COMMUNITY, SCHOOL OF CHARITY

 

                                                         Monica Della Volpe

 

1. HISTORY

 

1.1 Experience

 

Here is a synthesis of the main elements of the school of charity based on the experience of one who came to the monastery during the years 1970-1980:

* A community open to welcoming new generations, with the questions and challenges they brought with them.

* A community not yet in a position to be able to understand these challenges, but one which could integrate the newcomers thanks to the presence in the community of what we would call today a "culture of life": the capacity to welcome every person who comes with respect, love and interest, helping each to live, to grow, and to be converted. This dynamic showed itself to be stronger than the opposing tendencies towards self protection and exclusion, which were also present.

* A community which could integrate into itself that which was different because it has a solid identity, stemming from a vision of deep faith, from which flowed an appreciation of its own vocation and a certain heartfelt fidelity to it. The sisters weren't  impeccable in their observance, just the opposite, but they loved their way of life, their home, their sisters, and their Mother.

* Essential in these years was the role of the Abbess, who confronted the challenges offered by young people with those values of tradition, of which the seniors were the bearers.

The criterion of discernment and of constant purification of both young as well as of old was attained in the confrontation with the word which the Spirit was speaking to the Church, a word that above all was heard in documents of the Magisterium and of the Order.

 

1.2 The basis

 

What made this experience possible? The only teacher of charity is the Church, the only storehouse is the Eucharist, the only school is the concrete community, in which the mystery of ecclesial communion is lived.

In the initial ecclesiology of communion of Vatican II (in particular in PC 15) and in the Cistercian texts which we were in the process of rediscovering (fundamentally the Treatise on the Common Life of Baldwin of Ford) we already had everything; we had only to become aware of these riches and to make them available. This task is now done, and the Order has followed the path set out by the Church. We have in the Constitutions and in the documents of the magisterium (particularly in Fraternal life in Community), the ecclesiological framework for a theology of the monastic community, which was almost totally lacking during the previous centuries, and which permits us to see the community under the aspect of school of charity.  This provides great security. The communities can now have recourse to these documents to continue along their way.

 

1.3   The Urgent Task Ahead of Us

 

Why is it necessary and urgent to rediscover the community as a school of charity? In order to recover the great synthesis which characterizes Cīteaux: the equilibrium between the objective element (tradition, patrimony, structure) represented by the community-church and the subjective element: the person who receives it, with all his or her unique characteristics and liberty. In fact, in the historical experience of Cīteaux this equilibrium manages to develop to the maximum the possibilities of the person, both building up and at the same time consolidating unity. The cultural role which Cīteaux and the Cistercians played in history bears witness to this.


Only a community conscious of its vocation and ecclesial mission can be the privileged sphere in which the contemplative tension of our Fathers in living and interpreting the Rule of Benedict can be regained. It is in this, in fact, that the monk, applying the teachings of the Rule, can grow in the love of God and of neighbor, becoming conformed to Christ, whose image he is.

 

We know that the most urgent task of the Church today is the revitalization of man.

How is this possible? By creating areas, communities of communion, which are true schools of humanity, with a form of pedagogy coherent with its principles.

In order to safeguard the liberty of the human person, it is indispensable, in fact, that the person be guided in experiencing truth and good, in discerning what is true from what is false; so as then to be in a position to elaborate (through dialogical liberty), a vision of life and, in the community in which he lives, a culture which is ever renewed, on the basis of whatever is received.

The dominion of technology over the mass of society tends to annul these passages of liberty and of humanity. Faith in what a person has to offer is substituted by a conviction that, in all fields, action must be dictated by technical and scientific needs, by criteria based on functionality, which, it is pretended, are superior to personal intelligence and conscience. (Consider how the life of a person on a social level is programmed from birth to death.)  In order to combat this mentality, there is need of a space for liberty, culture, and of vision; and the school of charity can be an ideal place for this.

Only thus will it be possible to speak of contemplation not as an evasion from reality, but as a more penetrating vision of life, from its original roots to its ultimate destiny: the divine Trinity.

