DECEMBER 29, 2002, FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY: CHAPTER 

The Feast of the Holy Family provides us with an appropriate occasion for reflecting on those elements of our community life that marked the way of life followed by Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Nazareth. Although none of the Cistercian fathers preached on this feast for the good reason that it did not exist until very recent times. But, to be sure, they spoke in the course of commenting on other feasts and mysteries about features of the life of the Holy Family that have a bearing on monastic living. One reason that it was only in our own times that this Feast was established specifically in relation to Christmas is that a new appreciation of the role of the family as such has grown upon our society. Earlier the family seemed so natural, so much a part of the given order of things as to remain largely unquestioned. That is no longer the case. 

One of the persons who understood quite early the importance of the day to day events that constitute family life and community life as lived in a monastery as well was Cardinal Newman. He was not a monk, but lived in community with close associates for over forty years. His acute observations and especially his penetrating analysis of human relations and their role in spiritual development were made relatively early in his life. He never felt the need to correct them. They embody a wholesome and practical psychology of the development of love as it applies to Christian practice. His words remain as helpful today as they were when he preached them around1930, while the Vicar of the Anglican parish church at Oxford.

 In the text that follows we can suitably substitute ‘brothers’ for the words, ‘relations and friends’, so as to apply his doctrine to our situation in community. Newman states his views as follows. 

[God’s plan is] to ground what is good and true in religion and morals, on the basis of our good natural feelings…. This love of our private friends is the only preparatory exercise for the love of all men…. We are to begin with loving our friends about us, and gradually enlarge the circle of our affections, till it reaches all Christian, and then all men…. The real love of man must depend on practice, and therefore, must begin by exercising itself on our friends around us, otherwise it will have no existence. By trying to love our relations and friends, by submitting to their wishes, though contrary to our own, by bearing with their infirmities, by overcoming their occasional waywardness by kindness, by dwelling on their excellences, and trying to copy them, thus it is that we form in our hearts that root of charity, which, though small at first, may, like the mustard seed, at last even overshadow the earth. (John Henry Newman, ‘Parochial and Plan Sermons’, [San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1987] 258, 9).  

There is in the Rule of St. Benedict (RB) no explicit teaching on the community as a kind of family or its role in the formation of a monk. Both of these concepts are influential by implication, however. All the focus of the Rule is on the influence and teaching of the Abbot and the Novice Master.  But one of the characteristics that most distinguishes the RB from the Rule of the Master (RM) is the marked emphasis that Benedict ascribes to interpersonal relations among the brothers or sisters and the active engagement of all members of the community in the decision making process. In the RM all the stress is on the relations of the monk to authority, to the Abbot especially; there is very little attention given to fraternal relationships as such. Indeed, some of the attitudes inculcated, such as vying with one another to become the abbot's successor, strike us as being detrimental to building strong fraternal bonds and community spirit. St. Benedict, on the other hand, displays the same kind of concern for the importance of charity among all members of the community as is so prominently featured in the Rule of St. Augustine, and he may well have been influenced by that document in this emphasis on fraternal relations. 

In recent times, the importance of this aspect of Benedictine spirituality has been recognized  and stressed in our own Order in keeping with the insights of modern dynamic psychology and sociology.   This fresh appreciation of Benedictine insistence on cultivating an effective, fervent community spirit and an active role in the community's functioning was facilitated by the rediscovery of the prominence given to personal relationships in the Cistercians of the twelfth century.  Whereas St. Benedict spoke of the monastery as a divini schola servitii, the Cistercian, Bl. William of St. Thiérry, terms it the  specialis charitatis schola, where one learns the art of love, the art of arts, whose teaching nature, and  the author of  nature, reserves to itself.     His friend and younger contemporary, St. Bernard, refers to it on one occasion as the school of the Spirit, an expression that implies, among other things, the teaching and learning of love, as he expressly states elsewhere.

 We are in the school of Christ and there we learn a twofold doctrine: one that the only and true Master teaches us Himself, and the other through his ministers.  Through His ministers, fear; from Himself, love.   

In keeping with this conviction, prominence is given to the role of the community as a whole, its spirit, its manner of conducting its affairs and its fidelity to monastic practices in formation.  This includes formation not only of the novices and junior professed but also of the solemn professed monks who are to consider themselves involved in ongoing, lifelong formation.  The text of  our document on formation espouses this point of view and states it succinctly.

