List of circular Letters by Dom Ambrose


Roma, Curia Generalizia

Viale Africa 33

Feast of the Three Founders

January 26th, 1987


My dear Brothers and Sisters,

As you know I was away from Rome from October 18th until January 18th. This made it difficult to write the usual circular letter at Christmas. However I gave a lot of thought to the choice of a theme for such a letter. Eventually, the idea came to me while I was in Korea. We had spent the night at a Benedictine house in Seoul and the next day was November 13th - Feast of all those who have fought under the Rule of St. Benedict. The thought struck me: what would our Cistercian Fathers think of the Order today? Immediately I saw it was not possible to give a satisfactory answer to such a question. For one thing, despite all the study done in recent times, we are not absolutely certain of the aims of our Founders. Then again the difference socially, politically, spiritually and psychologically between the 12th and the 20th centuries make comparisons almost impossible. Moreover, when we speak of the Order we are speaking of an abstraction. In the concrete the Order is 145 monasteries, all living the Cistercian ideal it is true, but with variations in emphasis that make it very difficult to generalize.

But the original question is not useless. It turned my attention to one point that is quite clear - the importance of love or charity. The Charter of the Order is a Charter of Charity. All the early Cistercian authors have a treatise on love: St. Bernard's De Diligendo Deo; St. Aelred's Speculum Caritatis; William of St. Thierry's De natura et dignitate amoris and so on. Our life was even called a school of love. It is true that the 12th century was very much concerned with courtly love, but our Cistercian Fathers saw things in a much deeper perspective. They knew that God is Love. They had meditated deeply on the words of St. Paul: If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Cor. 13,1). They did not forget that love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet.4,8). nor that love is the fulfilment of the law (Rom 13,10). They remembered that the aim of St. Benedict’s Rule is to lead us through humility to that perfect love which casts out fear.

However, we are not living in the 12th century. We are living in the Post-Vatican II era. A great deal of change has taken place in our everyday lives during the past 30 years. Some are pleased with these changes, others are hesitant, and still others are frankly upset by them. These latter feel that many good things have been lost during this period and they don't see that they have been replaced by anything better. As Abbot General I am constantly meeting these three categories and have to do my best to help them. It seems to me that the answer lies precisely in love, just as it did in the 12th century. The General Chapter of 1974 in its Pastoral Directives on the Unity of our Communities spoke of a need to move from an ascetical attitude which is expressed in personal fidelity to observances to another ascetical attitude which is expressed in an effort towards authentic fraternal charity. The Directive added: the commitment to genuine monastic values in a spirit of listening, dialogue, obedience, friendship and love will effect this change. In saying this the General Chapter was more of less echoing the words of Pope Paul VI in his letter to Dom Ignace of December 8th, 1968:

"From the above considerations it clearly emerges that your life has value to the extent that its active efficacy of charity corresponds to the interior action of the Holy Spirit, who draws us to the Father. Hence it is obvious that it is absolutely necessary that your renewal be chiefly a spiritual one, and that it particularly consist in a continually closer union between you and Christ, by the power of the hidden and ineffable love with which he pursues us. Therefore, rather than novelties, what is expected from you is a sincere and true renewal, consisting especially in this, that charity grow and become more perfect in you, that charity interiorly inspire your observance of laws and make it fruitful."

So the big question facing us today is whether the various changes introduced into our life have produced a growth in love - love for God, love for one another. Who can answer such a question? Surely it is for each one of us to look into his own heart sincerely and frankly. Am I firmly convinced that God is Love? Does that conviction colour my life? Do I try to view all the elements of our Cistercian life as means to express my love, as means to grow in love. How do I think of and act towards those whom God has called to share with me in this Community? Do I love the Church? Does my heart go out in compassion and prayer for the homeless, the hungry, the suffering, the dying? These and similar questions are extremely important, not only for each of us individually but for our communities. A community cannot examine itself about charity unless all the members have examined themselves individually.

In this letter I am not trying to write a treatise on charity, but I would like to share a few insights picked up from my visits to the various monasteries.

The first one is that monks and nuns who are completely penetrated by the fact that God is love seem to be the ones who are living our life most deeply. Obviously we all accept theoretically as a matter of faith that God is Love. But it is a completely different thing to be penetrated by this reality, to be so certain and convinced of it that it colours all we do or say or think. Our mind and heart are the two great faculties of our spiritual nature. They are capacities, that is to say they crave to be filled - the mind with truth, the heart with love. Whether we like it or not we must always be loving something - whether God or others or ourselves. As St. Augustine is supposed to have said: good or bad loves make good or bad lives. So the person who is always centred on God as Love finds his life transformed. Nothing seems too hard or unjust or humiliating because he is not really bothered about himself. He knows he is loved and that is sufficient. Obviously such a conviction is itself a gift of God's gratuitous love, but it is a gift which God wants to bestow on us. We can prepare the way for such a gift by reflecting on all the different ways in which God has shown his love for us both naturally and supernaturally. And I can assure you that there are very few monasteries of the Order where I have not found at least a few persons penetrated by this deep, personal conviction that God is love.

