List of circular Letters by Dom Ambrose


Monte Cistello

Feast of Saints Robert, Alberic and Stephen


My dear Brothers and Sisters,

Once again I was away from Rome at Christmas and did not find time to write you a circular letter. But once again my first Mass on December 25th was for all the members of the Order. In fact, it is now my custom to offer a Mass every week for the good estate of the Order. I hope that the Christmas season brought you much grace and peace.

My last circular letter disappointed some of you, since it raised a number of questions without offering any answers. But this was quite intentional as I wanted to stimulate reflection in the Order. However, you will be interested to know that, as time goes on, I hope to return to these questions and to suggest some answers.

This year I would like to turn my attention to selection and formation. At this point, some of you who are no longer in the novitiate or monasticate may be thinking that this letter is not for you. However, it is now generally admitted that formation is a lifelong process, so perhaps what I say will be of some help -  even to the old-timers!

On the first point, selection, I have nothing to add to what was said to the Abbesses in the 7th Conference at their 1975 General Chapter. But it may be worth mentioning an objection which was made to me on the subject. "We should not be too severe in accepting vocations," it was said, «since grace can always change people." First of all, such a statement is in plain contradiction to all the directives coming from the Holy See for the past forty years. One has only to recall the Apostolic Constitution "Sedes Sapientiae" (May 31,1956) or the Instruction "Religiosorum Institutio" (February 2,1961) where it is made perfectly clear that there have to be positive signs that the candidate possesses all the necessary qualities of mind and body, of nature and of grace to undertake the religious life. However, even apart from these authoritative statements, sound theology tells us that grace builds on nature and that if God calls someone to a certain form of life He has already seen to it that the necessary qualities have been built into his character. It would be the height of folly for any of our monasteries to accept candidates too easily, no matter how low they might be in numbers.

In regard to formation, I pointed out last year that it is not merely an intellectual thing, otherwise it would suffice for well trained teachers to provide adequate instruction and we would have first class monks! But that does not mean that the intellectual side may be despised or neglected. We owe it to those who present themselves that they be given sound instruction on everything pertaining to our monastic life. In practice this means that they should be given a good grasp of the Rule of St. Benedict and the general principles of the spiritual life, especially in regard to prayer and its development. There should be instruction about the vows, the Constitutions of the Order  and the customs of their monastery. Some introduction should be given to the Bible, particularly to the Gospels and the Psalms. There should also be classes on Monastic History and Liturgy. In providing this intellectual formation care should be taken that the teaching is not to abstract and speculative. Rather, it should be made as concrete as possible and examples from our Cistercian Fathers could be added to show that it is a living doctrine capable of changing our lives. In visiting houses of the Order it has come to my attention more than once that often nowadays the Novice Master has to begin his teaching with a course on fundamental Christian doctrine. At least he should check on this point, since if such a basis is not present very little can be achieved, as our life is essentially one of faith.

And this brings me to the subject of spiritual formation. As I noted last year, it does not consist in a purely external conformity to certain observances, but rather in an assimilation of a whole set of convictions and values mediated to us by the Gospel message and the monastic way of living that message. If this be true, then it poses the question: how is this process of assimilation (or internalization) to be effected? Perhaps the following reflections may provide some answer.

If we are going to build up convictions and a value system at any depth, we must be involved in a personal way. There has to be a gift of self -- what is sometimes called today a fundamental option; that is, a personal choice giving a definite character to the whole of one's life and automatically influencing further choices in a particular direction. If, for instance, a businessman decides that at all costs he will become director of his firm and he makes this his fundamental option, then he subordinates all other interests, even his wife and family, to this aim and all his choices are influenced accordingly. If, moved by God's grace, we choose the monastic life, then we are making a fundamental option which should have lasting consequences.

But the monastic life is not a merely abstract ideal, it is a particular way of following Christ, of living according to His teaching. Perhaps at times in our eagerness to teach a 'Cistercian spirituality' we overlook this fact that is rooted in a personal relationship to Christ. So it seems to me that all our spiritual formation should begin here. The novice should be led to a deep personal devotion to Christ our Lord, true God and true Man. There will be no real assimilation of Christian and monastic values unless this personal dedication is present; personal in both senses: that is, a commitment of self and a commitment to a person. The primacy of this personal aspect is fully in harmony both with the aspirations of many young people today and with our monastic tradition from St. Benedict's "Nihil amore Christi praeponere" to the works of St Bernard or St Aelred. In practice this will mean searching the Gospels to see what they tell us of Him. Sometimes, too, it is helpful to read a "Life" of Christ. But this searching and reading should be accompanied by prayer and meditation, so that our hearts are touched and our desires purified. The Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, are privileged places for meeting Christ and must not be neglected. And, of course, we must never forget the touchstone given us by the Lord Himself: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35) These are the four main ways of getting to know Christ -- through the Gospels, prayer, the Sacraments, and our brethren -- all other ways can be reduced to them.

