CISTERCIAN GRACE TODAY:


CONFORMITY TO CHRIST

 


          Ignace Bikoula

 

Foreword

 

            At the beginning of this paper I think it would be good to make some remarks about the person who is going to speak, the “place” from which he is speaking, whom he is addressing and what he wants to say

 

            I am a young African who has found in the Cistercian way of following Jesus of Nazareth, that is, Jesus the Christ, the way that is right for me, the way the Father offers me for my self-fulfillment as a man and as a Christian. I have embraced this way with all my desires, my anguish and my sufferings as a man and as an African. I have been asked to speak of this way of life from where I am and from my own situation. It would be too easy to say that obedience is the motive for my reply to this request. More truthfully, the reflection on the way to follow Jesus, which I share with you here, is already in some manner a following of his way, namely, by anticipating it in mind and heart. In other words, the author of these lines is, in many ways, the first one to be addressed by them. Those who asked me for this reflection wished to bring about an enrichment of us all by the interplay of various points of view. They also wanted an exploration of ways to make our Cistercian charism more present in the world of today and tomorrow. These lines are written in the first person, not because I claim to teach with authority. On the contrary, I do not claim anything, least of all to teach. I write in the first person so as not to force other Africans to recognise themselves unwillingly in what I say, in case my thoughts do not agree with something fundamental which they would express in a different way. You have here, therefore, the reflections of an African and not of the Africans.


The second set of people to be addressed in these lines are therefore the older brothers and sisters, whether African or not, who are more advanced in the ways of conformity to the Lord. As they read what my ignorance of the ways of God has produced, they will do me the charity of praying for me, and not only for me, but also for all those who are at my stage of formation. The latter brothers and sisters are the ones who are ultimately addressed here, though perhaps incorrectly, since these lines at the very most will perhaps stimulate their own reflection. All these preliminary considerations make me place in proportion from the very outset what is expected from this working paper.You may not hear a prophetic voice, but rather a confused murmur rising from one corner of the earth. The wise will know how to discern and the authentic prophets will intercede for me.

 

Introduction

 

            The formulation of the theme for the coming General Chapters suggests its dialogical structure and how we are to carry it out. This is the first point I would like to make, simply by starting from the formulation of the theme.

 

            As it stands, the theme of the coming MGM is composed of two phrases: “Cistercian Grace” and “Conformity to Christ”, linked by a colon. The “Cistercian grace” somehow is given the predicate “Conformity to Christ”. Without claiming to engage in rigorous philological and semantic analysis, it can be useful to make the following two observations:

-  The word “conformity” expresses a state: the quality of being conformed to something else, the similarity of form that exists between two objects, the correspondence between them.

 -  What interests me here is the fact that “conformity” means a state of having become, the result of a process or action called “conformation”, which derives, like “conformity”, from the verb “to conform”. We could take this verb as our starting point in order to determine the framework of our present reflection and to establish its precise subject. In this sense I would like to ask a simple, though not useless,


question: Who is conformed to what or to whom?


 

Who is conformed?

 


            The answer is obvious: it is the Cistercian, or at least the person who wishes to become one. It is the person who wishes to embrace the “Cistercian grace”, who defines and understands his life by this grace and in it. We can say therefore that the “Cistercian grace” appears as the gift to someone of a life project. It is an horizon of self-knowledge and self-realisation offered to the human person. But who is this person? Once again, the answer is, at first glance, very easy: the Cistercian is a real man or woman with a personal history inserted into a collective history, living at the intersection of a particular time and a specific place. In other words, this man or woman belongs to a specific human culture which exists in him or herself. It is from this culture and history that the monk or nun judges the horizon of meaning in which they are fulfilled as persons. To say it differently, it is our culture that offers us the original anthropological context in which we understand ourselves and strive to come to fulfillment as human persons. By embracing the “Cistercian grace” as a new and different context of self-understanding and self-definition, the person brings these two frames of reference – grace and culture – together. They are not equal, but they are nonetheless engaged in a dialogue of mutual assimilation and integration.

