WITNESSES OF GOD FROM THE DEPTHS OF OUR NIGHT
(Conference at the General Chapters, October 2005)
My purpose in this conference is to return to a subject I treated at the last General Chapters, that is, precarious or diminished communities. But I would like to do so from a different perspective: concretely, how these communities are called to bear witness to God in the present-day situation of the Church and the world.
There is no need to point out again the characteristics of these communities. Each person can judge whether my words apply to him or her, whether they are of some use, and whether they are helpful for growth in hope.
First, I will try briefly to identify the causes of the present-day precariousness of consecrated life. Second, we will ask ourselves what is the face of God to which we want to bear witness. Third, we will deal with monastic life as a witness to this God in the midst of the present crisis. I will conclude with an invitation to hope.
1. Causes of Our Existential and Spiritual Precariousness
Many authoritative voices are affirming that consecrated life in the Catholic Church and the North-western world are in a situation that can be characterized in such terms as seeking, crisis, chaos, winter, exodus, night. Without dramatization or delusion—even though with some reservations—we can accept this diagnosis and apply it to the particular form of consecrated life we call monasticism.
Concretely, then, what are the causes of our monastic night? In my own opinion, the cause is not that monastic life has lost its identity. As monastics we know very well who we are, even though in our actions we do not always live up to our word.
Nor is the cause a lack in our “theology of monastic life.” Even if we lacked such a theology, I do not think its absence would necessarily be a cause for worry or anxiety.
Although I fear to say so, I do not think monastic life today is particularly under attack by the demon of mediocrity. The virus of mediocrity makes itself felt in times of historical and cultural stability, which does not seem to be the case for our times. But this is not to say that we have no need to continue growing in human quality and spiritual depth.
Nor does it seem to me that we monks and nuns are suffering from a “dark night of faith,” granted that we are not always fervent and hopeful believers in the human desert of unbelief and indifference.
We could continue reviewing various causes, but in the end we would need to admit that, to some degree, a convergence of many causes is at work to bring about the phenomenon of our night, a more or less dark night, with its traits of precariousness, fragility, instability, diminution of personnel, lack of vocations, little perseverance, lack of capable officers, etc.
In spite of all
these considerations, I would now like to dwell on one cause that I consider
crucial: concretely, the impact on monastic life of the profound transformation
taking place in the culture and societies of the Western and
In this larger context we can say that European society and culture is at a new crossroads in its millennial history. Rather than speak of an epoch of change, we can speak of a change of epoch. Agrarian culture is in the last of its death throes, and modern culture, now losing its hegemony, is coming into a new globalized technological cultural context that is dominated by the means of social communication and is as yet difficult to characterize. The following table, ingenuous in its simplification, illustrates what we are saying here:
(Pre-modern) Agrarian Culture: religion merged all aspects of life (politics, economy, ethics, family life . . .).
Modern Culture: the various aspects of culture are autonomous (religion, politics, economy, etc.).
(Post-modern) Global Culture: the various aspects of culture have undergone a transformation and are seeking a new relationship among themselves in a larger context.
It is difficult to characterize the transmutation we are undergoing and enjoying, even though there has been no lack of descriptions of it. On the other hand, it is easy to point out the impact of this phenomenon and its consequences for our monastic communities. The impact in question has occasioned a concrete reality we can baptize with the name “existential and spiritual precariousness.”
I would like to
point out something important: this epochal transmutation affects the “
In conclusion, then, what I have meant to say is the following. Many of our communities are going through a peculiar moment in their histories. This moment can be experienced as a tragedy, as an evil that will pass, or as a marvelous opportunity to renew ourselves and live to the full. Only in this latter case will we be able to bear witness to the God of Jesus Christ.
2. Our Witness: The Revolutionary God
Let us begin by saying—by way of self-criticism—that there are many theologies that would appear to know everything about God, which proves their total ignorance, a lack of knowledge that would be wise if only it were admitted. Many conceptual and theological skyscrapers create distance from the living God and turn us into believers in our own knowledge.
