List of circular Letters by Dom Ambrose


Viale Africa 33

Feast of the Epiphany 1990


The Abbot General

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Once again this letter will reach you well after the festive season but once again I would like to assure you that you were not forgotten. My first Mass at Christmas and that at January 1st was for the Order. I trust that you had a happy and peaceful Christmas and that God will bless you all abundantly throughout 1990.

In reading through the reports of the various Regional meetings held in 1989 I noted that several spoke of the need to have an overall picture of the Order at the present time. This suggestion seemed to provide me with a theme for the present letter, particularly since it is now ten years since I tried to do something similar (cf. 80/A/03, Easter 80). However, on reading the 1980 letter I found that there was very little in it that needed to be changed! I will begin by making some comments on that letter but it would be good if you were to re-read it first and ask yourselves what has been done about it in your own community.

Numerically there has been a fall in the number of solemnly professed among both the monks and nuns, but on the whole the number of those still in formation has remained steady each year (450 monks, 250 nuns).

My general impression of the state of our Order still remains positive. Various houses have been through crisis but most have recovered and now show a new vigour and purpose. Only about three or four houses cause me grave concern. The encouraging factors mentioned in 1980 still remain operative and it would be possible to add a few more. The 1980 letter was divided into four sections - life within the community, relations with the exterior, the Order in non-Western cultures, adaptations and renewal.

It is in the first of these sections that I have noticed very little change. The contemplative aspect of our life still seems to me rather neglected, although I have noted a marked improvement in the importance given to lectio divina. If this point continues to improve it will certainly have beneficial effects in the long run. What I wrote about prayer takes on a new interest in the light of the recent document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (cf. Osservatore Romano, 15-12-89).

The general life style in our monasteries seems to be becoming more and more middle class or bourgeois and this affects poverty, work, asceticism etc....The correct balance between speech and silence is still a problem almost everywhere and very few houses seem satisfied that they have found a suitable form of fraternal correction. On the other hand the question of harmonizing community responsibility and abbatial authority continues to improve, although I am often struck by the difference in attitude between monks and nuns on this subject. My conclusion to that section of the 1980 letter, about the importance of formation, still remains valid; but the work being done to produce a new "Ratio Formationis" should be a big help, provided it is not interpreted in a too intellectual way.

While I am visiting the various monasteries I am often asked whether the Statute on Unity and Pluralism is causing division in the Order. As far as one can judge I would reply in the negative. On the whole the life is very much the same everywhere. For instance the fact that the "hour of rising is so regulated that Vigils, which follow it, should keep its traditional character of nocturnal prayer" means that in most houses the daily horarium is very similar.

The second section - concerning relations with the exterior - is still something of a problem. In a few houses hospitality has been promoted to such an extent that it has reached a danger point. Perhaps Superiors in their zeal to provide spiritual assistance to lay people and religious of both sexes sometimes overlook the tremendous pressure put on their own subjects - the cook, the Guest house staff, confessors etc.... In regard to enclosure I have pointed out more than once that it is only a material means for safeguarding the monastic value of solitude. The question of the nuns' enclosure will no doubt be settled by what is eventually approved by the Congregation of Religious in regard to the Constitutions. But the monks could usefully ask themselves whether they have not become too broad in this area.

The third question - the Order in the non-Western cultures - does not require much comment. Since 1980 there have been five new foundations of monks, all outside what is called the West and nine of nuns, seven of which are outside the West. In addition there are seven or eight pre-foundations or projected foundations among the monks and four or five among the nuns. So we have the somewhat surprising phenomenon of the overall number of monks and nuns declining while the number of monasteries is continually increasing! One interesting fact has recently come to my attention. A letter written by one of the monks of N.D. de Consolation (China) speaks of a number of young men and women aspirants whom he is training to live our life. Ostensibly they are working in a factory but they also pray together. It seems that there are at least twenty of them and perhaps more. There is even question of getting permission to profess them since they have been living this type of life for several years! So my requests for prayers for our surviving monks in China is more urgent than ever.

