List of circular Letters by Dom Ambrose


Roma, Curia Generalizia

Viale Africa 33

28 December 1984

My dear Brothers and Sisters,

In looking back over the past year the event which immediately strikes me as having the greatest importance in the life of the Order is the elaboration of new Constitutions. In saying this I am not forgetting that these Constitutions are only for the monks and therefore only apply to part of the Order. Nor am I forgetting that they will have to be confirmed at the General Chapter in 1987 before being presented to the Holy See for approval. If I still maintain that the drawing up of the Holyoke text is the most important event in the life of the Order during this past year it is because the nuns have collaborated in various important ways in arriving at this text and I don't foresee that the Abbesses will make any really substantial changes in it during their Chapter nor do I think that the Abbots will make any far-reaching modifications in 1987.

As far as one can judge from reactions heard so far, these new Constitutions have been extremely well received in our communities. The two principal criticisms I have heard were that the Latin still needs some polishing or even clarification at times; and secondly, that they are more like a Spiritual Directory than Constitutions. This latter criticism seems to show a lack of awareness of the evolution in juridical thinking that has taken place in the Church through and since Vatican II. Ecclesiae Sanctae in 1966 asked that in revising their Constitutions the various Religious Institutes should not content themselves with a purely juridical text but should unite the spiritual and juridical elements (cf. II,13). A good example of this new approach is the new Code of Canon Law (1983) and the General Chapter had this model in mind while elaborating the Constitutions.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt this new text is the culmination of many years’ work by many people in the Order and it deserves our respect, gratitude and consideration.

Pope John XXIII spoke of the revision of the Code of Canon Law as a work meant to renew the life of the Church and to implement the aims of Vatican II. What is going to be our attitude to the new Constitutions? I would suggest that we see them as a providential means to help us to understand better and to be more faithful to our Cistercian charism.

But is this realistic? After all, neither law nor a merely written text are self-actualizing. Or, to put it in other words, they can't exercise much influence on our lives merely by themselves. Their influence will depend on ourselves. We can strive to make this text a vital force in our lives or we can more or less neglect it. I am happy to say that many Superiors are aware of this human element and are already taking steps to foster it. The main purpose of this circular letter is to encourage the nuns and monks of the Order to make the best possible use of the Holyoke text. To this end I would like to lay before you some general considerations, then make some concrete suggestions and finally deal with a few difficulties involved.

There are innumerable ways of living the Christian life. A person can become a saint in any one of them. Among these various possibilities is what is generically called "Religious Life". But here again there are endless possibilities. As the Constitution "Lumen Gentium" points out: through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of ecclesiastical authority different religious families have grown up in the Lord's field like branches springing wonderfully and abundantly from a divinely planted seed and this variety is a help both to individuals and to the whole Body of Christ (cf. nE 43). What distinguishes these various families? Surely it is the particular aim and the means chosen to achieve this aim. Our Cistercian way of life is but one of the ways of being a Christian, but it has its own charism and to live this gift of the Spirit we need a particular environment and life-style. We can find a description of both in the "Statute on Unity and Pluralism" and in the "Declaration on the Cistercian Life"/ But both these documents are rather short and concise and need to be fleshed out in greater detail. This is precisely what the new Constitutions give us: a more detailed and organized description of our life which helps us to express our identity and to live out the particular call which we have received from God. From what has been said so far it should be clear that the new Constitutions offer the Order a new point of departure. But, as I have already said above, this is not an automatic process. A great deal depends on each one of us. We have to strive to assimilate what has been offered and integrate it into our daily lives if it is not already there. This demands effort and time.

How are we to go about this? The following are a few suggestions, but they are not meant to be exhaustive nor the only possible approach. A lot depends on our basic attitude. Do we have a vision of faith? Our coming to religious life was an act of faith in the first place and each succeeding engagement - reception of the habit, first profession, final profession - has been a deepening of that first response. We should try to see the Constitutions in this light, as a further appeal to our spirit of faith. It is true that this aspect would be clearer and stronger if the text had already been approved by the Holy See. But is has been voted through at the General Chapter almost unanimously and I don't foresee that Rome will make any important modifications. So it will be helpful to have a correct attitude and not just regard the text as one more document to read.

