smpaulaMy name is Sister Maria Paula. I am Brazilian, and I belong to the Monastery of the Encounter, a foundation of the monastery of Our Lady of Bethany in response to the appeal of John XXIII for Latin America.

The first sisters arrived in Brazil, after a journey of three weeks aboard a cargo boat, in December 1963, just at the end of the first session of the Council. This first session dreamed of a servant, poor Church, and the sisters entered fully into this spirit. They settled on the outskirts of Curitiba in a still rural area and in two months built a little wooden monastery in the style of some poor houses in the neighbourhood. For three years they lived without electricity, praying the twelve psalms of Matins by candlelight and oil-lamps. They pumped their water by hand. The canonical erection of the monastery took place on 1st November, 1965, one month before the end of the Council. Thus they began living monastic life at Curitiba in the rather restless post-Conciliar era, which coincided with the military dictatorship.

I have been in France for two years for study, thanks to a bursary from the AIM. My purpose is to obtain a liturgical formation for a ‘full, active and conscious participation in the liturgy’ as Vatican II asks of us, for ‘Great are the works of the Lord, worthy of study and love’ (Psalm 110.2). By this the psalmist teaches us that in order to increase our love for the marvellous works of the Lord we need to study them to appreciate their deepest sense. When I return to Brazil I will need to pass on the richness I have received here. How? Both within the community and beyond it.

Within the community

St Benedict says that the monastery is a ‘School of the Lord’s Service’. The word ‘school’ shows that we are always progressing and that wenever cease to learn. In this school we are always in formation. It is a permanent condition; this implies exercises, study of doctrine, of scripture, of the teaching of Christ (cf. Proverbs 20.2, 4; 64.9). We are nourished in the great school which is the Church, that is, in the great tradition which gives us the Word of God, the liturgy, the Eucharist and also the writings of the monastic Fathers and the rich patristic literature.

Beyond the community

‘All guests who come should be received as Christ’ says the Rule. Hospitality is always most important for the Benedictine life. We welcome individuals and groups into our guesthouse. The guests are invited to our common prayer, and the sisters accompany them either spiritually or for a catechetical formation if they so desire.

The Rule also says, ‘The greatest care and concern should be given to the reception of the poor and strangers, because Christ is received especially in their persons’ (RB 53.15). The sisters have a very special care for the poor. We try to help them by listening, by sharing our resources; furthermore, when they make a retreat they do not pay for their stay. Nevertheless, in order to achieve this we work with our hands. Manual labour consists of a carpentry shop, liturgical furniture, icons and various preserves sold either on the spot or in the town. Unfortunately the revenue won by our activities is insufficient for our daily needs. But happily the Lord is our Shepherd and divine Providence never lets us down, for we have to support also our foundation in Amazonia, the monastery of Agua Viva, 4,000km away.

In 1989 the first three sisters were invited by the Prelature of Itacoatiara, deep in the Amazonian forest. Their prayer supports their work of evangelisation. Their little guesthouse accommodates priests and other Christians. Their monastery was built thanks to the help given by a German foundation. Situated deep in the equatorial forest, the monastery consists of several pavilions, a cloister with community rooms, cells and a library. The need was soon felt to enlarge the guesthouse, in order to welcome and accompany Christian groups who have no other place for recollection. The simplicity of the monastery is a sign of the presence of God.

To conclude my short testimony I hand over to Anne-Marie Crosville, a friend of the monastery, a consecrated laywoman, who has founded a reception-centre for street-children in the south of Brazil. This is a résumé of her impressions:
‘Anyone who is thirsty should come to me and drink.’ On 22nd October, after a long journey, I arrived at the monastery of Agua Viva in Itacoatiara, an oasis of Living Water located amid the hard reality of the Amazonians, 10km from the town. Twenty years ago the sisters of the monastery of the Encounter began to write this lovely history, based on confidence and abandonment, by founding this little monastery beside the road leading to Itacoatiara. ‘Beside the road’ implies knowing how to offer hospitality and be at the disposition of everyone, whoever they may be, who needs to stop and drink at the fountain of living water which the monastery is. This is what struck me when I arrived at this place of prayer and fraternal sharing. Contemplatives though they are, the sisters are near to the family life of the poorest who live around the monastery. The immense distances between communities makes the organisation of family life (education, health, religious celebrations) difficult, and the people suffer from this isolation. Often a boat is the only means of transport. The sisters have a discreet but important mission to these families. I had the joy of meeting several families on a boat, accompanied by two sisters – a meeting simple with the simplicity of the children of God. A number of children living far from the town come to the sisters for preparation for First Communion. Families also come to share the prayer of the sisters. This is a strengthening presence for people thirsty for peace and brotherhood. The kingdom of God is really being built up at the heart of the life of each brother and sister, especially the little ones and the outcasts. My stay in the monastery of Agua Viva was truly a moment of grace. It strengthened me in my mission of service to life. I thank each of the sisters for their gospel witness to faith and confidence.

On this joyful Sunday, following St Paul, I pray that ‘the joy and peace of God, which surpass anything which can be imagined, may keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.’ Amen!