COMMUNITY AS A SCHOOL OF CHARITY
(In the African / Malagasy context)
Charles Lwanga Kawesi
When the General Chapter of Poyo in 1993 dealt extensively with the delicate theme of our 'Contemplative Dimension', we all expected a lucid conclusion to emerge. Did the chapter Fathers reach any conclusion? Many monks and nuns wanted to know what exactly is our contemplative dimension in this century of compromises. There was a conclusion: the Abbot General put it with enthusiasm in his homily during the mass that concluded the Chapter: "... Has not the moment come to face our cenobitic reality as foundation, verification and manifestation of our contemplation"; one could as well say, "of our contemplative identity?". These words express the fundamental conclusion of the Chapter of our contemplative dimension. The whole contemplative dimension is the cenobitic reality which is Charity. The switch from the search for our contemplative identity to the reality of our cenobitic way of life was certainly inspired. In a word, Charity is the dimension or identity of a monastic community, more than that of any other christian community.
A monastic community is the school of charity, where charity is learnt, and it is itself the teacher of charity. But is charity foremost in the mind of Saint Benedict while establishing a monastery? He seemed to prefer to call it the School of Lord's service 'Dominici Schola servitii". Whereby humility and obedience are of great importance. However, he says that this school has to safeguard two major things: "The amendment of evil and the preservation of Charity". This shows how Charity is very fundamental in a Benedictine community, as in any christian community. This is what made the great Apostle meditate on love in his first letter to the Corinthians, "... I may give away everything I have, and even give up my body to be burnt - but i I have no love, this does me no good" (1 Cor. 13:3ff).
When I was asked to write a working paper on this theme of the forthcoming General Chapter, for the African and Madagascar Region, I had high hopes of orientating the theme solely in the context of our cultures. But I have found how difficult it is to threat such a subject of universal character in a limited context. Still it is always helpful to base oneself on a lived experience, a thing that I will do in this paper. I will try to express concretely how a monastic community is a school of Charity for an African and for a Malagasy.
As set up by the Central Commissions, this paper will be divided into three major parts: In the first part we shall consider our monastic vocation as a vocation of Charity, basing ourselves mainly on the Rule of Saint Benedict. Then we shall draw out the elements that help the unity in a community.
1. MONASTIC VOCATION: A VOCATION TO CHARITY
A Benedictine monastery journeys from earth to heaven by becoming a community (koinonia). So true is this, that the moment this communal unity is achieved, the community has already won its heavenly goal. This influenced the conclusion of the Rule of Saint Benedict, "and may He bring us all together into everlasting life" (RB 72:12). I would like to point out that Saint Benedict, though implicitly, sees monastic life as a growth in Charity. He admits that we may feel that the road is too narrow, but the truth is rather that our hearts are too narrow. When they expand with love, we shall find all the observances much easier. All discipline or ascetism is to promote love; and are not ends in themselves. The purpose of all Christian and monastic ascesis is simply love for neighbour and for God. Love is the end and it is also the way to the end.
But do African/Malagasy communities today live by this love, or even make it central in their self-theology? I believe that they do not, though this may surprise many who have sensed a smiling warmth in their visits. Few of our African or Malagasy communities see the reality of being called together by Love, of being communities of Love. Of course an African/Malagasy is very social, but this sociability is slow in being integrated into the reality of our faith, that is, in the fact that we are being called together by Love. The apparent warmth is far shallower than it seems, we can really be like a crowd of people forced to take the rush-hour subway together. Need or misfortune may be the only thing we have in common. It takes time for a community to grow in faith, to become a community of faith.
