List of circular Letters by Dom Ambrose


Monte Cistello

Epiphany  1978

My dear Brothers and Sisters,

This year I was in Rome for Christmas and I had hoped to be able to write a circular letter before the feast itself, but there was so much correspondence to deal with and I was rather tired after a long journey so that it was not possible to get it done. However you were all remembered in my Christmas masses. This season always brings with it a sense of newness and fresh beginnings. The message of Christmas is a message of love -- God so loved the world as to give His only Son (Jn.3,16). May this message of love find its echo in our hearts and lives throughout the coming year.

In my  circular letter of January 1976 I asked several questions about the nature of a Cistercian community -- are we a group of hermits living in community, or is this relationship more one of brothers in a family? Or is this a false dichotomy? These questions stirred up a great deal of interest and discussion in the Order, as they were meant to do. The general opinion seems to be that there is a false dichotomy. We have to safeguard and to live to the full two important values simultaneously -- solitude and brotherly love. If they are properly understood, far from being mutually exclusive they actually call for each other. Admittedly it is not always easy to combine them at a community level and perhaps the synthesis adopted may vary from monastery to monastery within the limits of a healthy pluralism. After all, was community life exactly the same at Rievaulx under Aelred and at Igny under Guerric? Or even at Citeaux under Stephen Harding and at Clairvaux under Bernard? The ideal is clear enough, but the expression may vary. However, I do not wish to labour this point since it has been adequately dealt with at the Laval seminar for Novice Mistresses on Person and Community (September 1976) and at the meeting of Benedictines and Cistercians at Pradines on Solitude and Sharing (January 1977).

But the question of community still remains very actual. At the Abbot's General Chapter of 1977 each commission was asked to select four points arising from the reading of the reports on the monasteries. It was striking to see that almost everyone of the 32 points chosen was concerned with community in one form or another (cf. Minutes, pp.99-102).

My own personal experience after having visited over 120 of our monasteries, tells me exactly the same thing. Again and again I have been struck by the problems presented by community living. Sometimes it has been the lack of unity, at others the lack of charity or the failure to preserve a proper balance between lectio, prayer and work. But it is not always negative and there have been cases where I was able to admire the evident help given to its members by a well-knit community. Moreover I have also come across cases where a community has changed -- sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse! In other words a lot depends on the quality of community life and experience tells me that there is room for improvement on this point in the Order.

We should not be surprised or discouraged by such a phenomenon. For one thing community life is never static and one never arrives at a point where one can sit back with the complacent feeling that no further improvement is possible! Then too the speed and extent of change in the past 70 years have been extraordinary and inevitably they will have repercussions on community life. It is true that the young to-day have a great desire for communication and interpersonal relations, but this itself poses problems since it is not always easy to get the correct balance between these desires and the traditional pattern. There is also a great stress nowadays on the individual. It is part of man's changing sense of personal awareness. But it also poses problems for life in community.

In the face of all this what can I suggest to help the Order in this field? It would be comparatively easy for me to read a few books on the subject and then to present you with a carefully worked out treatise, beginning with the concept of Koinonia and ending up with the latest discoveries of group dynamics. But that would be rather theoretical. A community is not an abstraction, but a group of monks or nuns each with his or her background, character, outlook, etc., trying to live together in unity. Mere ideas will not change them. They will have to make a real effort to assimilate and live the values inherent in community life if the quality of that life is to be improved. In the end it is the individual who will have to change. With this in mind I would like to make a few general remarks and then list some practical points coming more from my experience than from books, with the hope that they will stimulate reflection and produce results.                         

Recently while having a discussion in one of our houses someone asked me a question about community life. In my reply I said among other things that a united community supported its members, helped to heal them and promoted their growth as persons. This reply was partly influenced by a book I was reading at the time in which the author maintained that in a good marriage the partners mutually support one another, heal each other and help each other to grow and that religious should expect to receive the same benefits from their community.

It seems to me that this is an important point, but must be understood correctly.

We should be indulging in empty idealism if we expected our community to be a group of saints. But at least we have a right to expect it to be a group of people who, taken as a whole, are seriously seeking God according to the Cistercian ideal. If they are doing this then already they are offering support because they are providing living examples and they are passing on to us a living tradition. But notice that I say they are "offering" support. In order that we can accept the offer it has to be given in a climate of patience and tolerance and love, otherwise it will only tend to put us off. Support can take other forms also, such as sympathy, encouragement, forgiveness, a sense of humour, and above all loving concern and interest. In this connection, too, dialogue can be useful since it gives us the chance to express our ideas and to learn from others.

Community life should have a healing effect. But here we have to be careful. It is true that each one of us who comes to the monastery is wounded in some way -- as a person, as a Christian -- but the monastic community as such is not meant to be a form of group-therapy. The healing that takes place is more of a by-product than anything. In fact it can be said that the manner of life in a monastery and in a therapy group is totally different. In the latter, stress is reduced to a minimum and comfort highlighted; in the former, self-sacrifice and the Cross loom large. But still, healing can and should take place in a monastery as a result of the love and help provided. Obviously this healing is largely in the area of Christian virtue -- overcoming pride, laziness, gluttony and the other capital vices. But often it has to begin on the purely human level by helping us to put away our fears and aggressivity, to accept authority in a mature way, etc. Once more, this shows us the necessity of adequate selection of candidates. If there are too many unbalanced people in a monastery it makes life extremely difficult and heavy. And there will be some persons who are so sick that they need specialized treatment.

