"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012
The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch
We are not the only English foundation of Benedictines in Peru. The community of Tyburn Convent in London has been here longer than we have. In fact, it was at their suggestion that the Archbishop of Piura should ask the Abbot of Belmont to send monks to make a foundation. That was back in 1980, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. We have moved after many years in Tambogrande to Lima, while the Tyburn nuns moved from Piura to Sechura. I gave them their retreat a year or so ago. They have also made two more foundations, one in Columbia and one in Ecuador. D. Alex. who is in solemn vows and is trying to balance his monastic life, his job as bursar and his life as a student of philosophy at "The Faculty", originally made contact with us in Sechura. We owe the good sisters of Tyburn a lot. Anyway, in homage to them I publish a short video on their foundation in Columbia. They are neighbours of the Benedictine abbey of Guatapé, which has also helped us in many ways.
As I write, Fr Paul Stonham, Abbot of Belmont, is here. He is going this afternoon to visit Fr Joseph whom we left behind in the tropical north to care for his parish near Tambogrande. When we made our move to Lima we did not have the heart to abandon the people of Cruceta; sao Fr Joseph lives with his cat and looks after the parish. The abbot comes quite frequently to Latin America because he represents the interests of monasteries in this region in a fund, called AIM, by which rich monasteries in the first world help poor ones in the third.
We have also had two three month visits from Fr Francis McKenna who is helping us out in many ways, especially in the choir and in the kitchen: his cooking is as good as his singing!!
My next edition of this blog will be written at Belmont. My book "Heaven Revealed. The Holy Spirit and the Mass" is being launched at Belmont and published by Gracewing on November 27th. I am writing a third on the Sacraments of Initiation, but it doesn´t yet have a title. At Belmont I shall have of time to talk with Br Juan of this monastery who is doing his noviciate under the expert guidance of Fr Brendan. In January I hope to spend some time hearing confessions of people who visit the Basilica of St Paul-Outside-the Walls in Rome. In that case, this blog will have a definitely Roman look in January.
Ever since we arrived at Pachacamac in August, 2006, we have had a problem. A man with the same family name as St Martin of Lima had invaded the high ground adjacent to the land we had bought and claimed it for himself. This land officially belongs to the state but was normally given to the owner of the habitable lower land next to it, and we plans to build our monastery on it. In fact, we had possession, but he went with people, threatened the watchman who fled, burned down his house and said that it had always been his. Both sides appealed to the Law, and the fiscal ruled that neither side should enter until the dispute had ended. Both sides signed a paper to that effect, but he remained where he was. People like him thrive because of three factors. Firstly, most people do not have papers to prove that the land they live on or use for agriculture is really theirs. Secondly, the law is slow and extremely complicated: the laws governing land have changed radically three times in three years, so that the lawyers often do not know what the latest law is and are not sure how it is to be interpreted, even if they know it; and the authorities that administer the law have totally changed twice in the same period. Thirdly, most people do not have the money, the patience or the self-confidence to defend themselves. The man who invaded the land that would have normally been ours has a long record of disputes with other people over the same kind of thing. That is how he earns his living; but he has managed to stay out of prison. Mostly, people are willing to pay him to leave or he keeps the land unopposed. He is even in dispute with h9is own family!! When we took him on, many people who have been his victims hoped that he would lose this one. After three years in which his lies had to be investigated, he did lose, and he has received a suspended sentence of two years. About four months later - Peruvian legal processes are extremely SLOW - the judge´s secretary went with our lawyers to the area and we were formally given the administration of the land; but we now have to buy it from the state, even though formally, under the old laws, we would have been given it if all this hadn´t happened. I hope we can find the money.
I wished to come to this place so rich in history in order to draw attention to the fundamental directive of Saint Benedict…. Quite simply, Benedict insisted that “nothing be put before the Divine Office.”
For this reason, in a monastery of Benedictine spirit, the praise of God, which the monks sing as a solemn choral prayer, always has priority. Monks are certainly not the only people who pray; others also pray: children, the young and the old, men and women, the married and the single – all Christians pray. Or at least, they should!
In the life of monks, however, prayer takes on a particular importance: it is the heart of their calling. Their vocation is to be men of prayer. In the patristic period the monastic life was likened to the life of the angels. It was considered the essential mark of the angels that they are adorers. Their very life is adoration. This should hold true also for monks. Monks pray first and foremost not for any specific intention, but simply because God is worthy of being praised.
Our light, our truth, our goal, our fulfilment, our life – all this is not a religious doctrine but a person: Jesus Christ. Over and above any ability of our own to seek and to desire God, we ourselves have already been sought and desired, and indeed, found and redeemed by him! The roving gaze of people of every time and nation, of all the philosophies, religions and cultures, encounters the wide open eyes of the crucified and risen Son of God; his open heart is the fullness of love.
The core of monasticism is adoration – living like the angels. But since monks are people of flesh and blood on this earth, Saint Benedict and Saint Bernard added to the central command: “pray,” a second command: “work.” In the mind of Saint Benedict, part of monastic life, along with prayer, is work: the cultivation of the land in accordance with the Creator’s will. Thus in every age monks, setting out from their gaze upon God, have made the earth live-giving and lovely.
Your primary service to this world must therefore be your prayer and the celebration of the Divine Office. The interior disposition of each priest, and of each consecrated person, must be that of “putting nothing before the Divine Office.” The beauty of this inner attitude will find expression in the beauty of the liturgy, so that wherever we join in singing, praising, exalting and worshipping God, a little bit of heaven will become present on earth. Truly it would not be presumptuous to say that, in a liturgy completely centred on God, we can see, in its rituals and chant, an image of eternity.
In all our efforts on behalf of the liturgy, the determining factor must always be our looking to God. We stand before God – he speaks to us and we speak to him. Whenever in our thinking we are only concerned about making the liturgy attractive, interesting and beautiful, the battle is already lost. Either it is Opus Dei, with God as its specific subject, or it is not. In the light of this, I ask you to celebrate the sacred liturgy with your gaze fixed on God within the communion of saints, the living Church of every time and place, so that it will truly be an expression of the sublime beauty of the God who has called men and women to be his friends.
The soul of prayer, ultimately, is the Holy Spirit. Whenever we pray, it is he who “helps us in our weakness, interceding for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26).
As a spiritual oasis, a monastery reminds today’s world of the most important, and indeed, the only decisive thing: that there is an ultimate reason why life is worth living: God and his unfathomable love.
But just as a liturgy which no longer looks to God is already in its death throes, so too a theology which no longer draws its life-breath from faith ceases to be theology; it ends up as a array of more or less loosely connected disciplines. But where theology is practised “on bended knee,” as Hans Urs von Balthasar urged, it will prove fruitful for the Church.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard, who entered the monastery along with thirty of his companions, is a kind of patron saint of vocations. Perhaps it was because of his particular devotion to Our Lady that he exercised such a compelling and infectious influence on his many young contemporaries called by God. Where Mary is, there is the archetype of total self-giving and Christian discipleship. Where Mary is, there is the pentecostal breath of the Holy Spirit; there is new beginning and authentic renewal.
In the words of Saint Bernard, I invite everyone to become a trusting child before Mary, even as the Son of God did: “Look to the star of the sea, call upon Mary … in danger, in distress, in doubt, think of Mary, call upon Mary. May her name never be far from your lips, or far from your heart … If you follow her, you will not stray; if you pray to her, you will not despair; if you turn your thoughts to her, you will not err. If she holds you, you will not fall; if she protects you, you need not fear; if she is your guide, you will not tire; if she is gracious to you, you will surely reach your destination.”
This will be my last annual letter as Abbot General. As everyone knows, I intend to offer my resignation during the next General Chapter, and I am sure it will be accepted.
Eighteen years have gone by since the first time I wrote you. That first letter was a sort of self-introduction in which I opened my heart to show what was there: Jesus, Mary, the Gospel, the Church, the Rule, Cîteaux, Man. This last word was absolutely inclusive, meaning both man and woman. These seven words led to a second letter on the Cistercian School of Charity. Both letters were youthful and passionate testimonials.
Today, having experienced the many things that have happened, I feel completely the same as before and yet rather different. The passing years do not fail to have their effect, even though what is most essential and most proper to me remains the same.
In this letter I would like to share with you what has remained constant in my monastic identify and what has become a characteristic of my identity as a person. I intend to be both testimonial and traditional in my approach. Using the words of the Fathers, I will speak to you about what I have been doing ever since I entered the monastery and even more so since I was asked to take on the service of general authority.
I hope what I say will be of use for reflection and self-evaluation before the mirror of the Lord, just as it has been for me while writing this letter.
