Dom M. Patrick, Abbot of Sept-Fons
For a monk to question himself on his identity is an exercise fraught with ambiguity. Is he looking for a reason for his existence, does he want to deepen his self-knowledge or does he simply wish to take stock of his situation at a certain moment of his life? We could also ask this of the monastic community. When it tries to define its identity, is it because it feels it is losing it, is it to understand it better, is it to strengthen its cohesion or its dynamism? Speaking here I do not intend to answer these questions. If however my suggestions bear some elements of a reply they won’t have completely missed their point.
Conformed to Christ by the grace of baptism, we can say with St. Paul (Eph. 4:24) that this grace makes us new persons and we can say that at the same time it makes us sons (cf. Rom. 8: 14ff). To be precise, it is by reconciliation with God our Father that we are made new persons in the image of Christ. It is reconciliation with ourselves that makes us capable of becoming truly sons in the Son, while reconciliation with others makes us capable of being truly brothers in Jesus Christ.
For us, this conformation-reconciliation is achieved in our implementation of the call we have received, in the vocation to the monastic life in the school of Cîteaux. The “Cistercian grace” will give a particular form and colour to our way of becoming new persons, sons and brothers. I would like to take hold of this Cistercian grace that constitutes our identity at the place where it springs up, as close as possible to its historical source, which is the Rule of Saint Benedict. I consider this grace first of all as a manner of living the Rule with faithful intelligence. Doing this will enable us to develop at the same time the necessary creativity and a courageous prudence which is free from naivety. In these conditions life according to the Rule will be for us the sure road to conformity to Christ.
I shall say a few words about this journey with regard to the community first of all, then with regard to the abbot and lastly regarding those who enter on our life. Speaking of grace, I shall inevitably speak of temptations, and if I mention concrete situations, it goes without saying that this is by way of illustration and not as examples to be followed.
The collection of persons of assorted age, temperament and origins, which normally constitutes a Cistercian community, is a challenge to the laws of ordinary common sense. Instead of automatically levelling out the difficulties which seem capable of it, in our search for a visible homogeneity - such as grouping together persons of the same generation, or those with similar points of view or a common history, - it could be said that a mischievous roll of the dice infinitely multiplies differences, even contradictions, as if to invite us to look further (higher, deeper?) for the motive of our presence together in one place. Certainly, as St. Benedict clearly shows us (cf. Prologue), it is the grace of vocation that brings us together, but we can only understand this by placing it in the context of the more radical grace of our renewal in Christ by baptism. There also need to be concrete means of expressing and establishing a true fraternity. I would give first place here to the customs of the common life that make fraternity specific and channel and orient the emotions. If these customs are badly lived they cause sclerosis, but if we know how to use them they are a real means of renewal. However, if a community of monks does not break up at the first clash of opinions, if it successfully resists the persistent attacks of the forces of disintegration which work on it from inside and outside, this is primarily and principally because it realises that it is made up of men who, in spite of their miseries, are deeply (perhaps, indeed, at times a little too deeply!) renewed by Christ. These new men, although dependent on the old man who lives in them, know that what unites them is greater than what divides them and that life is stronger than death. They live in Hope, badly or sadly but nevertheless truly. They thus overcome all obstacles which the “wise” might think would crush them. The vitality of a community is without doubt a sign of the growth of the Cistercian grace in it, but perseverance in trial is the sure sign that the brothers are growing in conformity to the Christ of the Passion and Resurrection.
Living under a Rule and an abbot, Cistercian monks accept to see their divine adoption “in the image of the Son” (Rom. 8: 29) realised in their relation with the abbot, and in a certain sense discerned by it. This involves both opportunity and risk. It involves opportunity, since this relationship makes possible a more precise and clear perception of the filial relationship with our God and Father, which could otherwise remain merely theoretical. It involves risk, since either by reacting to the ever-present danger of paternalism or by misplacing the accent on sentimentality, we could fall into a caricature of filiation which will sooner or later be rejected, or into a so-called autonomy which in fact hides a difficulty of living balanced relationships. It is clear that we have here a wide field for growth in conformity to Christ, that is, to nurture a correct relationship with the abbot which will give rise to balance on a personal and community level. It means keeping a balance free of both tension and neglect, since through it there is a grace that develops or becomes weaker in each person.
The Benedictine model of community has been understood differently at different times. Today we are accustomed to consider the monastic community as a fraternity and not as a group of autonomous individuals who must rub against one another as little as possible, or as a reproduction of the Roman type of “familia”. This is unquestionably a contribution of our times. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to imagine that the passage from a human fraternity to fraternity in Jesus Christ is something “natural”. There again, though a human fraternity can offer a field which is favourable to grace, it can also close the door to grace. An author once made the distinction between “psychic” communities and “spiritual” ones (i.e. that are open to the Spirit of God). If we wish to become more and more conformed to Christ, we cannot escape a conversion of our fraternal life. We have to welcome without fear all that our human riches can muster to promote our relationships, but also to accept a love that cannot be sustained by feelings. Little by little we have to acquire a true personal autonomy, to prove that fraternal love is received as well as given with the hope that no rupture is total and that we can always deepen fraternity through it.
