragement of the programme as a project that merits consideration by communities of the Order.
The program bears the title Experientia. It is aimed at enabling monks and nuns of today to reflect on their lived experience of monastic life and then to confront that experience with texts chosen from the Cistercian and monastic tradition. In this way, the long experience distilled in our tradition can shed light on our present-day experience and offer us encouragement, motivation and direction in living the Cistercian grace in our contemporary world. Nine areas of experience are chosen for consideration, and they cover important areas of human and monastic living. Some of these topics are: ‘the journey so far’, ‘desire freed from desires’, ‘community’, ‘prayer’, and ‘diminishment’. As these headings clearly suggest, we have before us a program intended not just for the more studious, academic or intellectual monks and nuns among us, but one designed for the ordinary nun or monk in the stall. At bottom the project seeks, quite simply, to foster reflection on authentic human living, and on how to do that well as monks and nuns who follow the particular tradition of evangelical life expressed in the Rule of Saint Benedict and the Cistercian tradition.
I would here like to express my gratitude to Father Michael and the members of the group that has fashioned this program, as well as to those who have a role to play in its implementation. This is an Order-wide project, both in its conception and in its implementation. It is the unpretentious fruit of simplicity. It has sprung from a listening and attentive spirit and is fuelled by an appreciation for the Cistercian charism, lived in its diversity throughout the world, as well as by intelligence, clarity of purpose, and competence. I warmly commend it to all the communities of the Order. May Experientia find a home in our monasteries, not just as an addition to our libraries or archives, but as an instrument of good works that will enable us to live our lives in today’s world with serenity and ardour and in the communion of Christ’s love. And may he bring us all together to everlasting life!
 Foreword to Volume 1 of Experientia, available on the OCSO website: https://www.ocso.org/formation/experientia. Courtesy of Dom Eamon Fitzgerald.