1. Invitation and Response
A word of the Lord that has dwelt in me since the time of my novitiate is: “Seek me and you will live” (Am 5:4). Perhaps that is why I always hear in my heart: “Seek my face” (Ps 27:8).
And this seeking is neither fruitless nor empty; rather, it revels in the promise of meeting or finding: “You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer 29:13; Dt 4:29). As we can see, this promise is all-demanding: “when you seek me with all your heart.” Or, to use the words of the Psalmist that so often echo in our prayers:
- O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water. (Ps 63:2)
- Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God. (Ps 42:2–3)
But the most important thing for me has not been so much my effort in seeking as my gratitude for encountering. For, “God is good to those who seek” (Lam 3:25). Moreover, he comes to take us to himself (Jn 14:3), and goes so far as to ask us frequently, “Whom do you seek?” (Jn 20:15).
Monastic life in all times—and in my own life, which has fed on this great tradition—has understood itself in this pair of terms: to seek and to find. Two Biblical texts point the way:
- “Such are they who seek him, seek the face of the God of Jacob.” (Ps 23:6)
- “Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves […] I will seek him whom my soul loves […] I found him whom my soul loves.” (Sg 3:1–5)
Saint Benedict, in his Rule for monks and nuns, considers sincere seeking as one of the fundamental criteria for vocational discernment: “The concern must be whether the novice truly seeks God” (RB 58.7). And the main characteristics that guarantee the truthfulness of this search are “eagerness for the Work of God, for obedience and trials” (obprobria, according to Saint Basil’s Rule 6, means ‘household chores’). In other words, this seeking means concrete commitment to everything that makes monastic life a life oriented toward pure and continuous prayer and a school of divine service and fraternal communion. The concrete search for God translates desire into praxis, thus showing that one’s desire for God is genuine.
An obvious prerequisite here—for novices and for all of us persevering on the monastic way—is a faith-filled certainty that God has sought us out and continues to seek us out in order to make us happy: “Seeking his workman in a multitude of people, the Lord calls out to him and lifts his voice again: ‘Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?’” (RB Prol. 14–14; see also 27:8–9).
Our Cistercian Tradition has always considered the Song of Songs to be a contemplative and nuptial poem. This was how Bernard of Clairvaux, William of Saint-Thierry, Gilbert of Hoyland, John of Ford, and Geoffrey of Auxerre saw it. And it was experienced as such by Lutgard, Matilda, Gertrude, and so many others. And this is the way I have been discovering it over time, in progressive openness to the gift of God. In more precise terms: “to seek God for his own sake alone, this is to possess a face made most beautiful by the two elements of intention [i.e., the object: what is being sought; and the cause: why one is seeking]. This is the bride’s own special gift…” (Bernard, SC 40.3; CF 7:201)
Our Fathers often use Psalm 23:6 to describe the identity of monks. The following passage from Saint Bernard has always spoken to my heart:
We do not stand here all the day idle. We know what we are looking for and who it is that hired us: We seek God; we await God. […] See, the time for seeking and the day for finding are at hand: “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call on him while he is near” [Is 55:6]. […] “How good you are, Lord, to the soul that seeks you” [Lam 3:25]. And if you are good to those who seek you, how much more to those who find you! […] Seek him, brothers, “Seek the Lord and be strengthened, ever seek his face. [Ps 104:4] Seek the Lord, and your soul will live” [Ps 68:33]. “And my soul will live for him,” because it is dead to the world. The soul that lives for the world does not live for him. Let us seek so as never to stop seeking him, so that, when he comes to seek us, he will say of us: “Such is the generation that seeks the Lord that seeks the face of the God of Jacob” [Ps 23:6]. (Bernard, Div 4.1 and 4.5)
From those who have ruminated on the writings of the Abbot of Clairvaux for many years, I have learned that his doctrine comes down to this: mutual seeking between God and the human person created for love. And that is why his teaching is the narration of a love story. This whole adventure of love-filled seeking is nicely summarized in sermons 80–85 on the Song of Songs, sermons that comment on the words of the Canticle: “I sought him whom my soul loves” [Sg 3:1].
The theoretical and practical program of the Cistercian Schola caritatis likewise focuses on this mutual and loving search, rooted in the image of God and in the lost likeness that is restored through conformation with Christ. Experience has taught me that my “interior life” consists in this: attention-to the Lord and tension-toward him who seeks me and loves me. I seek by desiring, and I find by loving. The monastic observances are at the service of—and at the same time manifestations of—my seeking-finding and reciprocal love with the Lord.
William of Saint-Thierry, a good friend of my friend Bernard of Clairvaux, has taught me to pray as follows:
Lord, I will seek your face and continually search for your face as much as I can and as much as you render me capable of doing. Lord my God, my one hope, hear me lest exhausted I lose the will to seek you. May I ardently seek you always. Give the strength to seek, you who have given the desire. And when the strength is sufficient, add to the desire which you have given. May I always remember you, understand you, and love you until, faithfully remembering you and prudently understanding you and truthfully loving you, O Triune God, according to the fullness which you know, you reform me to your image in which you created me. (Enigma of Faith 23; CF 9:55–56)
2. Prayerful Seeking
Prayer, in all its forms and expressions, has been a priority for me in this experience of seeking and encountering God in Christ. Saint Benedict, who is quite clear in this regard, thus recommends: “First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to him most earnestly to bring it to perfection. […] What is not possible by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace (RB Prol. 4 and 41). And, putting it more briefly: “Indeed, nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God” (RB 43.3); “Listen readily to holy reading, and devote yourself often to prayer (RB 4.55–56).
I would like to dwell a moment on the monastic experience of prayer as relation, communication, and communion with God.
This experience has its foundation in our being as persons. As human persons, we are persons in relation, and therefore dialogical beings. Our inherent capacity for communication requires existential communion. Our demand for communion is satisfied solely in union with Absolute Being, i.e. God.
And yet, prayer is not predominantly a psychic or psychological activity; rather, it is a God-centered activity. Prayer begins in God and, by his grace, continues in us as participants.
When we pray in the state of grace, as God’s friends or brides, we relate to him through living faith, that is to say, a faith that is enlivened by love or a faith that has fallen in love. On the contrary (and God forbid!), when we pray apart from grace or in a state of sin, for having denied the Lord, we pray with faith but without love, that is, a faith that is dead, because it is not enlivened by love.
The essential forms that give shape to our life of prayer are the Celebration of the Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Hours, lectio divina, and intentio cordis. The liturgy especially shows forth the spiritual aim of our monastic life, and is extended and interiorized through lectio and silent personal prayer. In two earlier letters I spoke to you about the Eucharist (1994) and lectio divina (1993). Consequently, I will limit myself here to speaking briefly about the Liturgy of the Hours and intentio cordis.
2.1. The Liturgy of the Hours
The Liturgy is clearly both the backbone of our monastic day and one of the mainstays of our continuous prayer. The Liturgy thus tends to become a matter of routine for everyone except aspirants and novices. It is therefore useful periodically to motivate ourselves, in order that this sacrifice of praise and intercession be carried out in spirit and truth, that is to say, in communion with our brothers and sisters and with Christ the High priest.
Ever mindful of our weakness, it is the Patriarch Benedict who provides me with two bits of advice for avoiding this automated habit or custom we call routine.
The first piece of advice, taken from the Word of God, is best presented in Latin: Psallite sapienter (RB 19:4). Translations of Psalm 47 (46), where these words are found, tend to be very different one from another, and the same diversity is noticed in translations of the Rule. What is it that Abbot Benedict is advising here? What I was taught, what I learned, and I what I have in turn taught to others is the following:
- To chant with reverence, respect and fear of God, which is a form of humility and the beginning of wisdom. These attitudes place us correctly before the presence of God.
- To organize and execute everything artfully (Psalm tones, silences, readings, etc.), in order to be at peace and content in the Opus Dei. Spontaneous interventions are discerned according to their usefulness for the edification of one’s neighbor and the assembly at prayer.
- To taste and savor the spiritual meaning (allegorical, tropological, and anagogical) of the Psalms we sing, which does not mean doing exegesis during the office, but, rather, letting Christ make himself present to us.
- Giving priority to the Lord’s pleasure in hearing us over our own pleasure in singing to him. Our attention is thus centered away from ourselves, freeing us from self-interest.
Some think that these two words, psallite sapienter, are merely a foretaste of what immediately follows, that is, the second piece of advice Saint Benedict offers us: Ut mens nostra concordet voci nostrae (RB 19:7). I have always found in these words an ascetical-mystical itinerary that begins with attention and ends with communion. To put it succinctly:
- To pay attention to the words, and realize how tremendous the truths are that we speak and that the Lord causes us to speak: cursing Psalms included!