 

            I would like to anticipate a little by noting here that the person who meets Jesus Christ through the Cistercian grace is not a barren landscape without any horizon or features. The new horizon proposed by the Cistercian grace only has meaning for the candidate in the light of the candidate’s original cultural context. Thus we can already sense that conformation to the new grace comes in a movement which reduces the distance between grace and culture. I do not wish to enter now into what is involved in the process of conformation and what is meant by the verb, “to conform”. It is enough to have at least pinpointed the subject who is being conformed, to have stated that this person belongs to a definite human culture and that this culture offers a horizon of understanding, in the light of which the Cistercian grace as a conformation to Christ  takes on meaning for the candidate.

 

To whom or what is the person conformed?

 


            According to the statement I took as a starting point, it is to Christ that the monk or nun is conformed. There is question here, then, of another personal subject. The phrase, “conformity to Christ”, should be understood to mean that the human person is being conformed to the Lord. According to the basic ABC’s of the spiritual life, which we all know, it is God who conforms us to his Son, Christ, by the action of the Spirit. It is true that we have to collaborate, but the initiative belongs to God. Here we have the eternal question of the relationship between nature and grace, which I have not the least intention of tackling in this paper. All the same, while recognising on the theological level the primordial character of God’s initiative, I here maintain the approach which makes man the subject of the conformation. In fact, I am trying to place myself at the “zero point” of conformation, when the human person does not yet truly know that the initiative comes from God, when he does not yet suspect how deeply the loving kindness of God envelops him. It is this love which mysteriously has the first word, but the human response is indispensable, even though humble and difficult. When the response first comes to birth we may not be totally aware of what it is. When we begin to seek, we perhaps do not yet know, at least not with a real conviction, that we are moved to seek because we have first been found. In other words, I am speaking here from the point of view of how our response to God’s initiative develops, even though his call may still be unknown to us as such.

 

            The process of conformation, then, puts two subjects in the presence of each other. We know that the man or woman who conforms belongs to a culture. What do we know of Christ? How can we describe him? Here, too, the answer seems simple: the Gospel and the Church’s living Tradition, which mediate and interpret him, let us see the features of the Christ to whom we are being conformed. Nevertheless, living Tradition, precisely because it is continually lived out in history, offers many faces of the one Christ. These faces are not contradictory or opposed to one another. The different emphases they give are meant to express the richness of a mystery which has to meet and confront people of all times and places, precisely at the point where people strive to construct the meaning of their life and their history. This living Tradition is marked by the different historical times and places in which it becomes incarnate. It is an open tradition moving towards a fulfillment. No place or time can enclose it or exhaust it, even though there are places and times which become normative for others. Moreover, the Cistercian grace appears as one spiritual current among the many currents which make up the river of tradition as it interprets and actualises the figure of Christ. Cistercian grace does not claim any exclusiveness in its conformity to Christ. Rather, running side by side with other currents, it is inspired by an “ecumenical principle”: what is valid for the whole stream is valid for each of its parts. Thus the Cistercian grace, as a current in the large river of living Tradition, is an open grace which exists in the times and places that structure its history. It is conformation to Christ in the today of a time, a place and a history. The face of Christ which is offered to us for our conformation to it, is a face for today. But who is this Cistercian Christ for today? It is still too early to say. We must first answer the question, “For what type of person, and of what place, is the Cistercian Christ?

 

The African

 

            I would like to suggest that conformity is contained in the experience of a meeting which occurs between two people. It is in such a meeting that there arises the desire and decision to conform to another. The process of conformation, with its many nuances, is present in the look which one person gives to the other, and vice versa. We need to uncover the dynamics of this look: what gives rise to it, what has gone before it to make it possible, what changes it. My thought concerning the way a person looks at Christ is that the experience is conditioned by the historical situation of one’s culture. Conformity to Christ only takes on its concrete meaning and specific nuances at the heart of one’s own culture. That is why I can no longer speak of persons in general. My “I” must become that of an African today. What determines me to be as I am and to act as I do? Who am I as an African?

