Mother Rosaria, OCSO, Rome
A great deal has been said about the need for a shared vision of the monastic life in each community, so as to live and grow in unity. If each person in a monastery has a different idea of what we are doing there, obviously, a situation will arise where each goes his own way and lives his own life within the context of a community and community living and I dare say it will be felt to be restrictive rather than life giving. Such a fragmentation of plans and behaviour will hardly be attractive or a source of joy or a new way of living for anyone coming to the monastery, since in fact the world itself is already full of loneliness and individualism. What will have a great impact on today's young people will be the rediscovery of the (cenobitic) monasticism of the Benedictine-Cistercian way of life. According to this way of life the path to God is in and through the community which is a sacrament of Our Saviour Jesus Christ.
It is truly marvellous to see how closely our Cistercian fathers agree with the call of the Second Vatican Council to an "ecclesiology of communion". Each community has to work at building its own shared vision, which requires: That the Abbot instruct: this has to be rooted in Tradition, in the real and beautiful meaning of the word: i.e. everything that we have received freely and still receive, in the Gospel, the Rule, the teaching of the Fathers, the present teaching of the General Chapters, the Magisterium of the Church and the history and specific identity of the community to which we belong; That we reflect upon it and talk about it so that this instruction is assimilated and imbibed and our judgment informs the concrete decisions of our life here and now, in such a way that Tradition will be a strength and not a stumbling block; That we listen with wisdom to the historical reality in which we find ourselves. Just what is being asked of us here and now? How do we integrate it into our living tradition? What is our charismatic reply to the concrete challenges facing us nowadays? A misunderstanding can arise here: we can make the confusion between a shared vision and having a visionary interpretation. It would be of value here to point out the distinction. With a theory or visionary interpretation, one gets hold of an idea that is a part of reality and one emphasises it to the extent that it becomes the solution to understanding the whole of reality: it is to do a kind of violence to reality, an exaggeration which can only be kept up at the cost of often suppressing reality. This has been seen often enough in the ideologies of the last century. Truth is not an idea created by our spirit. God is the only one single absolute and universal truth, from which the smallest part of reality can be welcomed and understood. This is not a notional-god, but the living God, the Holy Trinity who is seen and heard in the human person of Jesus Christ. It is with Christ that we are one, that is to say, the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is by the Spirit's converting us to His way of looking at things that we will reach a shared vision. Dialogue brings about contact among people and the forming of Christian awareness. I will base myself on the document "Sharing out Christ" which places formative discussion and community discussion at the heart of the journey of renewal and formation that each community has to make. "The most demanding challenges that formation has to face nowadays are those of the values which dominate our worldly culture. The Christian message that life is a vocation, which means it stems from the Father's love and has to have a personal saving encounter with Christ in his Church, must be opposed to concepts and plans that are governed by extremely mixed cultures and social history. There is a risk that subjective choices, individual plans and local tendencies will prevail over the rule, the life style of the community and the apostolic plan of the Institute. We need to implement a formative discussion so as to be able to collect human, social and spiritual details of which everyone is the keeper, so as to know their human limitations which have to be overcome as well as the invitations of the Holy Spirit which can renew the lives of each person in the Institute. At this time of profound changes, formation must be careful to plant deeply in the hearts of young consecrated people, the human, the spiritual and the charismatic values needed for them to be able to behave faithfully and follow creatively the spiritual and apostolic tradition of the Institute. Institutes of the consecrated life are more and more characterised by a cross-cultural character, age differences and diversity of plans. Formation will have to train people in community dialogue in the warmth and the charity of Christ, while teaching a welcoming attitude to differences as a wealth and also how to take in the various ways of seeing and feeling. In this way, the constant seeking to be together in charity will itself teach us how to be Christian communities and will give an example of friendly coexistence among peoples." Dialogue is therefore of the utmost importance because of the vast differences in formation, culture and ways of thinking in today's world: a world that is ‘globalised' and to all appearances much of a muchness but which is without a fundamentally uniform culture. We are confronted with a society which does not recognise the Gospel as at all relevant. In society the very words do not have the same meaning, so it is important that within the monastery, words and the weight that we give them have to have a uniform meaning, particularly when we talk of the experience of God, of relationship, and of the Christian virtues like humility, faith, charity or obedience. From now on, as we live in a world which is basically so culturally diverse, we will have to pay very great attention to critical, intellectual and spiritual training. Henceforth, this training cannot simply come from conforming to good customs and from maintaining a silence where the word of God will be heard, as was the case in preceding generations. Nowadays we need to face up to reality: we need to talk and examine the real meaning of words so as to find out what is true and good and just what is false; words have to match judgments, judgements have to match the thoughts which inspire them and even more they must match the train of thought and the experiences which they stem from. The place of discussion in the initial training. What we call "formative dialogue" is that discussion which takes place during initial training. The most important part of the discussion is the role of the educator. Discussion during formation most of all takes place with the ‘trainer.' In the monastery, we meet JESUS, the Word incarnate firstly in the privileged relationship with the person who is our spiritual father and to whom we open our heart. Over the last few years the use of the term spiritual fatherhood has gradually been laid aside in favour of the term spiritual support. This change of vocabulary indicates the profound transformation in spiritual sensitivity. We have moved on from one who is in front of me to one who is at my side. Even if the word support seems to fit in with today's mentality it is instead filial relationship which completely and clearly expresses the idea. What is at stake here - and on this point monastic tradition is quite clear - is a free and responsible commitment which is quite different from that of a simple brotherly relationship. For the novice, it is by freely relinquishing his self-importance and independence he comes to realise that it is through another person's mediation that the grace of the Holy Spirit can begin to flourish. Saint Benedict considers