- To take serious what we say, in order that the Psalms translate into behavior and shape our way of life: “God helps those who help themselves.”
- To be in tune with the voice of the brothers celebrating the Opus Dei, in order to attain a single mind and single heart among all, until we are raised all together toward eternal life.
- To be in tune with the Voice of the One who alone prays, so that there be only one Person at prayer: this is the moment in which there is a great silence in heaven.
The following text from the Abbot of Clairvaux helps me summarize what I have been saying, and likewise helps me move into the theme that follows. Note how Bernard applies what Benedict says about individual prayer to both the Opus Dei and private prayer:
From what was just read in chapter, the authority of the Holy Rule has called your attention to reverence in prayer, and I take it as an opportunity to say a few things on this subject of prayer. To put it briefly, I think that not a few of those who pray occasionally experience dryness and a kind of dullness of mind, so that, praying only with their lips, they do not pay enough attention to what they are saying or to the One to whom they are speaking. The reason for this is that they came to prayer as out of habit, with less reverence and care than is fitting. Of what should a brother who goes in to pray be thinking, if not the words of the prophet: “I will go to the place of the wonderful tabernacle, unto the house of God” [Ps 41:5]? Indeed, at the time of prayer, we must enter altogether into the heavenly court, that court where “the King of Kings is seated on a throne set with stars,” surrounded by an innumerable and unspeakable army of the spirits of the blessed. […] With what reverence, what fear, what humility must he come forward, this vile little frog [vilis ranuncula], creeping out from his swamp? How fearful, supplicant, and humble, how carefully and with what total attention of soul [sollicitus et toto intentus animo] will this poor little fellow appear before the divine majesty, in the council and assembly of the saints and in the presence of the holy angels? Therefore, in all our actions, but especially in prayer, there is need for utmost vigilance of soul. As we read in the Holy Rule, the eyes of God are upon us at all times and in all places, but especially when we are at prayer. For, although we are always seen by him, at the time of prayer we also present ourselves and show ourselves as if speaking face to face with God. God may be everywhere, but we must pray to him in heaven, and it is there that our thoughts should turn at the time of prayer. Our minds should not be held up by the roof of the oratory, or the atmosphere, or the thickness of the clouds, but we should pray in the way Christ taught us: “Thus shall you pray: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’….” (Bernard, Div 25.7–8)
2.2. Intentio cordis
The first Benedictine mystic, i.e. Saint Benedict himself, is no “theoretician” of personal and private prayer. Being a practical man, he instead offers us some pointers that spring from his experience, both personal and in community. These pointers are found especially in the chapter of the Rule dedicated to the oratorio of the monastery (RB 52). The Patriarch’s simplicity, in contrast to the artificiality of so many modern methods of prayer, won over my heart from the very first day: “…he may simply go in and pray…with heartfelt devotion” (RB 52.4).
What Benedict suggests and teaches about praying privately with greater recollection, I understand, in communion with the Cistercian tradition, in terms of desire, affection, and loving adherence brought about by divine grace. Here are two texts that endorse my way of understanding:
Prayer is the affection of one who clings to God, a certain familiar and devout conversation, a state in which the enlightened mind enjoys God as long as it is permitted. (The Golden Epistle 179; CF 12:71).
Prayer fulfils the function of both myrrh and incense. First it gathers and binds together into yourself your affections when you pray; then it releases them to transmit them to God. What is more like myrrh, when there is such an outpouring towards union with God? What is more like incense, when there is such an effusion towards some perception of God? (Gilbert of Hoyland, SC 28.7; CF 20:348)
This prayer must be frequent and timely, that is to say, assiduous and at the proper times. On this latter point, Saint Bernard wrote toward the end of his life:
A time of leisure is best and most convenient, the deep silence when others are asleep is particularly suitable, for prayer will then be freer and purer. “Arise at the first watch of the night, and pour out your heart like water [effunde sicut aquam cor tuum] before the face of the Lord, your God” [Lam 2:19]. How secretly prayer goes up in the night, witnessed only by God and the holy angel who received it to present it at the heavenly altar! How pleasing, how unclouded it is, colored with the blush of modesty! How serene, how calm, free from noise and interruption! How pure it is, how sincere, unsullied by the dust of earthly care, untouched by ostentation or human flattery! Therefore the Bride, as modest as she is cautious, when she desired to pray, that is, to seek the Word—for they are the same—sought the privacy of her bed at night. (Bernard, SC 85.3; CF 40: 213–14)
Let us notice that, in this Bernardine text, search for the Word takes place especially in prayer; therefore, to pray and to seek are one and the same thing. Let us also take note of the image of “water poured out,” with reference to heartfelt devotion or intentio cordis.
The teaching of Abbot Gilbert of Hoyland is similar to that of the Abbot of Clairvaux, in that the hours of the night are thought to foster this heartfelt devotion or intentio cordis in prayer:
But not even the intervals at night between the hours of common prayer are unoccupied. O God of goodness, how unlike night is that hour of the night, how that night is an illumination in delights [Ps 138:11]! Those prayers are made in private but they make petition for nothing private. The voice is indeed more subdued but the mind is more intent [sed mens intensior] and silent prayers are full of inspiration. Often indeed passionate prayer outstrips the voice; it neither needs nor uses words, for it is borne on the winds of pure and full affection. Love alone, beating on the ears of the Lord, disdains the sound of articulate words, which though they spur the beginner only impede one whose prayer is perfect. (Gilbert of Hoyland, SC 23.3; CF 20:287)
I recall one day, when I was Abbot of Azul, explaining the Order’s Constitution 22, that a brother put me to the test by asking: “in a few words, what is intentio cordis?” In order to hide my ignorance, I took some time before answering, and consulted an Australian monk, who referred me to the tradition. Here is my answer for both then and now. The references we find to intentio cordis in John Cassian’s Conferences and Institutes, as well as in the Rule of Saint Benedict (RB 18.1; 35.17; 48.18; 58.6), allow us to conclude that, when the Patriarch recommends heartfelt devotion, he is inviting us to pray with a unified heart, reaching out to God. Breaking it down into its different headings, we have attention, motion, and fervor:
- Integrated and fervent movement of the heart toward God.
- Intense outpouring of a heart that is undivided and directed toward God.
- Taut and relaxed inner attention to God.
This was precisely the disposition of Bl. Gabriella Sagheddu on the day of her monastic profession: “I thank you with complete outpouring of my soul, and, as I pronounce the holy vows, I abandon myself entirely to You” (Prayer written for the day of her profession, October 31, 1937). In short, it is a matter of the pure prayer of a heart that is trying to live a pure life, which leads to continuous prayer.
Considered in this way, intentio cordis is the twin sister of spiritual desire, which finds fulfillment solely in the Life and happiness of God. It is this that Saint Benedict teaches me and that daily motivates me in my seeking: “Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire” (RB 4.46).
It is already time to conclude. Some of you have asked me what I plan to do after my resignation. I am surprised by the question. The answer seems obvious to me: to go back to my community of profession and continue seeking and finding the Lord for his glory and our happiness!
With a fraternal embrace in Mary of Saint Joseph,
Bernardo Olivera Abbot General The Hermitage of Thomas Merton (Fr Louis OCSO)
Everything that starts comes to an end. I remember that at the very moment when I was elected Abbot General, as the sound of applause filled the hall, I thought to myself, “Remember how it will end.” It was not a pessimistic updating of “Memento Mori: Remember Sister Death,” but a helpful realization of our limited being and doing, a realization that leads to freedom. What at that time was in the future is here today.
As a “Goodbye”, I will try to share with you a few lessons which have enriched my life in these recent years. This is without any pretension on my part, but simply as a brother who returns what he has received.
Because of a basic discretion and a certain spiritual shyness, I will not go into all I learned from the assassination of our brothers of Atlas for their faith in Christ, nor from what I learned through my own bad health, from the possibility of dying and from the Spirit’s whisper within my own heart. For totally different reasons, I will not go into all I learned from several outstanding teachers, namely, from our older brothers and sisters, from having a sense of humor, from the many unfinished projects, from the failures, setbacks and the acceptance of my own mistakes.
1. Service in the “Central Government”
First, a brief word about my general experience while serving in the “central government” of the Order. For the sake of putting us in context, we are, canonically speaking, a monastic Congregation which at present unites 97 monasteries of monks and 72 of nuns. According to the statistics of January 1, 2008, we are 2,185 monks and 1,782 nuns, for a total of 3,967 persons living in 47 different countries. It is easy to imagine how the Abbot General has 170 “autonomous” Superiors over him, whom he should obey.