 

            The questions of African identity and cultural values have preoccupied, if not tormented, contemporary African thought and the collective consciousness of the African peoples[1]. To speak of what motivates me as an African, my vision of man and of the world, I will not take as my starting point the countless studies of cultural anthropology that have been made. Nor will I begin from one of the “African Christologies” that have appeared as a “contextual” expression of our common faith[2]. Rather I will look at some of the heckling voices of “witnesses” who draw attention to the “ineffectiveness” of certain African efforts to “recover” or make present their traditional values. Such efforts are valid in themselves and should be made. However, it seems that up to the present they have been ineffective in saving Africa from the “ghetto of modernity” in which it lives. This is a burning question for Africans, whoever they may be. Very often they keep it hidden in the most secret areas of their self-awareness as men or women.

 

            That is why I think that approaching the African by the way of negation can be more meaningful than attempting to define him. In fact, today he is more characterised by the “porous zones” of his being than by any firmly possessed qualities or values by which he may live, for which he might be ready to give his life and which could thus define him. Moreover, he is “anthropologically poor”. His basic condition is presently marked by precariousness, fragility and even dishonesty[3]. Action and thought, which renew culture in all human existence, are experiencing an agonising atrophy in Africa today. Our continent is on the margin of all significant manifestations of contemporary life. Her presence and her contribution are often reduced to folklore: for the entertainment of the rich. This is why A. Mveng  speaks of a crisis of depersonalisation for the African[4].

 

            Kä Mana concludes from the daily life of our peoples and societies that the critical impasses of contemporary African societies are, before being structural failures, a crisis of men as such[5].  If there is an African problem today, it is the “reconstruction” of man, that is, of persons. It would be relatively easy to find these themes in many other authors. However, I am getting away from the purpose of the present reflection. I must respond to the question of who I am as an African, at the moment when I meet Christ and am invited to experience conformity to Him.

 

            Who am I as an African? Am I a being gifted with “a deep religious sense, a sense of the sacred, of the existence of God the Creator and of a spiritual world? Am I this being who has an awareness of the reality of sin? Someone also gifted with a strong sense of family, of life, of solidarity, of community life”[6]? Yes, perhaps I am that type of person, but only in the peripheral areas of my being. Actually, values like a religious sense, a sense of the sacred and of a spiritual world, an appreciation of family, community and many other values, can be the result of a given socio-economic and cultural pattern. In that case they are subject to the same historical changes which affect societies and do not exist once and for all, as if they were essential. There must be a reappropriation of these values both by individual persons and by the society they constitute, a reappropriation which corresponds to the social and economic evolution of the societies, which influences the production of their culture.The above considerations on the human crisis afflicting Africa today, the “anthropological poverty” that characterises the present day African, leaves us with the impression that this reappropriation of values has not been effective, or may not even be happening. Its fundamental condition has not been met, and it is this absence which most characterises the African. What is lacking is a subject whose historical initiatives are meaningful and effective in reducing the “gap between theory and practice, between established norms and lived experience, between what is planned and what is carried out”[7] in the concrete situations of African societies and in the day-to-day life of individuals and nations. Reflecting on the “social and historical preconditions for an African theology of death”, Achille Mbembe has a very perceptive conclusion which can easily be extended beyond the context in which it arose, since it expresses very well a general, basic aspect of the contemporary African scene. “In the new horizon of expectancy which characterises the Africa of today, the organised inadequacy of the subject is one of the most difficult consequences to be understood and accepted by logical Christian thought. Given the fact that African history is a slaughterhouse, and in the light of the promise of freedom contained in the preaching of Jesus, the inadequacy of the subject represents not only total death, but also an absolute denial of resurrection”[8].  So finally I can answer the question, who am I as an African? Borrowing slightly from the sacred author, I would say:

            My father was a Muntu who was carried into Egypt, 

with his gods, his world, his whole universe, he went down there.

