A slice of Subiaco in Vietnam
Thomas Cole, Abbey of Pluscarden, Scotland
‘Well, I’m back’ or was it ‘There and back again’ I thought, as I stood under a leaden sky outside Aberdeen airport waiting for a bus, whose timetable and route had changed during my brief absence. Sombre figures moved passed me, some cursing the bus company, others scuttling for cover, and the cold rain continued its unwelcome welcome. It was all quite a contrast with the balmy autumn weather in the Bay of Plenty and the heat and sunshine of Vietnam in the month of May. I drew a deep breath, exhaled and wearily looked at the cool white vapours before me: even so, memories of the brethren at Thiên Phuoc, so distant, so different, raised the grey rain-curtain of the present.
My side trip to Vietnam, half a world away in the torrid sun-drenched tropics, was due to two reasons: the first was that I was returning to Britain from a visit to my parents in New Zealand, who were celebrating their joint 80th birthday, and Vietnam happens to be a good half-way point; the second was a desire to make a fraternal visit to a province in the Subiaco Congregation in the developing world that was greatly different from my own. In a sense it was to see the ‘other’ who was yet my brother and put into deed (concrétiser as the French might say) the development of fraternal bonds between the very disparate houses of the Subiaco Congregation which had been encouraged by the 17th General Chapter (Praglia 2004). My taste buds had been activated by the glowing reports of Vietnamese monasticism from Abbot Philip of Christ in the Desert (1) and an article by Prioress Agnes Lê Thi Tô Huonng of Thu Duc in the AIM Bulletin (2).
Father Abbot kindly allowed me to stay in Vietnam for six days, at the monastery of Thiên Phuóc, which is located in, or rather engulfed by, the ever expanding suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Staying in one house would allow me to ‘taste’ and enter into the monastic rhythm of the brethren, which, of course, is one of the main aims of a fraternal visit: to meet and to learn about the brethren of another monastery. A venture of this sort also allowed me to broaden my general knowledge about the Congregation and the Church in Vietnam. Catholicism is neither a new-comer to Vietnam, nor is it without cultural influence, as I discovered: individual missionaries were arriving in the early 16th century (circa 1533); by 1659 the Vicariate Apostolic of Ton King was erected; and in 1665 the first seminary was established. Missionary and prodigious converter, Alexandre de Rhodes S.J. (1591–1660), who built on the work of previous Portuguese missionaries, developed a phonetic, Romanised script (Quoc Ngu) which, by the early 20th century, replaced the pictogram method of writing Vietnamese.
Today the Catholic presence is not a hidden one, even under communist rule: the approximately 7 million Catholics (one of the largest Catholic populations in Asia), who make up about 7% of Vietnam’s roughly 86 million inhabitants, and some 11% of Ho Chi Minh City’s 8 million plus population (3), have, in spite of persecution, held onto their many churches and shrines around Ho Chi Minh City. Even in restaurants owned by Catholics there are shrines of the Holy Family proudly displayed in the public dining areas, as I discovered on a day-trip to the sea-side shrine of Vũng Taù. Churches are full for Mass and bells peal out unashamedly across the city: there even seemed to be some competition between the bells at Thiên Phuóc and those being rung by the sacristan of the neighbouring Catholic parish.
The Subiaco Congregation arrived rather late in the Catholic context, when the French abbey of La Pierre-qui-Vire established its foundation at Thiên An, outside the old imperial capital of Hue, in 1940. From Thiên An were founded the other 3 houses of the province: Thiên Hoa founded in 1962 and still dependent on Thiên An; Thiên Binh (founded 1970) about 60 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City; and Thiên Phuóc, which was founded in 1972 with a contingent of ten monks on the periphery of Saigon. These foundations served both as out-lets for growth and refuges for monks from Thiên An during the difficult period of the Vietnam war (4). Hue, being just south of the border with communist North Vietnam, was over-run on several occasions in the 1954-1975 period.
With the northern forces in full control of the South in April 1975 and the official unification of Vietnam the following year, there followed a period of hostility towards the Church, great suffering and general economic hardship. Fortunately, things took a turn for the better in 1986 when the communist authorities initiated the Doi Moi (renovation) policy which opened up the economy and brought with it a gradual relaxation on strictures placed on the Church. More liberalisation followed in 2001. The outcome for the Vietnamese province has been a staggering increase in vocations since the late 1990s.
So much for a general picture of Vietnam and the Subiaco Congregation in that country. My own experience of Vietnamese Benedictinism began after a nine-hour flight from Auckland, a six-hour wait at Singapore’s Changi airport, then the comparatively brief hour-and-a-half ‘hop’ to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon of old). I was out of the modern, spacious surrounds of Tân Son Nhat airport terminal within a few minutes, to be greeted by two patient brother monks from Thiên (heavenly) Phuóc (peace) monastery , Thay (= Brother) Benoit Vu Van Triêu and Thay Jean Hanh B (5). Vietnamese monks receive a saint’s name (often in the French form, due to the francophone influence of the colonial era) yet frequently use their Vietnamese names at the same time: initially confusing for this foreigner.