 

1.4 Transmission and renewal of culture.

 

How has the problem of transmission been stated during the last fifty years? In order to express and communicate an experience, a verbal synthesis is indispensable. This can then become, not without certain risks, a cultural project; in periods of transformation, these syntheses age rapidly.

Concretely, the formulation silence-solitude-observance was able to express for our seniors the Alived fidelity@ to a vocation received with profound faith and without complications. But this was absolutely incomprehensible for the new generations, and the context of life which this formulation expressed was no longer Alegible@ for them. The chapters of faults no longer expressed reconciliation and pardon with sufficient clarity; the sign language no longer expressed a prayerful and contemplative atmosphere; observance no longer expressed communion of life and purpose, even if for the seniors it was clear that these were still meaningful.

 

What were the reasons for this discomfort? 

There was a profound transformation of the world on all levels during the period between the 19th and the 20th century, and the renewal of theological thought,  which was called for due to this,  was concentrated in the Second Vatican Council. All of this has many implications for ecclesial, spiritual, and religious life, and this on all levels.

For what concerns us, the synthesis silence-solitude-observance of the preceding generations was born in a theological vision in which all attention was concentrated on the vertical relationship between the individual soul and the absolute reality of God. This relationship was situated in  a Church conceived above all as a structure, that was a clear, objective and rigorous channel of the will of God. The spiritual way was lived above all as a passive purification of the person, who permitted himself to be totally seized by the need for submission, humiliation, and continual renunciation: to do all for the love of the Lord. In the measure in which this succeeded, the person was immersed in the experience of the absolute reality of God, and thus was a saint born.


There could be alternatives: the exterior perfectionism of observance which became both a criterion of judgment and an instrument of power, or some kind of accommodation in order to survive the rigors of the structure. Certainly, by roads more or less direct, the simplicity and the deep faith of our seniors nonetheless made possible the flowering of sanctity, and their lives were witnesses to us of authentic love for the Lord.

Nonetheless the present state of the Church and of the Order certainly demanded an evolution. In the  context of a theological vision which is Trinitarian, there was rediscovered a Church conceived of as communion, a dialogical exchange of love between persons, unity in diversity, an organic whole of ministries and services, each animated differently by the one Spirit who works through the hierarchy and in charisms based on communion. This requires that in addition to such values as continual prayer, lectio, interiority, along with the traditional asceticism of silence, vigils, fasting, etc the community must be open to dialogue, to sharing co-responsibility, subsidiarity, etc.

Now, although the ideal of Vatican II links us up once again with the tradition of the first Cistercians and is well expressed by our Constitutions, this change still encounters certain resistances when it passes over into concrete practice,  or better, in the cultural consciousness of individuals.

We must become more aware of the fact that, during those centuries which came before us, the weakening of the sense of Church as communion was accompanied by the assumption, within ecclesial consciousness, of elements extraneous to it, that are secular in nature. This is particularly true in cases where our Fathers in using spiritual symbols of the soul and of the church saw perfect integration of those levels which today we would define as person and community in the single mystery of spiritual communion, there was a tendency to substitute for these two levels, the concepts of individual and society.

The concept of person as individual (based on the model of the bourgeois and liberal State of the 19th century) and of its way of entering into a relationship, based exclusively on the calculation of common usefulness, thus served to fill in the void left by theological thought.

This gave rise at times to an individualistic way of looking at structures. For example the monastery could be considered as a society of solitaries, which has no other purpose that to share a common effort to favor solitude. Thus these same structures (silence, solitude, rigidly hierarchical obedience, which was closed to collaboration and to dialogue) were able to become the protection of what is one's own and what is private.

The forms of individualism have also changed with the passing of time: from silence understood as mutism which refuses speech as a means of integration and profound communication, it was easy to pass on to an indiscriminate openness to superficial means of communication (television, easy access to contacts with the outside, etc.).