The Egyptians maltreated us, bullied us, and reduced us to servitude.

We became the laughing-stock of the nations, the reproach of the peoples.

From the depth of our servitude we learned of the existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of Jesus who is called the Christ.

With a loud shout and tears we cried to him... To be continued

 


            If it is true, as I said above, that the condition of the subject determines the way he or she looks at another person, we can anticipate the kind of look the African turns on Christ. We can begin to foresee “where” Christ is “interesting” for the African and how conformity to Christ makes sense to him, how it is capable of chrystallising and stirring up whatever energy he has left. This may sound to some people like an anthropological reduction of Christ, the only Son of the Father, or like an a priori pre-construction of an event which should rather be accepted without any pre-judgment. It could seem that a personal encounter with Christ is an unforeseeable event which should make the person involved go out from himself. In fact, however, it is not a matter of an a priori pre-construction, but of a kind of Christological sensitivity in the African person, which influences the way the event is welcomed. Of course such a sensitivity can function as a filter of the encounter with the Lord, but the most important thing is that this predisposition not swallow the camel and strain out the gnat. Besides, if the Absolutely Other is truly made manifest in Jesus, it is inevitable that he does not entirely correspond with what I have thought and expected of Him. It is inevitable that at some point he breaks into the more or less closed circle of my world and my limitations. It is inevitable that at some moment I cannot avoid facing up to my need of conversion. I say, “at some moment”, since, if there were only rupture without continuity, the Messiah would no longer be the Messiah for the human race, the Messiah of men. It would only be we who would be for the Messiah, without any true reciprocity, and all the riches of the Incarnation would go for naught.

 

            Therefore, if the first glance I give to Christ is a look which is in some way “local”, that is, from a place where his universality becomes concretely significant for me, we can understand that the specific instruments through which conformity is achieved cannot be abstract or always the same. Even now, then, I can state as a general perspective that, for the African, conformity to Christ will take the form of something coming into being within a free subject. Such freedom can be described as a fruit of the “world of redemption”. I would like to make my own here the helpful distinction made by a theologian from Cameroon, between redemption and salvation[9]. First of all, between these two realities a “good order” must be kept at all cost. Ignorance or forgetfulness of this order has often been the cause of much suffering throughout the history of Christianity. We must be careful, therefore, not to oppose redemption and salvation, nor put them in competition with each other, nor substitute one for the other. Having said that, we must then affirm that redemption is part of “the next to the last things”, while salvation is applied more correctly to the “last things”. The connection between the two sets of realities is organic and  intrinsic.

 

            “Redemption is one of the next to the last things, which are visible realities which enable us to ‘verify’ the last things, which are invisible, and to anticipate them in hope. Redemption is to salvation what love of neighbour is to love of God. No one has ever seen God, and he who claims to love him while not loving his brother, whom he sees, deceives himself and lies to himself. In the same way, we have never seen a saved person. We do not know what salvation is, but can only believe in it and hope in it. Redemption is concerned with the here below, with time and history. Salvation speaks of what is invisible: eternity and what is beyond this world. Salvation promises eternal happiness after death, when there will be no more tears, needs or sin. Redemption only knows healing, repenting, groping along one’s way, helping one’s ‘neighbour’ in danger. It concerns being unprofitable servants, living

 

 


together in the joy of brotherhood or  the rarer joy of having overcome one’s fear in order to suffer in the name of justice […]”[10].

 

            To the rare joy of having overcome one’s fear in order to suffer in the name of justice we must add that supreme joy of having overcome one’s fear in order to give one’s life for one’s neighbour. Conforming oneself to Christ will be “reconstructing a future of true freedom and humanising creativity”, in which the “post-colonial[11] African can give his life, not because someone has snatched it away from him by political, economic and symbolic violence, but because he has arrived at a new level of human existence. Having said this, I would now like to examine the mediating instruments of conformity, namely, the most concrete place of dialogue between Christ presented in faith and Christ awaited in glory, between the “Christological sensitivity” of the African, whom I am, and the “Christ of Cistercian tradition”.

