List of circular Letters by Dom Ambrose



Advent 82

My dear Brothers and Sisters,

This letter brings with it my sincere wishes that Christmas may be a time of grace and happiness for you all. The Good News of Christ's birth never grows old and each year this season produces renewed joy and hope. The depth of these sentiments is proportionate to the depths of our understanding of who Jesus is and what He has done for us. May we all grow in this understanding.

Towards the end of my letter for Easter 1980 I mentioned three subjects which stood out in my mind: the need to build up the contemplative dimension of our life, the importance of a true understanding of poverty in the modern economic set up, the difficulty of bringing about a real assimilation of the monastic values. The first of these subjects was developed at some length in the opening conference of the 1980 General Chapter. The second I leave to another occasion. To-day I would like to address myself to the third, the assimilation of monastic values. This subject is closely connected with formation, which in its turn is perhaps one of the most important problems in the modern world, touching as it does the family, the school, the seminary, the missions, the State and a host of other institutions. You may recall that in the Easter 1980 letter (p.3.) I maintained that the essence of formation is precisely the assimilation of the values.

Some took exception to this phrase since it seems to imply an idea of formation that likened a person to a receptacle being filled up from the outside. The objection was valid insofar as the word "assimilation" is capable of being used in several different senses. It might have been better if I had spoken of the internalization or the integration of monastic values, since, as I pointed out in the circular letter of 1977, nowadays we have a somewhat different concept of man (and consequently of formation) than in the past. Previously the idea seemed to be that a person had to conform to a mould. Nowadays the idea is to help the person to develop his God-given gifts and become the man God called him to be. There may not seem to be much difference between the two attitudes, but the practical consequences are considerable.

However let us come back to the phrase "the internalization of the monastic values». What are Values? What is internalization? It is not easy to answer these questions. The word value is used in many senses, and sometimes it is used differently by different authors. Without becoming too technical we may say that certain beings or qualities possess a capacity to attract us. We give them some importance. We value them. Thus we can say for instance that truth is a value, beauty is a value, food and drink are values. When we speak in this way we are looking at values as objects.

But we can also look at them subjectively as something we possess. If a person consistently chooses to tell the truth rather than lie we can say that he possesses the value of truthfulness, i.e. he believes that telling the truth is preferable to lying and he acts according to that preference. A value in this subjective sense can be defined as an enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct or goal of existence is preferable to an opposite mode of conduct or goal of existence. For example truthfulness is preferable to lying, union with God is preferable to damnation.

Obviously not all the values are of equal importance to an individual and in many cases he has to choose between two or more values. He may have to choose in a given situation between telling the truth and staying alive. Because of this difference in importance and the necessity of choosing, each person consciously or unconsciously arranges his values in a hierarchical order according to the rank of importance which he attributes to them. This is called his value system. If you have understood the foregoing you will have realized that values are very important in human life. They provide a person with a comprehensive set of standards that guide his conduct in a variety of ways. They lead him to take up a particular position on social or religious issues; to judge or evaluate himself or others; to compare himself with others; to persuade or influence others and so on.

But to come back to the objective sense. It should be clear that there are many different categories of values. We can speak of sensory values (like food, drink, comfort, sex); of vital values such as physical health or strength; of social values (love of parents, friendship etc...); of intellectual values (knowledge, truth); of moral values (goodness, honesty, justice and the like); of religious values (worship, prayer) and so on. These various categories can often be subdivided and obviously the monastic values are a subdivision of the religious values. By the monastic values, in the objective sense, we mean the sum total of elements which go to make up the monastic ideal: prayer, silence, solitude, hospitality and the others as found in St. Benedict's Rule and the Declaration on Cistercian Life.

When a person enters the monastery he will already possess his own value system, whether he knows it or not, and it is highly probable that he will already possess some of the monastic values such as prayer, love of God etc....but the others will have to be integrated into his value system and even those he already possesses may have to be deepened and refined. This is where the difficulties begin! Up to the present in his life the entrant has managed to find some security in various supports and he has built up his own set of values. But in the monastery he finds that  these values and supports are not given much weight and so he begins to feel disorientated and insecure. A sort of crisis ensues. He will be helped by the Novice Master, the Abbot, his confessor, the community, particularly if the majority of its members are showing forth the monastic values in their way of life. But ultimately it is he himself who has to make the necessary adjustment. And this seems the place to say something about internalization and associated concepts.