We can conclude that the instruments of the schola caritatis can reach their end only if they are used according to the exigencies which are proper to that end,  and are constantly purified from extraneous elements. The exegency of charity is communion, and it requires a kind of silence which opens up to listening and to communication with God and with the brethren; it requires a patient and dialogical collaboration, an obedience lived as a free expropriation of one's own criteria and judgments so as to aim at the common will, a kind of poverty which is open to sharing in little as well as in big things.  

 

1.5   The Function of the Abbot and of the Abbess in this Process.

 

The charism of the Abbess, according to the experience we have had, is that of continuously trying to ferret out the strong points to be found in the community and its history, just as one would study a text which has gradually become difficult to understand with the passage of time, bringing out what is central (and often this is not explicit) and ordering secondary things around this, without putting aside anything. This ordering (and we know this both from the teaching of the Fathers as well as from experience) can only come from charity; which alone is able to gather all that is good, wherever it might come from and whatever form in which it is expressed. Then all must be translated into the language of the present Magisterium or that of other sources, carefully chosen among those contemporary ones, of  which the youngest (among us) are bearers.


Without this work of discernment and prophecy there can be no inculturated spiritual renewal.  (We allude here to inculturation with regards to the generation gap). And without the work of unification there can be no community which lives and moves forward as a single body.

The expression Aanimator@ is sometimes used for  the Abbot so as to show the limitations of an ex cathedra style of teaching and a centralized type of governing. This tendency of our times can be valuable, provided that it points out to the Abbot or Abbess a different and more ecclesial way of carrying out their service, without taking away their responsibility. To Aanimate@ means to promote the participation and the collaboration of all. For this reason, it will not be sufficient to organize, but one must constantly work towards reconciliation and pardon, favor cooperation and mutual acceptance, must promote peace.  All of this means a real availability to give one's life in the service of a tireless maternity.  If instead by the expression "Abbot‑animator" one means only a technician who promotes the democratic expression of a great variety of opinions, considering them all of equal value, there would no longer be question of an ecclesial experience. The same would be true if by "animator" one meant, only, or above all, a good organizer.

 

 

2. THE METHOD

 

2.1 Pedagogy of humility and obedience in relation to Cistercian doctrine

 

   The great pedagogy of the school of charity consists essentially in the path of humility and obedience. (In the Rule, humility and obedience are inseparable, constantly referring one to the other. All of the other instruments find their place in relation to them.)

In order correctly to assimilate this pedagogy and reformulate it for our times, we must see it in relation to the fundamental principles of Cistercian doctrine, which we could synthesize under three headings:

 

A  ‑ The liberty of man in the image and likeness of the Son

‑ The "illness" of liberty consequent upon sin

 

B  ‑ Salvation through the Incarnation: the path of humility and obedience

 

C  ‑ The healing which takes place along this path:

*sacramental aspect: Christ, the Church, the sacraments

*anthropological aspect: the steps of love

 

2.2 The Liberty of Man

 

The dignity of man, which makes him like God is his liberty. This liberty is seen as a capacity to cooperate with him who is supremely free, God (with the action of his grace). Once we have defined liberty in this way, it is evident that its exercise is the supreme duty of man. Reason, which liberty presupposes must also be put at its service.

 


All of this is turned topsy‑turvy in the modern conception, according to which the dignity of man is not the love of a son but rather total autonomy. From the 17th century on, rationalism has told us that sin does not exist. The true tragedy of man is in his limitations, in his individual finitude, which does not permit him to attain his great aspirations and sublime potential. At first, the solution was sought in ideologies. Today, now that these ideologies have passed, the individual refuses to immolate himself to an all‑demanding project and he claims his right of self realization as an individual. Then the Powers that be, henceforth organized on a world‑wide basis, promises him self‑realization and happiness, placing science at his service. We know that means by having all things. Here we see that the problem of the moral choice between good and evil, between true and false, has been eliminated. The duty of choice is substituted by competence, by efficiency, in view of the efficacy or the means to the end.