 

Conformity to Christ in Cistercian Tradition

 

            In its most essential elements, the Cistercian path of conforming to Christ is greatly indebted to the biblical and patristic theology of image. We were created in the image of God’s Image, the Word, but by sin we lost this likeness to our model. Sin is here understood as disobedience, revolt, pride, refusal to accept one’s condition as creature, and the “impossible” desire to usurp what belongs to God. With the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus of Nazareth and by his whole life, the possibility of recovering the likeness of God was once more offered to us. To achieve it, however, we must pass from the regions of unlikeness and dispersion into those of likeness and unity through the following of Christ (sequela Christi) under the action of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus the only Son and by the action of the Spirit, we become children of the Father. Humility, obedience, poverty, charity in imitation of Christ are the major themes of this symphony which is the following of Christ. In the same way, the orchestra of ascetic exercises can be thought of as practical instruments of the purification and re-education of the human person to a life in keeping with being in the image and likeness of God’s Word.

 

            The “Cistercian Christ” to whom I am invited to conform is he who retires into solitude and silence in order to speak in intimate privacy with his Father. He is the one who, under the influence of the Spirit, proclaims the praise of the Father. He is the poor man who does not have even a stone to rest on, but who finds all he needs in the will of the Father. He is the hidden workman of Nazareth who lives by the work of his hands, the “universal brother” overcome with compassion at any kind of misery no matter in whom he finds it. The question that then surfaces is knowing how, when I am conformed to him, he takes on himself my need of personal and collective redemption. It is a question of how the promise of salvation, which he brings, is redemption for me here and now. In other words, how does Jesus lead me to the authenticity of being a free subject?

Framework of an In-depth Reply

 

            It is sufficient to recall here some essential elements of Christian doctrine. Sin is the root of all evil, as I have already mentioned. It is the cause of all alienation and lies in the heart of the human person: “He who commits sin is the slave of sin”. By defeating this root of evil and thus giving back to us our likeness to our divine Model, Jesus makes all the other liberations possible and even sets them in motion. He opens the breach through which the dynamism of redemption flows into the life of men and societies. Freed at out roots by the Son, we are able to dwell in our earthly home in a responsible manner. This theme deserves greater development, but time and space do not permit. Suffice it to mention in passing the position which a Benedictine Abbot of West Africa developed in his contribution to the International Colloquium  of Kinshasa in 1989 on Monastic Life and Inculturation in the Light of African Traditions and Situations:

“There is no doubt that it is sin that hinders and alienates man from being fully himself, in unity and fulfillment. The root of sin is pride, egocentricity, refusal of all dependence on another, of all reference to another or to the Absolute Other: God as our first beginning and last end. The African has not been spared from sin and what frees us from it is obedience. By inviting the African to walk on the path of obedience, monastic life leads him along the royal road of true freedom...Thus freed from the sin that alienates him and from the fear that weakens him, the African will be strong enough interiorly, through faith, hope and charity, to face up to the inferiority complex which paralyses him in so many areas of his life and keeps him from enjoying his rightful self-confidence”[12].

  

