List of circular Letters by Dom Ambrose


Monte Cistello

Easter 1980

My dear Brothers and Sisters,

As explained in the News Bulletin NE 54 I was not able to write a Circular Letter at Christmas. The delay has been providential since it has allowed more time to reflect on the subject which I am going to tackle: my impressions after having visited all the monasteries of the Order.

The numerical facts are quite easy to express. Whereas in 1959 there were 3362 solemnly professed monks and 1498 nuns in the Order, at the beginning of 1979 the corresponding figures were 2607 and 1648. During this period the average age has risen from 44 to 55 for monks and from 46 to 54 for nuns (these figures include novices and simply professed). Over the same period there have been 2717 entries and 2953 departures in the male branch and the corresponding figures for the nuns were 1126 and 612.

But what about the day to day life in our communities? It is not easy to find the correct categories in which to express a situation which is quite complex. But let me say at the outset that my overall impression is very positive. There are problems and difficult situations. There are a few houses even which to my mind are in danger of losing their monastic orientation. But, on the whole, there are many encouraging factors in our monasteries at the moment -- a desire for prayer; a search for authentic monastic life with its corollary of trying to discover what precisely is the Cistercian charism; an attempt to achieve the right balance between prayer, lectio and work; concern about having a sincere fraternal community atmosphere; a growing realization of the ecclesial nature of contemplative life. I have touched on these points in previous letters or conferences, so there is no need to develop them here. But they should not be overlooked since they are important if we are to have a true picture of the whole.

This review of the Order will be divided into four main sections: life within the community, relations with the exterior, the Order in non-Western cultures, renewal and adaptations.

Life within the Community

As stated above there is a great interest in prayer both liturgical and private. In some houses there are groups which practice shared prayer -- not necessarily "charismatic" -- and also "Gospel sharing". The liturgy is in the vernacular in almost every monastery, but obviously it is going to take many years to develop a satisfactory chant although a great deal of effort has been put into the search already. About 10 houses have asked permission to omit one or other of the Little Hours. Concelebration seems to have had a unifying effect in most monasteries of monks.

Despite the interest in prayer it is not always clear that is regarded as the most important occupation of a monk. And one wonders whether the practice of continual prayer is accepted as a desirable ideal (1). In some places the very word "contemplation" seems to be regarded with suspicion.

(1) Obviously, when I speak of continual prayer as an ideal this has to be understood correctly. Cassian gives this as the summit of the monastic life, but he also speaks of purity of heart and of perfect love as being the aim. In other words the perfect monk is one who is totally given to God and who is continually turned towards Him in love.

In other words, the contemplative aspect of our monastic life is not as much in evidence as one would wish. This may stem from the fact that the interest in prayer is sometimes ambiguous, but there are other causes also involved. One of these is the weakness of lectio divina in many of our houses. But as I devoted my last circular letter to lectio it is not necessary to say more here. Another cause is a certain "activism" which expresses itself in various ways. A fourth cause is the pressure of work. On the whole most houses of the Order earn their own living and work is more serious and efficient than it used to be. But sometimes either the nature of the work or the extent of the enterprise or the number and age of the personnel put undue pressure on a community and both prayer and lectio suffer. Happily some houses have faced up to this difficulty and have made wise and sometimes courageous decisions so that the balance might be regained.

Obviously, the question of work goes hand in hand with that of poverty. There is always danger of over-industrialization with its corollaries of costly machinery, indefinite expansion, the search of larger market, which give the impression of being too closely associated with our consumer society. We may ask ourselves whether our enterprises nowadays really foster what St. Benedict was aiming at when he advocated manual labour. Do they not sometimes hinder a life of prayer and solitude? In saying this I am well aware that it is not always easy to make immediate changes nor am I advocating them. But I am asking that we look into the problem, that we keep our eyes on the basic principles involved, that we be ready to sacrifice profit if necessary in the interests of a deeper commitment to the Gospel, that we see poverty as a certain detachment from earthly goods and a readiness to trust in Divine Providence. Closely linked with this is the need for a certain sobriety in buildings and frugality in our style of life. Unfortunately in some monasteries the private cells are bordering on the luxurious and the diet is becoming increasingly rich.

