List of circular Letters by Dom Ambrose



Feast of the Epiphany 1989


My dear Brothers and Sisters,

This letter will reach you long after Christmas, but I can assure you that you were not forgotten in my prayers and masses at that time. May the New Year bring you many blessings.

My first intention was to write something on Regular Visitations, particularly as a number of you have spoken or written to me on the subject during the past year. But on reflection it seems better to leave such a theme to a conference at the General Chapter.

Recently while talking to a monk of the Order he reminded me about the results of the questionnaire sent round the monasteries in 1967. They provided a sort of picture of what we thought a monk should be at that time. He suggested that it would be interesting to send out a similar questionnaire to see what we thought now, over twenty years later. This struck me as a worthwhile idea, but thinking it over later I realized that we already have such a picture in our new Constitutions. It is true that this text has not yet been approved by the Holy See, but it is unlikely that much change will be made to the more spiritual parts. This idea was strengthened when I came across an interesting and helpful study submitted to the Faculty of Catholic Theology at Strasbourg in October 1988 by Fr. Bernard Duymentz of La Trappe in view of a Master's degree in Theology. The study is a comparison, from an anthropological standpoint, of the difference between the Constitutions of 1924 and those of 1987. At the end of the first part there is a section entitled "Portrait of the good monk according to the 1924 Constitutions" and the second part finishes with a similar section for the 1987 Constitutions. Of course, in both cases the author is mainly concerned with the anthropological differences revealed in the two texts.

Perhaps it will be useful for the Order if I try to paint the picture of a Cistercian monk as found in our new Constitutions, but from a slightly different point of view. As you will see I have not followed the text of the Constitutions slavishly, but have interpreted it and added comments of my own here and there. However, reference to the appropriate Constitutions have been given in the margin, so that those who wish to fill out the picture for themselves may do so quite easily. Please forgive me if the language is sexist, i.e. the word "monk" is used throughout. It would have made the text too heavy to have written "monk-nun" all the time but obviously everything said applies equally to the two interdependent elements of the Order.

The first thing that strikes you in reading through these Constitutions is their extraordinary richness and density which makes a synthesis difficult if not impossible.

CST.1,1         The Cistercian monk belongs to an Order that has its roots in a long tradition which finds expression in the Rule of St. Benedict as a practical way of living the Gospel. Hence it is most important that he should study the Rule and be aware of its connections with the Gospel.

CST.1,2-5                 This tradition is not static, but has developed over the centuries even up to our own times. The monk should be conversant with this history and with the efforts made in the Order to follow the directives of Vatican II which at one and the same time send us back to our sources and forward to a prudent up-dating.

CST.2-3         The aim of the Order is to enable the monk to be completely given to God, but   he does so in a coenobitic life which is ruled over by an Abbot and is organized in such a way that he has all the means at hand to reach that purity of heart and continual mindfulness of God which are the normal preparation for receiving the gift of contemplation. Although separated from the world he is convinced that his life is, in a mysterious way, apostolically fruitful for the Church and the world. Such a conviction is extremely necessary if he is to remain faithful to his calling and not go searching after various forms of compensation. In the present economy of salvation his search for God is found in developing an intimate personal friendship with Christ and Mary, his Mother.

CST.4-5         The place where this search goes on is a monastery - a house of God in which the monastic community is assembled. A monk should love his community and should have legitimate pride in it, while at the same time avoiding all form of self-satisfaction. When a community becomes self-complacent and thinks itself better than other communities it is heading for a fall, as experience proves. Rather should it be aware that we all form one Order united in the bonds of charity, living according to the same patrimony even though a certain pluralism is permitted.

CST.7-11       The monk's search for God in Christ is not something vague or left completely to his own imagination and initiative. On the contrary, he is bound by vow to follow a certain path. He may not think very often in an explicit way about his vows but he is always motivated, at least implicitly, by that gift of self which lies behind all the vows.

The details of this path of conversion are laid down clearly for him.

CST.13,15                It is first and foremost a community life where love reigns supreme and shows itself concretely in a sharing of goods and the common table and a respect for the privacy of others. There will always be weaknesses, whether of body or soul, which call for his compassion and patience. In particular he is careful to avoid detraction and tale-bearing. It is incredible how easily a monk forgets that each of his brethren has a right to his reputation and good name. If, unfortunately, he has had a disagreement with one of his brothers he seeks reconciliation as soon as possible.