            As we can see, this position fits perfectly into what I have called the “framework of an in-depth reply”. It is inalienable and unchangeable. Yet I think that it does not include everything and therefore may not be a sufficient response to our question. Moreover, a reply that fits only into this context may be equivocal or ambiguous. It could be saying, in other words, that the question of redemption does not concern monasticism, at least not primarily. Monasticism could be conceived here as a “pure” search for God, a quest for spiritual life and the kingdom of God in human hearts. It would be “anticipation through prayer, ‘obedience of faith’, holy desires and the sacraments of life in paradise”[13]. After all, God did not call Benedict to make him Patron of Europe, nor his monks to be protagonists of a civilisation coming to birth.The Patriarch wished solely to found a school of the Lord’s service where one learns to fight with the glorious weapons of Christ. The descendants of the Patriarch carried his intuition one step further and made the monastery to be also a school of charity. The historical roles that monks have assumed have been chance happenings that occurred on the way, that should be put between parentheses. Once the historical conditions change, monks are no longer pertinent to the places where the material, moral and spiritual (?) life of these peoples rises and falls. It is a mistake therefore, to expect that monasticism today – in Africa for example, – at the moment when it “incarnates” Christ by conformity to him, will contribution anything more than the silence of solitude, prayer and alms to the poor. For my part, I believe that it is possible to go beyond this “end of non-reception”[14]. I think that the conformity to Christ envisaged by Cistercian monasticism can integrate the questions that have just been raised. It can integrate them as it advances on its journey, without losing its distinctive genius. For that purpose, some reinterpretations might be useful. As the basis of everything else, however, we have to emphasise the need for “Christ-centeredcommunities, whose most striking characteristic is joy: joie de vivre.

 

Joie de vivre.

 

            I would like to quote here the lecture given by B. Sesboüé on Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God[15].  In his preaching, by word and deed, on the Kingdom of God, Jesus “creates a symbolic world”, a manner of being and doing in which the reality of the Kingdom is expressed truly, but by images and dramatic effects.

“The Kingdom must take on a visible concreteness if it is not to disappear in abstractions. Yet it surpasses all empirical visibility in this world, since the latter has not yet been overturned by the final Coming. The Kingdom, therefore, can only be seen in symbol, and the entire preaching of Jesus aims at creating a symbolic world which is perceptible to the eyes of those who have been converted.... Actually, the whole drama of Jesus, in its very visible existence, is a parable. E. Schillebeeckx expressed it well when he says, ‘Jesus is a parable and he tells parables. Only parables can interpret a parable.’ The symbolic world that Jesus seeks to create with those who Dieu”[16].

 

            Conformity to Christ by following him (sequela Christi) thus means becoming a parable of Christ. But since being with Jesus is, at the same time, a being together with others, expressed in monasticism above all by the cenobitic life, it is the community itself which must be a parable of Christ. The community must be an embodiment for today of the symbolic world which Jesus creates as a gateway to the Kingdom. I spoke just now of joie de vivre as the most stiking characteristic of a community. Such a statement can leave some of us with a problem if we think that monastic tradition has only exalted “spiritual sobriety”. Besides, our specifically Cistercian tradition, especially the Trappist one, is noted for its “austerity”. Yet one of the most authentic currents of classic Christian spiritual tradition strongly links the experience of joy with that of the cross[17]. How does the joy, of which I speak here, fit in? It certainly is not meant to suppress asceticism at the service of life, such as an asceticism that purifies or a cross that frees us for perfect joy. Perhaps, however, there still exists asceticism and austerity which disapprove of life.

 


            In this sense I would like especially to emphasise one of the striking elements in the preaching of the Kingdom. The symbolic world which Jesus brings forth, and of which he is the centre of gravity, is a world where persons “experience the happiness of being persons, a very simple experience but also very new one, which reveals the best of our humanity and shows forth a world hitherto unknown”[18], where “the cause of God is seen to be the cause of humankind”[19]. To return explicitly to the African milieu in which I move, the joy to be alive will have the function of healing the personal human conscience and imagination from the collective imagination of peoples “whose history is a slaughterhouse”[20]. Someone with that type of collective history needs to know by experience that his own life, even his, is approved by God down to its biological and material details. It is an almost indispensable precondition for all the rest. A Cistercian community that shows a person this approval becomes, for that person and for his or her people, a parable of the Kingdom, a parable of Jesus the Christ.

 

Solidarity as the Christological Form of Cistercian Stability

 

            Monastic stability has often been given a predominantly ascetical interpretation[21]. Perhaps one could offset this interpretation with a Christological approach which would be offered first. This would have immense consequences.

