List of circular Letters by Dom Ambrose


Roma, Curia Generalizia

Viale Africa 33

Advent 1985

My dear Brothers and Sisters,

As this letter will probably reach you before December 25th I take this opportunity to wish each and every one of you a very happy Christmas. May the love which the Father has shown us in sending His Son fill your hearts and bring you fresh strength to spend yourselves in His service.

In thinking about a theme for this letter I toyed with the idea of collegiality since it seems to be a "hot point" in the Order at the moment and could easily become a source of division. My objective would have been to present the topic in a way that would lead to consensus rather than polarization. However, a working paper involving collegiality has been scheduled for the joint meeting next month between the Central Commission and the Abbesses' Preparatory Commission. So I have dropped that idea. Recently at a Regional Meeting it was said that some monks are worried lest the discussion of the unity of the two branches of the Order might lead to the nuns' rules of enclosure being applied to the monks; whereas some nuns were just as worried lest the monk's interpretation of enclosure be applied to the nuns! This remark has given me the idea of using this letter to say something about enclosure and solitude.

To my mind enclosure is not a monastic value. It is only a material support to protect something which is a monastic value - solitude.

But some distinctions and explanations are necessary. In itself solitude is neither good nor bad it may be either. A person may choose solitude because he detests other people and imagines he has no need of them. Obviously this is bad and springs from hatred and pride. Another person may choose solitude because he wishes to concentrate on writing a book or solving a complicated problem. This is good but not necessarily supernatural. A third person may choose solitude because he wants to pray or commune with God and this is good. In other words the quality of solitude depends on the quality of the motives for which it is chosen.

Moreover there are various forms of solitude in the Church. A hermit normally lives in complete solitude. A Carthusian lives in a monastery but spends most of his time in his cell. The Camaldolese pass periods in complete solitude and other periods in community. We Cistercians live together in a monastery and in that sense we are coenobites not solitaries, but the practice of silence is intended to allow each one a certain space for solitude. It would be more accurate in our case to speak of separation from the world rather than solitude, but the negative implications of the phrase cause some difficulty to the modern mind.

It is important not to confuse enclosure and solitude. A person may observe enclosure perfectly and yet be continually breaching the monastic value of solitude. A few examples should make this clear. A monk may never leave the enclosure, yet remain completely immersed in the world through newspapers, the radio or television. He may never set foot in a parish, yet spends hours on the telephone giving spiritual direction. On the other hand we have all known cases of monks who have had to leave the enclosure frequently, but who have maintained a very deep spirit of solitude.

And here we touch a very important point - the essence of solitude in an interior attitude, a desire to be completely given to God, to stand empty and, as it were, naked before Him, realizing that of ourselves we are nothing but that in Him we are fulfilled. In other words, mere external physical solitude if of very little worth if it does not lead to an interior solitude.

Reflecting on the life of Our Blessed Lord can help us in this matter. After spending some thirty years in a hidden life the Gospels show us that frequently during His Public Life Jesus went apart to pray, sometimes spending the whole night in prayer. And on the Cross He tasted the deepest solitude of all - apparent separation from His Father because He had taken upon Himself our sins.

At this point several troublesome questions may be occurring to you - isn't this interior solitude necessary for all men? What is specifically monastic about it? Why should monks choose exterior solitude? What about openness to the world so strongly emphasized by Vatican II? What about the accent to-day on community? Is the Abbot General trying to put the clock back?

An attempt to answer these legitimate questions will help us to put the whole topic in perspective.

Yes, all men in one way or another are called to stand alone before God. No one is able to live another person's life for him. Each person has an inalienable responsibility to answer to God for his life. It is part of his humanity.

But there are countless forms in which such a responsibility may be expressed. In other words, there are innumerable ways of following Christ and there is nothing specifically monastic about interior solitude.

However, right from the beginning of monasticism there has been a certain separation from the world, a going out into the desert, a search for solitude. Authors do not agree in their explanation of this phenomenon, but they all agree about the fact itself. Exterior solitude is chosen as a means to help the monk to arrive at that complete gift of himself in love which we have called interior solitude. There is nothing absolute about exterior solitude, but de facto it has always been one of the essential elements of monasticism and has always been given a special importance in our Cistercian tradition. And here we meet a point of great importance which has ramifications in many other fields - the close link which often exists between an external framework and a corresponding interior attitude. Why have we chosen to become Cistercians rather than adopt some other form of religious or Christian life? Surely it is because after prayer, reflection and taking counsel we have come to the conclusion that God is calling us to this particular form of life, that we have need of these particular means to help us in our search for Him. In the concrete this means that we choose freely and with our eyes open to live in a particular environment involving a certain separation from the world. We know quite well that theoretically it is impossible to arrive at interior solitude in a hundred different ways, but we feel that it is God's will for us that we choose this particular way. The exterior framework won't automatically bring about the corresponding interior attitude, but if used wisely and faithfully it will be a great help. We are not angels, we are made up of matter and spirit. The spirit needs the material not only to express itself but also as a support and a help in its quest for God.

