Dom Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori (OCist)
Abbot General of the Cistercian Order
A New Development for Monastic Life
The statistics concerning my Order continue to go down, even if in Vietnam and Africa, and some particular cases in Europe, the numbers still seem to be pleasing. To make a very recent example: I visited with the Mother Abbess President of the Congregation of Castile 8 monasteries of nuns in Spain. In 2 weeks we had the election of a new Indian abbess, we decided to close two monasteries with the transfer of the Sisters to the "assistancial" monastery in Madrid, we decided to affiliate 2 other monasteries, and we appointed a prioress administrator in another. Described like this, it seems like a tragic list, except for the Indian abbess. And yet, the way in which all of this has happened has filled us with gratitude and, in the end, with hope. Not of hopes, but of hope. To see communities that accept their death with serenity, knowing that they are accompanied and cherished, fills us with hope, if only in the abundant fruit that the seed that falls on good soil will bear. Where? When? Only God knows.
A month ago we held an informal meeting of the Synod of the Order to re-launch the preparation of the General Chapter postponed to October 2022. Apart from two abbots from Vietnam and one from Canada, about 20 members were able to participate, and it was a very good and much needed meeting. We reworked the major themes that we want to prepare for the next General Chapter: abuse of power and regular visitation; formation; the structure of government of the Order; foundations and reduction of monasteries.
I share with you some points of my introductory reflection that may be of interest to you. I gave as the title of my introduction: “Rediscovering a monastic balance to start again on a path of synodal communion”.
I said that it is not enough to reflect on how to hold the General Chapter in spite of the crisis of Covid. I believe that this crisis reminds us above all to think of the General Chapter and the Order with a greater sense of responsibility, or rather in a more "dramatic" and mature way: that our union in an Order and our encounter be lived in each Congregation, in each community as in all of humanity, with responsibility in relation to our times.
The crisis of Covid has brought us to a halt. Many people and communities began a work on themselves, favored by the fact that practically all other activities were stopped. We were able to concentrate on the essential of our vocation: prayer, listening to the Word of God, fraternal life in the community. Paradoxically, this concentration on the essential was easier for communities with many external activities, because the lockdown meant for them, at least for a few months, a radical change in clear contrast with the life before. It was therefore experienced as a "sign of contradiction" deeply marking people and community life. In the more "contemplative" style communities, the contrast was not so obvious and for this reason perhaps less challenging. But it is difficult to judge, since each community has experienced this time in its own way. When life and activities resumed, even with the restrictions that are always necessary, it was and still is a matter of understanding how to start again, how to get back on track. And this is not easy because we feel a certain tiredness, we have difficulty in resuming activities, in opening our houses, our churches, our guesthouses. I asked myself: where does this pain come from? Why do we feel that we have become more tired and even older?
Perhaps simply because the ordeal of the pandemic has forced us to face our real fragility. Before, even many older and smaller communities undertook great activities and commitments not only in the field of work but also in that of liturgical celebration. We thought we had the strength simply because these activities had always been taken on since we were young and numerous. We moved forward like locomotives dragging everything without realizing that we never stopped to recalculate what our strength really allows us, to reconsider if the schedule and the way of celebrating the Office and managing our activities are still bearable for what we really are. And above all, we have never stopped to reflect if in all our activities there is still a harmonious balance that allows us to live with joy in what every monastery should be, a “school where we serve the Lord”.
In many monasteries, we have cut back or let go of certain things, but we have not been careful to keep the balance between what we keep and what we let go of. As a result, some parts of our life have taken over while others have disappeared from the scene. In some communities prayer has suffered in favor of work. Or fraternal life, for example by giving up moments of recreation or dialogue. In other communities that could afford it, work was increasingly delegated to the outside world, to salaried people. In most communities, the little lectio divina that was still cultivated, at least in theory, has disappeared. Not to mention ongoing formation. I could give a thousand examples, different for each community.
But perhaps what is true for all of us is that for too long we have become accustomed to living a monastic vocation that is not very harmonious, not very well balanced, not very capable of bringing such a human balance to our lives. We have forgotten to cultivate the extraordinary human, physical, psychic and spiritual balance that the Rule of St. Benedict would offer us if we followed it not formally but as our fathers and mothers followed it: as a school where "the man who seeks life and desires joy" (cf. Prol 15; Ps 33:13) can find them on a path of filial fraternity and prayer that makes him prefer Christ above all and in everything. In this school, where only those who never finish being a disciple, who listen attentively with "the ear of their heart" (Prol 1), progress, every element of life must contribute to the balance of the person and of the community: prayer, fraternity, work, rest, obedience, listening, silence, speech, poverty, etc. We must not let anything fall by the wayside if we want our life to remain a symphony. When fragility, smallness, illness, etc. require us to adapt, we often do so in an unbalanced way by cutting off whole parts of our life and vocation instead of seeking a new balance between all parts. This is the problem of many communities! It is amazing that we often find this imbalance also in large and young communities.
I realize, in fact, that we have neglected for years, both in strong and fragile communities, this attention to maintaining the Benedictine balance, the famous Benedictine “discretio”. And although we often remind them of this, especially during regular visitations, some communities are not always willing to correct this problem, as if they did not understand what a balance of life and vocation means. Each community, and often the superior or a particular member, especially when he or she is responsible for the economy or another area, thinks that he has to resist and maintain the rhythms and accents established "since time immemorial", to maintain certain absolute areas while abandoning others considered less essential.
The mistake is to believe that what saves our monastic life is a particular area, a particular work, a particular gesture, and not the balance between all. We have often not been aware that what makes a community attractive and meaningful to people is not only the liturgy, or only our work or way of working, or only our fraternal life, or only our silence, or only our welcome, etc., but precisely the harmonious balance with which the preference of Christ allows us to live everything with order and measure, with beauty and peace, in simplicity, putting everything in its place.
The lockdown period and all the restrictions of these years have put our backs against the wall. The global crisis of Covid-19 poses some pressing questions for us monks and nuns: What have we done with our vocation? What have we done with the Rule of St. Benedict, the Carta Caritatis, the integral spirituality of our fathers and mothers? Why did we need a global crisis to remember what St. Benedict has been highlighting for 15 centuries, to realize again that he is calling us to a balance of Christian life that can truly be a "Gospel of new humanity" for all our brothers and sisters in humanity?
It is important not to let this provocation pass us by - it is very present in the magisterium of Pope Francis, e.g. in Evangelii gaudium, Laudato si’ and Fratelli tutti - in order to begin now a good conversion of the life of our monasteries, helping one another in this effort, without being afraid if we have to accept, in favor of a new balance of our life, greater poverty, more simplicity and therefore greater humility. Afterwards, at the Synod, I deepened again, in the light of what I have just said, the theme of a truer solidarity between monasteries of different cultures, not only economically but above all in formation, and then the theme of synodality, with a true mutual listening in the communities, between superiors and communities and Congregations. Participating in the synodal journey in the whole Church promoted by the Pope will help us to deepen our charism, offering our experience to the whole Church, for example our experience of synodality between nuns and monks.