 

            In today’s world, I would like to translate stability by solidarity. Monastic stability would then be fraternal solidarity to the end, with this community and in this place. At the same time it would be solidarity of the community with this place, this particular Church, this people. Nevertheless, if I translate stability by solidarity, I cannot help thinking of that other Solidarity, in virtue of which the Son of God became Son of man, poor though he was rich, so that we could become rich through his poverty. “He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God” (Heb. 2:17). The “stability” of Jesus, so to speak, is his irreversible rootedness in a social and cultural milieu. Even when he breaks through the limiting restraints of this milieu, he does it from the inside not from the outside, that is, not by arbitrary violence which is the way of conquerors. Incarnation and Redemption are the two faces of the “mystery” of the divine solidarity with mankind. Conformity to Christ, then, must necessarily become a lived global solidarity with my brothers in the human family, beginning with those who form with me a part of the “symbolic world” which we try to incarnate. Is it only by chance that a good number of those communities of the Order in difficult circumstances are in Africa? And that one of these communities went so far as giving the supreme witness in the name of this solidarity? What lesson does this hold for other houses? Perhaps stability and solidarity will not always have this dramatic character, but if we truly accept its Christological foundation and run the risk of making of it one of the keys to the understanding of our Cistercian life today, we would experience renewal and fecundity as never before.

 

Monastic Obedience, the Obedience of Christ and Symbolic Violence

 


            Obedience has always been considered the monastic virtue par excellence, the absolute imitation of Christ who became obedient unto death. Whoever sets out to follow Christ, no matter where or when, cannot bypass this fundamental demand. Contemporary theology has sufficiently highlighted the basically theological dimension of religious obedience, what distinguishes it from the human virtue and the vast distance that separates it from its imitations. I have no intention of discussing these points again here, but simply wish to point out that in a context where the collective imagination and the historic memory of the people still bear the stigmata of cultural violence, monastic obedience could be something else than the obedience of Christ, in which case it could be somewhat ambiguous. How can monastic obedience integrate the desire to become a free subject as I have described it above? How does it help restore historical initiative and the creative capacity of persons undermined by a fear and a fatalism based on their history, where the decisions that truly count in practically all areas are taken by others, not by themselves? Conformity to Christ in the context of Africa today cannot avoid answering these questions, if it is truly meant to bring forth a new man.

 

            How must we conclude? First, by summing up. What I have most wanted to say is that conformity to Christ is a dialogue between the human person and Christ. On our side, it is conditioned by our historical situation and the vision we have of ouselves, of the world and of the history that is now unfolding. We need to know this place we speak from and in which we exist. In the case of the African, conformity to Christ meets another dynamism, at least as regards desires and wishes. It is the process in which the African person is coming to a new birth, whereas at present the African is, above all, the object of an anthropological “empoverishment”. The Christ of Cistercian tradition can welcome this desire and make it his own, as he destroys the root of all evils, which is sin. But it is also necessary that the Cistercian Christ give me the joy of living, as an experience of being approved and promoted in my life as man. Does he not create a symbolic world —  the parable of the Kingdom –  here and now? This symbolic world is the expression of the redeeming solidarity of God with my world. My stable insertion into my world, as an expression and instrument of my solidarity with it, then becomes a preeminent way of conformity to Christ. Dwelling in my world – which has now become symbolic of Christ, – I can obey like Christ, without fear of symbolic violence.

 

            After saying all this, there is really no conclusion possible for me, but only a period of waiting. Having tried to share some of my thoughts and considerations, I need to remember how immense the Paschal Mystery of the Lord is. My life as an African is called to be rooted and built on him. We cannot appeal beyond him and it is he who ultimately judges everything. I must stop here, so that my word can again confront my life, which is where conformity to Christ has to take place. Better still, conformity has to be received from the Spirit who acts today. I do not know whether I have succeeded, not so much in pointing out paths for today and tomorrow, but at least in asking some questions which deserve our attention.

