A Great Monastic Formator:

Dom Anselme Le Bail[1]




Armand Veilleux, OCSO



Historical Context


The years and even the centuries previous to the Union Chapter of 1892 had been difficult for the Cistercian Order. Long before the French Revolution, there had been the birth of Congregations, then the emergence of Observances, and what was rightly called the "war of Observances." During the French Revolution, there had been Augustin de Lestrange's incredible odyssey and all the foundations born of this adventure, followed in the nineteenth century by the restoration of the communities in France. Although great men and women were not lacking in those days, and though we cannot admire the generosity and perseverance of those pioneers enough, nevertheless their dependence on the great spiritual tradition of Citeaux was often rather tenuous. To be persuaded of this fact, one need only consider the subjects discussed at the Chapters of their Congregations. Even the more spiritual aspects of these reform movements owed far more to spiritual currents characteristic of the nineteenth century than to a specifically monastic influence and even less to a properly Cistercian influence.

Providentially, the unification of the La Trappe Congregations, which gave birth to the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance (first called the Order of Reformed Cistercians of Our Lady of La Trappe), happened at a very favorable time in the life of the Church. The years 1892 to 1914 were years of great spiritual vitality. It was the time of great conversions among men of letters: Verlaine, Bloy, Huysmans, Claudel, Péguy, Psichari, Massignon. In those same years, Bergson, at the Collège de France, rediscovered the heartfelt knowledge of mystics, and Blondel, reviving the approach of the Augustinian ontology, taught that deification was the logical transcendence of every human action.

During that same time, several great abbots deeply influenced the orientation of our Order by rediscovering if not the authentic Cistercian spirit at least the spiritual and even contemplative dimension of the monastic life. It is worth highlighting the role played by two of these spiritual masters: Dom Jean­-Baptiste Chautard and Dom Vital Lehodey.

They were both tireless men of action and men of great spiritual depth[2] During the same period, our Order was opening itself to the Far East, and both Chautard and Lehodey were personally involved in this movement of foundations in distant countries, which heralded the great expansion of our Order a few years later. However, while those great masters had been nourished by a personal reading of the Rule of Saint Benedict and had acquired a certain knowledge of Saint Bernard, their contact with the Cistercian tradition properly understood was limited.

Between the two world wars, there was not only considerable numerical growth in the Order, but also a rediscovery of the Cistercian spirit, and the spiritual riches of the great masters of Cistercian spirituality were rediscovered, beginning with Saint Bernard. From this point of view, no one was more influential in the Order than Dom Anselme Le Bail[3] and the entire movement he engendered, a movement that was first spiritual and then intellectual.


The Difficult Circumstances of his Abbacy

In order accurately to estimate what Anselme Le Bail accomplished in his community of Scourmont and in the Order as a whole, we have to keep in mind the difficult circumstances of his time in office.

Elected abbot on October 4, 1913, he was mobilized less than a year later and served as a military chaplain until April 1919. Throughout those years, he was continually in touch with the members of his community, several of whom were also serving in the army, and he continued their formation through a periodical he published on a regular basis, Le moine soldat (The Soldier-Monk). Scarcely two years after he came back to Scourmont, the Order entrusted him with a difficult mission in the Congo, where the abbey of Westmalle had founded the monastery of Bamania in 1894, and which little by little had become more a missionary congregation than a Cistercian monastery. This task kept him busy for a whole year.

Whether at Scourmont or away, Anselme Le Bail was the soul of his community. Throughout this period it continued to grow along the spiritual lines drawn by their abbot, faithful to his motto: Abba, pater. Under his leadership, the Scourmont community developed a spirit of its own, which generated both admiration and mistrust in the Order. Thus the General Chapter, while freely using Dom Anselme's talents and experience, did not fail to give him a slap on the wrist from time to time. At the General Chapter of 1930, he was strictly enjoined to preach retreats in Cistercian monasteries only-he had done so in several Benedictine monasteries -- and not to absent himself from his monastery for more than twenty-four hours without the written permission of his Father Immediate, which permission was to be renewed for each journey. In 1937, he was ordered to remove the wash-basins that had been set up in the dormitory cells "against the tradition of the Order." In general, however, trust prevailed. Thus year after year he was one of the king-pins of all the commissions created by the General Chapter. In 1920, he was a member of a commission entrusted with helping the Definitory harmonize the Constitutions with Canon Law. In 1922 and for many years afterwards, he was a member of the Architecture Commission, which had to approve all the building projects in the Order. Also in 1922, he was a member of the commission set up to resolve the question of Westmalle's foundation in the Congo. In 1933, he was a member of the special commission for Collectanea, the review he held so dear and of which he was truly the father. From 1932 onwards, he was the secretary of the Liturgy Commission and in 1937 a member of the commission in charge of revising the Usages of the nuns.