The first thing that struck me about Saigon, as I was driven from the airport, was the traffic congestion; the roads are jam-packed with motorscooters, trucks and buses. By far the most popular mode of transport is the motor-scooter. It was on the back of one of these contraptions (The monastery had about 30 of them but no cars. I think the civil authorities made owning a car very expensive in red tape and...‘donatives’) that I was taken to a local monastery of Benedictine nuns (Congregation of St Bathilde) one day by Thay Duc A (there is more than one Dúc here) and then, near the end of my stay, to the centre of Saigon to see the old presidential palace and the Catholic Cathedral. I had the easy part in the ride, sitting on the back; all I had to do was pray that the man in front of us, carrying a load of metal pipes lengthwise, would not stop suddenly or that we could safely wind our way through the intersections where traffic merged and danced in an unstopping flow of interlacing patterns from four directions. Where traffic lights exist, they seem to be for decoration, not direction. I am still not quite sure which side of the road the Vietnamese drive on, as the ubiquitous motor-scooter takes advantage of any space: frequently verges or ‘foot-paths’ on the sides of main roads would be used as adjunct lanes with scooters and bikes calmly moving in the opposite direction to the on-coming traffic.
The pulsating excitement of the roads pales in comparison to the fraternal welcome I was shown throughout my stay at the monastery of Thiên Phuóc. On arrival at the monastery, which lies down an unpaved road girded with fresh produce stalls (including baskets of stillswishing fish) off the bustling thoroughfare, Fr. Beda, the sub-prior and recently retired superior, was on hand to greet me since Fr. Michel, the new superior, was away on business. We immediately went into the monastery church and recited the Pater, Ave and Gloria together: our common belief and language made me feel at home at once. Fr. Beda had experienced the difficulties of being superior after the fall of the South in 1975: for many years the government did not allow the community to receive vocations, do construction work, or have ownership of the property, and limited movements and activities of the monks.
Although being slowly hemmed in by the buildings of the encroaching suburbs, Thiên Phuóc retains a peaceful market-garden type appearance with a wide belt of rice field, pasture for the cattle, and vegetable gardens separating the spread-out monastic buildings from the nearest dwellings. There is an unmistakeable tropical air: the tall palm trees in the cloister, frangipani and verdant growth everywhere aided by heat and the monsoon rains which appeared and disappeared in the afternoon, the burning sun and the paddy fields. The one disturbance on the horizon for this island of peace is the local council’s proposed widening and paving of the roads around the monastery, which will result in monastery land being ‘shaved’ off, without pecuniary compensation.
For the next six days I was to experience the renowned hospitality of the Vietnamese Benedictines. Thay (Jean) Hanh B would deliver different type of succulent Vietnamese fruit to my cell (6) each day as well as take care of small items for me, Thay (Benoit) Triêu acted as guide in the monastery and on a number of day-trips he most kindly organised for me, Fr Michel would constantly pass me food at table (and even peel eggs or fruit – I don’t think Fr Abbot will be starting that custom at Pluscarden) and I was approached by most of the community at some stage and asked daily if I had a good night’s sleep. At times I wondered if my hosts had mistaken me for some notable, incognito ecclesiastic, as on top of all this care, I was put at the high table and sat next to the superior during the Office. No, what I was witnessing was the Vietnamese attention to the guest, which only becomes stronger under the light of Christ and the Benedictine spirit. Something for me to learn!
The most important part of each day was, of course, Holy Mass and the Divine office which were celebrated in the monastery church. The community’s day starts with Lauds at 4.15 am (Vigils having been said the previous evening after Compline at 7.30p.m.) followed by Mass, then meditation. Sext at 10.55am is preceded by lectio divina in groups, and followed by dinner, while None at 1.30pm (preceded by a siesta) and Vespers at 5pm with meditation, sanctify the afternoon. At Thiên Phuóc, as at the other Vietnamese monastic houses where I dropped in, monks did not face each other across the choir but rather sat facing the altar in the same direction, with the aisle separating them. What a joy it was to be singing away the psalms in Vietnamese, antiphonally and sometimes with four-part harmony. Poor Fr Michel had to endure my attempts at pronouncing Vietnamese (a language built on tones and a bewildering number of vowel sounds) while singing. All was sung with manly gusto and purpose in spite of the heady heat which even made some of the younger brethren incline their heads towards the breath of the electric fans on the walls. Even at 4.30am the temperature was in the 30s and the only things moving swiftly were the fan blades and the wall-clinging geckoes darting at insects near the lights.