THE UNITY OF THE COMMUNITY
Christ is the foundation of unity in a community be it a European community or an African/Malagasy community. It is through Christ that we become God's family. At the African regional meeting in Israel, the superiors and delegates emphasized the importance of the family in our culture. For an African or Malagasy a family is not just a group where the members are accidentally together. A family is that place where a member feels or experiences acceptance and affirmation from the other members. In other words, a family is a moulding place where we learn to relate. And so for every christian, oriented towards love of God and neighbour, the family is a significant model, for every monk or nun. That is why the cenobitic way of life is in accord with our notion and living of family life. One could even say that Africa/Madagascar is a family culture. And it is from this reality that our region preferred to call monastic community a family. A family, like any religious community, is that group of people brought together by love, born out of love and existing for love alone. This demands a lot from every member, it demands an authentic mutual confidence, authentic relations, forgiveness and reconciliation, acceptance of differences, fraternal correction and finally dialogue and communication. I would like to expound some of these elements, which are required if community is to be a true School of Charity.
i) Authentic mutual confidence
There are many ways of approaching this mutual confidence. One can use a psychological, sociological approach. Since this paper is meant to be concrete, I will avoid any scholarly approach and try to present it in concrete terms.
For an African/Malagasy confidence is prompt and quasi-automatic. We generally have confidence in our brothers and sisters. We trust them in their vocation and undertakings. We tend to trust the other without any preoccupation of verifying the authenticity of the person in question.
But this confidence in Africa/Madagascar is very fragile despite its being very prompt. It lasts only for a short time, at least in manu cases. The African/Malagasy brothers and sisters have got one great weakness in mutual confidence, that is "pretence". A brother or sister will pretend that he or she has confidence in you, whereas he or she is feeling exactly the opposite. There is lack of openness in this area of our life. This way of acting is what happens when a culture attaches great importance on the group rather than to the person, which is the case in our cultures. A brother/sister will pretend to be friendly to you in order that you may not feel excommunicated from the group, just out of sympathy. Africans/Malagasy fear to blame (or condemn) anybody even if the fault is well known to them. Thus they have got a weakness or lack of openness towards their fellow brothers and sisters. This, of course, hinders growth in the community as a School of Charity.
ii) Forgiveness in a community
This element might be less worrying for an African/Malagasy, for we normally don't distinguish between what is sinful and what is not. Life is in any case a dynamic process with negative and positive elements. However, to refer to what Saint Paul says, the only sin is that committed against Charity.
Authentic forgiveness is hard to practice. Most of us, unconsciously, imagine the community as a perfect group of good people with no problem of relationships in order to make forgiveness a possibility. In reality, a community is that meeting place where, besides just living together, the members also reveal their weakness and their difficulties in loving one another daily; this makes it a constant need to receive and give forgiveness daily. It is very interesting to note that a group of persons who have nothing to forgive also have very little of Christianity.
Many of our African communities are facing quite a crisis in this period of their transition from a protected community under the founders, to an autonomous community under the indigenous brothers/sisters. During their time of formation, African brothers/sisters have had no difficulty in accepting themselves and others as well. But they remained children, imagining that a community must be perfect, instead of being a community called to perfection though falling short of it. The result has been frustrations and resentments. It is difficult for an African community to accept that its members have got limitations, faults and sins. Communion is not only a sharing in the vocation and in ideals but also a conviction that each needs the forgiveness or the other. Thus a community of brothers and sisters share the same mercy of the Father. No single community can be built or stay alive without a need for forgiveness. All the members must develop such a mentality and have an experience of it. Forgiveness is the heart of community life, be it African or European. The parable of a reconciled community is that of the Prodigal Son. In each community there are those who err and those who forgive, those who find it difficult to forgive and those who cannot forgive or who get irritated when they see others who are merciful. And we all have a little, now and then, of the prodigal son, of the elder brother and of the forgiving father in us.
But then, who disrupt the community? These are often not those who make mistakes and fall, but those who are rigid in their judgements and condemnations. They forget that they too make mistakes and that they have been forgiven.
The problem with African communities, however, is not that they don't see the mistakes, but the fact that they cannot correct them and forgive them.
iii) Fraternal correction
This is the evangelical commandment that is least practiced. We easily get indignant and scandalized, rebuking and scattering to the four winds the faults of our neighbour, but we find it difficult to correct and to receive correction from our brothers and sisters. Fraternal correction implies that we learn to live with evil - our own and that of others. While helping us to integrate evil, fraternal correction transforms our community life, making each of us an opportunity for salvation to the other. Individualism, which hinders fraternal correction is the origin of sin. We fear to correct the sins of our brothers, referring to the superior as the only person to do it, for fear of being hated. The decadence in the community starts the moment we are not aware of our responsibilities to the other. Where each is "for himself/herself and God for all". Peace might exist in such a community, because each does his own thing, and where, little by little, everything becomes private property, even God. This peace, I assure you, will not last long.
