CONFERENCE OF DOM PLACIDO
Monasterio S. María la Real de Oseira
Reflections on the "Contemplative dimension" in our monasteries
As I embark upon these reflections it is incumbent upon me to point out that the use of the word "dimension" is intentional. Under the actual circumstances I consider it more apt, since "identity" is something which I do not place in doubt, and which is sufficiently defined in our Rule, our Constitutions, in the tradition of the Order and in the Definitions of our General Chapters.
All of this is an obligatory point of reference, which must be set up over against - community and individual-wise - the response of daily living, whose very nature must show forth in a transparent manner that we are referring to, in effect, a life integrally ordered to contemplation. That is, these Documents, in harmoniously structuring our contemplative life, will do nothing more than reflect back to us a species of "likenesses". They are a mirror in which we contemplate our "identity". And this, I repeat, I do not place in doubt.
2. The expression of our identity: Christ
Therefore, when we, in our monasteries, face the contingencies of each day with simplicity, we make the joyful discovery of which St.Bernard wrote: " There were also the disciples, the intimates and inseparables: these are the ones who have chosen the better part and live consecrated to God in the cloister, identified with Him and ready to do his will" (Ram 2,5)
Identified with Him! Here we find described what all of monastic tradition wishes to attain : continual prayer. Here is laid out, in a spirit of blessedness, the fullness of the law of Christ: the love of God and of the brethren. Here, consequently, will there be accomplished in us those words St.Paul said of himself: " I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal 2,19-20). Words which he spoke, also, in exhortation: "Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus" (Phil 2,5).
3. Dimension, witness of life
This Pauline exhortation situates us at the level of the concrete, of the practical, of the day-to-day. That is, on the same plain as dimension: our identity with Christ must be extended and diffused along all the elements of life, which for us, as cistercian monks, is summed up " in fraternal union, in solitude and silence, in prayer and in work, and a disciplined life" (C.7).
That is why assimilation into Christ is incomprehensible if not manifested in some way in the life of the monk, for it is the love of Christ that impels us ( Cf 2 Cor 5,14). Thus, for example, when we direct our attention towards our Founders, we hear how is was said of St.Alberic that he was a lover of the Rule and of the brethren; and of St.Stephen, that he loved the Rule and the place.
What does all this say to us? That the cistercian contemplative life is incomprehensible without a true love of the brothers, or unless one finds one's peace and happiness within the walls of the monastery, without having to seek diversions or compensations in order to distance oneself from cenobitic life. That is, contemplative life, given that it is to spring from the same love of Christ, will seek this love in the fullest way possible via an intense and joyous ascesis of self-gift, of a search for the well-being of the other, of detachment, etc.....It is in this way that the "dimension" expresses and manifests that which constitutes contemplative life.
4. Our actualization
Nevertheless we realize that the love of God does not always reach its fullness in us. Rather, we see that in a great part of our monasteries, there is a certain paucity of spiritual life. Some judge - and of this much is said nowadays - that it is due to the insufficient practice of lectio divina. Personally, however, although I admit that this could be one of the principle causes, I do not believe it is the only factor.
From my own experience of more than fifty years of monastic life, and of being close to the different phases gone through by the Order in these recent times, I can say that the best exemplars of life I have found have been among the former laybrothers, who, nevertheless, did not dedicate an inordinate amount of time to lectio. Their life, rather, came down to work, silence, and prayer. But, what charity! what simplicity! what joyful expressions on their faces! It is in them that I have been really able to contemplate the true claustral paradise.
Undoubtedly there have also been some really contemplative monks and abbots. I could cite Dom Vital Lehodey, Dom Godofredo Belorgey, abbot of Citeaux, Dom Gabriel Sortais, Thomas Merton, and certainly others whom I do not know, and others whom I do not mention because they are still living. But, considering our unique monastic mode, we should expect to have a greater number of really exemplary lives.
5. The Spirit, gift of life
When we review the elements of cistercian contemplative life: stability, conversion of life, obedience, fraternity, liturgical celebration, lectio divina, vigils, silence, ascesis, work, simplicity ...., elements all of which are of an eminent vitality and of a profound dimension, one can ask oneself what is the key that would lead to the avoidance of a life of superficiality, stemming from a lukewarm spirituality and, consequently, resulting in a general impoverishment.
We know, of course, that this life hidden with Christ in God (Cf Col 3,3) is not simply a question of effort, because we are well aware that the mere fact of raising water to the lips does not produce thirst; nor does the act of remaining in bed lead to sleep. In the same way it is not enough to draw up a permanent formulation, increasingly wide ranging and proportionate, because neither can a book impart wisdom. Useless, as well, to intensify the regular observances of themselves, because it is only " the Spirit who gives life" (Jn 6,63).
In no way do I intend to demean or under-evaluate personal effort, careful preparations or sincere regular observance. I simply wish to stress that we are concerned with means which, only if there first exists docility to the Spirit who orientates us to " attain purity of heart and the continual mindfulness of God's presence " (C.3,2), will then be efficacious.
6. Humility, manifestation of docility
This "limitless dimension" is what makes comprehensible for us, as well as our own experience, that God's action is always distinctly original in each case, for God is not limited by prefabricated molds nor fixed standards of conduct.
This does not imply, however, that our journey to God is accomplished by leaps, nor can we sit back with our arms crossed.
In a communitarian life, where all are called to mutual care (cf C.16,2), it is important to remember something we are advised to do: " We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works.
This is exactly what St.Bernard exhorts us to in one of his sermons: always be attentive to the better thing, eager and desirous of spiritual grace, considering how much and how better are others and what we lack, because in all this - he concludes - consists authentic humility (cf Pent.3,3). And here we cannot fail to note that the example he gives to his hearers is that of a laybrother!
If I have said that it is in the more humble that I have seen the grace of the Lord shining in a palpable manner, it is because I think that humility, simplicity, which make us depend wholly on Him, are the only means given us to be docile before the Spirit and attract his grace.
7. The desire for God
However, to generate in us this character of simplicity, as one of the great theological virtues necessary for the development of our spiritual life, it is necessary to awaken and nurture a true taste for the Lord and maintain the desire for God. How? Truly, if we could find the way in which to firmly implant in ourselves the hunger for God, we will have found the philosopher's stone, and contemplative graces would flood our communities. But here we move in the mysterious realm of faith, in which we are warned that it depends not upon a person's will or exertion, but upon God who shows mercy (cf Rom 9,16). And this we can only implore with the strength given by the Consoler.
8. In conclusion
This same Spirit will teach us that there is always a room for improvement; that there is always a Gospel to discover and to live; and that the search for the mystery of God in Christ is unending.
The strength of the Spirit that comes from on high thus penetrates us through the rich mystery that is continual prayer: in which one's converse with God is unending, because he who wishes to know Christ, and him crucified (cf 1 Co 2,2), is not content with just being a hearer of the word, but seizes upon it, in the firm hope that since his life consists in living the Gospel, he will inevitably become an evangelist who "by a life that is ordinary, obscure and laborious" (C.3,5), continues writing today and proclaiming the joy of the Good News: having found the treasure hidden in the field, he puts nothing and no one before God, nor His word, nor to the response thereof.
A response that manifests itself in availability and service towards all his brothers, for we discover and know ourselves to be DEPENDENTS OF GOD, who is HE WHO GIVES, WHO DOES AND WHO SAYS ALL THINGS WELL.