CONFERENCE OF MOTHER JEAN-MARIE
Abbaye N.-D. de l'Assomption

Cistercian Contemplative Identity

††††††††††† I think it is fortuitous that we are reflecting on our Cistercian contemplative identity because the word "identity" implies the personal dimension which is at the heart of our way of life. It is the person who incarnates the identity, the person who gives reality to the ideal. We can speak about a Cistercian contemplative life-style with its observances and values, we can speak of a Cistercian contemplative spirituality with its doctrines and dynamics; but all such considerations remain sterile constructs or theories unless given force and expression in the being of a Cistercian monk or nun.

††††††††††† I think most would agree that our deliberations here do not reflect an institutional identity crisis. Quite the contrary, with the renewal that the Order has undertaken over the past years, we seem to have attained a certain clairvoyance regarding our life-style and spirituality. Our Constitutions witness to this through the juridical formulation of a solid Cistercian self-identity, but it is nonetheless a verbal formulation, not necessarily the fruit of an existential realization.

††††††††††† Being is the fruit of experience, not of theory. When I think of Cistercian contemplative identity, I think in terms of spiritual being. And when I think of spiritual being, I think in terms of depth. I believe that depth is the key to a Cistercian contemplative identity, to be a Cistercian contemplative being.

††††††††††† Yet, what is depth? What is spiritual being? Mysteries to be contemplated, not problematics to be solved. It could be said though, that depth is haunting; we are drawn toward it, into it, because instinctively, intuitively, we sense that the meaning of our life lies therein. When depths are awakened,† spiritual consciousness grows, spiritual being is born. The door to depth will vary according to the different persons seeking to enter within. The important thing is to be on a journey to depth, the depth of our own being and the depths of the milieu. Cistercian life must become Cistercian experience in order for Cistercian identity to emerge. This happens through a journey into depth which transforms the very being of the traveller.

††††††††††† Spiritual depth is a mystery, that is true, but maybe it is not as mysterious and far-distant as one might think. In fact, depth is very close to us. It may be attained by immersion in the Mystery of Christ through the simple and humble means which are ours in Cistercian monastic life. The steps are small, the means are poor, but they are always there for us, waiting to lead us along the slow, progressive, imperceptible descent to depth.

††††††††††† Dom Bernardo spoke to our communities about some instruments for renewal: the Gospel, the Rule, the Cistercian Fathers, the Constitutions. It is through these traditional vehicles that we hear the call to depth and taken together they set the tone for that depth. They orient us toward and introduce us into the contemplative depths of our own spiritual being. In one way, it is all so simple, yet monastic life has rather absolute demands when it comes to acquiring the fineness of spiritual being that emanates from depth and leads to depth. We know these exigencies well: kenosis, continuity, duration, openness, porosity.

††††††††††† The journey into spiritual being is above all a processus of kenosis leading to new life - the paschal journey. Michelangelo, ardently engaged in sculpting one of his statues, is reputed to have said: "Another few days and life will break through". This phrase echoes the hope of the spiritual journey: another "few days" of hollowing out and opening up and spiritual being will break through. And this is transformation.

††††††††††† The journey to depth implies transformation, and a journey to spiritual being implies an ontological transformation. Such a processus can only take place in the ground of our being, in our heart. It is a long journey, the journey of a lifetime, for spiritual life is basically a state of being in process of continual, albeit imperceptible, transformation.

††††††††††† For the Cistercian, transformation of being takes place through an immersion in the totality of the ordinary, elemental aspects of monastic life. There is a very powerful spiritual force inherent within all the facets of a life unified as it is by, what P.Charles calls, the primacy of the spiritual. Cistercian monastic life harbors great depths. Simply by being immersed in that life, given certain preconditions, we are immersed in a spiritual reality that can transform us at the very core of our being. The profound conviction that the Mystery of Christ is present and active in our monastic life-style makes it possible for us to yield ourselves to its exigencies, and by doing so, to become ever more deeply immersed in this Mystery in order to be† transformed by it. Without this conviction, we might be tempted to fill the apparent void of such a life-style with activities and orientations which, even though positive in themselves, risk being quite external to the spiritual dynamic that should be going on within the context of monastic life. In such a scenario, the quality or level of one's immersion is compromised because it lacks depth and thus produces little or no spiritual being or contemplative identity.

††††††††††† I think it important to emphasize these points:

1.The Cistercian contemplative experience is lived out within the context of the whole Cistercian monastic conversatio, not just a particular aspect of it. And that conversatio is characterized by the elemental.

2.Our monastic life is deeply rooted in and filled with the Mystery of Christ. The Mystery is its very soul and raison d'Ítre.

3.The contemplative identity we are seeking emanates from an in-depth immersion in this way of life which is at once elemental and sublime.

