This morning we celebrated, as is celebrated in every Trappist community throughout the world, the Mass of the Holy Spirit to support the opening of the General Chapter. The General Chapter is composed of the superiors of all our communities–the government of our Order–with elected delegates or representatives from each Region of the Order, and the Abbot General with his Council (the delegates usually have no voting rights in the Chapter).
I don’t know whether one can say that one Chapter is more important than another–since the Capitulants began discussing the precariousness of the Order as we entered the new millennium, the agenda has been very concrete and crucial to every community. This Chapter will be fine-tuning the criteria for closing a community and the procedure; the current legislation, based on numbers, finances and the two-thirds consent of a community to close, has been proving inadequate in practice. For example, a community may be financially secure and sufficiently numerous, but too old and infirm to actually maintain monastic practices; or a small, financially struggling community may be living a very vital monastic life. The work of this Chapter is as important for our present as for our future.
Perhaps one very important characteristic of our Chapters in the Twenty-First Century is a certain humility. We admit we have problems and do not have facile solutions. Even when I entered the monastery forty years ago, there were still islands of thought or attitude with a chip on our shoulder about being a “higher calling” than other forms of consecrated life, a real pride in out “toughness” (though much mitigated since the 1960’s) and a sense of competition between our houses. Which was the greatest monastery? Who did the monastic thing best?
Like the Catholic Church in general, we’ve been humbled by our statistics. We can’t hide behind appearances or spin. I think, as a result, we are now very blessed and, with triumphalism deflated, we can get on with the pastoral business of helping each other live this wonderful, humbling, impossible vocation.
As we began the Mass at about 7:27 AM, I was fully aware, given the difference in time between Berryville Virginia and Assisi, Italy (where the Chapter convenes) that the first session of the Chapter was already over and the participants had probably already eaten lunch. But it was the start of our new day and time is a relative phenomenon, after all. Perhaps the more dramatic contrast is that, as our elected representatives in the Federal Government meet today on Capitol Hill, I would wager that none of them are giving the General Chapter a thought or even know about it. On the scale of human history, I’d wager that no future history in book will refer to the 2017 General Chapter of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. The problems of racism in the United States, the ultimate fate of DACA, the nuclear threats of North Korea or the war in Afghanistan will not be settled at our General Chapter.
The General Chapter is not the most important thing in the world. But then, it is a governing body of ethnically diverse people, of men and women, working together as equals, still capable of listening and compromising to aim at the common good. Right now, any large body of very different people trying to pull together and learn from one another, knowing the futility of attempting to be “greater” than everyone else, honestly working from our problems and flaws, has to be a real contribution to our mixed-up world.