In 1990, at the beginning of my time as Abbot General, we were 2,797 monks and 1,876 nuns, making a total of 4,673 persons. So it is easy to see that today we are 706 persons fewer. In contrast to this decline, we also see that between 1990 and the present there have been 11 foundations or incorporations of monks and 13 of nuns, which means 24 new communities. And there are 4 more projects for foundations in the works. However, 3 autonomous houses and 2 foundations were closed during this same period.
The multiplication of foundations deserves special study and analysis. Simply their existence has taught me many lessons, but that is not what I want to discuss here.
We usually say that we are a decentralized Order, but it is clear that this does not mean a disordered Order, nor does it mean a lack of organization or not having a “central” authority. This central authority resides in the General Chapter which meets every three years. When this Chapter is not in session, the Abbot General acts as its Vicar, according to the Constitutions. His service is, above all, pastoral. It is supported by his right to make canonical Visitations and the possibility of taking exceptional decisions in special situations. This pastoral, subsidiary service is carried out in the context of three other functions which are also important, namely being a bond of union among the communities, the protector and promoter of our patrimony, and the sparkplug of spiritual renewal. In other words, his is an authority which corresponds closely to the nature of an Order or monastic congregation formed by “autonomous” monasteries related among themselves by bonds of filiation and paternity.
Since we are a “decentralized” Order, it is easy to see that the temptation or accusation of “centralization” is something really serious. History teaches that it is easy to succumb to this temptation, on the central level and also on the local level.
History also teaches lessons which we are not always aware of. Here are three examples. It could happen that we confuse things and call “centralization” what is really just pastoral and administrative efficiency, or promptness in acting when circumstances require it. On the other hand, however, it could also happen that we point our finger at the “higher” echelons, without realizing that the fault lies on our own level of authority. We have all known authoritarian abbots or abbesses, who accuse the Father Immediate or the Abbot General of “centralization” without being aware that their own communities accuse them of precisely the same thing. To be fair, it should be recognized that all this can be applied as well to other higher levels of government. There will always be those who accuse “Rome” for its centralization and protect themselves by justifying a certain autonomy for themselves, which is really nothing else than an unjustified monopoly of authority.
As I rethink the question of how long the Abbot General’s mandate should be, now that I am free to give an opinion without fear of being personally involved, it seems to me that the most adequate solution is an indeterminate mandate with the possibility of an evaluation after 12, then 15 years, followed by the presentation of his resignation after 18 years. I base this opinion on four reasons which are backed up by lived experience: the first reason is to have, ad intra, a certain sense of continuity avoiding ossification. Secondly, it is to let him know and become known ad extra, above all in Vatican circles. A third reason is to free the General Chapter for treating themes which more directly concern the life of our communities. And fourthly – I might as well be frank and I trust that you will take this with a grain of salt – it is to avoid too frequent encouragement of personal ambitions!
2. The value of cultures and of interculturation
The human person is “unique in relation to others.” We are “autonomous” in order to be “interdependent.” And this is so in a context which is historically determined by time, geographically determined by place and culturally determined by the form of life one embraces. In fact two more realities can be added: the generational factor of one’s age in life and the sexual determination of being a woman or a man.
We human beings live and have our being in a concrete culture, but the culture does not explain everything. There is something in us that transcends our culture, despite the fact that the immense majority of persons are children of a determined culture, while those who are its fathers or mothers are very few indeed.
We all know what is popularly meant by “culture.” It is made up of the ways human life is cultivated on the basis of certain preferred values. According to this definition, we can speak of a “youth culture,” of a “feminine culture,” of a “Christian culture,” and of a “monastic culture,” according to different forms of cultivating existence, forms oriented by certain basic values.
The fact of the plurality of cultures has two results: we become interested in what others have, but at the same time, it is difficult for us to understand those of another culture. This is where the reality of intercultural relationships enters into the picture. It means dialoguing between and among the different cultures, which implies accepting the differences, mutually sharing their values and coming to an agreement on basic values which are held in common.
We usually say, correctly, that monasticism is a “transcultural” phenomenon, since no culture has a monopoly on it and monastics very often withdraw into solitude on the margin of their society and culture. There is something true here, but it is also true that monasticism is a cultural phenomenon, since it exists in a given culture and creates a subculture within the context of that broader culture. There is no doubt that we monks and nuns, within the context of different cultural traditions, cultivate our existence by emphasizing its dimension of interpersonal relationship with God through very specific intermediaries.
Now the monasteries of our Order are in different places, both geographically and culturally. The process of “inculturation” of our monastic life officially began in 1969 with the approval by the General Chapter of the Decree on Unity and Pluralism. Several factors have helped us keep and even increase the unity of the Order, despite the warnings of certain pessimists and prophets of doom.
Any of us who assist at a meeting like this one can observe a very simple fact: there are different languages, a variety of countries and cultures from which we come, a diversity of ages – the young, the mature and the old-timers – and different genders, that is, men and women. If we pay attention to what goes on among us, we will easily see that the cultures from which we come cause different life-styles, in the sense of measuring time, relating to authority, resolving conflict situations, discerning how others are feeling, what value to give to our traditions and to monastic observance, to procedural problems or to the daily program, and… a long etcetera.
The bottom line is that, if we want to keep growing in this dialogue between and among our cultures, we will have to tear down our frontiers, emigrate out of our own personal horizon, embrace plurality, reconcile and reassemble our differences. Interculturality is the new name of monastic koinonía and Cistercian communion.
3. Complementarity and the Order’s Unity
It is a fact of experience that, from a very early age, we humans perceive life from an elemental “binary code” of male and female, man and woman. This difference is universal and goes beyond any concrete content it may have, which can vary from one culture to the next. The longings and projects for equality, which are so typical of democratic societies, have not eliminated sexual identities and the need to codify and affirm them. The passage of time has shown that “Unisex” was born without a future. The most eloquent proof of this, at least in the contemporary western world, is the esthetic primacy of the woman over the man. Beauty, as an inherited feminine trait, has conquered all democratic egalitarian ideology. Women want to be able to do everything like men, except be like them esthetically! Whether we like it or not, we cannot ignore the modern value given to personal identity and the postmodern emphasis on personal differences.
Thus we can state the following: men and women are equal as persons, free and responsible for loving in the truth, and they are also different sexually, as women or men. The difference between man and woman is ordered to reciprocity: they are different in order to be mutually collaborative. This mutual relationship disqualifies any type of subordination which takes difference to mean deficiency.
The experience of the Order, formed as it is by nuns and monks, has shown me the truth of what I have just said, and the years I have lived in the Generalate, which is the only community that is mixed to a certain degree, have let me learn from daily life who women are and how they react. I trust that this apprenticeship has been mutual.
On the domestic level, I can say the following: for us men, money is usually an opportunity to do business, but for women it is rather a possibility to go out and buy things. For us men the Generalate is a house of residence, for them it is a home. The habit, like clothing in general, is a means of protection, but they consider it above all as a means of self-expression. And we could continue with other homey examples.
On the level of spirituality, for us men the objectives to be reached are primary; for women the important element is the overall perspective. When it concerns ethical behavior, we men refer to institutional decisions, such as laws and constitutions, which clarify rights and duties, whereas women take very much into consideration the affective resonances, the natural bonds and many other forms of relationship.
It is easy to imagine what an enrichment it would be if these differences, and many others, could be experienced in reciprocal complementarity on the different levels of the Order.
I would like now to develop a theme that interests us all, namely, the different models for the unity of the Order. Simplifying the matter, it can be said that, in the past, the differences in the Order were treated in terms of separation and subordination. There were different Constitutions and a single General Chapter of Abbots, which exercised authority over the nuns as well as the monks. The Abbot General was the Vicar of this Chapter. It was thought that this was how the unity of the Order could best be preserved. This model of separation and subordination entered into crisis on the occasion of the Second Vatican Council.
The new Constitutions – drawn up at the Chapters of Holyoke, in 1984, and of El Escorial in 1985, then approved by the Holy See in 1990 – formulate another model of unity. At present, we can say briefly that we have two interdependent General Chapters which usually work together in a Mixed General Meeting, a single Abbot General as Vicar of each of the two Chapters, and Constitutions which are almost identical.
Our efforts to take a new step in order to have a single General Chapter of Abbots and Abbesses, as accepted by our last General Chapters in 2005, was not approved by the Holy See, which had its own reasons for its negative decision. This lets us continue to reflect on the subject, but we can first ask ourselves the following question: Is it worthwhile to go ahead with our project and our request? I myself think so, but we must realize the importance of having our Constitutions respect our complementary diversity. If they do, then we could talk about a third model for safeguarding the unity we need. In synthesis it would be this:
-A single General Chapter of Abbots and Abbesses with the possibility of their voting separately + an Abbot General as the Chapter’s Vicar + complementary Constitutions which respect the differences.