And here we come to the third point mentioned above -- growth. We should grow as persons and as Christians. Healing itself is a form of growth, it is true, but I am referring to something more positive. If the community is accepting, is serious in its search for God, is warm and sociable, etc., then its members will be stimulated to respond by becoming fully integrated into the life in a responsible fashion. This in its turn promotes growth on many different planes -- the intellectual, the cultural, the practical, the affective, the spiritual and so on. But here again we have to be careful. Nowadays a lot is said about fulfilment and self development, but these terms are rather misleading. Fulfilment in one area involves self denial in another. One cannot expect the monastic life to produce growth and fulfilment in every direction. For instance, there are forms of intellectual and cultural growth which are not open to us in the monastic life -- or at least are not open to all monks and nuns indiscriminately. In this matter our growth will be limited partly by the nature of monastic life and partly by the circumstances of our own monastery. To accept this fact is to face up with reality and is itself a step towards growth. However, we can be assured that our life does permit of and foster growth to true personhood if it is lived properly.

But now I would like to give a few practical points which may help you to improve the quality of community life.

1)        It is basic that each and everyone in the community should be convinced that it is God's will that has brought him to the monastery. He has not chosen his brothers nor have they chosen him. All are there because of a response in faith to a call from God. A monastery is a community of faith. The deeper the faith in the hearts of the brethren the richer will be the quality of community living. In the past the supernatural was perhaps over-emphasized and the natural was neglected or even denied. There has been a justifiable reaction against this error, but perhaps it has gone a bit too far and now we are in danger of forgetting the element of faith in our Christian and Cistercian life. Experience has shown me more than once that there can be no true renewal without this basic faith. One could go even further and say that often the real obstacle to renewal is a lack of this faith.

2)        Each and every member of the community should be convinced that he has need of other people and they have need of him. God has brought him to this community and it will be with these brethren that he has to form a true community. Hence there should be a real effort to identify with them, to share their vision and their search for God. It is an accepted fact of modern science that the ability of a community to influence its members depends on the cohesion of the community and the strength of the bonds which they feel towards it. Hence we should examine our attitude towards our brethren. Do we, for instance, think in terms of 'They' or of 'We'?

3)        In practice we will find that the more effort we put into our communal living the  more we will receive from the community. More than once I have come across monks or nuns who complain of their community, but when I go into it I find that they are not pulling their weight. If they tried to help others more they would soon find that things look different. In other words, a great deal depends on one's spirit of service and availability. In this connection we can learn from married people. They have to learn very quickly how to go out of themselves, to give themselves to each other, to live for the other partner's good and so on. If we would do the same in our community life the monastery would soon change.

4)        On reason why we experience great difficulty in going out of ourselves is because we want to make everyone like ourselves! But it is absolutely indispensable in community life to learn to accept the fact that others are different. More than that, we must respect and cherish this difference. The richness of the community depends on the variety of its characters. A whole treatise could be written on this subject since it is linked with the primeval temptation. We want to become as gods, knowing good and evil, and we want all others to be made in our own image and likeness.

5)        Perhaps this is the right place to say a word about group dialogue. Nowadays it is very important that communities should have public discussions, to air common problems and to seek together the will of God. Many houses are just beginning to feel at home in this area and it is precisely because at long last the monks or nuns are really beginning to listen to each other and to respect others as different. In houses which are still experiencing difficulties in dialogue it is this point which is more often than not the cause. Where dialogue does not exist, generally the level of communication is bad and this has serious effects on community life.

6)        Obviously, too, a great depends on the Superior. I have left this point almost to the end because experience has shown me that in most houses there is at least one (and sometimes unfortunately more than one) who wants to blame everything that is wrong with the monastery on the poor Superior. It is part of his role to accept these criticisms and by his forgiveness and kindness gradually help the sick brother to health. A superior's role is often very thankless but if he constantly puts before himself the example of Christ who came to serve and not to be served then he will be able to do a great deal to improve community relations. But I will not develop this point since the 1977 Chapter drew up a document to help the Abbots, and I am sure that many Abbesses would find considerable food for thought in it.

7)        One last point I would like to make is the importance of the Eucharist. This should be obvious but familiarity often blunts our perception. The Eucharist is the sacrament and sacrifice of reconciliation and communion. It is there we meet Christ our Saviour and it is there that we meet our brethren at the deepest level. In more than one monastery the introduction of concelebration some years ago did a great deal to foster the community spirit. Do we reflect sufficiently on the riches we have in this sacramental meeting?                              

As a conclusion to this letter may I remind you of what Pope Paul said in Evangelica Testificatio (n.55): In proportion as (this) joy emanates from your communities it will be a witness to all the world that your freely chosen state of life through the triple renunciation of your religious profession is leading you to the greatest possible fulfilment in Christ. When they see you young people will be able to accept the invitation which Jesus never ceases to make to them. As the Council says: "Religious should bear in mind that the best recommendation for their Institute, and the most effective invitation to embrace the religious life, is the example of their own life."

Ambrose Southey