But this is only one element in the assimilation of monastic values. Another is the community itself in which formation is being given. If a large proportion of the members of the community are really living up to their monastic ideal, then this has a powerful (even though non-verbal) influence on the novices. Conversely, if a significant number of the brethren have not internalized the monastic values and are only living their vocation in a routine fashion, it will have a negative influence on the novices. Please note that I have used the words "a significant number". It would be unrealistic to expect a 100% success, and a reasonably mature novice is not scandalized to find a few who are monks only in name. But this point does raise a real problem. What is to be done in a house where a significant number are not living up to their vocation? Such a lamentable situation is not easy to cope with. In some cases it may become necessary to envisage sending novices to another monastery. Another solution might be to wait until there is a group of postulants, so that they will be able to give each other support. However, we should not lose confidence in God nor in the power of prayer. He can use all sorts of providential happenings to ensure that new life is given to a community and that the power of bad example is neutralized.

Another element, the most important, is the Holy Spirit Himself. He is the source of every vocation in the Church and without Him we cannot have the mind of Christ. In a recent study on vocation it was pointed out that one of the best signs of a true vocation is the capacity to listen -- especially to God. Only the Holy Spirit knows what God wants of us, so we have to cultivate the habit of listening to Him.

And here we come to the fourth element -- the Novice Master. He has always had an important role, but the modern developments have made it more important than ever. In the past, the view of man adopted by most religious Institutes was somewhat pessimistic and hence the formation technique aimed at "curing" him by conforming him to institutional structures. The model novice tended to be one who kept all the rules perfectly, avoided singularity, never did his own will, etc. When pushed to the extreme such a formation policy was depersonalizing, even dehumanizing; it aimed at putting people in a mould, turning out replicas of the perfect monk. Nowadays there has been a reaction against structures. We see the aim of formation as the assimilation of values rather than conformity to structures. This new approach has its own dangers, as I will point out later, but it certainly demands a lot from the Novice Master. He has to have a real respect for each novice as an adult person in his own right. With him he has to seek to discern what the Holy Spirit is asking. In practice he has to be a person who himself has assimilated the monastic values, otherwise he will be giving a double message -- his public teaching and the example of his life -- and often the non-verbal example is more powerful than the spoken word. But, more than that, he has to be able to relate to novices at a deep level so as to be able to see what is happening in their lives. This often calls for hours of talking and patient listening, not to mention earnest prayer. According to a recent study most aspirants are drawn to religious life by the values they see in the ideal of their Institute. But at the same time they possess certain needs, mostly unconscious, which are inconsistent with these values. One of the main tasks of the Novice Master will be to spot these inconsistencies and help the novice to change or, at least, to put him in touch with someone qualified to discover these inconsistent needs and to judge whether they can be changed sufficiently to allow grace to work. Here again the community has its part to play. It must trust the Novice Master and also show respect for the novices as persons by welcoming them into its midst, being patient with their growing- pains, and so on. The relationship between the Abbot, the Novice Master and the novices is a complicated area in which it is hard to give definite rules. Suffice it to say that Abbot and the Novice Master must work closely together and mutually support each other.                    

So far, I have spoken of intellectual and spiritual formation but have said nothing about human formation. This is a vast subject involving character, maturity, etc. However, we should not divorce these three levels -- they all go hand in hand. One of the main problems in this field is formation to liberty.

Above I mentioned a pessimistic view of man and a formation policy based on structures being changed nowadays for one based on the assimilation of values. There is a risk that we might swing too much to the opposite extreme and have an over-optimistic view of man and thus attempt to do away with all structures. Virtue, as usual, lies in the middle. We must have a realistic view of man -- he has not been too badly wounded by original sin but he has been wounded to some extent; and we must realize that values do not exist in the abstract, but must be expressed in some structures. Applying this to the question of liberty, we have to avoid  two mistakes. On the one hand we haven't to put too much weight on uniformity since that would tend to stifle all liberty; and on the other hand we haven't to abandon all restrictions since that would lead to destructive pluralism. So, in practice, we must give some freedom, perhaps even favour freedom, but only to the extent that it is useful. A lot will depend on the Novice Master's attitude towards the novices -- if he respects them as adults, if he trusts them and encourages them to use their freedom, then he will find himself in a position to help them and to guide them when they make mistakes (as they inevitably will) so that these very mistakes will become a means of growth. Here again we see the importance of his having an easy relationship with his novices so that they will feel free to speak to him and learn to become real by getting to know their real self rather than be dominated by a false self-image. The aim should be to form real persons capable of listening to God speaking to them in His Word or in the situations of daily life.

In many houses of the Order it is now the custom, to continue the formation period after the two years of novitiate. This seems highly desirable, and gives the opportunity to deepen one's acquaintance with Scripture, our Cistercian Fathers, and so on.

Before closing this letter I would like to deal with one other point. Last year I pointed out that those in charge of training should not forget that they are forming novices to be contemplatives and that this has its own special demands. What are these demands? Briefly I would say they are four. Firstly, be convinced of the real value of the contemplative life for the Church and for the world. We are not called by God just for our own sake, but to help in the work of the Church which, in its turn, is only carrying on the mission of Christ. If we are not convinced of the value of our life, we will be strongly tempted sooner or later to seek compensation in various forms of apostolate. Secondly, there should be an attraction for prayer as a self-gift to God. Thirdly, the novice should show himself able to accept true silence and solitude without becoming anti-social. Fourthly, he should learn to do real lection divina.

Having written the above I feel that I have only touched the surface of a vast area, but perhaps what has been said will spark off other ideas. At least it should be clear that formation is very important and that all of us are involved in one form or another.

May God grant us fidelity to our vocation for His glory and our eternal happiness.

Ambrose Southey