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††††††††††† Our way of life fosters an immersion of the substance of the person in the substance of the Mystery. But it is the life in its totality, in its unity, that draws us ever more deeply into this Mystery. All the aspects of Cistercian life are interconnected, linked together, orienting us forcefully and harmoniously toward this one goal - union with Christ. Immersion allows for, interpenetration, transformation, divinization. It is through immersion in all the facets of the life that we are immersed in Christ, and it is by virtue of this immersion in Christ that what we are calling our Cistercian contemplative identity is born. For what is it but to be able to say with St.Paul: "It is no longer I, but Christ that lives ..." in the Cistercian monk, in the Cistercian nun.

††††††††††† I have been talking about experience and transformation, but I do not mean to give the impression that our journey to depths through the Cistercian life is a highly conscious one, no less a self-conscious one. Paradoxically, it is, on the contrary, a more or less unconscious processus. The ordinariness of our life-style, the subtleness of the workings of grace within us, the sobriety and simplicity of our spirituality, do not lend themselves to any purely human assessment of progress in the spiritual realm.

††††††††††† In Cistercian life we remain in the same place, occupied with the same concerns: doing the same work, chanting the same psalms, reading the same texts, walking the same cloister, interacting with the same people, struggling against the same temptations - and all this year after year. Progress is so intangible that to talk in terms of experience seems ridiculous, if not absurd. Yet, imperceptibly, unconsciously, through immersion in the Mystery, our being is changing.

††††††††††† This subtle, progressive transformation, which takes place at a level beyond the reaches of our ordinary self-consciousness, is the very soul and substance of our vocation. But it can also be the source of temptation. One can grow inpatient with the slowness of change, with the monotony of the journey, with the sobriety of the experience ... One can try to speed things up, to liven things up, and this through means foreign to the integrity of our elemental life-style. In so doing, one risks aborting the seeds of spiritual being that are gestating in the depths of our heart, waiting to blossom in God's own time.

††††††††††† The Cistercian experience takes place in a life which is elemental. This way of life is like a pure resonant note, heard as simplicity. The word "elemental" means "reduced to the essential". This is certainly characteristic of Cistercian life in its very nature - a way of life intentionally reduced to the essential, nourished by an elemental spirituality. The whole Cistercian life is elemental, and this quality should be present and pass through all that touches it. The elemental is like a space which leaves room for the essential and orients all else toward that. The elemental is close to the earth - literally and figuratively. Van Gogh, in speaking of Millet's Angelus, said it was the closest man had ever come to creating something divine. And it seems to me that there is indeed a connaturality, a mutual attraction, between the elemental and the divine. Simone Weil remarked that there exists between the most distant parts, for whoever can see deeply, an affinity. I think all of this is verified in our monastic reality.

††††††††††† The Cistercian experience is characterized by a processus of transformation-through-immersion which is unconscious but which can liberate within us a new level of consciousness, a consciousness of the heart. As our being is imperceptibly transformed, our consciousness is imperceptibly transformed. We see things differently, we feel things differently, we know things differently - and this because the eyes of the heart, the ears of the heart, the mind of the heart, if you will, have opened. A new identity has been born, emerging ever so subtly, from the depths of our journeying. This emerging spiritual being, this emerging spiritual consciousness is our Cistercian contemplative identity - a sober contemplative identity so intertwined with the very fiber of our being that it flows almost anonymously from our heart, pervading our entire existence. One could almost call it a contemplatio sine nomine.

††††††††††† Just as a footnote, let me conclude by returning to my original point where I talked about the importance of the person within the context of Cistercian experience.

††††††††††† As I said, there are different doors to depth. One is immersed in the Cistercian milieu as a unique person. The life-style does not vary much, but the person within it should have a "face". It is not a faceless journey. The personal face of the journey can be called the soulscape. The soulscape is born in the heart of the person within the context of the spiritual journey. It is a journey within a journey. It is not something invented or artificially fabricated; it is a subjective, interior echo of the journey which unifies it, vivifies it, clarifies it.

††††††††††† The soulscape is bound to this landscape which is our Cistercian life, giving a soul to it. There is an affinity between the soulscape and the landscape - a secret connivance. The soulscape is the secret connivance between our own depth and the depth of the milieu.

††††††††††† Perhaps our challenge is double. We must do everything we can to respect and nurture our Cistercian life-style:

< to protect, as it were, the Cistercian landscape, to make sure it remains inviolate in all its integrity,

< while at the same time, allowing the unique person to emerge within and in virtue of this landscape as an integral part of the Cistercian reality.

††††††††††† Life-style becomes identity through this mysterious connivance of the soulscape and the landscape which enhances Cistercian experience.†††

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