At the heart of theological reflection is contemplation of the mystery of the triune God. We gain access to this mystery by contemplating the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God: the mystery of becoming human and walking on toward his passion and death, the mystery that leads to the resurrection, and ascension to the glory of the Father, from where he will send his Spirit of truth to build up and enliven his Church. In this panorama theology must seek to understand God’s kenosis: his self-emptying and descent ending in glorious exaltation, his supreme humiliation that shows a self-giving love that asks for nothing in exchange.
Without falling into the temptation of a “washerwoman’s faith,” we can accept that the little people, the poor, the diminished, and the weak (even more so if they are believers) can know and bear witness to God with greater authenticity than the great, the rich, the powerful, and the strong (as devout as they might be).
Jesus’ question to his disciples Who do you say that I am? (Mk 8:27–33) continues to be repeated in the heart of each Christian and of each local community. This question also reechoes in hearts of monks and nuns, in every monastic community, and in monasticism in general as a universal Christian phenomenon.
Our witness of God consists precisely in the response we give to the Lord’s question Who do you say that I am? And if our witness is to be convincing and motivating, it needs to be backed up by one’s own life. What, concretely, will we say in answer to Jesus so that all might hear him from within the night we are immersed in? I propose the following answer: You are the only Son of a revolutionary God who raises up and brings down, who humiliates and exalts.
By way of illustration, we will consult a biblical text that is on our lips and in our hearts each day, the Song of Mary (Lk 1:47–55). We present it in a way that brings out its two-fold structure:
I. My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
II. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped
Along with contemporary
exegesis, we can affirm that this canticle comes from the Judeo-Christian community
The general meaning of the text can be resumed in a few words: joy in God’s revolution and witness to his preference for the poor and simple. Or again in other words: thanksgiving and hymn of praise to God our Savior, who, through the great things realized in Mary, definitively overturns the relationships of grandeur and strength that rule the world. In the final analysis, it is the most tender (the Merciful One who looks upon the lowly) and strongest (the Mighty One who overturns relationships) canticle of the New Testament.
Our attention now turns to a pair of verses that exemplify the divine revolution as a paradigm of God’s action: he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.
The most serious problem with the mighty and powerful of this world is that, not only do they oppose the humble, but they also oppose the one and only Mighty One. The lowly and the poor, as opposed to the powerful, can be defined as “those lacking power.” Mary situates herself among these latter.
Let us note that, in this divine revolution sung by Mary, any kind of revenge is excluded: the poor and the humble do not take over the thrones of the strong and powerful! Not even Mary, whose Son was promised the throne of David (Lk 1:32), aspires to take over a throne (which belongs to her as the Queen Mother: cf. 1 Kings 2:19).
Wealth is a blessing (Dt 28:1–14), but it usually becomes a danger (Lk 18:24–27). The Bible denounces the rich (plutûntes = “plutocrats” = those who hold power by virtue of wealth; cf. Jm 5:1–6). The plutocrats will have nothing to do with the most miserable the poor (those who do not even have enough to eat) and forget God (Lk 14:15–24), for which reason God intervenes and reverses the situation. The story of the rich man and poor Lazarus is a moving illustration of this situation (Lk 16:19–31; cf. 1Sam 2:5).
from her own experience Mary sings about God’s usual way of acting. There is
nothing spectacular about god’s revolutionary activity; the saving incarnation
of his Son takes place in silence and hiddenness. Mary rejoices in the defeat
of the rich and/or powerful in their pride, for only in this way can they receive
God as Savior and Lord. Before God the effectiveness of the proud is turned
into ineffectiveness in order to cure them of their pride (1Cor 1:25; Jm 1:9–11;
5:1–6). God fills the poor with the hope that he will be on their side and favor
them: his providence moves other people to perceive their need and provide for
it so that no one will be wanting (Acts 4:32–35). Moreover, he shows that there
is greater happiness in giving than in receiving (Acts 20:35) and that power
and authority are services (Lk 22:26–27)
There is no doubt
that Jesus, Son of this revolutionary God and of Mary the Singer, was always
in conformity with this divine way of acting (Lk 10:29–37; 13:30; 15:11-32;
16:19-31; 18:9-14; 24:10-11). In this sense, and in this sense alone, Jesus
was a revolucionary: Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he
who humbles himself will be exalted (Lk14:11; 18:14; Mt23:12; cf. Ez.21:31).