The fundamental reason for a single General Chapter lies in the unity of our Order, which is formed by monks and by nuns. A body, although it has different members, needs a single head. And the proposal of having complementary Constitutions is based on accepting the irreducible differences between the “feminine genius” and the “masculine genius.” It would be easy to offer examples of this. We could simply think of how they each live the relation of authority to obedience or, even more deeply, of the “sense of belonging” and what it implies for monks and for nuns in their approach to monastic consecration, stability in the community, enclosure, dispensation from their vows, and requests for exclaustration.
There is, however, another weighty reason in favor of complementary Constitutions which respect our differences. It is the “criterion of cohesion” between life and law. Several items in our present Constitutions are lived very differently by the monks and by the nuns. The nuns are the ones who usually have to twist life to fit the letter of the law, or else act on the margin of the letter. The most notorious example of this is the case of separation from the community for the sake of the latter’s peace, as in ST 60.B. Very few Abbesses have used this statute as a solution to a conflict situation, yet there are many more nuns than monks who do not live in their communities of profession.
There is one theme that remains hanging. Will it be possible sometime to have an Abbess General as Vicar of a single General Chapter? The time is not ripe for this, both within our Order and on the outside. But it will ripen. Many persons already think that the criterion of “capacity and competence” is much more important than “masculine gender.” And there are some canonists – and non-canonists – who think that this possible Abbess General could have a Vicar who exercises jurisdiction within the Order, or that the Abbot of Cîteaux could have this jurisdiction.
But there is no need to be alarmed. Evolution is slow. We should peacefully do our share of the work and leave it to future generations to do theirs. Rome was not built in three days. Life grows slowly and we must know how to wait without ever losing hope.
4. The ABC’s of Monastic Life
The new monastic foundations in the southern and the eastern countries of the world, the communities in a precarious situation within the northern hemisphere, and our charism being shared by lay Cistercians of both sexes, have taught me a lesson that I look upon as a true treasure, namely that monastic life is a simple, essential type of life. There can be no doubt that everything that is simply essential is permanent, universal, and therefore pertinent for us today, not with the novelty of the “latest news,” but with an urgency based on history.
The foundation of Christian monasticism is none other than Christ himself. Nothing is to be preferred to his love, because he died and rose again for me and for all. The “radical texts,” which point out the road on which to follow him, are also necessary and trustworthy guides for us. They all lead to the same root: dying in order to live, recognizing the gift we have received so as to turn it into a gift we offer. For the person who lives this way, all our life with its joys and sorrows becomes beatitude. Those who live like this dwell in the heart of the Church and become that heart.
Our Father St. Benedict was simply trying to take the Gospel as a guide, which is how he established a school of the Lord’s service, a school of love of God and neighbor. The heart of Benedictine spirituality consists in this: affective love for Christ which becomes effective through active participation in the Liturgy, assiduous lectio divina, concrete fraternal communion and an integral conversatio or form of monastic life. In other words,
Affective and effective Christocentrism: preferring nothing to his Person and his project.
Liturgical celebration: for the glory of God and the salvation of humanity.
Lectio divina: a loving dialogue with God who is Love.
Fraternal communion: in order to be Church, the Body of Christ in the Spirit.
Various observances: as embodiments, manifestations and proofs of charity.
That is to say, the ABC of the monastic program offered by St. Benedict in his Rule consists in the sincere search for God by means of prayer and renunciation, a search which is authenticated by zeal for the Opus Dei, for obedience and for trials. At the end of his Rule, Benedict wanted to emphasize and condense what is present in all of it, like its soul, namely the burning love which leads to God through communion with one’s brothers and sisters.
The first Cistercians said this in a few words by simply wanting to keep the Rule in all that it demands and to follow it according to the purity of its observances. The purity of the Rule’s observances is what essentially makes it what it is, namely, a practical, monastic form of living the Gospel. Thanks to the wisdom of its balanced alternation of the traditional monastic exercitia, the Rule offered a straight way of evangelical perfection to our first Fathers. The dura et aspera and the observances are useful intermediaries for arriving at purity of heart and contemplative quies or union with God.
And besides what I have just said, the medieval Cistercian monks and nuns also offer us a deep experience and reflection on the sacrament of the Eucharist. What they wrote with love, they lived with passion. The Eucharist is the sacrament of the Spouse’s self-surrender. So it is not strange that some writers describe the Eucharist with the symbol of an embrace and a kiss. It is especially the nuns who cry out, “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth!” In any case, without the Eucharist there is no communion and no Christian community.
This is the lesson which, in different ways, I have learned from monastic foundations, from communities in a precarious situation who have accepted their circumstances as an opportunity for self-renewal, and from lay persons who share in the charism of Cîteaux. There can be no doubt that all of these persons and communities show us, from their different life situations, what is genuinely traditional.
5. Desire and Spousal Mysticism
Every human person, sooner or later in life, asks questions about himself or herself, and about others. In other words, we all have something to say about being human. This is how anthropologies, the different theories concerning human existence, are born. To the question, “Who are you, man?”, different replies have surfaced, such as: an individual nature which is rational and free; a being that is historically related to other beings and therefore exists; a being that can give meaning to its existence; a relation that can give birth to relational individuality; and so forth.
Our Cistercian Fathers knew how to formulate a solid anthropological teaching as a support and as nourishment for spirituality. Before commenting on the Song of Songs, they took pains to draw up a treatise on the soul: De anima.
Now every change of epoch requires an adjustment or change of the meaning and perception of reality. And the first reality that needs an adjustment is the vision we have of ourselves. That is, a change of epoch always brings with it an anthropological change. This is confirmed by the present proliferation of pop-psychologies and the more serious interest in the teachings of psychoanalysis.
Contact with our Cistercian Mothers and Fathers, openness to present currents of thought, and thinking about some of the departures from monastic life have taught me the importance of desire as a key element of any anthropology that is relational, integrated, realistic and transcendental. The experience of desire is a transcultural experience and one which ignores the frontiers of one’s age or sex.
To say that we are “needy beings” is to state that we are, at the same time, “beings of desire.” This structural, fontal desire is for God, because we come forth from his hands and tend toward Him. The history of sin, both original and particular, buried our desire for God and fragmented this fontal desire into an infinite number of desires. Some desires betray us and separate us from God, like the traditional “capital sins or vices,” while other desires are neutral, their goodness depending on the orientation we give them. The fact remains, however, that God is not the only beauty that attracts us. We enjoy and suffer from a multitude of other attractions.
Heterosexual attraction is the most natural and basic form in which we experience the strength of desire, but the promises of complementarity and happiness which the other sex offers are not lasting. Their enchantment is limited or not always achieved. Desire can find another dimension in religion, where our deepest longings can be satisfied. It is easy to see that the problem here consists in putting what is natural and basic in us at the service of what is supernatural and transcendent. We spend a great part of our monastic life reducing and integrating our desires so as to unify our being in its fontal desire for God. The annulment or repression of erotic desires often results in persons that are unmarried, but lackluster or, even worse, that sooner or later end up in debauchery. The integration of erotic desire, by means of the virtue of chastity and by divine grace, results in persons who are celibate and happy in their search and discovery of the Lord and in serving their neighbor. St. John Climacus, the well-known author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, did not hesitate to affirm that: Happy indeed is the person whose love for God is like the eros of a lover for his beloved! (EE, 30:5).
The spousal mysticism taught by our Cistercian Fathers – and lived intensely by medieval nuns! – is the ripe fruit of this integration of eros into charity. The Humanity of Christ – or, as we would say today, the Historical Jesus – is the nuptial road leading to marriage with the Divinity: reciprocal reception and self-donation in fruitful communion. For males, this is not easy, but for God nothing is impossible. Many of today’s monks, and certainly more than one nun, still have a task to fulfill. The Shulammite of the Song of Songs offers us a free course in ahabá, in eight lessons, which I hope we will take advantage of.
If we can learn the lessons that anthropology and spirituality teach us about spousal love, we will be able to live in a permanent process of renewal. Perhaps one of the causes of the present “dark night” or “hibernation” of consecrated life might be a certain “concubinage with secularism” and/or a “spousal widowhood.” The good news of spousal mysticism can shake us up and give us new life. It can also free us from the sloth of acedia, from sterile chastity, from loveless intellectuality, from stagnant novelties, from disembodied spiritualism, from soulless ritualism and legalism without the spirit.