All who live in the community share responsibility for its unity, its dynamic fidelity to the Cistercian charism, and its capacity to provide all its members with the conditions needed for the human and spiritual growth that leads to the fullness of love.

In developing this concept further, this same document singles out the primordial importance of unity of spirit within the community for the effectiveness of training its new members.  The recommendations made in this connection are the result of much experience  and seek to point out the importance of establishing a climate of   fraternal unity and charity. 

Where unity is lacking, difficulties are created for those entrusted with the task of formation.  The community should therefore work towards a unified approach that is founded on a common patrimony treasured by all, so that practical everyday questions can be located within a shared vision of the Cistercian ideal.  

For such an approach to prove helpful, obviously there is need for the monks to study and become sufficiently familiar with their patrimony as to be able to express responsible opinions in keeping with its spirit and norms. Another requisite is that the Abbot and those who have the ability articulate and interpret the values and norms contained in the tradition so that they can be put into practice in today's circumstances.  From my experience, one cannot presume that these requisites are recognized as essential and effectively pursued.  Of course, there are degrees of such familiarity with the monastic teachings and my impression is that many Benedictines are better versed in this area than we Trappists. The patrimony, however, is a very rich one and it is also complex so that there are many aspects of it that easily lend themselves to differing emphasis with the result that unity can be weakened unless the monks come to a consensus on the main issues.  This requires good communication among the brothers. 

Until there is a sufficient familiarity with the traditions and patrimony of our Cistercian Order it is very difficult for the community to make fruitful use of the ordinary means of arriving at a consensus and creating a harmonious climate by community discussions and dialogue. These do not contribute to unity of spirit and to wholesome decisions unless the monks are prepared by their knowledge of the requirements of the Cistercian life to recommend appropriate solutions to issues under discussion. Moreover, for dialogue to be fruitful the participants must truly seek the will of God and the common good and not strive to put across their private preferences. Only when there is a sufficient level of dedication to community interests and honesty of motivation that is respectful of others can such community dialogue be productive. Without these it has had harmful results in some instances in the past.

 Sharing in those decisions that relate to administration and formation would seem to be an essential experience today for the living of a healthy, supportive community life. There are various ways of assuring that. One is private consultation with individuals concerned directly in the decisions to be taken. Use of the Council and other committees is a normal way of dealing with a majority of issues. Community discussion, as the Rule prescribes, is appropriate when matters or broader concern are to be decided. However, unless there is enough of a shared vision of the purpose and goals of the community probably the efforts at dialogue will be less than satisfactory and so not as productive of unity as is desirable.  Learning to discuss the spiritual dimension of the community's life in such a way as to include all the monks in the same movement toward God, in spite of the differences invariably present in a healthy community contributes mightily to the sense of fraternal harmony and unity.  Before practical matters can be entrusted to community dialogue, such a shard vision is essential.

 Eliminating causes of criticism is a condition for achieving a unified community, and anything that contributes to this should be given a certain priority of attention and effort.  Few faults are more destructive of monastic spirit than criticism of the superior and of others in the community for that matter, unless it is undertaken in a responsible and charitable way.  That means it should be done first to the person himself in as kindly a manner as one can manage, whenever there is reason to think that could be helpful.

 It seems to me to be one of the main tasks of the abbot to set forth in an accessible form and style the spirituality of the Rule and the Benedictine heritage as it is to be realized in his own monastery.   This task is not a light one by any means; on the contrary, it is one of the principal challenges of the office of abbot.  For one thing, it is never learned once for all, but requires a sensitive updating, based on the changing needs and possibilities of the community and taking into account the rapidly shifting character of the current society.  Obviously, not every abbot will have the same measure of intelligence, the same gift for communication, the same attainment in prayer, learning and piety all of which determine one's capacity for such a program of formation for the community as a whole. Benedict himself arranged that the abbot's efforts would be supplemented by others, especially the Prior and Novice Master, who, while faithful to their own insights and experience, work in unity of spirit with the abbot.

