Abbess of the Abbey of Notre-Dame Saint Eustase, Eyres, Moncube, France
In the days before the canonisation of Bernard Tolomei (26th April, 2009) a meeting of superiors was held in Rome at the instance of the Abbot General of the Olivetans. It was open to the other monks and nuns participating in the canonisation. The theme on this occasion of blessing was ‘What is the spirit of the Congregation?’ In this framework several testimonies were given, among them that of Mother Françoise.
My testimony is part of the story of the female branch of the Congregation, whose first stone is the monastery of Pal del Colle, founded in the year 1348, the year of the death of St Bernard Tolomei. This death was unexpected, the foundation of the monastery was not. It is important that Blessed Bernard had wanted this foundation; it is the oldest of the female monasteries in the history of the Congregation. My own monastery entered the Olivetan family only 600 years later. Founded in 966, my community had therefore lived for 982 years in the black habit of the Rule of St Benedict before becoming Olivetan.
A note on vocabulary: in the course of this contribution I shall use interchangeably two expressions ‘Blessed Bernard’ and ‘St Bernard Tolomei’.
What does it mean to me to be an Olivetan?
My personal testimony begins like this: when I entered the Abbey of Poyanne in 1966 the community was celebrating the millenary of its foundation, and the sisters had been wearing the white habit for 18 years. I and the other young entrants were the first ‘Olivetan’ vocations. What did that mean for us as postulants, then novices, then Olivetan nuns?
To begin with, we felt that we were entering a family larger than our community itself. We already knew Mesnil-Saint-Loup (the village and its history, not the present community, which had not yet returned); we also knew Maylis; we very soon came to know the Prioress of Moustieren- Fagne. Dom Gramont came to visit the Abbey, then Abbot General Dom Zilianti, our sisters of Korea and our sisters of Bec-Hellouin. We were part of a large family, varied but united round a successor of Blessed Bernard and round one Mother, the Blessed Virgin, whose white garment we wear.
This sign of a Marian consecration is a great strength to me and to the sisters who entered with me and after me. We like to recall the Chronicle of the Chancellery where it says that Blessed Bernard chose the Blessed Virgin as his ‘first and foremost sovereign’ and constituted her his ‘special advocate’. He prayed to her each day and made a point of ‘pleasing her with all his powers’ (MSS A Ch Ca 5). It is our aim to live the Benedictine life under the eye of this Mother and guided by this father, Bernard Tolomei. The patronage of the Blessed Virgin on our Congregation and her maternal care are a great comfort and an invitation to remain as humble as she was and strong in hope. In case of need, the Bambina of Mount Olivet would recall this to us!
The second point which has been important to me from the very beginning of my religious life has been the name of our Congregation and the mystery to which it alludes, Mount Olivet, the Mount of Olives, the place to which Jesus withdrew to pray in solitude during the night, the place where he lived out his agony, the place from which he left our earth for heaven. This name of Mount Olivet is for me an invitation to enter into intimacy with Jesus in his mysteries.
Later, getting to know the life of Blessed Bernard and his first brothers, I came to realise the profound attraction which they had to the contemplative life and the choices they made to live it: far from the world, they sought the solitude and tranquillity which foster contemplation; they wanted to be at leisure for God alone. It was ‘in the secret of silence’, ‘in the secret silence of the heart’ that the Blessed Bernard gave himself ‘to the embrace of divine contemplation’ (Ch Ca 26).
At the General Chapter of 2004 I sought out the hermitages of the first companions of Blessed Bernard. They are reached by a rough path through impressive country. For me this was a very strong sign from Bernard and his companions of the contemplative life to which the Church calls us by directing to us the saying of Christ, ‘Venite seorsum, come away’. Before this sign I not only feel at home in the Olivetan family but also find myself powerfully encouraged in my monastic vocation, ordered as it is wholly to the contemplative life.
How do we live the dimension of pure contemplation within the unum corpus?
My answer is simple enough: I just live it, and my sisters just live it, in the unum corpus of the Church! This dimension of the unum corpus applies first and foremost to the Church. The source of it is found in St Paul, ‘As the body is one, yet has many members… the body is not just one member, but is formed of several… If all were only one and the same member, what would become of the body? So there are several members and only one body’ (1 Corinthians 12).
So there are some enclosed monasteries, some less strictly enclosed and some without enclosure. There are brothers and sisters, and all form one body, serving one another. We do not have to construct this body, only to receive it and live it. It is therefore in remaining fully ourselves, faithful to the demands made on us by the Church, that we take our place in the unum corpus of the Congregation. By this we also continue the prayer of Blessed Bernard and his flight into the desert with Christ.
How can we be united to our brothers and sisters without leaving the monastery?