It is clear, at least I hope it is, that the abbot like all the brothers has to become a new man in Christ. Fundamentally he does so by taking the same steps as his brothers. However, the service he renders in the community offers him, and in a certain sense imposes on him, ways that may or may not be for his growth. The new man grows interiorly and then influences others. It could be that this influence remains quite weak, but it is very important for the abbot that it not be too weak! The brothers need to know that the abbot is fragile and tempted as they are. They also need to see that he is doing his utmost to make his actions correspond to his words. Effort and continual interior renewal are needed to reduce to the minimum his facade of good behaviour, to eliminate his artificial attitudes and his droned clichés, to develop a real freedom from fashions - even spiritual ones. It is a despairing program if he relies on his own resources, but it becomes a road of growth if he opens himself to the grace that makes all things new and unifies the heart.
To be a father while remaining a son is for the abbot an unstable balance, which he is not always sure of keeping as well as he ought. It is not easy for him to discern how to occupy a position of authority without ceasing to recognize his dependence. It is very difficult to find a middle way between the paternalism denounced above and the abdication of his basic responsibilities. If the abbot is not conscious of being a son in the Son, if he has not a filial attitude to God his Father, how can he in his turn exercise paternity without suffocating others? Either he may behave as a domestic tyrant (thank God the race seems to be extinct or on the road to extinction!), or he may leave everything to be done by others, confusing delegation with irresponsibility. Moreover, if relations between himself and the brothers never go beyond material matters or mere friendliness, he will not be able to find the right attitude, which is only possible in a spiritual context. There is a vast terrain here for continual conversion that contributes as well to the balance of the members of the community!
Although the abbot has to find his right place as father, he is and remains a brother to his brothers. This is the point to make clear, and it is not easy! Brother does not mean ”buddy” and there is still a great temptation to think that we could abolish all difficulties by making them the same. We have to say first of all that distance is a necessary component of the relationship and thus it is only insofar as each one keeps his clearly defined place that we will avoid confusion and the uneasiness that results from it. Only this clarity of the situation will protect the abbot from respect of persons, that pestilence of relationships (RB 34). Certainly he can be free in his personal relationships, but not to the extent that it affects the whole community. The grace of a true fraternity is fragile and precious. Its usual traits are peace, patience, simple joy and kindness. If the abbot radiates these he grows together with his brothers in conformity to Christ who is gentle and humble of heart.
Obviously, time is needed to establish these behaviours. There is a French saying: “Time does not respect what happens instantaneously”. This is true for the personal attitudes of the abbot, and especially for his relations with his brothers which are counted in years, ages or even decades.
Those who Enter the Monastery
It sometimes happens that unbaptised persons come to the monastery. Whatever problems such a situation can pose in other ways, I see in it a concrete illustration of the deep continuity between the Christian and the monastic vocations. The new man we put on at baptism finds a powerful means of growing and becoming stronger in the call to the Cistercian life. But often those who come to us, even persons who have been baptised, have only a limited awareness of this continuity. So they have to discover what they are - with their own riches and limitations - and this does not happen without suffering. This discovery is only useful and even possible if it is carried out in the light of grace. To see the old man and the new man living together in ourselves demands both faith and clarity. It is the one who has been redeemed and saved who recognizes and accepts his misery and his good qualities. Without this clarity and an intelligent growth process one runs the risk of despair and disappointment. To help a modern person to enter our life, and therefore to become more of a new man, involves much patience, clear-headedness and selflessness. We sometimes share in a true adventure of grace, but also in disasters that are painful for all concerned.
We are often - even very often - confronted by persons whose course is “stormy”. Family, experiences, acquaintances, in each area we find grave obstacles. It is difficult for them to realise that a relationship with God the Father that makes us his sons is possible. They have few points of reference that are not negative. The very words are a snare since they do not apply to comparable realities. Are we to give up and think that our vocation has no future in a society like this? In my opinion this would be to sin against Hope. Certainly, we need to use our imagination to find ways whereby the grace which has caught up with these persons can continue to carry them along in our life. My experience here is that it is in no way a matter of “lowering the price” in order to sell a “commodity”, but, what is more difficult, of discerning whether our vocation truly corresponds with God’s designs for these persons just as they are. We see here the importance of what St. Benedict calls “a senior who is skilled in winning souls” (ch.58). The vocation of every Christian is to become a son and it is this that makes him a balanced person. For those whom God leads to us, the Cistercian monastery can truly be the way to achieve this.
It is not surprising that a community can attract persons who are in need - often cruelly in need - of true relationships, either to take them out of an individualistic isolation or to escape being suffocated by a false community. But becoming a brother is no easier than becoming a son. To pass from an attitude of one who benefits positively from the common life to one who shares in it actively demands an effort and a self-transcendence sometimes unknown to those from whom it is required. Here again we can see that fraternal life is a gift on another plane than that of our own efforts or of a good education. Without neglecting either of these, we must keep alive the awareness that we have been made brothers rather than having made ourselves brothers. It is true for those who are already in the community and even more true for those entering. However, it is not easy to make them realise this. To be conformed to Christ they too must agree to receive the gift and be shaken up by it in order to make true progress.
These few notes thrown together here have approached the question only from a very limited angle, the description of a few concrete situations. We should add the teaching of the spiritual authors of our tradition, the role of the liturgy and of work, etc... I just hope that I have shown that whatever stage we have reached in Cistercian life and whatever position we occupy in the community, there is only one profound dynamism that can inspire us, namely to receive and to seek this grace of conformity to Christ which makes us what we are, Benedictine monks and nuns in the Cistercian tradition. It seems to me that herein lies the true source of the unity of persons, of communities and of different communities with one another. Here too, in my opinion, is what guarantees the fruitfulness that our way of life has always offered and the attraction it can still exercise today.
Br. M. Patrick
Abbot of Sept-Fons