But what about openness to the world so strongly emphasized by Vatican II? Yes, the Council did encourage a new attitude towards the world and stressed the immanence of God in the world than His transcendence over it. It called for renewal in religious life, but it also affirmed the necessity of being faithful to the original charism. And, in regard to contemplatives it specifically demanded that withdrawal from the world should be maintained. So openness to the world can't be opposed to solitude, it can't mean dashing out to do parish or other pastoral work. Rather, it calls for a different, a more positive attitude towards the world. Unfortunately most of the books and articles that followed the Council were written by apostolic religious with their own problems and way of life in mind. So, much of what they wrote did not apply directly or immediately to our situation. We have had to find our own path in a rather difficult area. There have been mistakes and exaggerations, but most of them have been corrected now. What it comes down to is to discover how and to what extent we can be open to the world while preserving our contemplative identity. We see now that openness means being more aware of the problems of modern man, more sympathetic and compassionate towards the needs of our times, more conscious of what the Church expects of contemplative religious, more ready to share with guests the monastic climate of prayer and recollection. To respond in the correct way to these and similar demands it is vital that we maintain a certain solitude and separation from the world so that our contribution springs from an inner vision based on closeness to God and His world.

I said above that most of our mistaken reactions have been corrected now. This is true. But experience has shown me that there are several areas where prudence and watchfulness areĀ  always necessary. Two particularly come to mind - absences from the monastery and hospitality.

Nowadays we are much broader about reasons for being absent from the monastery and I am not quarrelling with that. But there are limits and some permissions seem to me to be exaggerated. I would recommend that each house should have some guidelines on this point so that things don't get out of hand. Otherwise our natural weakness and selfishness will prevail and in practice solitude will only be an empty facade. The Guest House is even more difficult since it is essential that we should give hospitality and provides possibilities for prayer, recollection and counsel to the many guests who seek them. But we have to do this in a way that won't undermine our contemplative life, otherwise we destroy the very thing which we are trying to share. Here again guidelines are necessary in each monastery since the situation varies a great deal from house to house and from country to country.

Nowadays there is no doubt that our Order has insisted on the importance of a warm community spirit in the monastery. But how can we square this with solitude? This is a typical case of two apparently opposed values - solitude and community. But the opposition is only apparent. They can and should be seen to meet a higher (or, if you prefer, a deeper) level. I have already explained this in a General Chapter conference but there is no harm in repetition. Solitude, as we have seen above, is neither good or bad. It depends on our motives. The same can be said of community. It can be used for good or for evil.

Solitude may become selfish in many ways - it can be an expression of contempt for others or proud self-sufficiency; it can become a search for personal tranquillity, an escape from the problems of community living, a self-centred preoccupation with our own petty interests, and so on. To choose solitude correctly as a means to deepen union with God demands that we overcome our selfishness, our tendency to put ourselves first. It means becoming aware of our poverty, of our selfishness, of our utter dependence on God, of the fact that we only find our true selves in God. In other words it means the gift of ourselves in love.

Community, too, may become selfish in many ways - it can turn into a search for distraction, for approval, for camaraderie, for domination and possessiveness, for complacency, and so on. To choose and use community correctly as a means of finding God and as a way of entering more deeply into communion with all men demands that we overcome our selfishness. It means showing love and respect for others, allowing them their rightful freedom; it means a welcoming attitude, respecting the need for silence, giving oneself wholeheartedly to the service of the common good. In other words, it means the gift of ourselves in love.

Thus it is clear that true solitude and true community meet at the higher (or deeper) level of unselfishness and love, in purity of heart. Obviously this will not be easy and there will always be some tension in maintaining these values in balance.

And now the answer to the final question posed above should be clear. Is the Abbot General trying to turn the clock back? No, he is only trying to focus attention on the fact that solitude far from being outdated is an important element in our monastic vocation. Whatever the final outcome of the discussions about the two branches of our Order, whatever the final text on enclosure, the need for a certain solitude and separation from the world will still be necessary if we are going to remain faithful to our Cistercian heritage and patrimony.

Ambrose Southey