Adequate formation in relation to culture and our time

Mère Geneviève-Marie of Echourgnac

To do the work of pedagogy in the School of Charity is:

* to interest oneself in a person capable of receiving teaching,

* to seek suitable means to reach the desired goal,

* to be able to prove, by very specific criteria, that these means are good,

* to lead this person to the full exercise of his liberty by definitive commitment.

This programme can only be realised in a given time and culture. It comprises :

- a pedagogy of initiation

- a pedagogy of transformation


The one who comes to the monastery gives proof of an inner force pushing him to leave a family, a career..., to knock on the door of the monastery, and to ask to enter in order to change his life. The pedagogue is led first of all to consider this force of the "noviter veniens", before discerning the motivations of the decisive acts he has just performed. It must be said that there is, at the start of monastic life, a force, a thrust, which has to be taken into account. Saint Benedict even counsels that the intensity and duration of this thrust should be measured, by being pushed to the maximum. How? By refusal! ... And if this term seems a little strong, it is only echoing the negation that appears in the first verse of chapter 58 of the Rule: "Do not grant newcomers to the monastic life an easy entry", to have true life, eternal life (Prol.17).

This first refusal may seem today rather symbolical, but it is not rare that the newcomer is sent away to wait for a longer or shorter time, that his liberty of choice might grow.

The first truly pedagogical act, the first educative action, is thus written into this barrier that has to be overcome. It is the first experience of purification for the newcomer to enter by the door of humility, of endurance, of patience... since the door of a school of charity cannot be other than a narrow door. The quality and the accuracy of this first contact seem to me important. There is already here a decisive and clear manner of entry into a new life, a pedagogy of initiation, one might say. It is necessary from the very beginning to make proof by trial. The newcomer is led to deepen his own questioning, perhaps to lose his assurance, to increase his intimate desire to follow the One who is calling him. This first refusal is, as it were, the blow needed to make his heart ring and to measure the resonances of his soul.


* The experience of refusal

This pedagogy of initiation is a pedagogy of taming. It is uncomfortable for the disciple, and even more so for the master who has the responsibility of adapting it to the person. He must play his first act with love, for only love can "tame" the person for Jesus. He must also have a positive and disinterested regard for the one who comes and who carries in his heart the Mystery of the God who dwells within him and calls him by name. As for the newcomer, he should allow himself to be received not with a blind and hardly constructive effusion, but by a purifying act which begins to make of him a disciple of the Master who is meek and humble of heart. This goes against the mentality of today which gives a blind importance to the emotions. These emotions, an essential part of the human being, have to be educated.

The novice thus finds that he is led from the beginning of his monastic life to discover that the school of the Lord's service is a school of charity where he cannot feel at first completely at home. For this school of Love draws him and escapes him because it is the work of God; it stands by its transcendental dimension on which human weakness leans; it speaks of the Mystery of the alliance between what is of the divine and what remains poor and sinful(1).

* The experience of distance

After the experience of refusal comes the experience of distance. Taming needs distance of space and time. "He should...stay in the guest quarters for a few days. After that, he should live in the novitiate, where the novices study, eat and sleep."(2) This distance can arouse in the newcomer a disappointment, since contemporary society cultivates immediacy in consumerism, in pleasure, it reduces distances to the point of fusion, even confusion. It is in this place of separation, the novitiate quarters, and taking the necessary time, that the determination he showed on asking to enter will be carefully tested.

This distance regarding time and place is also accompanied by a distance with regard to activity, to responsibilities and to relationships. The newcomer will learn to go through a period of mourning and to live this separation in a conscious manner(3).

The one who persisted in knocking in order to change his life, will have to persist in living (in the true sense, since he is being led in a house) in distance and in waiting, actively working to know himself, through the various degrees of truth, until his request is well matured and conformed to the school of charity.

* The experience of the need of grace

- What do you ask?

- The Mercy of God and of the Order.

To ask for mercy is an eloquent act on the part of the one who has persisted up to now. This implies the path down into himself which distance and time have permitted... with the help of the formator. This implies appeals hurled at the Saviour(4). It implies also the discovery of compassion as the basis of fraternal relations.