Meanwhile, with the growing number of monks at Scourmont, Dom Anselme considered making a foundation. In 1926, he traveled to Spain looking for a favorable place, but in vain. In 1928, however, he agreed to assume responsibility for Caldey, a monastic island since the fifth century, recently abandoned by an Anglican monastic community that had converted to Catholicism. He led the group of founders there in January 1929.

Then came World War II. In 1939, following England's and France's declarations of war on Germany, twenty-four monks were mobilized. In May 1940, during the invasion of Belgium and the beginning of hostilities on the Western battlefront, all his monks under thirty-five were mobilized. Stoically, Dom Anselme stayed at Scourmont with about a third of the community, but eventually they had to leave the monastery, as it was occupied by German soldiers until the end of the war. Once again he published Le Moine soldat, in order to continue his pastoral service to monks on the front.

Shortly before the war, Dom Anselme had seen a need for the Order to be open to dialogue with non-Christian religious traditions of the Far East, as had Fr. Henri Le Saux and Fr. Jules Monchanin. Fr. Monchanin, before leaving for India, bad given a conference to the Scourmont community in the fall of 1938. Dom Anselme spoke with him at length and invited Fr. Albert Derzelle to join their conversation. They even agreed that Fr. Albert would join Fr. Monchanin in Tamil Nadu the following year, after studying Sanskrit in Paris for six months, in order to help him prepare a monastic foundation. Since Caldey Island was British, Dom Anselme felt it could be a step toward a foundation in India. The war, however, put an end to this project, which was then replaced, so to speak, by the wave of foundations in Africa in the 1950s (Scourmont founded Mokoto in Congo/Zaire). One of Dom Anselme's disciples,Fr. Francis Mahieu (Acharya), who had entered Scourmont precisely in view of making a foundation in India, took it upon himself to make this foundation, which, as Dom Anselme had foreseen, had to be made outside the Order. It was eventually incorporated into the Order in 1996, thus bringing it full circle.

These many activities did not prevent Dom Anselme from publishing L'Ordre de Citeaux -- La Trappe (Paris: Letouzey-Ané, 1924), as well as several articles on Cistercian spirituality, especially the very important article on Saint Bernard in the Dictionnaire de Spiritualité.

Above all, a Formator


All this activity, important as it was for the Order, was secondary for Anselme Le Bail. It was merely a kind of outward reflection of his activity within his own community. He wanted to be the community's father, but in full accordance with the great Christian tradition's use of the word. He was above all an outstanding formator, always concerned with Christ being born and growing in his community and in each single monk.

In an unpublished paper "La formation a Scourmont," in the chapter dealing with Dom Anselme Le Bail's time as abbot, Fr. Colomban Bock enumerates nine characteristics of Dom Anselme's abbatial service:

1. Returning to Benedictine and Cistercian spirituality by teaching the Rule of Saint Benedict,

2. Returning to the purity of the monastic ideal of early Citeaux by teaching Cistercian spirituality,

3. Reforming the study program and ushering in a monastic humanism,

4. Restoring the liturgy through teaching on the spirit of the liturgy and through study of Cistercian liturgy,

5. Setting up a program of monastic and priestly formation,

6. Establishing a monastic library adapted to these different objectives,

7. Appointing masters in spiritual matters and a group of qualified teachers, S. Setting a balance between the requirements of obedience and the holy freedom of the children of God,

9. Calling for personal responsibility, respect of personalities, and encouragement of individual initiatives.



His Personal Journey


One might easily assume that Anselme Le Bail arrived at Scourmont with an excellent intellectual formation and that on the basis of his own abilities, he strove to transform his community into a community of intellectuals. This is not at all the case. When in 1904 the twenty-six-year-old Br. Anselme entered the novitiate, after spending five years with the Holy Spirit Fathers in Paris as a novice and simply professed, there was nothing extraordinary about his intellectual formation. When as a Cistercian novice he first discovered the Rule of Saint Benedict, it was love at first sight. He immediately started studying it thoroughly, analyzing it and commenting on it. It brightened up his whole life as a monk, as novice master, and as abbot.

Dom Norbert Sauvage, who had discerned Fr. Anselme's innate gifts as a formator, appointed him master of lay brothers and lay brother novices in 1909 (there were separate novitiates for the choir religious and for the lay brothers). He taught them not only the Rule, but also the liturgy, which had become one of the major enrichments of his spiritual life. At that time, no one else had the idea of teaching liturgy to the lay brothers, except to give them classes on rubrics. Young Br. Anselme explained the liturgical cycles to them in the manner of Dom Guéranger, and also spoke on the sacrifice of the Mass. In 1910, he wrote a booklet for them entitled L'Office divin du frère convers cistercien (The Divine Office of the Cistercian Lay Brother), in which he presented the Office of Paters and Aves as the authentic prayer of the Church.

