List of circular Letters by Dom Ambrose



January 17th, 1988

Feast of Saint Anthony


My dear Brothers and Sisters,

Many of you realized, I think, that the circular letter of January 26th 1987 was meant to be my swan song, since at the time of writing I thought it would be my last one as Abbot General. However, Providence has intervened and here I am once again! Inevitably this letter will come as an anti-climax to the previous one. But strangely enough that very fact has suggested a theme for this letter.

How many times in life we find that things do not turn our as we had expected. There are anti-climaxes, disappointments, surprises, accidents of all sorts. Such events have a message for us. They tell us something about ourselves and about God. People sometimes speak of God as the "God of Surprises", but that is hardly fair on Him! I have been told that there are two books with this title, but so far I have not been able to find them. We all have a tendency to want to plan out our life as we think things should happen - always in our own favour needless to say! - and thus we build up expectations. When things turn out otherwise it is we who are surprised and who are the cause of the surprise. This tendency to plan out our own life is a sign that we forget our real state, namely that we are creatures dependant at every moment of our existence on the sustaining power of God. We forget that we have not been asked to write the text for the story of our life. So many factors in our life are beyond our control and yet have an important influence on us - temperament, parents, home background, education, physical constitution and so on. No, it is God who writes the text while always respecting our liberty. From all this He wants us to realize something: we are not made for ourselves, but for Him; we cannot find fulfilment in ourselves, only in Him. This does not mean a fatalistic attitude towards  life. Quite the contrary, we have to use all the gifts we have received - our intelligence, health, faith etc...- in an effort to accept and correspond with the plans of God. Liberty is our greatest gift, according to St. Bernard, but it needs to be re-directed. Through Christ, Our Lord, we have to learn to choose what is for our real good rather than what merely gratifies our immediate desires.

But let us take a few concrete examples of what I have been trying to say so far. Sickness can appear to be an awful handicap, but it can also be a wonderful occasion for forgetting ourselves and submitting to the Providence of God. In visiting our monasteries I have seen examples of sickness souring a person, disorienting him or her, causing bitterness and discontent. But I have also seen wonderful examples of the opposite. The person concerned has grown spiritually, become calm and cheerful and a source of strength and encouragement to other members of the community. Sickness, in other words, is one of the cases where surprise comes in. Quite naturally we expect to be strong and healthy all our lives. And then something may happen. We contract a serious illness or are injured in an accident and we find we can no longer do the things we used to be able to do. It is a moment of choice. We can kick against the goad. We can blame God or the carelessness of other people. We can nurse an grudge against the world in general. Or, on the other hand, we can see the finger of God in what has happened. We can stir up our faith to believe that somehow God is going to draw some greater good out of the event. We can accept that there is some loving design hidden inexplicably in an apparent misfortune.

Much the same can be said about old age. This is a phenomenon which is becoming increasingly frequent in our communities. People live longer nowadays and many houses of the Order have a comparatively high proportion of monks and nuns who are between 75 and 100. Many of them feel keenly the fact that they can no longer take full part in community life. Some are tempted to be discouraged by this, to resent it, to feel that they are a burden on others or even to give way to despair. Some unfortunately become increasingly crotchety and self-centred. Others, thanks God, take a more positive attitude. They may feel these reactions mentioned above but they do not lose heart or give in to them. On the contrary they embrace this humiliating situation bravely. They see it as a part of God's plan for them. They use the time available for prayer and union with God. They find little ways of being helpful to others. They radiate peace and serenity and are living examples of persons wholly conformed to the will of God. Sickness and old age then, if looked at with the eyes of faith, can be precious gifts to a community and to the persons concerned. Far from being a liability such persons are able to render a tremendous service to the Church, to the world and to their community. Incidentally I would like to remark in passing that perhaps the phenomenon of increasing longevity has not been given sufficient attention in the Order. Superiors should look into the literature on this subject and see what can be done to help our monks and nuns to face up to this difficult period in their life and to grow old gracefully (in the literal sense of the word!)

In addition to sickness and old age there are many other events which are causes of surprise and dismay. Somebody is appointed to an important position but despite his or her undoubted gifts things do not work out well. The person is considered a failure and has to be replaced. The experience of apparent failure can be a very testing time. One can resent it, put the blame on others, explain it away in one form or another. Or one can try to accept the humiliation involved, attempt to learn from the experience, use event to grow in faith and trust.

Paradoxically even success can come as a surprise and as a testing time. Naturally we all wish to succeed in what we undertake and we are pleased when it happens. But there are some who grow worried at success. Perhaps they have an exaggerated inferiority complex and cannot believe the praise lavished upon them. Or they have a wrong concept of God and became upset at the thought that they are receiving their reward in this life and that they will have to pay for it hereafter. Once again the only solution is to remember that we do not control all the events of life, that we must accept the manifestations of God's will.

Finally there are all sorts of disappointments which come our way. One person hopes to be sent away for higher studies and is not. Another feels that he or she has the qualities necessary to perform a certain important service in the community but is not appointed. A third, perhaps, was a successful businessman and entered the monastery with the desire for a quiet contemplative life, but he is appointed Bursar while still temporarily professed and remains in that office for 35 years! Such examples could be multiplied endlessly. Life can be full of disappointment. Only a strong faith and a deep love of God can help us to face up to them and grow spiritually.

Sickness, old age, failure, success, disappointments and a host of similar things are all under the control of Providence. We must believe Holy Scripture when it says that God himself "has made small and great and provides for all alike" (Wisd. VI,7); "Wisdom deploys her strength from one end of the earth to the other, ordering all things for good" (ib. VIII,I). Our Lord put it more colourfully when he speaks of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air (cf. Mt. VI,25-34). But it comes to the same thing. While respecting our liberty, while expecting us to work as if everything depended on ourselves, God is quietly but firmly ordering all things to manifest His goodness and to fulfil His plan of salvation. Moreover, the Father has not left things on a purely theoretical plane. He has shown us in His own Son how the evil of men cannot upset His plans. "Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into His glory?" (Lk XXIV,26)

Perhaps these few words dashed off in a hurry after the M.G.M. and before going for a few months sabbatical rest will be a help to some who are asking themselves what they are doing with their lives. May God be with you all.

Ambrose Southey

P.S.     I have dated this letter January 17th, the feast of Saint Anthony, but in actual fact I expect to be leaving Rome on the 13th or 14th. After going to the Abbatial Blessing at Westmalle and dealing with some business in Holland, I will be travelling to Mt St Bernard and hope to remain there until about the end of June. Please deal with the Procurator General or the Permanent Councillor of your language about any questions that arise during these months and do not forget to pray for me!