At this point it becomes evident how effective, I would even say how historically necessary, is a pedagogical way like the Benedictine one, which, thanks to obedience, fully restores the concept of liberty, and therefore of man in the image of the Son, in all its theological density and its concreteness.

In a way coherent with our tradition, the first step along the way of this our pedagogy will then consist in making once again accessible to man the understanding and actualization of a choice that is truly free: not just as one possibility which is pleasing among many others, but as a voluntary adhesion to the good, the true, the beautiful.

 

2.3 The Illness of Liberty and Knowledge of Self

 

The core of the problem lies in this: man is defined through his liberty, but this liberty, though not canceled, is yet substantially wounded by sin. Bernard says that liberum consilium (the capacity to discern and choose the good) which constitutes his likeness to God is lost.  This means that our choices are always, more or less, vitiated by egoism.

The long and arduous path of humility consists precisely in becoming conscious of this fact, in recognizing in a concrete way that our choices are not correct, they are not pure. It is what we call the path of truth or of knowledge of self, and which corresponds to the first step of humility in the Rule.

While monastic formation in the past perhaps ran the risk of taking this path of truth for granted, aiming above all at checking up on exterior behavior, today we run the opposite risk: of reducing self knowledge to psychological introspection. What is needed instead is discernment of one's own life in the light of Truth.

Bernard, as well as all monastic tradition is very clear and complete on this point in outlining the necessary steps: awareness of guilt before Godcontrition, repentance, tears ‑ oral confession, private or public which also involves the body in this begging for pardon.

After all this, he always adds that the concrete effort to change, which does not cease with the words "mea culpa," but becomes a true effort to do good. (After the kiss of the foot comes the kiss of the hand.) Let us speak of a striving for liberty, but it is clear that this is made possible and then made efficacious only through grace).

Tradition recognizes unanimously spiritual paternity is indispensable to guide the monk in the way of the return to the heart. The return to the heart, knowledge of self, knowledge of God are the steps: God, in fact, dwells in the heart of man and can be reached there by means of the way leading from the knowledge of the truth about oneself to the knowledge of God who is Truth. This pathway is arduous and the practice of openness of heart to a spiritual mother or father is indispensable so as not to get lost.

 

2.4 The Steps of Humility: the First and Fifth Steps

 

In other words: the center of Benedictine pedagogy (taken up by Bernard in his Steps of Humility) consists in the first degree of humility: the return to the heart, the beginning of the knowledge of oneself, the capacity of human consciousness to dwell in the presence of God and there to seek for the truth about oneself.

(Considering obedience as the other side of humility, we can interpret the second degree, "not to love one's own will," as the other side of the first degree: you will not flee from the presence of God if you do not flee from obedience. Thus the third degree, submission to the superior, and the fourth, patient obedience, underline the advantage of remaining in obedience cost what it may. According to the logic of faith, the superior represents Christ for us, the logic of the incarnation which animates the entire Rule.)

The fifth degree, oral confession, is, as we have seen, in the progression described by Bernard, an essential point.


The sixth and seventh degree represent the mystical summit of humility: the knowledge of self in the humiliated Christ. They are summits of experience, a gift rather than the fruit of efforts, which undergird, however, the continual vigilance of the following degrees, from the eighth to the twelfth.

The twelfth degree, with its incessant "mea culpa," shows well how the first degree is never left behind, but constitutes the basis of them all. From a pedagogical point of view we can therefore concentrate our attention on the first and the fifth degrees, showing their mutual relationship.

 

2.5 Sacrament and knowledge of God

 

Knowing oneself, the monk discovers himself in his creaturely dependence on the Creator, and in his incoherence and sin which stands in need of the Savior. This makes him open to contrition and to pardon, reconciling him with God and opening up for him an ever‑growing knowledge.  The deepening of knowledge of self leads to a new deepening of his knowledge of God in a dialogue of misery and of mercy, of grace and thanksgiving of gift and of praise.

It is here that the life of the sacraments is situated: the sacrament of reconciliation, the Eucharist and all the liturgy which places man in a radical way in Christ, in his identity of son before the Father.

