List of circular Letters by Dom Ambrose


Santa Rita Abbey

Advent 1974

My dear Brothers and Sisters,

As you know, at present I am on a series of visits to our monasteries in Canada and the U.S.A. Constantly moving from house to house leaves little time or no time for writing a letter to the Order and yet it would be impossible to allow this wonderful season of the year to pass without at least sending you some words of greetings.

So, first of all, may I wish you all a very happy Christmas full of the joy and peace which comes from Christ our Lord and Saviour. This great feast of Christmas has always loomed large in Christian history, but our Cistercian Fathers took special delight in writing about the birthday of Jesus. Their whole spirituality centred round the humanity of Christ which they venerated with a deep and tender love. May something of their spirit be kindled among us today.

Secondly, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who wrote to me or promised prayers at the time of my election last May. As far as possible I sent personal replies, but some persons may have been overlooked or perhaps the vagaries of the Italian Postal Service caused the reply to go astray. In any case, I was deeply touched by the messages of congratulations and particularly by the promise of prayers. More than once in the past few months I have felt sustained by those prayers when called upon to make difficult decisions.

Having said all the above, what theme am I to take up in this letter to the whole Order. It would not be too difficult to select some spiritual subject such as lectio divina, poverty or prayer. But for some reason I do not feel that that is what is called for at the present moment in the history of our Order. Besides, both Dom Gabriel Sortais and Dom Ignace Gillet have written some fine letters to us on such subjects in the past twenty years. Since the General Chapter of this year I have been able to visit 8 houses of the Order in ten countries and already this has allowed me to make some interesting discoveries, but it seems a little too early to attempt to analyse these. Perhaps I may be able to do so on my return to Rome.

However, one point is already so abundantly clear that I would like to share it with you. Everywhere in the Order our monasteries are coming to what may be termed a spiritual crossroad. This is perhaps more marked among the monks, but it is also present among the nuns. Let me explain.

The past twenty years have seen a period of great change and adaptation in our Order. It would take too long to list all the changes, but a few may be mentioned. In 1953 Dom Gabriel Sortais set on foot certain adaptations which were finally approved in 1958 -- the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin was replaced by an introductory antiphon at the Canonical Hours; the frequency

of the Office of the Dead was greatly reduced, etc. Many other liturgical changes have followed since then -- the suppression of the matutinal Mass and of Prime, the granting of the loi-cadre, permission to use the vernacular, etc.

The introduction of the Ratio Studiorum and the building of Monte Cistello had profound repercussions in the Sixties. Then there was the revision of the Usages, the Decree of Unification, various decisions of the General Chapter in regard to silence, food, private rooms, the habit, etc., which culminated in the Statute on Unity and Pluralism.

On the whole and with certain qualifications I myself approve of all these changes. What is more, it seems to me that it was vital to the Order that they be made. We were in great danger of becoming imprisoned in a whole host of petty customs which often stifled the true monastic and Cistercian values. But is must be admitted at the same time, that these adaptations were not always implemented with due discretion, taking into account the particular character and circumstances of the community. Moreover, in the Order as a whole, it seemed that the accent was put on adaptation rather than on spiritual renewal. Also, it would seem that in some cases there has been an over-reaction to the previous rigid structure.

This same period which has witnessed such big changes and a general simplification of the external structures has also seen an increased interest in our Cistercian Fathers. The periodicals- Collectanea, Cistercian Studies, Citeaux and Cistercium - have helped to stimulate this interest, and the series such as Sources Chr├ętiennes, Cistercian Publications and Pain de Citeaux have made the texts more available. Everywhere in the Order one feels a deep desire to know more about our Cistercian heritage. The Cistercian Institute at Kalamazoo is just one indication of such a desire.

Perhaps by now you are wondering to yourself what I meant by speaking above of a spiritual crossroad. In many houses, now that the period of change is slowing down, more and more of our monks and nuns are asking themselves where is the Order going. This questioning is intensified by the interest in our Cistercian past. Hence, many houses are having to examine the quality of their monastic life to see whether the adaptations are bearing fruit and whether the monastic values are really being lived and expressed in the new less rigid structures.

This situation is full of rich possibilities for a real spiritual renaissance in the Order. But at the same time it is fraught with dangers, insofar as it allows the possibility of wrong choices and spiritual deterioration. Hence the metaphor of the crossroad.

Obviously, the situation outlined above is not presenting itself with the same urgency and to the same degree in each monastery, but I would dare to affirm that it will be presenting itself in almost every monastery of the Order in the next five years. So far in my visits the indications have been on the optimistic side. Many monks and nuns are feeling the desire for greater monastic commitment. This is encouraging, because any real and lasting spiritual renewal must come from individuals. It cannot be imposed from above. However, it can be encouraged from above. Many abbots who have been rightly allowing their communities to settle down to the new conditions and who have thus tended to exercise their spiritual leadership in a permissive sort of way are now finding that a new role is called for. They are being asked now to point out the road to a fuller and deeper living of the monastic values. By the grace of God, many are already doing this. But it must be admitted that some have not yet realized the need for this change of attitude.

You may feel that it would be a good thing for me as Abbot General to indicate ways in which the spiritual renewal may be fostered in the Order. Just at the moment the situation in the various houses is so diversified that I would prefer not to make such suggestions in a detailed way.

Instead, I would ask each house of the Order to look into this matter of what are our monastic values and how they are being expressed in the new situation created by twenty years of adaptation. If we all do this with sincerity and openness it may well result in a new Golden Age for the Order.

Christmas is a time of rebirth, and inevitably we look towards the Blessed Virgin who brought Christ Jesus, our Saviour, into the world. May she who is our Advocate and our Mother bring to birth in our Order this new life.

Ambrose Southey