It is for this reason that the letter to the Philippians bears witness saying:
[He] who was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing
to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born
in the likeness of men...he humbled himself...Therefore God has highly exalted
him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name... (Phil 2:6–11).
In the final analysis, the reversal of situations so characteristic of God’s revolutionary way of acting within history has as its end to show his preference for the poor and to free captives from the power of wealth so that we can all become true human beings, that is, sons and daughters of God and of all people. Our witness allows God to be known, not as a God of the dead but of the living, and as one who pours out his merciful love wherever he finds any kind of misery, miseries of the oppressors and miseries of the oppressed.
3. Witness of God Thanks to the Night
It remains now to see how we can translate and communicate our witness of the “revolutionary God” that casts down and raises up, humbles and exalts.
As I see it, Christological
orthodoxy is of little value if it is not accompanied by gospel orthopraxis:
solid and carefully reasoned convictions must be followed up with carefully
discerned, flexible, and daring action. We know and bear witness to Christ to
the degree that we give of ourselves. Consequently, the witness of our monastic
life must be vital rather than verbal, by example rather than by words. In other
words, we witness as we live.
But for this witness
to be possible there are number of prerequisites, requirements that can be understood
as operative convictions if we translate them into subjective terms:
the darkness of the night as a marvelous opportunity to grow in faith, hope,
and charity, the pillars of both mysticism and cenobitic communion.
-To avoid useless and superfluous complaints. Eighty percent of humanity is in a more precarious, poor, miserable, and dark situation than we are.
-To recall that a Rule is a measuring stick because it is straight
and leads directly to the end proposed; literal observance diverts the course
from the goal and twists the one observing.
-To mistrust intellectual, juridical, and institutional schemas that
stifle the embers that are still burning beneath the ashes.
-Never to sacrifice persons for the sake of traditions and customs,
structures and projects that have lost their meaning and validity for today.
-Not to confuse spirituality with ideology: the first is a bearer of
life; the second is a mutilator of the living.
-To be in deep communion with the life of the universal and local Church
and also with the joys and sorrows of men and women of today.
-To be critically open to dialogue between cultures and generations,
recognizing that the young are also creators of culture.
-To dream communally of the utopia of a monastic life that is anchored
to the foundational mystical experience of monasticism and that reaches out
toward the encounter with Him who each day comes to meet us at the heart of
-To ask the Spirit to make us capable of taking risks so that we can
venture to take unknown paths and experience the great adventure of letting
ourselves be led and carried by him.
-To have plenty of patience in the present in order to have an abundance
of hope in the future.
-To enter the night school of the art of dying well, knowing that graduation
will depend on the daytime art of living well.
-To have plenty of humor, especially when the smoke gathers, the eyes tear, the air runs out, the fire burns, and there comes the desire to cry for help.
If these conditions and convictions are a reality, even in part, we will already be bearing witness to God’s work among us from within the poverty of our own precariousness. These convictions, rather than coming from human choice are a gift of God and a clear sign of his presence and action.
3.1 Radically Gospel-Centered
is a basic and inescapable demand for every Christian. This radicalism flows
from Christ’s call to follow and imitate him by way of intimate communion of
life with him brought about through the Spirit. The various evangelical counsels
that Jesus proposes in the Sermon on the Mount—and among these counsels, closely
related to each other, are obedience, chastity, and poverty—are a privileged
expression of this radicalism. The call to the perfection of love is not reserved
exclusively to an elite.
in all religious traditions, has always been considered as a radical form of
living rooted in the Absolute. For our part, monks and nuns, we want only to
follow Christ as the Gospel proposes. Our contemporary monastic life, from the
night of its precariousness, is invited to follow Jesus by embracing the radicalism
of the Gospel in the spirit of the Beatitudes. Our future will depend on our
response to this challenge. It is not a matter of having a monopoly on radicalism,
but rather of being faithful to our own identity.
Jesus’ words challenge
us: For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes
and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven [...] You therefore,
must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:20; 48).
