Last Sunday I reviewed why the focus on St. Benedict’s teaching on the monastic virtue of humility is so apt for this moment of out community’s life. We have taken up the challenge to re-founding our community.
Holy Cross Abbey has existed for over sixty years. Most of those who were here in the days of the community’s foundation have gone to their reward. Those were years of rules and regulations, of uniformity of observance, of the assurance that if you keep the Rule, the Rule will keep you. It made for a superficial good order in the monastery’s functioning, very impressive when observed from outside. Vatican II and its Decree on the Renewal of Religious life (Perfectae charitatis) turned all that on its head; the General Chapters of renewal and experimentation followed from that.
For a young monk like myself, formed in the novitiate of the Book of Usages and Dom Vincent Lehodey’s Spiritual Directory, this was a heady time. I was enthusiastic to be part of this renewal of the Order. I had trusted that the men who were here when I entered in 1961 knew what they were talking about but that was before we had any idea of the effect Vatican II would have on us. During the years following the Council, I came to realize how great were the limitations of the practices into which I had been initiated to actually effect what they promised. Think of them: the Chapter of Faults, sign language, the ideal of hermits living in community or the 18th and 19th century spiritualities that had come to replace our 12th century patrimony. What had promised to lead to contemplation too often put pressure on the fault-lines of our vulnerabilities. I found myself trusting instead the leaders of the Order through the late 1960’s and ’70’s to bring us to this renewal that would set us on the right track again: not uniformity but unity and pluralism; not sign language but The Miracle of Dialogue (the actual title of a book we used here); not hermits in community but cenobites in solitude; not an enclosure grill in church but living witnesses to the Gospel before the world.
In the midst of all this, the voice I trusted most, Thomas Merton, died in 1968. In a way, his death gave a permanence to his message on the need for authentic renewal–not throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water as was threatening to happen in so many areas of the Church’s life. What Merton proposed was the vital need to choose wisely the means that would lead us to genuine and authentic monastic conversion in the spirit of the Cistercian Fathers. The writings of the 12th century monks, Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thierry, Aelred of Rievaulx and Guerric of Igny, were just beginning to be translated into English. We had just begun holding the United States Regional Meetings and seminars on Cistercian themes. We had a new Abbot General, Ambrose Southey of Mount St. Bernard, who spoke English–British English, but still a stunning shift in our French dominated Order. Monks from our communities were studying in Rome to qualify as professors in theology in their home monasteries; Fr. Edmund and I were sent to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. to prepare for ordination, rather than studying scholastic theology in Latin here in the house. It was a time of renewal. Fortunately our Order took its time drawing up our renewed Constitutions; when they were promulgated in 1990, the result was beyond any expectation that our previous legislation could prepare us for. We had a lot going for us. Except for one thing: the monks were still human beings with all the limitations and faults that complicate our good intentions for monastic renewal.
Being products of our society and our families, we acted in the monastery as we had been formed before we entered, growing up in the American Catholic ghetto. So it was that the ideal of monastic conversion and renewal had a lot of stumbling blocks in its path and we were only beginning to recognize that fact in the 1980’s and ’90’s! If grace builds on nature, according to the ancient truism, we were discovering that our natures were a bit flawed; and the formation before Vatican II seemed to have overlooked that fact. Recovering the teaching of the 12th century Cistercians as we also became aware of developments in psychology and other behavioral sciences, gave us a real shot at authentic monastic conversion. Our spirituality did not have to oppose healthy human development. That’s a big order and we are, of course, still at it.
The world around us today is going through an unprecedented expansion of knowledge based on communication that’s both global and instant; generally speaking, the world is unprepared and immature to use this progress responsibly. The price for all of this is enormous in terms of the loss of spiritual values and meaning in human life. Even in the monastery, we are not immune from this. We must keep this in our awareness.
Nonetheless, we at Holy Cross have set a goal for ourselves, a noble purpose at this point in our monastic history: we seek to re-found our house. And none too soon, I might add. The challenge of our precariousness has strengthened our resolve to embark on a community renewal. We have begun to communicate together as a community, something unimaginable sixty years ago. We have seen some progress. At times we stumble and fumble–which is to be expected and is not a problem provided we are willing to learn from our mis-steps mistakes and not repeat them. This is a learning process for us, whether individually or collectively. And we must allow each other to err and improve at our different rates, moving together as a whole while taking care to leave no one behind.
Awareness of my own limitations and weaknesses is the only way I can be sensitive to the weaknesses and limitations of the guy next to me–otherwise I’d all too readily leave him behind. Or when I, in turn, experience him sensitive to me and not leaving me behind, that affects my transformation more than anything I could possible accomplish on my own. I may join the monastery for my own reasons but that’s not why I stay. I stay in the monastery because I experience that I am helping and being helped to become what I joined for. And what is that? I think we find what that is in St. Benedict’s question about the newcomer to monastic life: “Is he truly seeking God?” Eventually we get the message that this is the question we face our entire monastic lives: Am I truly seeking God? Is trying to do it on my own the way to truly seek God? Is letting others make that effort while I follow my own interests to truly seek God?
We have the Gospels, such as the Sermon on the Mount. We have the St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries teaching us the way of humility; we have the Constitutions to support us in a society never envisioned by St. Benedict and the Cistercian Fathers. We have each other–if only we can begin to appreciate how essential we all are to our commitment to truly seek God. And may God bring us all together to everlasting life.
From a Chapter Talk by Abbot Robert, 9 February, 2014