It seems important to us to underline this: it often happens that sacramental and liturgical life do not bear the hoped for fruit, in some change in ourselves that we can experience. The reason for this is that sacramental life, although participated in with dedication, is lived, as it were, on the surface. It is not lived simultaneously with the path of knowledge of self in which one's personal conscience comes to maturity. For this reason, it does not become an experience of growth in the knowledge of God. In other words, the subjective reception and interiorization of the sacrament do not correspond to its objective reality.

This happens because the liturgical and sacramental life has lost touch with the common life, which is its natural habitat.

 

2.6 The Sacrament of the Church

 

We have already seen that the path of the knowledge of self (humility‑truth), requires the guidance of one who witnesses to the truth: the spiritual father. Nonetheless, formerly, in the Cistercian school of charity this paternity was associated with sacramental confession and was exercised by the Abbot, or by the master of novices. The principle of confession (which must be made to the superior), and not divided (among several confessors) taught the conscience how to reach its full stature of truth.

Other criteria of prudence and respect for liberty intervenes to modify this practice, and there is no question of turning back to an earlier stage in this historical development. Yet we must ask ourselves: how can we today reach the same end? Particularly for nuns, the problem is a serious one. We nuns all know how dangerous it can be to depend for "verification" of one's own living of the monastic life exclusively and always on a confessor who is necessarily outside of the community; there is always the risk of shunning the truth, confessing in one way or another the sins of the (other) sisters and looking for support for a flattering image of oneself.

It seems to us that the problem might be solved thanks to a more integrated equilibrium between the role of the Abbot (who remains the fundamental sacrament of Christ in the monastery, even if he is helped by other fathers and confessors) and that of the community, which needs to be discovered as sacrament of the Church.

Only the Abbot or he who exercises spiritual paternity can know the inner workings of the conscience. But only he who is a companion and direct witness of one's daily life can help a brother to attain, by become aware of his concrete ways of behavior, a knowledge of himself that is free from illusion.The community in union with the Abbot bears witness to this.

 

 

 


2.7 Fraternal Correction

 

It has always been felt that fraternal correction is necessary to complete the correction and direction which come from superiors.

Today many say: we no longer have the chapter of faults; therefore, we no longer have fraternal correction. It is truly there where the word is not used according to its real possibilities.  In fact, it is the word, in personal encounter between 2 or 3 or in a group, which is the instrument of evangelical correction (cf. Mt 18:5).

By means of speech, one can help a brother, asking him pardon but also asking him charitably for an account of his behavior, evaluating together what God asks us to change.

In the common life, which involves working together in many ways, we believe that for today the best ways to exercise correction in a real but respectful way are the following: a conversation between two or three, "revision of life", and dialogue. The Abbot may or may not be present; but in any case he will have the final say concerning what is said in mutual fraternal correction by the brethren. Even if he does not exercise his spiritual paternity in the case of each person, the Abbot directs the community as a whole, and he is its father.

As a person matures, it is normal that meetings with a spiritual father become less frequent. But so that this not be accompanied by an individualistic turning in on oneself, it is necessary to become little by little more open and vulnerable to grace which comes to us through the normal channels of the common life, in which the pedagogy of the school of charity fully unfolds. In it, in fact, all is ordered to bringing about the continual passing over from what is one's own to what is common to all, from egoism to fraternal love, from individualism to communion, which creates in the community one heart and one soul, in the union of wills with the will of God. This is the summit of ecclesial life, which in turn opens us to the summit of the knowledge of God.

 

2.8 The Anthropological Aspect and Affective Maturation

 

The healing and correction which is brought about in the school of charity is principally the healing of the faculty of loving. To educate man means above all to reeducate in him the faculty of love. The vow of chastity consists essentially of this task. Perhaps man has never wandered so far from this as now, in this era which is called postChristian. And paradoxically, never before were we so close to the truth on this point. Never before as today, after John Paul II theology of the body has recast anthropology, can we understand once again the steps of love of Bernard. Never before as today, thanks to the teaching of Mulieris dignitatem, can be understood anew the soul of Citeaux, which is essentially Marian, ecclesial and spousal, that is, our own vocation, both human and contemplative.