The Master is telling us that our life does not consist of traditions,
usages, permissions, observances . . . but of the perfection of love that we
identify with the Father who is in heaven. This demand of love takes us to the
very roots of Jesus’ teaching: the reign of God as Father of all human beings
and the consequent universal ties of brotherhood and sisterhood. The radical
nun and monk are those who are rooted and grounded in love (Eph 3:17),
rooted and built up in Christ (
Indeed, if we want to be more concretely radical, if we want to sink our roots even deeper, we will have to attain to the absoluteness of the person of Jesus Christ. This cannot be done with borrowed faith or socio-cultural faith, but only through a purified personal faith that has experienced the stripping away of many representations and is left naked in its purest form of receiving and giving. If it be true—and I know that it is—that he loved me and gave himself up for me, there remains only one possibility: to die in order to live in him and serve others.
3.2 Monastically Essential
Monastic life takes on a great variety of forms. Monastic life can be spoken of as a basic human archetype that is found in all the great religious traditions of humanity. We might also remember the variety of forms that Christian monasticism has taken on in the traditions of the East and West. Nevertheless, there is an underlying commonality among all these forms, as a medieval Christian monk once expressed
“This is the generation that seeks the Lord” (Ps 23:6). Does it seek
him or does it already possess him? It both possesses and seeks, for it is impossible
to seek him without already possessing him beforehand. [...] My brothers, if
this is truly and certainly the “generation that seeks the Lord, that seeks
the face of the God of Jacob” (Ps 23:6), what can I say except what the prophet
has already said: “let the hearts that seek the Lord rejoice. Consider the Lord
and his strength; constantly seek his face” (Ps 104:3–4). Or what another says:
“if you seek, seek” (Is 21:12). What does it mean “if you seek, seek”? “seek
him in simplicity of heart” (
We monks and nuns are Christians who have dedicated our whole life to seeking and meeting the Lord. It is true that we are not the only ones who seek God, nor do we claim to do it better than others. Nonetheless, we can say that we are aware of being called to make this seeking an absolute in our lives. Thus, we want to seek God truthfully, frequently, constantly. We do not want to seek something else instead of him, nor something else along with him, nor leave him to return to other things. If we did not seek God in this way, we would cease to be monks and nuns.
Since the search for God is the meaning and ultimate end of our existence, our life is one of great simplicity. This simplicitas, i.e., the fact of having only one concern and one end, is the first and deepest meaning of the word monachos.
The reason for and the goal of this quaerere Deum is obviously loving encounter with God. Our whole life is a path to this end, and this monastic path is characterized by a certain number of means. Among the main means, the following need to be numbered: silent, continual prayer, liturgical prayer centered in the Eucharist, lectio divina, the ascesis of fasting, vigils, work, voluntary poverty, and the various renunciations (chastity and obedience) that are conducive to conversion and purification of the heart—all of which is carried out in a climate of solitude and silence.
We Cistercian monks and nuns find all these means clearly presented and codified in the Rule of Saint Benedict (as a fleshing-out of the Gospel), and the Constitutions of the Order (as an experiential interpretation of the Rule). We find in these same documents something of even greater importance, namely, the end that must encourage us in our daily pilgrimage.
We know that these means are nothing more than means. They are constitutive of monastic life and necessary for it, but they are neither the essential element of monastic life nor the soul that enlivens it, i.e., the search for and the encounter with God. A television star fasts, sleeps little, and sings, and an inmate of the state prison lives in solitude and is given to reading, but—with all due respect—I do not think we can consider either to be a monk or a nun. We are monks and nuns, but if we lose sight of our end, we run the risk of becoming stars or convicts.
These constitutive means of our monastic life are embodied in concrete practices. These practices can differ from one tradition to another and can even evolve over time. It is obvious to all of us that the practice of silence in the Benedictine tradition is not the same as that of the reformed Cistercian tradition. In like manner, it is easy to notice the evolution these practices have undergone in recent years—one need only study the evolution of our Constitutions to be convinced of this. I offer the following table by way of illustration:
Evolution of the Practical Embodiment of Some Monastic Means
From 1900 on
From 1960 on
From 1975 on
Personalist (individual values)
Communal (common values)
Permissions, scarcity, disappropriation, hard work, alms...
