List of circular Letters by Dom Ambrose


Roma, Curia Generalizia

Viale Africa 33,

The Feast of the Holy Innocents 1983

My dear Brothers and Sisters,

This letter will not be sent out until after Christmas, but it brings with it my warmest good wishes that this wonderful season will be one of joy and grace for you all. The Holy Father has proclaimed 1983-84 a Holy Year to commemorate the 1950 anniversary of our Redemption. He has said that the special grace of the Jubilee year will be a new discovery of the love of God who gives Himself for us and a deeper realization of the unfathomable richness of the Paschal Mystery of Christ. When we consider that Christ's birth at Bethlehem was one of the first steps in the work of our Redemption we can already begin to appreciate something of God's love for us. May this Holy Year be indeed a re-discovery of all that is entailed in His divine mercy.

As I already hinted in my last circular letter, this year I want to say something about poverty. It is not a question of trying to present an exhaustive treatment of the subject, and I have not forgotten that Dom Gabriel Sortais wrote a memorable circular letter on this theme in July 1957. No, my intention is merely to bring to your notice some aspects of the subject that have struck me in my experience as Abbot General - I will be asking questions rather than proposing solutions.

But first of all it may help to say something about terminology. At a recent meeting of Superiors General all present agreed that the word "poverty" does not adequately express the reality covered by the vow which all religious profess. However, no one was able to find an acceptable alternative. The fact is that the word poverty is used in a variety of senses.

The most common use in everyday life is to take poverty to mean the state of a person who has very little of this world's goods. Sometimes this lack is so great that the person concerned is living in sub-human conditions, but even if this is not the case his condition is certainly insecure. Obviously it is an evil. The Church and society have an obligation to work for the elimination of this evil so that all men may have the chance to live a normal human life with some degree of security.

A second way of speaking of poverty refers to the native condition of human creatures. Whether we like it or not we all depend completely on God. There is nothing we possess, be it material or spiritual, which we haven't received from God. Of ourselves we can do nothing and we must acknowledge God's Supreme Lordship over us. This second type may be called native poverty.

Then, thirdly there is evangelical poverty which is demanded of every follower of Christ. It is primarily an interior attitude which necessitates a certain detachment from all that is not God. It has to be expressed exteriorly and it applies not only to material goods, but to other people and to ourselves. It is a very positive thing rooted in humility, gratitude and love.

Fourthly, there is religious poverty which is a free choice to make evangelical poverty the object of a vow or promise (at least implicitly). It is a choice made for the kingdom of and love of Christ who gave Himself completely for us, even to death on a Cross.

Obviously, all these forms of poverty can be sub-divided or extended in one way or the other. Economic poverty, for instance, can be extended to cover those who are politically or socially exploited, to those handicapped in various ways. Religious poverty may be sub-divided depending on the particular way it finds expression.

These distinctions are useful and necessary if we are to talk about our Cistercian poverty in the modern world. Many religious find themselves troubled when they see that their life-style is much better than the economically poor. They realize that on the whole they do not lack the necessities of life, they are secure, they don't have to worry about where their next meal is coming from or about clothing or lodging. This is true but need not necessarily be a cause for shame since we do not profess economic poverty and we may still be detached from this world's goods despite our life-style.

But this leads me to the first main point I want to make. Fifty or sixty years ago most of our houses were quite poor and the life-style was frugal. In some countries political or social upheavals had deprived the monasteries of their goods and they had to start again from almost nothing. Some houses had difficulty in supporting themselves and this was particularly true of the nuns. Nowadays this has changed considerably and rapidly. Nearly all our monasteries are self-supporting and some have flourishing bank accounts. Inevitably this has led to a high life-style in regard to food, buildings, furnishing, equipment and so on. Personally I am not opposed to this betterment in itself, since most people agree that previously things were too austere and sometimes the standard of hygiene and nutrition was lamentably low. However, there is no doubt that an increase of affluence carries with it certain dangers, and experience has shown me that there are some abuses. Not infrequently one comes across religious who are able to dispose of fairly large sums of money for personal use, who have sizable wardrobes, expensive equipment of various sorts, private libraries and the like. All this is on the individual level and calls for an examination of conscience. But even on the community level there are points  to be looked into - the furnishing of private rooms, the amount of electronic equipment available, the richness and frequency of festive celebrations, the ease with which quite large sums of money are spent on various sorts of consumer goods are points that come to mind and the list is by no means complete! Obviously at community level an examination of conscience is much more difficult and to some extent depends on a consensus in the monastery on the value of religious poverty. An Abbot, quite naturally, does not want to give the impression of being tight-fisted if the money is available nor does he want to lay himself open to the charge of being narrow-minded or confusing economy with poverty. He needs the understanding and backing of the community if he is going to draw the line between what is really necessary and what is superfluous. However, as I have said above, experience has shown me that abuses exist, so each monastery would do well to examine itself from time to time. In saying this I do not want to encourage bitter zeal or fanaticism which one also comes across. Such persons seem to feel that they have the mission to be always putting the Abbot on the right lines! No, what I am calling for is a calm appraisal of the situation carried out with prudence and charity. Nor do I want to give the impression that there is laxity everywhere. It would be possible to point out examples in the Order where a house is wealthy and yet the community live at a very modest level and give very generous alms. Such examples are a joy to see and make one thank God for the fidelity expressed so simply. On the particular question of the size of the monastic buildings we are faced up with a very real problem. If we are going to continue to have large communities in the Order, of fifty or more monks, then it becomes necessary to have a certain amount of living room. Our form of life seems to demand that we should not be too crushed together and we can justify the size of our buildings by using the distinction mentioned above between religious and economic poverty. However if the size of the buildings can be justified, they still remain a problem especially for many young people today. It doesn't seem very realistic to propose that we should leave the old buildings and start somewhere else in simpler form. But the idea has come to me more than once that we should try, for the future at least, to see that our monasteries are built on a simpler scale, especially in the so-called third world countries. One way of bringing this about would be to advise monasteries that are receiving vocations to think about making a foundation once they have about forty in the community. This is only a suggestion, but it is worth thinking about at the level of the Order. It may be objected that in the Third World we should try to emulate the building style of our European monasteries. But this does not take into account the differences of culture and seems to show an insensitivity to the local scene. Moreover it would be propagating a state of affairs which, to say the least, is open to criticism.