For when a person enters a new form of life which demands from him the acceptance of new standards of conduct he may react in a variety of ways. He may make no effort to change or he may even rebel against this new set of values. If this happens, sooner or later he will decide or he will be told that this form of life is not for him and thus he will go elsewhere.

If he does make some effort to accept the new standards it is likely to be in one of three fashions. One way is generally called compliance or CONFORMISM, i.e. he adopts the new values externally but not internally. In other words, outwardly he conforms to the mould, he appears to be a "good religious" who goes to the Divine Office on time, is obedient and respectful to his Superiors etc...but inwardly he des not really believe in the content of what he is doing. Whether he realizes this or not his outward conformity is motivated by a desire either to avoid being punished or to obtain the approval of the Superiors and other members of the community. This reward or punishment system can often be very subtle.

A second possible way of reacting to the new situation is IDENTIFICATION. This is a very complex process which takes various forms. The person adopts the new values both internally and externally, but he does so mainly because it satisfies his self image: he is able to play a role which helps him to enhance his self-concept and he really believes in this new identity. It should be obvious that identification goes further than compliance, but it still rests on an external basis or source (satisfaction from the role he is given).

Finally there is INTERNALIZATION or integration as a way of reacting to the new situation. In this case the person adopts the new values internally and externally because they are seen to be consistent with his own value system and intrinsically capable of producing growth in that system. Internalization then demands personal effort based not on external rewards or a flattering self image, but on a capacity to transcend oneself i.e. on a capacity (1) to be free in the face of pressures coming from the community or from his internal needs and (2) to be able to choose the monastic values for their own intrinsic worth.

It may be useful to add that in the foregoing explanations I have described the five possible ways of reacting to the new situation in rather clear-cut terms. In actual practice the five are not mutually exclusive and often combine with each other in various ways. However normally, sooner or later one of the five predominates and gives the general tone. Moreover it is worth remembering that in all likelihood here is no sin or bad will involved in these reactions since for the most part they are due to subconscious factors and such factors influence us without our knowing it. St Benedict says we have to seek God truly and experience shows that He can be sought in ways which are not authentic through self-deception without bad will.

What has been said so far in this letter may have seemed rather technical and complicated, but it was a necessary preliminary and was reduced to the minimum. In case the reason for my insistence on the internalization of the values is not clear I should explain that experience has shown me in many ways that often this process has not taken place or has not reached a very deep level in our monasteries. Need I give examples? How often one finds monks professing obedience and poverty and yet they used their employment as a little kingdom where no one is permitted to enter or to interfere. Then there are all the various  violations of fraternal charity - harbouring grudges, spreading calumny or detraction, agressivity, refusal to forgive or apologize and so on. Silence and solitude, too, are points where all sorts of abuses abound. One could go on indefinitely listing the areas where we manifest signs of not having fully internalized the values involved.

But it is not my intention to stress the negative. Rather I would like to tackle the problem of how to aid the process of internalization. This is more easily said than done! Leaving aside strictly pathological cases most of us have blind spots i.e. areas where we are being influenced by unconscious or pre-conscious needs. If these needs are not consistent with monastic values then a conflict or tension is set up and it will be impossible to internalize the respective value until the conflict is resolved. Sometimes the conflict is so deep and central that an expert counsellor is needed if it is to be resolved. In other cases with grace, good will and much patient work some headway can be made.

In order to understand what is required on our part, a few more preliminary explanations are needed. Man functions on various levels. Physically he needs to eat, drink, sleep etc...Socially he needs to have relationships with others, he needs to be looked after and to look after others, he needs to be loved and to love. On the rational or spiritual level man needs to think, to judge, to value, to go beyond his senses to immaterial concepts. He can't afford to neglect any of these levels, but it is only on the third level (i.e. the spiritual or rational) that he can transcend himself, that he can make choices beyond immediate physical or psycho-social needs, that he can choose God or the things of God. It is only on the third level that he can internalize values. But values can be misleading because they can serve several different functions. They may enable me to give meaning to my life and thus provide knowledge and self actualization, but not necessarily self transcendence. They may enable me to get what I want, e.g. I throw myself into some employment, but I am really looking for success or acclaim. This is selfish. They may enable me to cover up things that I don't want to accept about myself, e.g. I profess the values of chastity or obedience, but they are defence mechanisms to hide the fact from myself that I am afraid of sex or unable to assert myself. Finally they can help me to order my life according to my vocation. It is this last function which we must cultivate. But once again, how?