that openness of heart is openness to the Lord himself. He quotes Scripture to this effect and he says explicitly that faith is the foundation of this relationship. Filial attitude really consists in this: a gradual opening of the heart to greet the word, believing that acting in this way is an expression of one's openness to the truth of Christ himself. Secondly, discussion takes place within the group, that is to say, all the brothers or sisters with the ‘trainer'. (In our case this meeting takes place each week in the noviciate and in the monastery.) At first, the discussion among the young concerns what they are reading and taking to heart concerning monastic life, its rules and its values, as well as each one's experience of these values and their new way of life. Usually we start by looking for what there is in common among people of so many different experiences. This is so that we can see what we share with each other. However, when we start to share ideas we very soon see that discussion is all very well in theory but there is a wide gap between what is understood on the one hand and the actual lives of everyone on the other hand. It is enormously difficult to bridge the gap between theory and reality. With the help of each other and guided by the master or mistress of novices, all those who are involved in this dialogue will be aware of certain contradictions. It will become obvious to each that there is an inconsistency in what he says and what he does; that his speech lacks truthfulness. It is here that we encounter just how potent is the power of discussion, its force for conversion. I really believe that later, as the years go by, this action of meditating on God's word for us, will penetrate ever deeper into each member of the community. This comes about because little by little the heart becomes more straightforward and open so that it welcomes the word of God which comes from everyone and every situation. Monastic discussion is first and foremost a seeking after the truth in communal life. Because of this it is an instrument in our quest for God. We can emphasize three aspects of this search for the truth: At the level of thought: This is sight which guides and directs our lives. We need dialogue in this case so that we can compare the new with old ideas which haunt us. This allows the transition; the change of mind (which is not just a straightforward accumulation of ideas). Each of us moves from the old way of looking at things to a new way which we will have in common. Nowadays, this procedure during the time of formation is fundamental, because the way of thinking of today's world is pervasive and remains in people despite their learning of Christian truths. At the level of the genuine nature of our person and our life: heart and mind must be united in what one feels and what one does. It is essential to have the help of others in this. It is very difficult to deceive those we live with who test the way we are and how we live. Discussion gives us the chance to complete the often unrealistic picture we have of ourselves. We are allowed- sometimes quite painfully- to become aware of our untruthfulness through the eyes of those who live with us. Together we seek a greater truth than we can find on our own. We seek the truth that the Holy Spirit reveals to the Church and which is much greater than our own. This is what it is, to strive towards the shared vision. So it is that discussion is a means of formation, brotherly correction and of re-training. Considering that such an instrument is so important, it must always be under the guidance of the novice master/mistress or the superior. Community discussion is formative as well, although it has a broader scope of investigation: it lets you share in the abbot's government, as the Community Council, but can often facilitate other functions, such as deciding about practicalities by way of an interpersonal exchange. I am convinced that at this level it is even more essential to define exactly what monastic discussion means: firstly it is not a pooling of ideas, nor is it a way of acquiring mutual information; an exchange of ideas. Dialogue within the Church is not a democratic debate, nor is it for the sake of a better psychological understanding. It is not enough to be generous if we wish to increase our discussion. The ability to discuss, to communicate, to listen and work together are not inevitably bound up with generosity. The Church's dialogue which is a means of seeking the truth is very different, as much in theory as in practice, from democratic dialogue where all ideas are considered as equally valid: where everything is acceptable and possible. In the Church's dialogue, everyone, and each person's way of life is welcomed and respected if it is sincere and genuine and leads to the truth. But all ideas are not equally valid: each idea has to be carefully assessed with due consideration for the known truth as well as the truth being sought. The list of all that is needed for discussion is very long indeed and a little daunting: thought, self-mastery, a humble awareness of the worth of one's beliefs, openness and kindness to one who differs, the ability to listen patiently, with both friendship and intelligence and also to have the ability to make suggestions. Above all, I think it is indispensable to always have the standpoint of faith which we talked about concerning the initial formation: it is the same sacramental relationship which extends to the very last of our brothers and sisters, precisely as Saint Benedict asks "that the brothers might obey one another". Lacking this fundamental standpoint of faith then no matter how beautiful the ideas are they will not bear the fruit of conversion. Community dialogue is a time of meeting when Jesus is truly present. We are united in his name and we are his Church seeking to grasp his thoughts and his will for us. We discover how to listen and communicate and build a community view and unity - quite often after following the path of reconciliation. We learn to detect the difficulties so as to be able to construct our shared vision. We all agree completely that we have to make the effort to love one another. It is much more difficult to realize that if I personally make the effort, the other person is also making the same effort, and the faith in the Holy Spirit which inspires me is also inspiring him. Belief in the love of the other person is based on the fact of being the Church, the Body of Christ. Community discussion is a tool for seeking the truth at several levels: the truth about oneself , brotherly correction, revision of one's life, admission of ones personal failings, asking for forgiveness; the truth of the practical way in the community: seeking concrete solutions by sharing ideas, taking the advice of the abbot in truth and humility in the spirit of the Rule, with decisions made by voting when necessary; the truth of the wider view of things: seeking God's view and the thought of Christ and his Church, his will for the community, our Congregation at this moment in the history of the Church and the world. This is why we need straightforward, willing hearts. It is the Lord who shapes us by his Spirit, our one concern is to become his disciples, this really means that we must listen and open our hearts. The real monk, the man who is mature and a man of peace, is he who faced with anything that happens to him and around him, is able to listen, to be filled with wonder and to learn. Who knows, it may be only at this price that we will become mothers and fathers; like Mary, whose only concern was to welcome the Word, and who, because of that, more than anything else, became Mother of God.
(Translated by Br Timothy Quick, St Augustine's Abbey, Ramsgate, England.)