List of circular Letters by Dom Ambrose


Monte Cistello

Feast of Sts. Robert, Alberic and Stephen

26th January 1976

My dear Brothers and Sisters,

At Christmas I was on tour of the monasteries of Africa and did not find time to write a letter to you all. However, that did not mean that you were forgotten. My first Mass on Christmas day was offered for the Order and you were very much in my thoughts and prayers on that day. Again this morning I offered my mass for the Order and prayed that our Founders might help us all to be faithful to their spirit.

In my previous letter to the Order (Advent 1974) I spoke about analysing my experience in visiting our monasteries. So far I have been to 82 houses. But that leaves over 50 still to be visited and I do not feel in a position to make any overall judgement yet. However, it may be useful to share with you some initial impressions and reflections.

Everywhere in the Order there seems to be an increase in vocations. In itself this is not necessarily a positive sign. Quality is what counts, not quantity. And of course, it remains to be seen whether they persevere! But it does raise the question of good selection and formation of candidates. As I gave a short conference on the first of these points at the General Chapter of Abbesses last September it need not be developed here. But I would like to underline its importance. The proportion of unbalanced or unsuitable persons in some of our houses seems to indicate that selection procedures have not been adequate in the past.

Formation, too, merits close attention. It is not merely an intellectual thing. If it were, then it would suffice to see that proper instruction was given by fully trained teachers. Nor is it a matter of producing a purely external conformity to certain observances. No, it goes much deeper. It must build up in the novice a whole set of deeply held convictions and values, so that the Gospel message and the monastic way of living that message are really assimilated and 'internalized'. Have we given enough thought to how this can be carried out? In many monasteries the formation seems to be much as it was 20 or 30 years ago. Very little account has been taken of the fact that the present structures (or lack of structures) call for a strong sense of personal responsibility and that the novice has to be formed accordingly. There are also other areas where changes have occurred which call for a new type of formation e.g. the introduction of private cells, community dialogue, the need to balance silence and speech, etc. Above all, those in charge of training should not forget that they are forming novices to be contemplatives and that this has its own special demands.

Two points have made me particularly happy. Everywhere there seems to be a growing interest in the life of prayer and, on the whole, fraternal charity is better than it used to be. Prayer is of the very essence of our life, so that anything that promotes it is worthy of our attention. The interest in prayer shows itself in various ways: attempts to find a better equilibrium between lectio divina, work and prayer; the desire to learn about prayer techniques in other religious traditions; the examination of our own religious heritage in this sphere, and so on. As for fraternal charity, time after time in visiting houses monks and nuns have told me how much improvement they have noticed in this area.

But intimately connected with these two facts are certain problems. One concerns the liturgy. Before the recent reforms the amount of time spent in liturgical worship was considerable. With the introduction of the vernacular and the greater insistence on intelligent participation it has been found necessary to reduce the quantity of texts in order to avoid mental indigestion. But there still seems to be a difficulty in finding a really prayerful liturgy. So much that some people are questioning the rapidity with which we have embraced the liturgical reforms. The contemplative tradition, so the argument goes, is one of slowly assimilating the psalms and other texts over a number of years, whereas the modern tendency is to look for immediate relevance and meaning in what is sung or recited. This problem, whether consciously grasped or unconsciously sensed, has an effect on the life of prayer and often causes uneasiness. In saying this I am not intending to criticize the reforms, but only to point out a fact. Difficulties of this sort can be very fruitful, since they force us to examine the subject more attentively and spur us on to find solutions. For instance, a thorough examination of this particular problem could easily lead to a deeper understanding of the nature of liturgy and of our contemplative tradition.

As for fraternal charity, the main difficulty which it raises is the correct balance between silence and speech in our monasteries. But at a deeper level it poses a problem as to the very nature of community in our Cistercian heritage. Are we a group of hermits living in community or is the relationship one of brothers in a family? Or is this a false dichotomy?

Above I spoke of the balance between lectio, work and prayer. It is interesting to see in various houses how the nature of the work chosen as a means of subsistence affects the regularity and rhythm of our life. If it is well organized it can be a real element of peace. Nearly everywhere, too , there seems to be a movement to reduce the number of lay-workers employed by the monastery. I say 'nearly everywhere' because in Africa and in other Third World countries the trend is in the opposite direction. This is easy to understand, since the providing of work is a way to help the neighbouring people in these countries. Another trend that is quite noticeable is the movement away from agriculture as the main source of revenue. Where it has been retained it has become something of an industry demanding highly specialized skills.

Of course this question of work raises other matters, particularly poverty and its concrete expression in the modern world. This is a real problem everywhere and not only in our Order and I find it difficult to see any solution. People do not agree even as to what is the true nature of evangelical poverty.

Closely connected with work is the so-called 'Brother's Question'. The unrest caused by the Decree of Unification has largely died down now, but nobody seems to have thought through all the consequences of that decision and in some houses there is a desire to have more than one type of monk even although the modalities would have to be very different form the medieval model.

Two other matters have struck me as calling for further thought - fraternal correction and the right balance between solitude and openness. In nearly every monastery I am asked whether I have found any suitable substitute for the Chapter of Faults. So far I have not found a monastery which is satisfied on this point. But the idea is growing in my mind that perhaps we are not very clear what precisely we are looking for, nor why we are looking for it!

As for solitude and openness, the main difficulties centre round enclosure and the relationship with the local church. This latter point is particularly acute in Africa and South America.

To sum up, then, everywhere in the Order our monasteries are trying to discover their corporate identity in the post-conciliar atmosphere and time after time the same problems or group of problems crop up. One consequence of this is that I am often asked what is happening in other monasteries in regard to such and such a point. There is a great deal of interest about the rest of the Order and it is a pity that no way has been found to make up for the Chronicles that used to appear in Collectanea.

Perhaps you will be saying to yourself that it is a strange sort of letter to be sending to the Order. I have raised a number of questions without attempting to provide answers. This has been deliberate. My idea is to stimulate reflection on these matters.

May Our Blessed Mother Mary help us all to grow in the knowledge and love of our vocation.

Ambrose Southey