It is true that sometimes in the past asceticism was overdone and became almost an enemy to a balanced spiritual life. But now the pendulum seems to have swung in the opposite direction and there is a marked tendency towards a sort of middle class comfort in which sacrifice has little place. Of course, we can easily forget that living together in peace and unity is a form of asceticism. On this point I am happy to report that almost everywhere fraternal charity seems to have improved and relations among the brethren are more cordial and, dare I say it, more Christian. To some extent this is due to community dialogues, permission to speak, the suppression of the old form of the Chapter of faults. But here again experience has showed me that there has been some over-reaction and it is an almost constant refrain at regular visitations that the correct balance between speech and silence has not yet been attained nor a suitable form of fraternal correction discovered.

Another area where there are positive signs of progress is the relationship between the Abbot and his monks. In the immediate aftermath of Vatican II there was some difficulty in finding the right way to allow the community and individuals to share the running of the house while safeguarding the value of obedience. As a consequence, in some cases the Abbot almost abdicated his authority or the community demanded almost complete democracy. Nowadays in the majority of houses this problem no longer exists since ways have been found to give more responsibility and yet maintain the Benedictine concept of the Abbot's role. I will not say anything here about the question of temporary Abbots. It is far too soon to draw any conclusions, although it must be admitted that some persons in the Order have a tendency to want to do so.

One thing is very clear from all that I have said so far: the importance of formation. Time and time again I have found that the solution to most problems is to strike the right balance between two apparent opposites, e.g. speech and silence; solitude and fraternal relations; obedience and responsibility; work and prayer. This balance has to come not from watering down the contrasting pairs but rather from developing them both to the utmost while holding them in constant tension. Only when the various monastic values have been really assimilated can we hope for this balance. This is why I consider the essence of formation to be the assimilation of values. It is not an easy thing to achieve. The Novice Master can do a great deal, but the good example of the community is also necessary. And of course the novice himself must be capable of this assimilation. In fact one could say that the chief criterion in judging of a vocation is the capacity to assimilate values.

Relations with the exterior

It was clear at the 1977 General Chapter that the Abbots were not agreed among themselves about various points concerning hospitality. And something similar happened at the Abbesses Chapter of 1975 when there was agreement about the general principles governing hospitality but not about the concrete applications. The recent Regional discussions on this point have probably solved some of these divergences, but there still remains room for different solutions according to different countries and cultures. There is a tendency for some houses to be too strict and for others to be too open. It seems that our monasteries have a real obligation to allow people to share in some way in their prayer, their silence and their solitude. But this has to be done in a way which will not compromise the contemplative nature of our life. Once again we have an example of two values which have to be maintained in constant tension -- hospitality and solitude.

There is no doubt that the mass media and modern means of communication pose problems for our separation from the world. Television, thank God, no longer seems to be a burning issue since most of our houses do not possess a set or, if they do, it is used only rarely. In the few houses where the use is frequent it certainly does not seem to have a beneficial effect on the general atmosphere of the community.

On the other hand experience has shown me that the telephone is fast becoming a real difficulty -- not only in regard to solitude but also in regard to poverty. The telephone bill each year in some houses is astronomical, and sometimes one is left wondering how on earth some monks understand solitude and poverty.

It does not seem necessary to say anything here about the nuns' enclosure since it is a matter which is still in evolution. However, it might be well to point out that some form of enclosure is necessary for both monks and nuns since our human nature demands material expressions as a support to interior values. It is a fallacy to imagine that a value can be so internalized or assimilated that it no longer needs any material expression or safeguard. And it is equally fallacious to argue that adults should be treated as such, with complete trust. Of course they should, but if they are really adult they will realize that the form of life they have freely chosen demands material solitude.

In this area of relations with the exterior experience has shown me that a great deal depends on being really convinced of the value of the enclosed life for the Church and the world. When this conviction is present discernment concerning the various problems which arise is relatively simple.

The order in non-Western cultures

It is interesting to study the geographical expansion of the Order since the second World War. Nunraw was founded in 1946 and after it come thirty other houses of monks -- Lapa (Brazil) and Beppu (Japan) are not mentioned in the 1980 Tableau des Monastères. Of these 31 houses, 4 are in Europe, 9 in North America, while the remaining 18 are in non-Western countries. Among the nuns there have been 25 new houses and there are three more about to be founded. Of these 28, 11 are in non-Western areas. All the indications seem to point in the direction of the so-called Third World as the place for future foundations.