All of our tradition stresses (we, however, easily underestimate it) the fact that the problem of converting the affections is fundamental.

Within the process of conversion (cf. St. Bernard, De conv. ad clericos) there is this: reason is the first to be convinced of the goodness of the good, but unless the affections turn towards the good instead of to what is evil, the will does not change. The necessity of contrition and of tears (which is basic in all monastic tradition) is witness to this, a witness, alas, which is not listened to; the affections must be involved with what one's reasons point to. Hatred is given to us to put us in opposition to what is evil; the affections and feelings of love are given to us, in order to draw us to what is good.

When man invests the affections in what is not good for him, they can no longer develop in a harmonious way, and they atrophy. Man today is, as it were, anesthetized, incapable of experiencing true and lasting affections and feelings; he is thus deprived on the level of his soul, of the full and spiritual use of his reason and will. He is thus condemned to being divided. His reason is truncated, incapable of spiritual discernment, and his body is arid, without feeling.

 


One might object: does this way of thinking not diminish the role of naked faith? It is just the opposite: to live, basing ourselves on faith we mustn't do way with but rather educate the affections. In order to escape from the credo of modern relativism, "that is good which I am able to feel", man must once again learn to feel, to desire, love, and therefore to choose with all his affective strength that which his reason had judged good according to faith, and for that reason freely choose.

When instead, the affections are simply repressed in order to make room for faith, then, in a hidden way, they take their revenge.

 

In order to convert the affections, the role of imaginative and affective prayer, the devotion to the Humanity of Christ were fundamental for the monastic fathers, and in particular for the Cistercians. While holding fast to the idea that a personal relationship with the Lord, lived with intensity and fidelity in prayer is the only possibility of acquiring a solid and complete hold on the monastic life, this must be prepared and accompanied by other instruments.

In this connection, a good pedagogical contribution is found in the Instruction Directives on Formation (1990), in the sections on the pedagogy of the vows (13, 14, 15) and on Church-communion-community (from 21 to 26). Speaking of young candidates, in n. 88, the same document stressed their fragile identity and their lack of points of reference, due to family and social experiences that are wanting.

Now, while the religious community should not try to substitute for the family in a superficial way and to compensate for what is wanting in persons, it is nonetheless true that the relationship of young people with their community should be such as to give them the experience of the family of the sons of God, where everyone is listened to and can grow in personal dignity, as son and brother.

This reminds us of the teaching of St. Bernard (SC 23) which situates in the monastery the Aroom of nature,@ where one reacquires a taste for things created by God as naturally good. First of all, there is the consummate good which is brotherly love: AOh how sweet and joyful for brothers to live together!@ If one skips over this stage, it will not be possible to come to contemplation.  Likewise, according to the degrees of humility, charity and mercy towards one's neighbor constitute the intermediate stage which leads from the knowledge of self to the stage of contemplation.

 

It will be precisely in a true experience of community, above all of spiritual  paternity or maternity, that one coming to the monastery will be able to take his own past experiences and confide them to the paternity of God; it will be in a true experience of fraternal love, reconciliation, and collaboration, that the individual will come to understand the value of his own person in the way God wills him to be and loves him. He will also come to understand the grace of a personal relationship with Christ (cf. DF 13, the pedagogy of chastity).

We believe that the rehabilitation and the growth of the person will take place in the experience of Christian community, in particular of the common life in the monastery, rather than on a psychoanalyst's couch, on condition that this common life be Alived@, welcoming each person who comes, encouraging young people, sustaining the weak, and showing respect for all; in other words, in true charity and that good zeal of which the Rule speaks.

All of this, then, finds its context in the school of charity described, and prescribed, by the CST, particularly 3 and 4, and from 13 to 16; it finds support in what the Ratio has to say about the community as formator.

 

 

                                                  Mother Monica DELLA VOLPE

                                                        Abbess of Valserena