Fraternal correction is a way of growing together, of binding my life to that of my brother and sister, of seeing brotherhood/sisterhood as a salvific event, the theological milieu which brings home to us that we are both subjects and objects of redemption. Fraternal correction brings about a completely new dimension of interpersonal relationships. My brother or my sister is no longer just a travelling companion or some kind of colleague who lives in the next room, or even an intimate friend or an interesting or boring person who is easy or difficult to love... He/she is the one with whom I share a divine plan which neither of us can realize alone, without the other.
Deciding to walk together, to the extent of feeling responsible for the growth of the other, and therefore to rejoice in his/her goodness and regret his/her failures, that is what transcends fear, indifference, envy, rejection jealousy and attachments that are all too human.
Where shall I get the courage to intervene? Where shall I get the right words at the right moment? This is the question of many. All these tools of fraternal correction are to be obtained from "my personal experience as a sinner who has been judged and reconciled". Fraternal correction presupposes the conviction that the sin of my brother/sister is also mine. We should remember the saying from the Proverbs (3:13), "the Father rebukes those whom He loves".
Any community is supposed to be a community of relationships, and for this reason communication is of great importance. Here communication is not a sharing of ideas, events or facts about life, but a real interpersonal relationship in which communication is that act of sharing "myself" with the other. Communication is the lifeblood and heartbeat in a community. It is a real giving of self to the other, all other gifts are just tokens or sacraments of this sole gift of self.
African monks/nuns, though I may be wrong to generalize, have a big difficulty in really communicating. We fear to say who we are, lest we be misunderstood by those with whom we communicate. There is a strong superficiality of communication in African communities. Maybe community dialogues might be of help here.
2. THE PEDAGOGY IN THE SCHOOL OF CHARITY
On this point I would like to develop the notion of a superior in African society. A superior normally is not always one who is much learned, but an elder recognized by the group as having enough wisdom and experience to orientate that group towards its goal.
The relationship between the superior and his/her subjects is that of a father-son/daughter, a friend. In religious life this has created some problems as regards the authority of the superior; developing a family way of relating, it is difficult at times to act efficiently as a superior. The superior is a real animator of charity, and at times at the price of his authority.
3. THE EUCHARIST
The celebration of the Eucharist is the summit of the expression of a community as a School of Charity. It is in the Eucharist that the members of the community communicate with the source of love and its fulfillment. That is why Africans are ecstatic while in liturgical celebrations. In the Eucharist the whole community communicates with the Holy One, God, and with all the Saints, both living and dead, and on holy things.
I should note that Eucharistic celebrations in most African monasteries are dull and unappealing. There is little life, it is copied from the traditional doloristic way of celebrating in the monastery.
To conclude I should say that such a subject, so vast as it is, can only be treated with limitations in a paper that is destined to inspire our communities in redacting their house reports.
In the community as a School of Charity, Africa has got a speciality of joy in the cloisters, people always smiling. You rarely find people with sad faces. They are welcoming with warm hearts. There is a need for others. An African exists because of the community, in a word, it is the community which preceeds the individual and not the individuals preceeding the community.
As for what hinders our communities from being authentic Schools of Charity, there is a lack of authenticity and openness. We Africans, still have a certain inferiority as regards our spiritual maturity. We need affirmation from our founding fathers from the developed continents. Finally, being still young communities, there is a lack of personnel for the necessary activities, a cause of continual absence of certain brothers, which reduces the strength of a community.
Let us hope and pray that God will continue to send us His Spirit of love so that we may have a total understanding of our vocation, of our christian way of life.
Fr. Charles Lwanga KAWESI
Our Lady of Victory Abbey