In 1911, he became novice master for the choir religious. He went back to his notes and began a complete explanation of Saint Benedict's doctrine based on the text of the Rule itself. At that time, almost everyone, even in monasteries, used Rodriguez's manual for religious formation, but Anselme Le Bail adopted the Rule as a manual of formation for the monk.[4] He also formed the novices in liturgy, contemplative prayer, and the inner life. Dom Godefroid Belorgey, his novice during the second half of his novitiate, used to say that he owed his whole monastic formation, doctrine, and attraction for prayer and inner life to Dom Anselme Le Bail.

During his two years as novice master, Fr. Anselme completed a comprehensive program for the novitiate and drew up two articles on "The Rule of Saint Benedict, Manual of Spirituality" and "Liturgy in the Formation of Novices," which were presented by Dom Norbert Sauvage at the General Chapter of 1913, during the retreat for the superiors at Citeaux.

In 1913, Fr. Anselme became abbot. There were several changes of novice master during the war, but after the war he appointed Fr. Godefroid Belorgey as novice master, from 1919 to 1928. Under this extraordinary team of abbot and novice director, these were the golden years for formation at Scourmont. Dom Anselme continued to be actively involved in formation for the novices and for the entire community as well. Having "discovered" the Rule and the liturgy, he went on to rediscover the Cistercian fathers, especially Saint Bernard. Beginning in 1923, he introduced a course on Cistercian spirituality, giving one hour a week to the novices himself. From that time on, however, his major concern was monastic formation for the entire community.



Formation of the Entire Community


The phrase "monastic humanism"[5] rightly expresses Dom Anselme's attitude and desire. He wanted all the monks of his community to behave as adults and to be eager to develop their own personalities. He wanted to teach them the art of reflection, how to think for themselves, how to enter more deeply into the meaning of Christian and monastic life and the requirements of their state in life. He wanted them freely to embrace the goodness of life, not out of fear, but in a total freedom and for the love of God. He wanted to be the abba who teaches, encourages, and enlightens, not the policeman who supervises and corrects.

His teaching was rooted in tradition, especially Cistercian tradition, for which he had a deep respect. This respect, however, did not prevent him from rethinking it by asking questions in a new light and stimulating intellectual curiosity and personal study. His high intellectual rigor led him to analyze a question or a situation thoroughly before evaluating the various elements and drawing up a synthesis. He also strove to develop in the monks of his community a rigorous critical sense. He sent several to higher university studies in Scripture, theology, and canon law, not out of mere intellectualism, but rather to lay the foundation on which to build an enlightened and open spiritual life.

He thoroughly studied any questions he dealt with. Thus, in his daily chapter talks for a period of nearly thirty years, commenting on the Rule, he spent two and a half years on chapter 7 and an equal amount of time on prayer.[6] His sermons (we did not call them homilies at that time) for solemn professions were veritable treatises of spirituality, often using a current event as a starting point. Thus in 1940, a few days before the invasion of Belgium, at the solemn profession of a monk, be publicly stated how to react if the war were to come. The sermon he pronounced when his community was expelled from Scourmont in 1942, without knowing if they would return, is a true masterpiece.

A serious intellectual formation is impossible without a good library. Dom Anselme devoted all his energies to the creation of one of the largest monastic libraries in the Order, which counted all the great collections, such as the Patrologia Graeca and the Patrologia Latina, Mansi's collection of the Councils, important dictionaries such as the Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, and the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists. Able to ask for help in this area as in others, he put various competent persons in charge of establishing the different parts of the library. Fr. Joseph Canivez was in charge of setting up the canon law section. Frs. Alphonse Bernigaud and Benoit Attout had charge of the Scripture section. For philosophy it was Fr. Ignace Van Vlasselaer, and for theology Fr. Thomas Litt,

He encouraged the publication of books by the most competent of his monks, especially the Acta Capituli Generalis by Fr. Canivez, a classic text used by all the historians o£ the Order at the time which has not yet been replaced, even though it is now out of date.