In the words of Verbi Sponsa no 6, ‘The contemplative life is our special way of being Church, of fulfilling community in the Church, of achieving a mission which benefits the whole Church’, and so benefits the whole Congregation. The text goes on, ‘This is why enclosed contemplatives are not required to participate in new forms of active presence. They remain the source of Trinitarian community, dwelling at the heart of the Church’.
This is at the service of the whole Congregation. What unites us to the Olivetan unum corpus is not the occasional excursions which bring us together physically, but fidelity to our specific charism, above all charity drawn from its source in the Trinity. Despite this, we have not on our own plumbed the depths of the charism of Blessed Bernard! By our hidden life we are no more than one element at the service of the whole body.
In what way does being Olivetan shape my Benedictine monastic vocation?
It was at the 1993 Symposium of Benedictine Sisters that I discovered the richness of the charism of Blessed Bernard and of the family which he founded on Mount Olivet. This Symposium at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome brought together for the first time Benedictine nuns and sisters, that is, enclosed sisters and sisters of the apostolic life, all following the Benedictine Rule. I do not know whether the monks have an equivalent situation. The priesthood implies a certain apostolate, even if it is a reduced apostolate, even for the most contemplative. Furthermore, the rules of enclosure are different. At Sant’ Anselmo during the month of September 1993, the unity of the two groups, nuns and sisters, made a problem and a difficulty. It was as though there were two worlds which had difficulty understanding each other and were in constant danger of upsetting each other, even though all were reaching out for an embrace. It was clear that the Rule of Saint Benedict alone was not enough to create cohesion, to unite such diverse members in one family.
At this Symposium we were four Olivetan representatives, Mother Erica, Prioress General of ‘Vita and Pax’, Mother Zoe, Prioress of Turvey, Mother Angela Choi, Prioress General of Pusan, and myself. Formally, the vocation of each of us was different. Nevertheless we immediately felt close to one another and united in the same family. Shepherded by the Blessed Bernard and his successor in the bosom of the Olivetan family, we easily lived out what seemed to be a problem in the assembly. None of the other Congregations present experienced the same situation: they were all either enclosed (Solesmes, Subiaco, etc) or apostolic sisters. As far as I know, only our Congregation brought together Benedictine vocations of different types in a single family and under a single Abbot General.
This is the way in which the charism of Blessed Bernard appeared to me to be strongest and most prophetic. The unum corpus that we have been discovering over the last ten years with the studies of CoReCo is a body which unites diverse members. All our monasteries, our communities, in the diversity of their forms of life, their liturgy, even their habit, are united by the grace of foundation by the one Father. The charism of a founder does not issue in a single model but develops or integrates a variety of vocations within a single family. It is in this unity that the fruitful grace of Blessed Bernard consists.
Blessed Bernard certainly knew and willed the foundation of Palo del Colle, but he could not foresee the vocation of Saint Frances of Rome almost a century later and everything which flowed from it. He could not envisage that one day in Korea there would be 44 sisters of perpetual profession, 51 of temporary profession, 25 novices, 12 postulants and 10 aspirants, that in all 532 sisters would be aggregated to his Congregation and would be glad to have him as their father. And would he have been able to imagine that six centuries after him the Congregation ‘Vita and Pax’, working for the unity of Christians, would be part of the Olivetan family? And the sisters of Jonesbro? The sisters of ‘Stabilite nella Carita’? Or the Olivetan oblates of the USA? Our female vocations in all their diversity are perhaps a memorial to the richness of the Congregation and its monks.
To return to the Symposium of 1993, what struck me most was the prophetic quality of our Congregation. Where others had difficulty in forging a unity between nuns and sisters, we lived this unity in our Olivetan family, without false hierarchy, respecting the differences and in the conviction that we were all children of the same father, Blessed Bernard and his successor, the Abbot General. The Abbot General is neither moderator nor Abbot President, but simply father, at the desire of Blessed Bernard (Const. MO no 1), and it is this paternity which lies at the base of our unity. Here I would like to thank our Abbot General for the face of a father which he has always shown us. When the Abbot General came to our monastery in 1995 for the canonical visitation I shared with him the experience I had had at the Symposium and my desire to deepen the links between our communities of sisters. That was the origin of our meetings of superiors on the occasion of the general chapters of 1998 and 2004, and then at Picciano in 2007. At this last meeting we resisted the temptation of ‘organising’ ourselves and creating a structure. With a feminine instinct we realised that this would make our relationships artificial: in a body everything is already organised for life, and merely living is quite sufficient for this life to flourish.
Union in a single family around the Abbot General, founded on respect for our differences and without a hierarchy among us is what for me constitutes the monastic heritage of Saint Bernard Tolomei, and is what characterises my Benedictine vocation as Olivetan.