This good news presents the sacrament of the Eucharist as a spousal self-surrender, which invites us to return to our first love, the original and primal one. This is that exquisitely passionate love that moves us so deeply and gives life back to us. It brings the inner drive to engender this same love, so that others, too, might live it. It is from this passionate love that structures change, tradition is enriched, the Church flourishes, and the world becomes young again.
At the beginning, I said that everything that starts comes to an end. It also holds true for these words of farewell. May Mary of St. Joseph, she who is full of grace and Mother of Cîteaux, continue in us the work that her Son has begun.
Monasticism The innermost spiritual sense of Orthodox Monasticism is revealed in joyful mourning. This paradoxical phrase denotes a spiritual state in which a monk in his prayer grieves for the sins of the world at at the same time experiences the regenerating spiritual joy of Christ's forgiveness and resurrection. A monk dies in order to live, he forgets himself in order to find his real self in God, he becomes ignorant of worldly knowledge in order to attain real spiritual wisdom which is given only to the humble ones. (Ed.)
With the development of monasticism in the Church there appeared a peculiar way of life, which however did not proclaim a new morality. The Church does not have one set of moral rules for the laity and another for monks, nor does it divide the faithful into classes according to their obligations towards God. The Christian life is the same for everyone. All Christians have in common that "their being and name is from Christ" 1. This means that the true Christian must ground his life and conduct in Christ, something which is hard to achieve in the world.
What is difficult in the world is approached with dedication in the monastic life. In his spiritual life the monk simply tries to do what every Christian should try to do: to live according to God's commandments. The fundamental principles of monasticism are not different from those of the lives of all the faithful. This is especially apparent in the history of the early Church, before monasticism appeared.
In the tradition of the Church there is a clear preference for celibacy as opposed to the married state. This stance is not of course hostile to marriage, which is recognized as a profound mystery2, but simply indicates the practical obstacles marriage puts in the way of the pursuit of the spiritual life. For this reason, from the earliest days of Christianity many of the faithful chose celibacy. Thus Athenagoras the Confessor in the second century wrote: "You can find many men and women who remain unmarried all their lives in the hope of coming closer to God"3.
From the very beginning the Christian life has been associated with self denial and sacrifice: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me"4. Christ calls on us to give ourselves totally to him: "He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me"5.
Finally, fervent and unceasing prayer, obedience to the elders of the Church, brotherly love and humility, as well as all the essential virtues of the monastic life were cultivated by the members of the Church from its earliest days.
One cannot deny that the monk and the married man have different ways of life, but this does not alter their common responsibility towards God and His commandments. Every one of us has his own special gift within the one and indivisible body of Christ's Church6. Every way of life, whether married or solitary, is equally subject to God's absolute will. Hence no way of life can be taken as an excuse for ignoring or selectively responding to Christ's call and His commandments. Both paths demand effort and determination.
St Chrysostom is particularly emphatic on this point: "You greatly delude yourself and err, if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk; since the difference between them is in that whether one is married or not, while in everything else they have the same responsibilities... Because all must rise to the same height; and what has turned the world upside down is that we think only the monk must live rigorously, while the rest are allowed to live a life of indolence"7. Referring to the observance of particular commandments in the Gospels, he says: "Whoever is angry with his brother without cause, regardless of whether he is a layman or a monk, opposes God in the same way. And whoever looks at a woman lustfully, regardless of his status, commits the same sin". In general, he observes that in giving His commandments Christ does not make distinction between people: "A man is not defined by whether he is a layman or a monk, but by the way he thinks"8.
Christ's commandments demand strictness of life that we often expect only from monks. The requirements of decent and sober behaviour, the condemnation of wealth and adoption of frugality9, the avoidance of idle talk and the call to show selfless love are not given only for monks, but for all the faithful.
Therefore, the rejection of worldly thinking is the duty not only of monks, but of all Christians. The faithful must not have a worldly mind, but sojourn as strangers and travellers with their minds fixed on God. Their home is not on earth, but in the kingdom of heaven: "For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come"10. The Church can be seen as a community in exodus. The world is its temporary home but the Church is bound for the kingdom of God. Just as the Israelites, freed from bondage in Egypt, journeyed towards Jerusalem through many trials and tribulations, so Christians, freed from the bondage of sin, journey through many trials and tribulations towards the kingdom of heaven.
In the early days this exodus from the world did not involve a change of place but a change of the way of life. A man does not reject God and turns towards the world physicaly but spiritually, because God was and is everywhere and fulfills everything, so in the same way the rejection of the world and turning towards God was not understood in physical sense but as a change of the way of life. This is especially clear in the lives of the early Christians. Although they lived in the world they were fully aware that they did not come from it nor did they belong to it: "In the world but not of the world". And those who lived in chastity and poverty, which became later fundamental principles of the monastic life, did not abandon the world or take to the mountains.
Physical detachment from the world helps the soul to reject the worldly way of life. Experience shows that human salvation is harder to achieve in the world. As Basil the Great points out, living among men who do not care for the strict observance of God's commandments is harmful. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to answer Christ's call to take up one's cross and follow Him within the bounds of worldly life. Seeing the multitude of sinners, one not only fails to see his own sins but also falls into temptation to believe that he has achieved something, because we tend to compare ourselves with those who are worse than we are. Furthermore, the hustle and bustle of everyday life distracts us from the remembrance of God. It does not only prevent us from feeling the joy of intense communion with God, but leads us to contempt and forgetfulness of the divine will.
This does not mean that detachment from the world guarantees salvation, but surely does help us a lot in our spiritual life. When someone devotes himself wholly to God and His will, nothing can stop him from being saved. St. Chrysostom says: "There is no obstacle to a worker striving for virtue, but men in office, and those who have a wife and children to look after, and servants to see to, and those in positions of authority can also take care to be virtuous"12.
Saint Simeon the New Theologian observes: "Living in a city does not prevent us from carrying out God's commandments if we are zealous, and silence and solitude are of no benefit if we are slothful and neglectful" 13. Elsewhere he says that it is possible for all, not only monks but laymen too, to "eternally and continuously repent and weep and pray to God, and by these actions to acquire all the other virtues"14.
Orthodox monasticism has always been associated with stillness or silence, which is seen primarily as an internal rather than an external state. External silence is sought in order to attain inner stillness of mind more easily. This stillness is not a kind of inertia or inaction, but awakening and activation of the spiritual life. It is intense vigilance and total devotion to God. Living in a quiet place the monk succeeds in knowing himself better, fighting his passions more deeply and purifying his heart more fully, so as to be found worthy of beholding God.
The father of St Gregory Palamas, Constantine, lived a life of stillness as a senator and member of the imperial court in Constantinople. The essence of this kind of life is detachment from worldly passions and complete devotion to God. This is why St Gregory Palamas says that salvation in Christ is possible for all: "The farmer and the leather worker and the mason and the tailor and the weaver, and in general all those who earn their living with their hands and in the sweat of their brow, who cast out of their souls the desire for wealth, fame and comfort, are indeed blessed"15. In the same spirit St Nicolas Kavasilas observes that it is not necessary for someone to flee to the desert, eat unusual food, change his dress, ruin his health or attempt some other such thing in order to remain devoted to God16.
The monastic life, with its physical withdrawal from the world to the desert, began about the middle of the third century. This flight of Christians to the desert was partly caused by the harsh Roman persecutions of the time. The growth of monasticism, however, which began in the time of Constantine the Great, was largely due to the refusal of many Christians to adapt to the more worldly character of the now established Church, and their desire to lead a strictly Christian life. Thus monasticism developed simultaneously in various places in the southeast Mediterranean, Egypt, Palestine, Sinai, Syria and Cyprus, and soon after reached Asia Minor and finally Europe. During the second millennium. however, Mount Athos appeared as the centre of Orthodox monasticism.
The commonest and safest form of the monastic life is the coenobitic communion. In the coenobitic monastery everything is shared: living quarters, food, work, prayer, common efforts, cares, struggles and achievements. The leader and spiritual father of the coenobium is the abbot. The exhortation to the abbot in the Charter of St Athanasius the Athonite is typical: "Take care that the brethren have everything in common. No one must own as much as a needle. Your body and soul shall be your own, and nothing else. Everything must be shared equally with love between all your spiritual children, brethren and fathers".
The coenobium is the ideal Christian community, where no distinction is drawn between mine and yours, but everything is designed to cultivate a common attitude and a spirit of fraternity. In the coenobium the obedience of every monk to his abbot and his brotherhood, loving kindness, solidarity and hospitality are of the greatest importance. As St Theodore of Studium observes, the whole community of the faithful should in the final analysis be a coenobitic Church17. Thus the monastic coenobium is the most consistent attempt to achieve this and an image of Church in small.