It was while sitting in church with the brothers, that I distractedly started to count them up: 79...but what was the group of men in the back row in white shirts? I was informed that this was the second group of postulants for this year. So the numbers were 90 in total (most of whom were under 40). Not all would make it through to solemn vows, perhaps about 60% to 70%. The explosion in vocations since the late 1990s, when the government started to remove restrictions on entry into monastic novitiates, is mirrored throughout the province with total numbers of monks in vows rising from 52 in 1990, to 114 in 2000 and to 217 in 2008. At the time of my visit in May 2008, Thiên Phuóc had 55 in vows (temporary and solemn), 14 novices and 21 postulants. Indeed numbers at Thiên Phuóc have reached such a level that, even with the recent addition of new dormitories and a specialist block (chapter room, library, computer room), which form three sides to a large cloister garth, the community is preparing a new foundation some 300 kilometres away in Buôn Me Thuôt. In addition, the Vietnamese Province intends to found a house in northern Thailand.
The day trip organised to the coastal area of Vung Tàu (known as Cap Saint Jacques under the French) some 130 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City illustrated to me the vitality of religious life in Vietnam. For on the way we stopped off at Thiên Phuóc’s sister monastery of Thiên Binh, where we shown around the extensive rural grounds and industries (fish ponds, fish sauce plant, plantations) by Frs. Christophe Duc and Simon Hoa Le. Here there were some 50 monks plus many postulants. Not too far up the road was the Cistercian (Common Observance) monastery of Phuóc Loc with its vast array of buildings to house its 200 monks. Towards Vung Tàu itself we stopped at a convent of an active congregation, founded in Vietnam in the 17th century, called Les Amantes de la
Croix/The Lovers of the Cross.7 These sisters were in a province of 900, the congregation itself numbered in excess of 2,000 sisters active in social work, and running kindergartens (Catholic schools are not yet allowed to exist above the kindergarten level by the government). Thus within 130 kilometres of Ho Chi Minh City there were three monasteries of men Thiên Phuóc, Thiên Binh, Phuóc Loc, all bursting at the seams with young vocations. I would be remiss if I did not mention the monastery of Thu Duc with its 60 plus cloistered nuns, a member of the congregation of St. Bathilde, which is aggregated to the Subiaco Congregation, and situated in the neighbourhood of Thiên Phuóc. Religious life thus seemed to be thriving and to have a young face.
In a developing country such as Vietnam, where desire for a better life may motivate individuals to chose the religious life, the superiors have taken care in selection and sifting of would-be monks. In the initial stages candidates are frequently met before postulancy and in the case of Thiên Binh, there is even a pre-postulancy house on the grounds of the monastery. At Thiên Phuóc, all candidates must have completed High School, some enter with a university degree and most are aged between 18 to 25 (a few are in their early thirties). Many are required to spend an extended period in temporary vows (up to nine years as allowed under Canon Law) before being accepted for solemn vows. There are also difficulties with so many young monks and very few seniors: formation and training in philosophy and theology pose great problems as the man-power is not readily available. A number of the Thiên Phuóc monks attend a Franciscan institute (transporting themselves daily through the dangerous traffic on scooters) a few kilometres away for their philosophy and theology, where to my surprise, I learned that the text books were in English, although the lessons were in Vietnamese. Here lies another difficulty: English is not well-known yet there is a need for it or French for higher monastic and theological studies. As an alternative to the Franciscan institute, a group will board with the Cistercians at Phuóc Loc, where there is a school of theology. Travel overseas for studies is expensive, and it is becoming ever more difficult to obtain entry visas to first-world countries with suitable institutions at a time when, ironically, it is easier for Vietnamese to obtain exit visas from their own government.
I cannot omit recalling my culinary experience at Thiên Phuóc. To keep such a large community on the move there is plenty of good Vietnamese cooking, for the Vietnamese believe in eating well and serving one another in the act of preparing food. Let me tell you, even ordinary breakfasts at Thiên Phuóc outdid any of the special 3 day pittances (breakfast) we have at Pluscarden at Christmas time: a large dish of pho (a spiced beef broth with thin slices of beef, noodles, bean-sprouts) accompanied by aromatic greens to throw in, sweet finger bananas, mangosteens, Vietnamese coffee (a tiny cup of individually percolated, strong coffee sitting over a layer of sweet condensed milk, which you mix with a spoon – an art form in itself) and copious amounts of green tea to wash it all down. Fortunately, I had built up my stamina during my stay with my parents and was thus able to rise to the challenge of breakfast and dinner...and supper: the last two have too many variables for me to recall except in the overall impression that Vietnamese food is very good and is very low in fats. Due to its location, tropical fruits are available all year round at low cost and these formed the standard dessert at meals. The only foods I turned down were embryonic eggs or whole fried baby birds (beaks and all). One point I noticed at table was that there was no pepper or salt cellars: fish sauce or slices of limes or peppers take their place. It was interesting to note that breakfasts (6.30am) and suppers (6pm) were accompanied by radio broadcasts from either Radio Veritas or Vatican Radio. Reading at dinner was rather a pass-the-baton-affair with a string of readers taking turns.