Administration, profitable work, use of goods in service of the community, work cooperatives...
Goods in common, economic
administration, financial management, solidarity with the
Protection, modesty, undivided heart...
Help for emotional integration, inhabited heart...
Affective community climate, friendships, openness to heterosexual friendship...
Normative observance, renunciation of one’s own desire, submission of one’s own judgment...
Encouragement of talents, personal responsibility, respect for personal autonomy...
Dialogue, community discernment, decision by consensus...
Means are relative
to ends, and practical embodiments of the means are all the more relative. These
practical embodiments vary according to traditions, places, and times. If they
are varied and have varied, they can continue to vary, always in view of the
end of our monastic life. We might ask if a more gospel-centered model would
not bear better witness to the God we seek. I believe, for example, that a loving
chastity, a serviceable poverty, and a communion-oriented obedience would be
better news for the world of today and bear more eloquent witness of the God
who revolutionizes and liberates.
Our search for God, then, is lived out in the context of interpersonal relationships. Community life in loving communion is also essential to our cenobitic monastic tradition. God is sought and found in community: “May he lead us all together to eternal life” (RB 72.12). What is more, the brother and the sister inhabited by the Lord are also a “place” of encounter with God.
In short, it is clear that, for any seeker of God, the most important thing is encounter with him. It is precisely that encounter that pays back with interest all the grief and toil of the search. In other words, monastic life lacks meaning without mystical or contemplative union with the God who calls, purifies, strips away, and transforms.
Thus, just as
the convictions mentioned earlier were a sign of the Lord’s presence and action,
gospel radicalism and a monastic life anchored in the essentials have even greater
sign value. Communities that live this way bear witness to a revolutionary God
who humbles and raises up, who takes delight in our smallness, poverty, and
precariousness, even though it be night. These communities bear witness to God
with their lives more than with their words, by living more than by speaking.
Our monastic precariousness is an opportunity and a gift of God. The most appropriate response to this gift is thanksgiving. Thankful for our existential and spiritual precariousness, let us bear witness to the God of Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies who raises up by casting down and crowns with glory by humbling. If we live rooted in Jesus by means of a translucent and gospel-centered monastic life, we will also be good news for a world starving for happiness, and good news for a Church thirsting for the God of love.
I conclude with
three sayings—each of a different kind—borrowed from others: a word of wisdom,
a prophetic word, and a contemplative word. These three words, from different
angles, are an invitation to hope.
Here is a word
of wisdom from someone who spent forty days and nights floating in the waters
of a flood. Finally God sent him a dove with an olive branch as a sign of peace
and reconciliation. Good old Noah, from his ark, tells us the following:
-Remember that we are all in the same boat and therefore rowing together.
-Foresee the future; it was not yet raining when I built the ark.
-Always be ready; I was six-hundred years old when the Lord decided to turn me into a ship builder and pilot.
-Turn a deaf ear to foolish criticisms and keep building.
-If the tension rises and the water reaches your neck, dive in and float.
-Do not forget, we who built the ark were a small group of beginners who paid attention to God’s instructions; the Titanic was the work of experts.
-The furor of the storm and the tossing of the waves are of little
importance; if you trust God you will see a rainbow
Next comes a prophetic
word from a revealer of mysteries, Julian of Norwich: “I understood that,
by the grace of God, it was necessary to remain steadfast in faith and to believe
with the same steadfastness that all things would be for the good...” (Revelations,
I conclude with
a contemplative word, a word that should remind us of that supper of self-offering,
farewell, and betrayal when it was already night (Jn 13:30). That night
did not prevent and will not prevent his Eucharist from being a sign of hope
and a foretaste of the glory to come. Let us say together with the poet and
That eternal spring is hidden,
for I know well where it has its rise,
although it is night.
This eternal spring is hidden
in this living bread for our life's sake,
although it is night.
It is here calling out to creatures;
and they satisfy their thirst, although in darkness,
because it is night.
This living spring that I long for,
I see in this bread of life,
although it is night.