CST.16          His presence in the monastery is not a passive affair. He takes an active interest in all that concerns the monastery, but at the same time he realizes that cooperation often calls for mutual obedience and that dialogue is impossible without an ability to listen to and appreciate what others have to say. In the Rule of St. Benedict dialogue and consultation play an important part although the Abbot's right to make the final decision is stressed. While each community has to find its own rhythm in regard to the frequency and form, experience shows that where dialogue is neglected trouble brews under the surface and eventually erupts in unpleasant ways.

CST.17-20                The highlight of the monk's day is the Eucharistic celebration from which he draws the grace to live in profound communion with his brethren and in which he expresses the worship which is at the root of his search for God. The various hours of the Divine Office help him to maintain this spiritual momentum throughout the day and the cycle of liturgical feasts nourishes his contemplative life so that he can be continually mindful of all that God has done for him in Christ.

In particular cases the Abbot may permit a monk to participate in the Office in a simpler form but such a permission still calls for a deep involvement in the Liturgical life of the Church.

CST.21-29                Lectio divina, private prayer, silence, the asceticism involved in manual work, poverty, and fasting and abstinence all have their part to play in helping the monk to live his life of solitude and separation from the world. It is no easy thing to persevere day after day in this type of life even if a good balance between work, prayer and lectio exists. Where this equilibrium does not exist it becomes harder still and, paradoxically, often causes or leads to various forms of self-seeking. Lectio, private prayer, silence, solitude and the other elements of his life are not intended to become ends in themselves or means of self-gratification. Each calls for a formation and an application which are very demanding. If the demands are met they will become a source of joy and strength; if they are not met then these elements will turn the monk on himself and defeat their own purpose.

CST.30,31                In particular the Cistercian form of solitude does not preclude the reception of guests provided that the contemplative nature of the life is safeguarded. Obviously this protection is a relative thing and will vary according to the size of the community, the average age of the members, the situation of the buildings and so on. But once again the monk has to remember that his form of participating in the mission of Christ and his insertion in the local Church are determined by the nature of the contemplative life.

CST.33-38                The path of conversion laid down for the monk thus far is guided by the Abbot whom he believes takes the place of Christ in the monastery. The Abbot's pastoral role is far-reaching and very demanding, but he is helped in his tasks by various Officials and Councils. Experience shows that the quality of monastic life in a community depends to a large extent on the way in which the Abbot fulfils his task. No wonder St. Benedict reminds him time after time that he will have to answer for all that he has done -- or left undone!

CST.45-48                However, the Abbot is not the only one involved. monk has to be formed over a period of years and the process of formation involves the whole community, not just the master of novices. Formation is a lifelong thing, because times and people change and the monk has to adjust to new circumstances. Vocation is a God-given gift but it need to be nurtured. Sometimes the lack of perseverance among those in formation can be traced to the attitude of the professed who do not make sufficient allowance for the change in society since they entered.

CST.73 sqq.  The structures of the Order are important for all the members even though some are more directly concerned than others. The monk should be interested in all that concerns the Order and should pray for those whose duty is to see that it functions smoothly and effectively.

     Perhaps you will be saying to yourself that this picture does not tell us anything new. In a sense it is true. In fact it would be surprising if it did tell us something new since the Cistercian ideal in itself does not change from century to century. What do change are the emphases, the nuances, the way of expressing certain truths, the theological and ecclesiological presuppositions underlying the text of the Constitutions. These have changed and are new.

    But it is for each one of us to examine this picture and to see whether we recognize ourselves. If we do not, why not? My idea in writing has been to help us to look more closely at our new Constitutions ands to see them as a source of life and hope. They are extremely rich, but it takes time and patience to recognize this. To conclude in the words of Cst.86: May the Holy Spirit inspire us to journey joyfully towards the fullness of love in fraternal communion and fidelity to the Church under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Citeaux.

Ambrose Southey

  P.S.  To descend from the sublime to the ridiculous! In mid-November a packet of about 15 letters addressed to me were stolen with other things from Dom Emmanuel Coutant who was bringing them to me in France. It has been possible to discover from whom some of these letters came. If by any chance you wrote to me at that time and have not received a reply, perhaps your letter was one of those stolen and you should write again if necessary.