Secondly, there should be a spirit of prayer. The Constitutions are not merely a theoretical exercise, they are an attempt to express our "vision" of Christian living. Let us pray that they help us all to be more conscious of that vision and all that it implies.

Thirdly, we should become familiar with the text. Here the Superiors of the Order have an important role to play. Each Superior should feel an obligation to present the Constitutions to his community in a way best fitted to the circumstance of the house - through conferences, through study groups, through community dialogues, or through a combination of all three. The footnotes at the bottom of almost every page present a rich mine that can be used to develop and explain the text. They also help to show the continuity between what was elaborated at Holyoke and our monastic past. The Constitutions don't come to us out of the blue, but are a modern expression of our spiritual heritage and are deeply rooted in that heritage. However, the mere fact of presenting and studying the text in itself is not sufficient. Each one of us has to make the text his or her own by reflection, meditation and allowing it to question his or her daily life. Without such personal involvement there is a risk that the Constitutions will remain a dead letter. Obviously this is not the work of a day. It will take time. But if it is done it will surely bear rich fruit in bringing about or in deepening community consensus, as well as giving fresh impetus to the Order as a whole.

What has been said so far may seem quite simple and straightforward, but it would be naive to imagine that there are no difficulties or dangers involved. Recently in a conference given to some Novice Masters and Mistresses of the Order the speaker insisted that new Constitutions are not going to solve the problem caused by different members opposing world-views, because each person will tend to interpret the text according to his or her viewpoint. He suggested that formation was more important than working out new Constitutions. There is some weight in this argument, but it should not be exaggerated. For one thing, very few people in practice have a clear-cut, fully coherent world-view. But more importantly, the Holyoke text is of such a nature that it leads one to examine the deeper implications of our observances and values, so that they may be lived as expressions of an inward spiritual "vision", of a contemplative dimension. This being so, if the text is used in the right way it may very well help to solve the problem of differing world-views by offering a consistent common ground and by giving the opportunity to pinpoint possible differences of interpretation. Moreover, the present Constitutions will serve as an excellent basis for the formation to be given to newcomers.

Another difficulty may arise from the fact that when each community was allowed by the General Chapters of 1967 and 1969 to work out details of its observance within the limits of the "Statute on Unity and Pluralism", there tended to be a rather strong reaction against the rigidity of the old "Regulations. This, coupled with the fact that we have been waiting for the new Constitutions for over 10 years, has tended to make some in the Order rather allergic to rules and laws. Thus they may be inclined to disregard the work of the last Chapter. However, here again, the Holyoke text has every chance of bridging the gap since nobody can honestly call it merely a code of laws. It has a broad vision and wherever possible indicates the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

A third danger, closely linked with the last two paragraphs, comes to mind: that of interpreting the new Constitutions with a pre-Vatican II mentality; Pope Paul VI and the present Pope have insisted more than once that the revision of the Code of Canon Law has to take into account the ecclesiology developed in the Council. That is why we find in the new Code theological principles derived from the Council being set forth to provide the context for disciplinary norms. Mutatis mutandis something similar has been done in the new Constitutions. So we have to beware of the temptation to skip over the spiritual parts so as to get to grips with the "practical" do’s and don’ts. Those very spiritual parts often provide us with a key to interpreting the more legal points.

A final danger I would like to underline is that of taking a static view of our new text. We all have a tendency to look for security. In itself this is quite good and normal, but it can be carried too far. The Pharisees in the Gospel put their security in a literal interpretation of the Law, but they ended up by becoming slaves of the Law and completely misunderstanding its purpose. I am not saying that we risk going that far, but we have to remember that our trust, our security is in God, not in any text as such. So we have to use it in an intelligent and open way. It can, as I have said above, help towards community consensus but not in a way that closes the door to any future development. Our interpretation should be dynamic not static. Constitution 4,3 suggests this when it says: Cistercian communities, wherever they are, have one charity, one rule, and similar observances. It is for each community, in dialogue with other communities, to find new ways in which the patrimony of the Order can be dynamically expressed in its own culture and according to its particular circumstances, observing always the guidelines established by the General Chapter.

This letter will only reach you in the new year, but you were all remembered in my Christmas masses and I pray that the year ahead may be blessed by God for each and every one of you.

Ambrose Southey