 The abbot does well, I believe, repeatedly to bring out the importance for formation of the young and for the general spiritual tone of the community, of the role of each monk in the community, whatever his position and gifts or lack of them.  One of the most formative influences is the example of fervent and dedicated monks.  Each member contributes some portion of the atmosphere and environment in which the rest live out their lives.  Often the impression given by one or other of the brothers has a decisive bearing on the conduct and attitude of others, for better or for worse.  It is my impression that a number of monks are insufficiently conscious of this fact, and of their responsibilities to make a wholesome contribution by their manner of relating to others as well as by their observance.  Such influence can be decisive not only for the young but under certain circumstances for experienced monks.  In times of weakness and temptation the accessibility of a monk who has been friendly and dedicated to his monastic vocation can prove a source of strength and inspiration that contributes to overcoming the trial, and perhaps even persevering in one's vocation with real inner conviction. 

Another specific area where communal unity can be fostered when well arranged is that of work.  Some communities suffer from the fact that there is no one common type of work that involves all. Hopefully, once the FM building allows for expanded production more of us will become involved there as our common work. When the work of a community is experienced as contributing to the stated aims and goals of monastic life, the spiritual search is facilitated and the quality of formation is greatly enhanced.  

This last point touches on one of the fundamental concepts of Benedictine spirituality, namely, the function of community in freeing the monk from self-will and the narcissism that feeds it.  For St. Benedict the practice of poverty is seen in very close relation to community relations.  The monk is to keep nothing as his own; even disposing of his own body is not within his power, as Benedict views matters.  At the same time, the abbot, cellarer, infirmarian are to see to it that his needs are fully provided for. Accordingly, the monk receives all from the community and with the permission of the abbot. Monks are not to get friends to provide them with things whether for private use of for their departments unless they first get permission; nor should they take it on themselves to give to others anything that they had received permission for their own use. The effect of poverty, then, as practiced by the Cistercian is to make him wholly dependent upon the community. Its function is not only to detach him from material goods, but to teach him to look to the abbot as representative of the Lord, for care of his needs.  

For matters to work this way, of course, requires that the monk practices with inward attentiveness and true humility his observance of poverty and his use of what is provided for him.  This inner work, sometimes called the work of the heart was known also to the ancients as the work of the monk.  This labor of the inner man is integral to the life of prayer, contributing as it does to direct all things to God.  Such gratitude arising from awareness of all he receives from his monastery makes the individual more willing  to devote himself to seeking, not his own selfish interests but what is for the good of the community.   This freedom from propria voluntas and its replacement by a love of the common good is a pivotal point in the contemplative life as it was presented by  St. Bernard of Clairvaux.  In this point of doctrine, he was elaborating a spirituality that explains the relation between poverty, community observance in general and union with God through contemplation.  Significantly, he develops these ideas in his work On the Love of God. 

Charity converts souls whom it also makes willing.  Moreover, I would characterize it as immaculate in that it is accustomed to keep nothing of its own for itself  For the one who has nothing of his own, all that it has is of God; what is of God cannot be unclean. The immaculate law of God, therefore, is charity , which does not seek what is useful for itself  but for the many.   It is called the law of God either because He lives from it himself or because no one possesses it except by his gift.. 

In a very striking passage whose Latin cadences convey all the charm of his eloquence, Bernard follows these observations with an acute analysis of the results of self-love, showing how it cannot escape the law of God, but only suffers frustration through making itself its own law.  

Where he says "I have become a burden to my own self (Job :20)", he shows that he was a law for himself and nobody else brought this about save himself.  But the fact that he preceded this statement with one made by God to the effect that "You have made me contrary to me", he shows that even in doing this he nonetheless does not escape the law of God. For this is a characteristic of the eternal and just law of God, that the one who does not wish to be ruled sweetly, would be ruled by himself by way of punishment, and whoever spontaneously casts off the sweet and light yoke of charity, would unwillingly have to bear the insupportable burden of his own will.  

This whole  development of the relation between deliverance from self-will and the gift of charity, that is, dedication to the will of God and to the common good would well repay a long and detailed discussion.  But for now let it suffice to stress the connection between the profound union with God that is the fruit of charity and the common life. There exists an intrinsic and dialectical relationship between a dedicated participation in community life and growth in contemplative union with God. In our Cistercian tradition progress in either of these leads to progress in the other. In any case, both are essential; indeed, they are but the two sides of the same single reality. That reality is charity which unites us to one another in the measure that, being pure, it unites us wholly with God. May the Holy Family obtain for us a large share in the love that united them in life and brought them together as one in the eternal love of the Father in heaven.

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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