Dinners are a good place to watch a community in action. Here I could not but admire the cheerful zeal of the servers and the careful preparation of even the simplest foods by the monastic cooks. It was also at a special talking dinner to celebrate of Fr. Beda’s name day, which fell that year on the solemnity of Corpus Christi, that I had the privilege of meeting the Abbot Visitor of the Vietnamese Province, Abbot Stephane of Thiên An and a oblate of the monastery, Jean-Pierre Lam Vo Hoang. The latter gave witness to me of the mercy of God for he, after having served in the Thiêu administration before the fall of the South, had been imprisoned in a re-education camp by the new rulers and then, because of his expertise in economics, had been made a special adviser to the Prime Minister of Vietnam. Through all this, and loss of home and position, his faith remained intact by the grace of God.
If the Vietnamese eat well it is because they work hard. Even though Thiên Phuóc has many young monks studying, they all engage in manual work which, in Benedictine fashion, is inserted between the Offices from 9.30 – 10.30am and 2pm -4pm. There is also an early slot for study, classes or work 7.30am – 9.30am according to the monk’s role in the monastery. The following catalogue will give the reader a quick idea of the variety of work constantly taking place in this monastery: cooking three substantial meals a day for a large community in a kitchen which has large wood-fired stoves (gas and electricity are too expensive) when the air temperature is a humid 32 C; tending the rice fields and vegetable gardens surrounding the monastery; cleaning the building; maintaining a large guesthouse; motor-scooter maintenance; growing chrysanthemums for sale; producing and repairing their own garments (some undershirts, caps and other items are produced for sale); teaching within the community; harvesting fish (large and tasty), water cress and large water snails from several enormous fish ponds, caring for the small herd of Brahman dairy cows, as well as the spiritual works of chaplaincy for houses of women religious, confessions for visitors. Hospitality at Thiên Phuóc, as in most Benedictine monasteries, has a high profile: about 2,000 retreatants are accommodated in the 50-bed retreat-house per annum, many of whom are priests and religious. It is also apparent from the steady stream of day-guests, that the monastery has a considerable impact on people in the area, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. On the principle feast days, Christmas, Easter, All Saints and All Souls, and Tết (New Year) the crowds of day pilgrims are so great that there could be well over a thousand people receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation. One product of this passive Benedictine outreach is the 40 or so souls a year who are received into the Church at Thiên Phuóc.
Now, some months after my return, the cold and rain has lessened in Scotland but, fortunately the images of people and events I experienced in Vietnam have not. I even sport the dashing mini-habit (a cut-down, waist-length smock with hood, which monks may wear in place of a clerical collar when doing business in the world) so professionally sewn by the brethren at Thiên Phuóc, as a souvenir of my stay. Needless to say, I have an ‘ad usum’ on it for myself and have already worn it proudly into Elgin on shopping duty. What great signs of hope for the Church I have been privileged to see, what challenges remain! What limit is there to the power of the Lord, qui deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles, esurientes implevit bonis? These are a some of my poor observations after an all-too-brief stay of six days in Thiên Phuóc, truly named “Heavenly Peace” in the midst of the bustle of Ho Chi Minh City in the far south of Vietnam. May the reader forgive my unintentional inaccuracies and may the brethren at Thiên Phuóc accept my profound and public thanks for their truly fraternal, Benedictine welcome: Tam biet hen gap lai. Farewell, see you later.
In Memoriam Inhaxio Hoàng Anh O.S.B. 1965 -2008 R.I.P.
(1) Christ in the Desert belongs to our Anglo-American Subiaco Province.
(2) AIM 2007, no 89 ‘The Attraction of Monastic Life for young Vietnamese’.
(3) Before the post-colonial division of the country in 1955, Catholics were concentrated in the north. But when the Marxist regime was established in the north, many fled to the south, especially to the economically attractive region of Saigon.
(4) The conflict occurred in two periods after 1945, with the return of the French who opposed the nationalists/Marxists led by Ho Chi Minh till the Geneva Agreement of 1954 and the separation of the country into Marxist North Vietnam and democratic South Vietnam.
(5) In a large community like this, the Vietnamese distinguish those who bear the same Vietnamese name by a letter denoting the order of entry: thus Hanh B was the second Hanh to enter the community.
(6) Towards the end of my stay I discovered with some embarrassment that it was the bishop’s room, whence the air-conditioning and the en-suite facilities.
(7) See Bulletin AIM 2009, no 97, p. 97-105, ‘Confucianism and Religious Life’.