First of all there are the supernatural means of grace, particularly the sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. Has confession just become routine or even a subtle form of seeking self or is it a real encounter with Christ the Healer? Do I realize ever more deeply and clearly what is involved in Mass and Communion or have they become automatic and perfunctory rites? Next I can look at my prayer life and lectio divina. Am I faithful to them? Why? Are they still means of meeting Christ for me? Community life, too, can be a strong force in communicating values. But what is my model of community? - a family, a group of friends, a boarding house, a social club, a military academy? If I see community as it truly is there is less chance that I will make it a cosy nest for selfishness or a training ground for robots. Rather it will become a continual call to transcendence, to going out of myself towards the infinite communion of the Trinity.

But, you may say, we have always had the sacraments, prayer, lectio, community and a host of other spiritual means and yet we have not succeeded in reaching a deep level of Gospel living, we have not managed to internalize values. Yes, this is true, and it only goes to show that our blind spots are more numerous than we had imagined. Perhaps we have forgotten another means very dear to our monastic fathers: "nosce teipsum", know thyself. By this term they did not mean a morbid introspection or a pathological sense of guilt or inferiority, but rather a realistic insight into one's spiritual state in the light of the Gospel. To gain this sort of insight we must ask ourselves many questions: am I intolerant, am I over-permissive, do I always resort to self-justification, do I constantly seek bodily comfort, do I employ double standards (i.e. do I change my comportment according to my audience), am I only a part-time monk, am I self-satisfied?

Perhaps a good friend or a spiritual director who sees my everyday life could help me to answer some of these questions since they are concerned with blind spots. But is should not be forgotten, as I have already remarked above, that in some cases there are unconscious factors at work that need the help of someone who has had specialized training. Even when we have found out more about self this knowledge has to be accepted and, more importantly, we have to accept ourselves with humility, not becoming discouraged but rather turning with trust and love to our Heavenly Father. Perhaps this is the basic act of transcendence.

In the above I have prescinded from Superiors and community structures, but obviously they are extremely important. Recent research has shown that an authoritarian structure tends to produce compliance or identification. But it has also shown that a too permissive structure is just as harmful, since it does not give enough support or a model of how the internalized values are to be lived. The best form of structure would seem to be one in which the Superior and others concerned with formation, whether initial or on-going, present the monastic values clearly in their teaching and their lives and organize the community life accordingly, but at the same time stress individual responsibility and the need to be free agents in the work of internalizing the values.

And this brings me to the last section of this letter. You may feel that it has been too technical, or too psychological, or not very monastic. Perhaps. But when you examine it, really all that I have spoken about or asked of you has been a conversion and conversion is the basic Christian value, the basic monastic value: repent and believe the Gospel. Vatican II's call for renewal comes down to the same thing: putting away formalism and routine and returning to the sources.

I could have put the whole matter in an entirely different context and insisted, as Cassian does, that the aim of monastic life is purity of heart. The whole process of internalizing the monastic values is precisely growing in purity of heart. We may practice obedience because we want to unite ourselves to Christ's redemptive work or because we like the Superior. We may do our lectio because we want to know Christ or because we are looking for knowledge with which to impress others. Often it is not what we do that counts but why we do it and how we do it. To know this is to know our heart. We can't see into our heart directly but we can find out a lot about it indirectly. It is true that often our motives are mixed, our hearts divided. The important thing is that the primary and predominating motive is pure. But this purity can become more and more refined, more turned towards God and less turned in oneself. Surely the degrees of humility described by St Benedict or the various categories of love given by St Bernard are different ways of showing us how to grow in purity of heart, how to internalize the monastic values.

So this is my sincere wish for you at this Christmas season that the Father may give you the power through His Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then planted in love and built on love you will with all the saints have the strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth, until knowing the love of Christ which is beyond all understanding, you are filled with the utter fullness of God. (cg Ephes. 3,16-19)

Ambrose Southey