This geographical expansion has been one of the factors in causing the Order to abandon its insistence on uniformity of observances, but it also has had other repercussions. It is generally very refreshing to visit these monasteries. Often they have a simplicity of life-style which we in the West could well imitate, while at the same time they are searching for a solid tradition. Now that the monastic values are becoming implanted in these houses perhaps it is time to see whether we are paying sufficient attention to the native culture. Obviously, we must tread very carefully in this matter. Sometimes, aspects of a native culture are in need of being christianized. Also we must avoid making generalizations. I was struck by differences between various countries in Africa which emerged during the Abidjan meeting in September 1979. I hope, also, that due consideration will be given to the points made at the African Regional Meeting (Bamenda, January 1980) concerning new ways of making a foundation.

It seems quite clear to me that if the present trend continues these non-Western foundations will play a big part in the future of the Order. WE should do all that is reasonably possible to see that these foundations are well made and given sufficient support. Nor should we forget to pray for these developing countries and monasteries, especially China. Although it may not be desirable to re-animate the "Pium Opus" started over 50 years ago in our Order to pray for the conversion of the East, the principle behind the work is still valid: that those living the contemplative life should pray for their brothers and sisters in Christ who are working more actively for the spread of the Gospel.

Adaptations and renewal

Someone looking at our Order from the outside may be tempted to think that the life goes on much the same as it did in the Middle Ages. However, those of us who have had 30 or 40 years experience in the monastery know that there have been big changes and that some change is still going on.

It is inevitable that judgements about the effect and value of all this change should be varied. One can see examples of fear and hesitation in the face of adaptations and often I meet monks or nuns who speak as if the Order were in a decadent state. On the other hand at times I meet monks and nuns who say that we haven't really adapted yet and who feel that there is still a lot to be changed.

My own personal judgement could be summed up in six points.

a)         Changes were necessary in our Order. We had become too dependent on a great number of exterior observances, and we were not always aware of the extent to which formalism had eroded the inner spirit.

b)         Looking back now it seems that we did not always prepare the ground sufficiently for these changes and sometimes they were not carried out with sufficient discernment.

c)         Certainly in many houses there has been an over-reaction against the past and some real monastic values have been weakened.

d)         This over-reaction has been recognized in many houses and there is a desire to achieve a better balance now, although this desire is sometimes opposed by a group who are afraid that it is an attempt to return to an over-rigid observance.

e)         A great deal of patience and spiritual discernment is needed at the moment to face up to the existing situation in each community so that what is positive can be consolidated and what is harmful can be gradually eliminated. This will not be achieved by mutual recrimination but rather by a whole-hearted community effort encouraged and directed by the Abbot.

f)         Although the Abbot's role is crucial it still remains true that real renewal, even community renewal, is a very personal affair and demands a continual conversion of heart on the part of the individuals who make up the community.

After reading so far, you may be tempted to say that I haven't said anything new. Perhaps not. But it does represent my honest and considered impressions after visiting the 139 monasteries of the Order once and at least 30 of them a second time. Obviously, there are a number of areas which I have not mentioned, as for instance the relations between the two branches of the Order or the central structure of the Order (General Chapter, Consilium Generale, etc.), But one cannot deal with everything. However, there is one point which I personally would like to see investigated in more detail, viz. the effect on the Order of the so-called Decree of Unification. It seems to me that we have not yet grasped the importance of that decree nor faced up to its consequences.

On re-reading what I have written there are three subjects which stand out in my mind: the need to build up the contemplative aspect of our life; the importance of a true understanding of poverty in the modern economic set-up; and the difficulty of bringing about a real assimilation of the monastic values. If we could do something substantial in these three areas it would have far reaching results in other fields.

The year commemorating the fifteenth centenary of St. Benedict's birth has just begun and all sorts of festivities and celebrations have been planned. This is to be expected but we should keep in mind what was said in the first Circular letter on this subject sent to you in March 1976:

"This centenary should give us all a good opportunity to re-examine the monastic values which have played such an important part in the history of the Church, and also to find ways of giving to these values a revitalized expression as we face our role in the Church of the future."

May St. Benedict and all the saints of the Order help us in this task.

Ambrose Southey