In its "fuga mundi", monasticism underlines the Church's position as an "anti-community" within the world, and by its intense spiritual asceticism cultivates its eschatological spirit. The monastic life is described as "the angelic state", in other words a state of life that while on earth follows the example of the life in heaven. Virginity and celibacy come within this framework, anticipating the condition of souls in the life to come, where "they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven"18.
Many see celibacy as a defining characteristic of monastic life. This does not mean, however, that celibacy is the most important aspect of the monastic life: it simply gives this distinctiveness to this way of life. All the other obligations, even the other two monastic vows of obedience and poverty, essentially concern all the faithful. Needless to say, all this takes on a special form in the monastic life, but that has no bearing on the essence of the matter.
All Christians are obliged to keep the Lord's commandments, but this requires efforts. Fallen human nature, enslaved by its passions is reluctant to fulfill this obligation. It seeks pleasure and avoids the pain involved in fighting the passions and selfishness. The monastic life is so arranged as to facilitate this work. On the other hand the worldly life, particularly in our secular society, makes it harder to be an ascetic. The problem for the Christian in the world is that he is called upon to reach the same goal under adverse conditions.
The tonsure, with cutting of hair, is called a "second baptism"19. Baptism, however, is one and the same for all members of the Church. It is participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. The tonsure does not repeat, but renews and activates the grace of the baptism. The monastic vows are essentially not different from those taken at baptism, with the exception of the vow of celibacy. Furthermore, hair is also cut during baptism.
The monastic life points the way to perfection. However, the whole Church is called to perfection. All the faithful, both laymen and monks, are called to become perfect following the divine example: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect"20. But while the monk affirms the radical nature of the Christian life, the layman is content to regard it conventionally. The conventional morality of the layman on the one hand and the radical morality of the monk on the other create a dialectical differentiation that takes the form of a dialectical antithesis.
St Maximus the Confessor, in contrasting the monastic with the worldly life, observes that a layman's successes are a monk's failures, and vice versa: "The achievements of the worldly are failures for monks; and the achievements of monks are failures for the worldly. When the monk is exposed to what the world sees as success- wealth, fame, power, pleasure, good health and many children, he is destroyed. And when a worldly man finds himself in the state desired by monks—poverty, humility, weakness, self restraint, mortification and suchlike, he considers it a disaster. Indeed, in such despair many may consider hanging themselves, and some have actually done so"21.
Of course the comparison here is between the perfect monk and the very worldly Christian. However, in more usual circumstances within the Church the same things will naturally function differently, but this difference could never reach diametrical opposition. Thus for example, wealth and fame cannot be seen as equally destructive for monks and laymen. These things are always bad for monks, because they conflict with the way of life the monks have chosen. For laymen, however, wealth and fame may be beneficial, even though they involve grave risks. The existence of the family, and of the wider secular society with its various needs and demands, not only justify but sometimes make it necessary to accumulate wealth or assume office. Those things that may unite in the world divide in the monastic life. The ultimate unifier is Christ Himself.
The Christian life does not depend only on human effort but primarily on God's grace. Ascetic exercises in all their forms and degrees aim at nothing more than preparing man to harmonise his will with that of God and receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. This harmonisation attains its highest expression and perfection in prayer. "In true prayer we enter into and dwell in the Divine Being by the power of the Holy Spirit"22. This leads man to his archetype and makes him a true person in the likeness of his Creator.
The grace of the Christian life is not to be found in its outward forms. It is not found in ascetic exercises, fasts, vigils and mortification of the flesh. Indeed, when these excercises are practiced without discernment they become abhorrent. This repulsiveness is no longer confined to their external form but comes to characterise their inner content. They become abhorrent not only because outwardly they appear as a denial of life, contempt for material things or self-abandonment, but also because they mortify the spirit, encourage pride and cultivate self justification.
The Christian life is not a denial but an affirmation. It is not death, but life. And it is not only affirmation and life, but the only true affirmation and the only true life. It is the true affirmation because if goes beyond all possibility of denial and the only true life because it conquers death. The negative appearance of the Christian life in its outward forms is due precisely to its attempt to stand beyond all human denial. Since there is no human affirmation that does not end in denial, and no worldly life that does not end in death, the Church takes its stand and reveals its life after accepting every human denial and affirming every form of earthly death.
The power of the Christian life lies in the hope of resurrection, and the goal of ascetic striving is to partake in the resurrection. The monastic life, as the angelic and heavenly life lived in time, is the foreknowledge and foretaste of eternal life. It aim is not to cast off the human element, but clothe oneself with incorruptibility and immortality: "For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life"23.
There are sighing and tears produced by the presence of sin, as well as the suffering to be free of the passions and regain a pure heart. These things demand ascetic struggles, and undoubtedly have a negative form, since they aim at humility. They are exhausting and painful, because they are concerned with states and habits that have become second nature. It is however precisely through this abasement, self purification, that man clears the way for God's grace to appear and to act within his heart. God does not manifest Himself to an impure heart.
Monks are the "guardians". They choose to constrain their bodily needs in order to attain the spiritual freedom offered by Christ. They tie themselves down in death's realm in order to experience more intensely the hope of the life to come. They reconcile themselves with space, where man is worn down and annihilated, feel it as their body, transform it into the Church and orientate it towards the kingdom of God.
The monk's journey to perfection is gradual and is connected with successive renunciations, which can be summarised in three. The first renunciation involves completely abandoning the world. This is not limited to things, but includes people and parents. The second is renunciation of the individual will, and the third is freedom from pride, which is identified with liberation from the sway of the world24.
These successive renunciations have a positive, not a negative meaning. They permit a man to fully open up and be perfected "in the image and likeness" of God. When man is freed from the world and from himself, he expands without limits. He becomes a true person, which "encloses" within himself the whole of humanity as Christ himself does. That is why, on the moral plane, the Christian is called upon to love all human beings, even his enemies. Then God Himself comes and dwells within him, and the man arrives to the fullness of his theanthropic being25. Here we can see the greatness of the human person, and can understand the superhuman struggles needed for his perfection.
The life of monasticism is life of perpetual spiritual ascent. While the world goes on its earthbound way, and the faithful with their obligations and distractions of the world try to stay within the institutional limits of the church tradition, monasticism goes to other direction and soars. It rejects any kind of compromise and seeks the absolute. It launches itself from this world and heads for the kingdom of God. This is in essence the goal of the Church itself.
In Church tradition this path is pictured as a ladder leading to heaven. Not everyone manages to reach the top of this spiritual ladder. Many are to be found on the first rungs. Others rise higher. There are also those who fall from a higher or a lower rung. The important thing is not the height reached, but the unceasing struggle to rise ever higher. Most important of all, this ascent is achieved through ever increasing humility, that is through ever increasing descent. "Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not", was the word of God to Saint Silouan of Mount Athos. When man descends into the hell of his inner struggle having God within him, then he is lifted up and finds the fullness of being26.
At the top of this spiritual ladder are the "fools for Christ's sake", as the Apostle Paul calls himself and the other apostles27, or "the fools for Christ's sake", who "play the madman for the love of Christ and mock the vanity of the world"28, Seeking after glory among men, says Christ, obstructs belief in God29. Only when man rejects pride can he defeat the world and devote himself to God30.
In the lives of monks the Christian sees examples of men who took their Christian faith seriously and committed themselves to the path which everyone is called by Christ to follow. Not all of them attained perfection, but they all tried, and all rose to a certain height. Not all possessed the same talent, but all strove as good and faithful servants. They are not held up as examples to be imitated, especially by laymen. They are however valuable signposts on the road to perfection, which is common for all and has its climax in the perfectness of God.
Endnotes 1. Maximos the Confessor, Mystagogia 1, PG91, 665C.
2. See Eph. 5, 32.
3. Presbeia 33. Also see Justin, Confession 1, 15, 6.
4. St. Mark 8, 34.
5. St. Matthew 10, 37.
6. "Each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another" I Cor. 7, 7.
I want to tell you now about Coptic monasticism. Egypt is considered the motherland of monasticism. The first monk in the whole world was St. Anthony, a Copt from Upper Egypt. He was born in the year 251 and departed in the year 356; he lived 105 years. During this period he established monasticism and all the leaders of monasticism in the whole world were his disciples or the disciples of his disciples. Also, the first abbott in the world who established monasteries was St. Bakhum (Pachomius), also a Copt from Upper Egypt. He lived in the fourth century and at the end of the third century. When we say that St. Anthony was born in the year 251, that he became a monk when he was about twenty years old or less, and then spent the first thirty years in complete solitude, that means monasticism began in Egypt at the end of the third century or the beginning of the fourth century - more than sixteen centuries.