* A senior and the Rule

To enable this descent into the depths, the initial pedagogy proposes as means <<a Senior>> and <<the Rule>>.

Saint Benedict describes the pedagogue of the school of charity as being "skilled in winning souls". Perhaps today we could translate this expression as: "skilled in relationships", a person who gives and inspires confidence, a watcher and a stimulator at one and the same time?

Alongside the senior, and inseparable from him, there is the Rule. The senior "skilled in winning souls" must also be <<skilled in making the Rule loved>>. Repeated reading of the Rule will play a part in this pedagogy of taming and will make of it a mirror of confrontation, a means of transformation and of confirmation.


The pedagogy of the Rule gives an important place to observation and discernment: "Let him examine carefully whether the novice is truly seeking God."

* Ad quid venisti?

The being put to the trial at the start, the work of mourning, enable the heart to be sounded: where is the desire of the newcomer rooted? In the desert he is crossing, he begins to pose the crucial question which will resound at every stage of his life: "Ad quid venisti?" This questioning must reach the depths of the person, even down to the source of his being, like a plumb-line which, descending, cuts through the masks, sifting the components of the person: memory, will, affections... The pedagogue follows this descent, and the novice, by opening his heart, tries to express to him this new and sorrowful journey that is being accomplished in the depths of his being. Normally, in the best cases, both have access to this treasure: God murmurs a unique name and awaits the response of a freedom. It is only at the end of the descent that master and disciple are able to declare authentic the search for God. Then they know something of the peace that surpasses all things: the certitude that it is truly God who has pushed the disciple to come and persist in his demand.

* Eagerness

But the search for God in this School of Charity should also be marked by specific criteria: an eagerness for <<the Work of God, for obedience and for humiliations(5)>>

It is this eagerness (and Saint Benedict is not content to speak of simple dispositions or predispositions) which little by little will give form to the novice.


To consent to allow oneself to be educated, is to consent to receive one's FORM, that is to say, one's own Cistercian countenance, one's image-likeness of God. Now, the Form is Christ, who, according to the Hymn to the Philippians, being found in the form of God, takes the form of a slave. It is to Him that one must conform oneself in order to be transformed, partaking of his glory after having shared in his humiliation(6).


Our Constitutions are well aware that all the means necessary to live and remain in the School of Charity "are not human skills, and cannot be learned from human masters." (C.45, 2) Why ? because they give primacy to the experience of Faith, founded on the Christ and the Gospel which surpass all cultures. This is not an obstacle to monasticism since it permeates it through and through, even if in itself it is a reality lived within a culture(7).

This profound view can only be written and rooted in the Resurrection of Christ who transcends place, time, modes of life and cultures. It seems to me that there is something analogouswith the saying of Pascal : "Man surpasses man".(8)

This pedagogy of transformation, if it would be "adequate" in relation to our the culture and to our time, must put the accent on kenosis(9). It was clear to me that for the novices of whom I had charge, to live this aspect of the Mystery of Christ required at the same time the most necessary and the most costly effort. But the novice can only engage in this effort if the Father Master and the Community accompany him on this path of renunciation.


Why the kenosis ? Because it is the path indicated by Saint Benedict : " We shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom" (RB, Prol 50). This is all we have to let the beginner see, but all of it, without hiding it.

Another reason ? Because it was the way taken by all our first Fathers. "The first lesson in this School of Charity will be Jesus Crucified, a lesson which will last all through life."(10)

The young person who enters the monastery is put in contact with a formative milieu which enables him little by little to understand that he must become as empty, as obedient as God became for him, and at the same time discover the things that encumber him: not only the passions which plunge their roots deep in his heart, but also everything that he has accumulated through the surrounding culture, because it is above all with this culture of post-modernity that he is impregnated, this culture from which he now distances himself in order to make a choice, by learning to think of it as at the same time a partner and an adversary.