The second main point I want to make is our economy. Two or three hundred years ago there was not much choice and our economy was mainly agricultural. Nowadays we live in an industrial and consumer society. More and more goods are produced; more and more people have to be persuaded to buy them, so that the producer can become richer and richer. Many experts think that this form of economy is madness and they predict an ever greater depletion of raw materials and saturation of markets eventually terminating in global catastrophe. And yet the mad race for production continues. From the Christian point of view the whole philosophy of the consumer society is false and pernicious since it is based on a profit motive and is often linked to the exploitation of the economically poor in one form or another. But inevitably our monasteries have been drawn into the whirlpool of the consumer economy. It is not easy nowadays, particularly with the menace of inflation and other adverse economic trends, to support a community on agriculture alone. Thus, many of our monasteries have taken up alternative forms of economy, sometimes on a large scale. The danger is that willy nilly we begin to develop a consumer mentality and this has various negative effects on the way in which we live the monastic life. Even if this consumer mentality is avoided the very nature of some of our industries has a detrimental influence on monastic values such as simplicity, silence and solitude. Here again it is not easy to see what can be done, particularly as much capital has been expended on suitable machinery and workshops. However, I would like to suggest that we reflect on such matters at Regional Conferences and General Chapters, once the work on the Constitutions has been completed. History shows that monks have played a significant role in the building of society in the past. Perhaps nowadays there are attitudes to be developed which will in time have an effect on the modern economic world. Evidently this should not be our primary aim, but it may result as a consequence of our trying to re-think ways of expressing religious poverty in our modern set-up. The sort of questions we need to ask ourselves are: Does the form of industry adopted have a detrimental effect on certain monastic values? Are we taking sufficient care to avoid developing a consumer mentality? Do we regard our production as a form of service to society? What did St. Benedict and the early Cistercians have in mind in prescribing work? But these are only examples and other people may like to pose the questions differently.

And this leads to my third point. Many of our monasteries have quite sizeable investment portfolios or other forms of reserves. In itself this is quite permissible. God expects us to make prudent provision for the future. But how far do we go in this direction? What are our obligations to the economically poor? I am happy to say that most of our houses are reasonably generous in giving alms, some are extraordinarily generous. But is it sufficient to leave such a matter to the goodwill of each house, or would it not be better to discuss the subject at Order level and even try to work out some guidelines? For instance, some suggestion could be made as to what percentage of one's yearly income should be made available in alms. Or again it might be possible to estimate how much a community would need to support itself for a year ahead and, after putting such a sum aside, distribute the rest to the needy. Once more these are only suggestions, but the whole question merits some reflection. It could be argued that such matters are better settled at regional level since there are many factors involved which vary according to local culture and circumstances. This may well be true, but it would be useful all the same to discuss the question at the level of the Order since our concept of Cistercian poverty is at stake and hearing about the situation in other cultures may make us more aware of the vastness of the problem.

As you can see, my dear Brothers and Sisters, this is only a short letter but the three main points mentioned are important and furnish us with plenty of food for thought. And once again I would like to insist that I do not want to encourage any bitter zeal or community conflicts over these points.

Also, before concluding, it is worthwhile recalling once again that the most important element in religious poverty is the interior attitude. True, that interior attitude must be given external expression and will involve a certain economic poverty, but if our poverty is to be genuine it must spring from a real love of Christ and not from preconceived sociological or economic theories. We must try to enter into the mind and heart of Christ. Sometimes I suspect that authors give a false perspective of His poverty. If St. Joseph was a carpenter and a wheelwright, as is generally supposed, then he had a reasonably good job if we consider the type of rural economy of an isolated place like Nazareth 2000 years ago. The Holy Family would not have been the poorest of the poor. Later Jesus would say that He had nowhere to lay His head, but St. Luke does not hesitate to tell us that there were a number of rich women who looked after His needs. Christ's insistence on poverty, to my mind, was clearly linked to his teaching on the recognition and acceptance of our native poverty, i.e. our complete dependence on God. If He castigated the Pharisees it was because of their self-complacency and self-sufficiency. So, too, if He said that it was difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven it was because He saw that riches bring earthly power and security and comfort which tend to make their owners forgetful of their native poverty. The poor on the other hand, provided their state is not so miserable that it makes them bitter and resentful, are much more likely to be aware of how much they depend on God's providence and mercy.

The founders of Citeaux had very clear and definite ideas about poverty, but the "Golden Age" of the Order did not last very long. If any one factor contributed more than the others to the decline of the first fervour surely it was the weakening of the ideal of poverty. A recent author has referred to the Yorkshire Cistercians and their thriving wool trade as the "General Motors" of the 13th Century.

Things haven't gone that far yet in our modern Cistercian life and, please God, they never will. But perhaps this letter will help us to want to recapture something of the original Cistercian inspiration.

Ambrose Southey