The fourth section - adaptation and renewal - is still valid in my opinion. I must confess that it is a source of sadness to me that the General Chapter has never taken up the point of the effect on the Order of the so called Decree of Unification. What is wanted is a genius who can think out an up-to-date form of what used to be called the Lay Brother vocations.

Finally at the end of the 1980 letter I mentioned three subjects which stood out in my mind. One of these I dealt with in the opening talk of the 1980 General Chapter and the other two were developed in subsequent circular letters (Advent 1982 and Feast of the Holy Innocents 1983), so I will not return to them here. But there is one point I would like to return to viz. the fact that I don't find much change between what was written in 1980 and my impressions of the present state of the Order. Does this mean that we have remained static or that we are stagnating? It could be so, but personally in visiting the various monasteries my general opinion is one of life and spiritual vigour, although unfortunately this is not always the case. How can we explain this apparent contradiction between no great change in the situation of the Order since 1980 and a general impression of life and vigour. The only explanation that I myself can suggest is that there must be a fairly large number of monks and nuns in the Order who are not living their vow of "conversatio morum" deeply enough. That means that they are living it sufficiently enough to give the impression of life, but not so deeply as to cause a notable change in the state of the Order. I won't try to go into the controversy about the distinction between "conversio" and "conversatio" but will accept what the two General Chapters decided in drawing up our new Constitutions, namely that we make a vow of "conversatio morum". I accept too the explanation given by the Constitutions that this means fidelity to a monastic life according to our Cistercian discipline.

This fidelity is not something merely external. It is not just a question of being present at the office, taking one's meals with the brethren in the refectory, having a set time for personal prayer and lectio divina, doing the work assigned. These observances are good and necessary, but not sufficient in themselves. They must be animated from within. There must be an internal attitude which gives them and our other Cistercian observances their true spiritual value. This internal attitude is a thirst for God. "Conversatio" involves "Conversio", a turning away from sin and whatever may lead to sin and a turning towards God. It is a very personal thing and this will vary from person to person. Even in the same person there will be ups and downs, periods of lesser fervour and periods of renewed fervour. But the vow is intended to sustain us throughout the years so that gradually a persistent ever-deepening desire for God develops. Obviously this desire can't be sustained unless we wage an incessant war against our innate selfishness and self love, so that gradually the love of God for His own sake comes to prevail in all we do and say and think. As Saint Benedict says at the end of Chapter VII a perfect love which casts out fear eventually becomes second nature.

Periods of retreat are meant to be times when we take a hard look at the way we are living our vocation. Has it become rather a routine so that we go through the external motions of living a monastic life but the inner flame has grown weak? Or are we still trying to feed that flame so that the various monastic observances are helps to make it grow? It is not a question of looking for something new, but rather of deepening what we already possess and making full use of the traditional means at our disposal. To some this may appear rather dull and dreary but it is precisely in fidelity to this daily round that we will find sanctity. (Cf. Dom Jean Leclercq, Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu, In praise of Ordinariness, Cist. Studies Vol 18, 1983, 3, pp.231-239).

This year 1990 is a special one for us in that we are celebrating the 900th anniversary of the birth of saint Bernard. We can be helped in our monastic life be reflecting on this great saint and reading his works. In letter 142 he says that "our Order is humility, voluntary poverty, obedience, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Our way of life is under a master, under an abbot, under a rule, under discipline. Our way of life is to cultivate silence, to practice fasting, vigils, prayer and manual work and above all to hold on to that more excellent way which is charity, advancing in all these observances day by day and persevering in them until the last day". In another letter (384) he tells us that "he who does not advance in the school of Christ is not worthy of his teaching ...if we do not advance we must inevitably fall back. No one has to say: I have had enough. I shall stay as I am. It is good enough for me to remain the same as I was yesterday and the day before...No, the faster we run the easier it is; the more we undertake the Saviour's light yoke, the easier it becomes to carry".

No doubt we all remember what is recounted in his life (Vita Prima, ch 4) about his personal custom of asking himself: Bernarde, ad quid venisti? Every now and again we should ask ourselves something similar: What am I doing here? Why did I come to the monastery? What is holding me back?

May Saint Bernard obtain for us all the grace of a renewed fervour in 1990.

Ambrose Southey