Monasticism began in Egypt as a life of complete solitude, a life of solitude and contemplation. No one of our monks in the fourth century or the fifth century served the church in the world. They wanted to forget the whole world and to be forgotten by the world and to have only our Lord God in their thinking, in their emotions, to fill all their hearts and all their lives.
So, when monasticism began it did not begin in monasteries, it began in caves scattered through the mountains, and holes in the ground, and some dwelling places. But afterwards, they began to build monasteries.
Monasteries were built in the midst of the fourth century, or perhaps some years before. The monasteries of Upper Egypt, of St. Bakhum, had many monks living in them, living together a life called in the Greek language, "kenobium," which means "life together." And that was a characteristic of the monasteries of Upper Egypt of St. Bakhum and St. Shenouda.
But in Wadi Natrun, the monasteries had a special characteristic. The monasteries were built in the most ancient places and had churches and the refectory. The monks used to go to the church once every week on Saturday evening to have a kind of spiritual teaching by the elders, with any question or problem being said by the monks - who were called brothers at that time - with the answers being given by the elders. They used to celebrate the Holy Communion on Sunday morning and then eat together in the refectory; then each monk would leave the monastery to live his own life of solitude until the next week. That means they used to gather together only once, one day every week, and live the rest of their lives in complete solitude. Why? They wanted to purify their minds from anything of worldly thinking, not to think of the world any longer, not to have news from the world, not to have letters from the world, not to read newspapers, even not to receive visitors.
But at last, this light of monasticism could not be hidden. Many people came from abroad to hear a word of benefit from those monks and these monks, the Coptic monks, the Egyptian monks, did not write about themselves, but the visitors who came wrote about them. One of the most famous was the Lausiac History by Palladius. It was called Lausiac History because it was written to a certain noble man named Lausius. This Lausiac History was translated into the English language with the title of "Paradise of the Fathers." This "Paradise of the Fathers" was known in the Arabic language as "Bustan al-Ruhaban." Another famous work was that of Rufinus about the desert fathers; another was by John Cassian who published two books, one called the "Institutes" and the other called "Conferences." In his book, "Institutes," he had twelve chapters, the first four about the history of Coptic monasticism, the life of monks and their way of life, and the other eight chapters about spiritual warfares which may attack monks; for example, pride, vainglory, anger, and so on.
He said the traveller who passed from Alexandria to Luxor had, on all the journey, the sound of hymns in his ears from Alexandria to Luxor. That means all along the River Nile; but he was speaking about the western desert. In the eastern desert of the Nile Valley, we have two famous monasteries, the Monastery of St. Anthony and the Monastery of St. Paul the Hermit. Those hermits were also called, in monastic life, anchorites.
Anchorites. In the Arabic language, they were called "as-Sawah." They always used to live in caves very far from any monastery. When we read the story by St. Paphnutius who wrote for us the history or life of Abba Nofer, it was a trip of nearly thirty days in what was called the "inner wilderness." They lived in a place quite unknown to anybody.
For example, St. Paul the hermit lived about eighty years in monasticism and did not see the face of any human being. Many other hermits -- for example St. Caras -- lived about 60 years in monasticism without seeing the face of any human being. They forgot all about the world, they had nothing in their memory about the world or its news. Their senses could not collect any worldly matter, they had only God and His Love in their memory, in their mind, in their hearts, and in their emotions. They could fulfill the biblical verse which was written in Deuteronomy 6, and also was said by our Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 21, "to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy mind, with all they soul, and with all thy power." How can a person give the whole of his mind to the Lord God? How? How to give the whole of your heart? We may love God through loving human beings, but those hermits, those anchorites, had only God in their minds. They could not think about any other matter.
Now, for example, when we speak to youth classes, we say to youth that bad thoughts are thoughts of any kind of sin; but for these monks, bad thoughts were thoughts of any matter besides God. For this reason, they were called "earthly angels," or "angelic human beings." They lived as angels on the earth, but as you know from biblical studies, we have two kinds of angels. (The first kind is) angels who live all their time praising God: for example, the seraphim. Those angels of the seraphim are mentioned only in Isaiah 6; they always were singing "agios, agios" or "holy, holy, holy" praising the Lord. But we have another kind of angel which was mentioned in the Epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 1, verse 14. They are ministering spirits sent to those who are called for salvation. We can call the pastors of the church, the ministers of the church, angels sent to the world to serve the world of salvation; for example, the pastors of the seven churches in Asia were also called angels -- the angel of Ephesus, the angel of Smyrna, the angel of Pergamos, and so on. But, the angels who devoted all their time praising the Lord as the seraphim were the symbol of holy life put in front of those monks.
St. Athanasius of Alexandria was chosen to be the 20th Pope of the See of St. Mark in the year 328 or 329, while he was only a deacon. At that time St. Anthony was living and was his spiritual father. But St. Anthony was not chosen to be the pope or patriarch; instead, they chose the deacon Athanasius. Through the flourishing era of monasticism of the fourth century, the fifth century, and the first half of the sixth century, they did not choose these monks to be bishops or patriarchs because those monks preferred to have a life of solitude, a life of prayer, a life of contemplation. They preferred to live with God, not with human beings. They preferred to be remembered only by God, not by human beings. Why? Becuase sometimes if they permitted visits they could lose their life of solitude and prayer, their prayers would be interrupted, and their meditation of God would be interrupted.
A story that was mentioned in the "Paradise of the Fathers" was that a certain monk was walking in the wilderness and two angels came beside him. He did not look to the right or to the left, but said, "I do not want even angels interrupting my meditation of God," remembering what was in the Epistle to the Romans, chapter 8 (verses 38 and 39).
At last, the Church was in need of those people and then bishops were taken from among monks of the deserts and then patriarchs and then the great need of the Church was for some of them to work as priests, as pastors.
Then the life of complete solitude became a minority in our monasteries. . . . Remember two verses in the Bible; I do not know how you comment on these verses. The verse in St. Luke's gospel, chapter 18, verse 1 ("And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint."), and also another verse, "Pray without ceasing," in the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, chapter 5, verse 17. Pray without ceasing, without interruption. How can we fulfill these verses?
We have to fulfill the symbol of Mary, not the symbol of Martha. The symbol of Martha is working for the service of God Himself; but for Mary, it is to be only looking at God, contemplation, prayer, to be at His own feet, listening to His words, and contemplating His words. So at least we should have a small number of these monks representing that life of the past and to be a blessing for the world and to bless the world. When our Lord God wanted to burn Sodom . . . He said even if I find only ten pure persons in the city, I will not burn the city. To have these persons only existing. He did not say if ten persons pray for this city -- only that if there are only ten persons I will not burn the city. Those monks were a kind of blessing to the world representing pure life, the purest life in the whole world, resembling persons who don't love anything in the world -- even themselves -- but only God to be kept in mind.
Now in Egypt we are trying to let monastic life return to many deserted monasteries. We had hundreds of monasteries in the past. We are now working in the White Monastery of St. Shenouda, in the Red Monastery in front of this white one, and in about four monasteries in the mountain of Akhmim, trying to send monks to this area to let monastic life return. . . . If you come (to visit our monasteries), you will be deeply welcomed and you will see something about the ancient monastic life and the expansion of monasticism today. I myself, in only the single monastery of Anba Bishoi, ordained about 150 monks, new monks. For this reason, we had to build many new cells in the monasteries to receive those new novices who want to prepare themselves for monasticism. Also, in every monastery now we have a retreat house for those youth who want to come to the monastery to spend some days of spiritual experience under spiritual guidance. Some of them like monastic life and become monks.
We have great work in Sunday schools. In Sunday schools we prepare the children from the very beginning of their lives to live a spiritual life, to live in the Lord, some of these children join the seminary, some become Sunday school teachers, and some of those Sunday school teachers join the seminary. And when they graduate from the univeristy and the seminary and sunday school, they go to the monsteries to become monks -- some of them -- and some of them become parish priests. So, through the revival of Sunday schools we prepare a great number of persons to be monks. To live a spiritual life for their own benefit is all right; if the church needs some of them to serve, that is all right.
We don't oblige any monk to lead a certain life. For he who wants to live in the monastery as part of the congregation, that is all right. If he wants to lead a life of solitude inside the monastery, that is all right. If he wants a cell of solitude outside the monastery or on the near hills, that will be all right. He who wants to live in a cave will have the permission to live in a cave. We have all kinds of monasticism.
I thank you for listening; I am sorry to use your time in such a long address.