* Confronted with simplicity

He is confronted with simplicity, with renunciation. To pass from the company of the idols of having: money, comfort, consumerism, to a sober, ordinary, basic life-style, could bring about shock. The kenosis will enable him to operate this shift from having to being.

* Confronted with suffering

He is confronted with what has a taste of suffering: obedience, patience, renunciation of one's own will in all its forms, which seem to him intolerable, because the present culture rejects the cross and all that is negative (accident, illness, discomfort, conflict...).

* Confronted with oblation

He is confronted with oblation. He learns to seek not what is helpful to him, but what is helpful to another. Now, our epoch proclaims the achievement of the individual in the search for pleasure, emotions, well-being. The only sin would be not to seek pleasure.

It is only in renouncing this faculty of enjoyment that he can offer himself every instant to God, to the other.

In this real combat, which is painful, should we not then encourage the disciple to let himself be stripped, to say simply to God : "Lord, take my spirit and my will, and purify them", teach him to call on the sweet hand of Mary ?


More than anyone in the community, the Father Master is led to empty himself of himself

* to become more interior

* to listen and to speak a word

* to discern

not only what he should say to each one, but also what he should ask him; to recognise the moment when he should be patient and when he should make demands.

It is by emptying himself of himself that he will come to broaden his faculties of understanding, of adaptation, of creation, for it is impossible to enlarge the soul of another if one does not enlarge one's own. To transmit Life, one must first of all experience it oneself.


The community can only be formative if it welcomes in order to transmit what it has received and also what does not come from itself but from elsewhere. For life to circulate freely from one member to the other, we must have hearts of the poor, forged over a long period by the hard labour of hearing of the Word, of mutual obedience and of forgiveness. The transmission which comprises this giving-receiving comes through kenosis.

The welcoming community is confronted :

* with the strangeness of the other

* with the questioning of the other

* with its own fragility

The young person comes from a world so different from its own ! The work of the kenosis will be to abandon the "a priori", to try to understand, to have confidence, to recognise the values and the limitations of the young people and their culture.

In the last analysis, this welcome, this transmission, will result in a fraternal charity which reaches its culminating point in the ceremony of profession where the young professed sings his <<suscipe>> three times, to which the community immediately responds. We can receive one another because we have first been received by God. This is what is proclaimed at each profession : "Receive me...into the School of Charity" one might say. And to signify that this School is not a vague collective, but a communion of persons, of pardoned sinners,united to God and to one another, the newly professed kneels before each member of the community, asks him to pray for him and embraces him. The kenosis of the disciple, the kenosis of the community open on to Communion. The newly professed may then become brother to all men, without distinction of time or culture.

1. We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2 Co 4,7)

2. Rule of Saint Benedict (58, 5)

3. As Fr. Armand VEILLEUX emphasises: To go through this mourning... is of the utmost importance for the rest of monastic life...It would be a grave error to fill up these first days... with numerous activities... to "occupy" the postulants. (Reflections on monastic formation, AIM Bulletin, 1995, no 59, p. 25)

4. The spiritual master should lead the disciple to cry for help to Christ the Saviour. The novice must of necessity discover from his own experience the need of Grace. (Father Charles DUMONT, Sagesse ardente, p. 308)

5. <<Humiliations>>being understood as humility of heart in the face of upsetting circumstances.

6. <<Transformamur cum conformamur>>: this expression seems to me to be the key to the doctrine of S. Bernard on formation. (C. DUMONT, Sagesse ardente, p. 318 )

7. Cf. Dom A. VEILLEUX, Culture et monachisme (Canadian MRM, August 1992, Annex 6)

8. M. Jean Marie said this very clearly last year, at the beginning of her conference at the Canadian Region: I think that an adequate formation to the cenobitic life, in relation to our culture and our time, would not be so different from that of every time, since it is essentially a question of depth, which is an invariable constant. (Canadian MRM, August 1995, Annex 5)

9. The word KENOSIS refers us to the incarnation of Jesus (Ph 2) who took on himself the whole of humanity to divinise it. It expresses the foundation of our monastic consecration.

10. Father Charles DUMONT, Sagesse ardente, p. 275