My second reflection is that, unfortunately, there are some houses of the Order where the community is divided or, at least, where there is a great deal of tension. Each case has its own history and sometimes the causes are extremely complicated, so it is almost impossible to generalize. But more than once in such houses I have been struck by the large number of persons who seem to have forgotten their priorities. Often self-interest, jealousies, personal convenience and other such considerations seem to be put before the common good and God seems to be left out of the picture completely. Sometimes I ask myself sadly how such people can be so blind to their situation, so forgetful of why they came to the monastery, so impervious to the fundamental Gospel precept of fraternal love. There is some consolation in the fact that in many such cases unconscious factors are at work and so, before God, there is little if any personal responsibility. But still the situation remains and often it is quite serious. It might be helpful to remember what I said above, namely that our heart or will is a capacity which must be loving something. If it is not loving God or others, then it will be loving itself. Self-love is not necessarily wrong. We all need to love ourselves as persons loved by God. But there is an egoistic self-love - what St. Bernard, for instance, calls voluntas propria - which destroys community life and leads to anarchy. I myself become the judge of what is good or bad and God is completely forgotten. No wonder there is tension and division in houses where there is a large number of these persons. The only solution is a real change of heart and a serious attempt to put God and others back into the picture.

A third point is the importance given to observances. This is a very delicate matter. We cannot live our life in a vacuum. There must be some structures in which to express our Cistercian ideal. But they must be seen for what they are - exterior helps or instruments to assist us in maintaining and expressing something interior and spiritual. This has been known and accepted since the beginning of monastic life. Cassian, for instance, in his Conferences states the matter very clearly:

"Fasting, watching, meditation, poverty and privation are not themselves perfection, but the instruments by which we may acquire perfection. They are not the object of our striving, but the means by which we may obtain it. It becomes us therefore to use these means with reference to our end, which is purity of heart or Charity. What will it avail us to perform with punctuality our ordinary exercises, if the main purpose for which we perform them is eluded? To this end, therefore, should be referred our solitude, our fasts, our daily employments, yes, every penitential exercise and every virtue; that by these means our hearts may be preserved in calm, and we may thus ascend to the perfection of Charity."  (Conf. 1,7 passim)

Theoretically, we all accept this teaching, but in practice it is often forgotten. In some houses great emphasis is put on the structures or observances, but little attempt is made to see whether they are being used correctly. There is an innate tendency in us to put our security in the exterior means and to forget the interior spirit. This is not just laziness, choosing the easy way. It is something much deeper and insidious. We are looking for an insurance policy, so to speak, which will  guarantee our salvation. Although we might not admit it we are protecting ourselves from God. "I am doing all the right things, so you have no excuse for punishing me", we seem to be saying to God. Such an attitude is a perfect example of not accepting that God loves us.

On the other hand, there are some houses where structures or observances are very much neglected. This puts a great strain on the individual to maintain a sense of personal responsibility despite the lack of community support. It should be clear that the ideal situation is one in which structures are respected, but the emphasis is laid on the need to use these structures as means to grow in love. It sounds easy, but in practice is a very difficult situation to achieve and maintain.

My fourth and final reflection will be very brief. If you find yourself wondering whether all the changes of the past 30 years have been for the best, ask yourself whether fraternal charity seems to have improved in the community, whether people regard the Divine Office as a real prayer and not just as an obligation to be fulfilled, whether private prayer and lectio divina are esteemed and respected, whether work is carried out in an unselfish and responsible way. If you can answer "yes" to these and similar questions, then you may rest assured that things are going well even though there may be some room for improvement due to human frailty.

After reading over what has been written so far, I have a feeling that some monks or nuns - and probably the wrong ones - will be a little upset or discouraged by the letter. They will perhaps examine themselves and feel that their love for God is very weak. But they should not be put off by feelings. God is full of mercy and always ready to help those who recognize their weakness.

May the Blessed Virgin intercede for us and help us to grasp ever more clearly something of the wonderful love the Father has shown us in sending his Beloved Son to be our Saviour.

Ambrose Southey