As early as 1923, Dom Anselme conceived the idea of a collection of writings by the Cistercian fathers of the first centuries of the Order and proposed its publication. He had drawn up a precise and detailed plan of what could be a complete Cistercian corpus, many elements of which have not yet been published. The only publications resembling this project today are the large Cistercian Fathers series brought out by Cistercian Publications (a publishing house set up by the US Cistercian Regional Meeting) over the last thirty years, and Fr. Robert Thomas's Pain de Citeaux series. Dom Anselme's project was presented to the General Chapter of 1924 but was not accepted, being considered too intellectual. The periodical Collectanea, the publication of which was approved ten years later by the General Chapter of 1933, was a sort of compromise solution. Thanks to its first editor, Fr. Camille Hontoir, a monk of Scourmont, and Dom Anselme's close involvement, this periodical was immediately helpful in making the Cistercian fathers known and in generating desire to read them.

Even a brief resume of Dom Anselme Le Bail's formation activity would not be complete if we did not mention his untiring work for the formation of nuns in the monasteries under his care, Soleilmont and N.-D. de La Paix. He was personally involved in the transfer of the latter from Fourbechies to Chimay in 1919. Between 1928 and 1937, he was active in the formation of about fifty young girls sent by Dom Simon Dubuisson, the abbot of Tilburg and former monk of Scourmont, for their formation at Chimay. On July 15, 1937, they left as a group to found Berkel. He also preached many retreats in other monasteries of nuns.

In the last years of his life, spent in a wheelchair following a stroke, he continued to form his community through his silent and prayerful presence, since the care of the community had been entrusted to an apostolic administrator, Dom Guerric Baudet, who became his successor in 1956.



Dom Anselme .Le Bail's Heritage


At Scourmont, we can feel Dom Anselme's presence and influence in every corner o£ the cloister. What about his influence in the Order as a whole?

The Order is indebted to him for the whole movement of rediscovery of our Cistercian fathers in the last three-quarters of the twentieth century. We might wonder, however, whether this movement has always maintained the direction Dom Anselme gave it and the spirit with which he inspired it. Dom Anselme knew how to combine great scientific rigor with an equal spiritual freedom and a deep spirit of prayer. Workshops on our Cistercian fathers, which have become more and more frequent over the last forty years, cannot always be said to possess the same characteristics. Today the writings of our twelfth-century fathers are readily used for lectio divina, often without the preliminary effort of a serious study that would open their authentic meaning. As a result, these texts, a bit esoteric for modern readers, have been used in order to arouse pleasant religious feelings. Moreover, even though the writings of some of our fathers have come out in critical editions of solid scientific value, not all publications about Cistercian writers have that same rigor. Most of them are no more than fervorinos, which Dom Anselme would not have appreciated in the least.

His method was different and much more demanding. His first step was to analyse the text itself as seriously as possible, even in a technical way, in order fully to understand the author's message, putting it in its historical and spiritual context. The second step consisted in an effort to reflect personally and to assimilate this message in a spirit of prayer: Finally, as a third step, rather than inculturating oneself to the past (the great temptation in current monastic formation), the method consisted of assimilating the spiritual vitality received from contact with the Cistercian fathers, in order continually to reinvent a Cistercian spirituality rooted (or "inculturated" as we would say today) in our current world. Dom Anselme's chapter talks for solemn professions are excellent examples of a monastic doctrine solidly rooted in tradition, but they also reveal a free spirit ever able to rethink-and daring to rethink -- this tradition according to the context in which it is lived.

Dom Anselme Le Bail published little. He did however write a great deal, not in view of publication, but in order to assimilate everything he had learned from the Rule and the fathers, and to prepare his classes for the community of Scourmont. Although he did not hesitate to write the article on Saint Bernard in the Dictionnaire de Spiritualitê, at a time when the latter was not well known, and some other studies on Cistercian life, he never considered himself a writer by vocation. He was first of all a formator. All his activity was directed toward the formation of the monks of his community, whom he wished to be adults, impregnated with the Gospel, the Rule of Saint Benedict, and the Cistercian fathers, living the tradition with freedom and lucidity in the world of today.


Abbaye N.-D. de Scourmont

6464 Forges



Translated by

Emmanuel Cazabonne, OCSO

0. L. of the Mississippi Abbey 8400 Abbey Hill

Dubuque, IA 52003-9501


[1] The following is a translation of " Un grand formateur monastique: Dom Anselme Le Bail," Coll 63 (2001): 224-33.

[2] We know about Chautard's appeals to Clémenceau to prevent the monasteries from being suppressed, precisely by stressing their spiritual and contemplative dimension.

[3] He was born in 1878 and was abbot of Scourmont from 1913 until his death in 1956.

[4] His own novice master, Fr. Alphonse Bernigaud, had shown him the way in 1905. See "Dom Norbert Sauvage," Coll 63 (2001): 213-34.

[5] Phrase used by Fr. Colomban Bock, see above.

[6] Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 7, is on humility.