 

 

 

Frère Ignace BIKOULA

Koutaba – Cameroun

 



[1] This fact alone is pregnant with meaning. We know that in general, when definition, safeguarding or “restoring” of identity become major preoccupations, we are moving in a context of crisis, in any human group whatever.

[2] With regard to African Christology, cf. e.g. the excellent essay in Chemins de la Christologie africaine, F. KABASÉLÉ - J. DORÉ - R. LUNEAU (ed), “Jésus et Jésus-Christ” 25, Paris 1986. The Christological models presented can be interesting in the context of certain African societies, and for the use that can be made of them in the Monastic tradition.

[3] On the idea of “anthropological poverty” see A. MVENG, l’Afrique dans l’Église: Paroles d’un croyant, l’Harmattan, Paris 1985, pp. 199-213. It is important moreover to point out that for Mveng, anthropological poverty is the result of an historical processus, that of anthropological pauperisation, which he describes very convincingly.

[4] Ibid., p.78-92.

[5] Kä Mana, Foi chrétienne, crise africaine et reconstruction de l’Afrique, Haho-Ceta-Clé, Nairobi-Lomé-Yaoundé, 1992, p. 100 ff. Cf. also his work L’Afrique va-t-elle mourir? Essai d’éthique politique, Karthala, Paris 1993.

[6] Cf Ecclesia in Africa, no 42-43. Here we find a collection of values universally acknowledged as African, though not exclusively. There is no need to cite other authors here.

[7] F. EBOUSSI BOULAGA, La crise du Muntu. Authenticité africaine et philosophie, Présence africaine, Paris 1977, p.234-235. Cf also KÄ MANA, L’Afrique va-t-elle mourir ? p.34-38

[8] A. MBEMBE, « Mourir en Post-Colonie. Préalables socio-historiques à une théologie africaine de la mort », in Pâques Africaines d’aujourd’hui, éd. J. Doré – R. Luneau – F. Kabasélé, Jésus et Jésus-Christ 37, Desclée, Paris 1989

[9] cf F. EBOUSSI BOULAGA, Christianisme sans fétiche. Révélation et domination, Présence africaine, Paris 1981, pp.192-195.

[10] F. EBOUSSI BOULAGA, op.cit, p.193.

[11] I have kept the expression “post-colonised” of KÄ MANA, Foi chrétienne, crise et reconstruction de l’Afrique. In his analysis of African thought, he reaches a new perspective of African history in which each African understands “that there is, in the depth of himself, in the heart of his society and in the dynamic of the life of the whole continent, a colonised person, a decolonised person, a neo-colonised person and a post-colonised person (italics mine) who has to reconstruct the space of his life and rebuild a future of real freedom and humanising creativity”, p. 37.

[12] R. MAWULAWOE, « Théologie de la vie monastique et inculturation. Point de vue africain », in Vie monastique et inculturation à la lumière des traditions et situations africaines. Acts of the International Colloquium of Kinshasa, Feb. 1989, Archdiocese of Kinshasa and Aide-Inter-Monastères.

[13] F. EBOUSSI BOULAGA, Christianisme sans fétiche… p.194.

[14] Am I breaking down a wide-open door, or am I, on the contrary, falling headlong into “monastic heresy”?

[15] Cf. B. SESBOÜÉ, Jésus-Christ dans la Tradition de l’Église, Jésus et Jésus-Christ 17, Paris, 1982, p.233-254.

[16] Op.cit, p. 240-241.

[17] The problem can be all the more justified inasmuch as we are, grosso modo, in a world that desires a life “anti-septicised” against suffering, pain and death, and which therefore tends to hide the realities of human experience.

[18] B. SESBOÜÉ, Op. cit, p. 234.

[19] Ibid.

[20] See above, p. 4.

[21] I say “predominantly”, since my ignorance of monastic literature on this subject does not let me say more.