THE COMMUNITY OF BELIEVERS WAS OF ONE HEART AND MIND


FEBRUARY 7, 1999: CHAPTER



One

THE COMMUNITY OF BELIEVERS WAS OF ONE HEART AND MIND, AND NO ONE CLAIMED THAT ANY OF HIS POSSESSIONS WAS HIS OWN, BUT THEY HAD EVERYTHING IN COMMON (Acts 4:32). These words are well known to monks. They have been held up as the ideal to which every cenobitic community should conform; each of us is encouraged to model his own attitude and behavior after this example of the primitive Church. St. Benedict carries its provisions even further when he insists that the monk not only avoids treating any material thing as his own possession but considers that even his body is no longer at his own disposal. In matters of health, diet, sickness and physical work we are expected to submit to the common good and to seek the will of God through obedience to the Rule and the abbot. This attitude entails a very profound surrender of self, obviously. Modern Americans have to take a particular care to put it into practice. Some are more inclined than others to insist on special consideration that goes considerably beyond the spirit of this teaching, more or less pressuring their infirmarian and the abbot to provide a care that exceeds the norms of reasonable prudence. One of the functions of the common life is to teach us a trust and a simplicity of heart that is satisfied with the same level of treatment the community as a whole receives in matters of food, clothing and health. Pastoral prudence often leads the superior to give way in such matters but the subject has the obligation repeatedly to examine himself and to learn to reduce expectations and especially demands. Only those who thus strive after the purity of the Rule are formed to that measure of trust in God's providence that is the end of our way of life.

The verse preceding our citation from The Acts is important for establishing the context in which such a unity of spirit and simplicity of heart became possible. It reads as follows: As they prayed, the place where they were gathered shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. Only the Spirit of God can so inspire and elevate the human heart that we can manage to give ourselves body and soul to God and to one another in the service of the common good. Fully to enter into the common life is itself a fruit of the Spirit; to live it perfectly requires a holiness of life that results only from belonging to God body and soul. At the deepest level love of neighbor and the communion that results from such love in its purity is made possible only by a pure love of God. St. Bernard has a keen understanding of this truth and wrote about it. You must first love God so that in Him you can love your neighbor too (De Diligendo Deo VIII.25).

Obtaining such love of God is the very purpose of our Catholic faith. Making such a goal the chief and even sole deliberate aim of life is the very purpose of entering upon the monastic way. Our efforts to pursue this way to the end in all its purity soon teaches us our limits and makes us aware of attitudes deeply rooted in our character that are opposed to such selfless love. This experience is calculated to bring us to the first stages of a deeper self-knowledge so essential for progress in the path that leads to union with God. Bernard notes this truth as well and draws a major conclusion from it.

The faithful know how utterly they stand in need of Jesus and him crucified. They wonder at that supreme love of his that surpasses all understanding and reach out to it (op. cit., III.7).

Consideration of the fact that Jesus brings us the helps we require for fulfillment of our purpose in life leads to the further persuasion that serves as a powerful stimulus to make whole-hearted efforts to advance on the path to God. For it is love alone that leads the Lord to give himself for us on the cross and, as the abbot of Clairvaux goes on to add, The more surely you know yourself loved, the easier you will find it to love in return.

The early Cistercians took very seriously the ideal of unity of mind and heart and the sharing of all possessions in common. They sought to devise a way of living which assured that their communities would faithfully reflect the same unity of spirit that marked the primitive Church of Jerusalem. As far as legislation could serve to accomplish such a goal they created laws that supported such a development. But they were men of experience who realized very distinctly that laws and social structures operate well only when the men who apply them do so with the appropriate insight and prudence. One of the provisions they drew up was a regular yearly meeting of all the abbots of the communities that constituted the Order.

This meeting was considered so important that severe penalties were imposed on those who failed in this duty without adequate reason, as we can learn from the decisions of General Chapters. Still in our times at the opening of the General Chapter one of the first matters on the agenda is to account for the presence of every abbot or prior of an independent monastery. If anyone is absent his excuse is made known to the assembly by the Abbot General to whom he had conveyed the reasons for not attending. The most common reason is poor health when such absence is necessitated. This emphasis on the obligation to participate in the yearly meeting of the Abbots serves to underline the fact that the Order depends on a community of spirit for its life and not primarily on laws or even the Rule of St. Benedict. Preserving a communion among the houses of monks and nuns that make up our Order requires not only a commitment to the same values but healthy personal relations among the individual monasteries.

The recent meeting of the Eastern Abbots and Abbesses of our US Region was held in view of maintaining and furthering such personal relations, and providing a forum in which the participants could get advice and support in their ministry and in their spiritual life. The Founding Fathers of our Order had considered it a major function of the General Chapter to provide personal assistance to the abbots for their spiritual life. This purpose has been rather elusive in a setting of about 200 participants speaking various languages and concerned with legislative and disciplinary issues. Even at the Regional Meetings where up to 40 persons attend such personal and spiritual goals are not readily achieved. The smaller meeting of only seven or eight persons was conceived to fill the gap between the ideal and the actual possibilities for realizing such personal exchanges. A secondary purpose of this meeting was to discuss and prepare the agenda for the coming Regional meeting.

All seven of those present at the recent Berryville meeting considered that our session proved useful in treating of matters of business and legislation and was particularly successful in providing council and encouragement especially to the younger superiors present. Dom Francis of Mepkin sent a fax excusing himself for he was asked to represent the Order at a meeting of Religious held simultaneously with our session and decided he should accept that invitation. The youngest abbot present has been in office but six months and has never participated in a General Chapter. I was the one with longest experience, being in my 28th year, and have been attending the Chapter some thirty years, since 1969. It is not be chance that Dom Robert was the most enthusiastic in his comments in the auto-critique of the meeting at the final session.

Dom Damian of Spencer is also relatively new in his position. He has attended but one Chapter which, as he stated with considerable feeling, he found a very demanding, even daunting experience. Since he has five daughter houses he has been gaining experience as abbot very rapidly in the course of making visitations. He is making the visitation at Berryville at present, in fact, having begun immediately after the meeting. He too expressed his considerable satisfaction with the insights and support he received in the course of our exchanges. Drawing on the pastoral experience of the older abbots in handling issues and situations similar to those which these newer superiors had to confront proved to be a source of insight and in some instances of reassurance.

In addition to discussing personal aspects of the ministry and certain issues which present at times vexing challenges, we treated of a number of topics that are of interest to the Region at this time. One is the matter of the Trappist trademark. A number of our monasteries, our own included, use the word Trappist or the image of a Trappist monk as a logo. It is a trademark and is copyrighted by the MBA, a business association of our USA Abbeys that now includes a number of Belgian Abbeys who import products in this country. Recently one European monastery sold its rights to the word Trappist along with its industry and the firm that bought it is now importing product into this country using that trademark. If we do not defend it we lose the legal protection afforded by our trademark laws. We agreed that it is necessary for us to take this step and context the right of this foreign firm to use that mark in this country. Action has already been taken for an administrative decision which should prove adequate to defend our commercial interests.

In June there will take place the Regional Meeting. At our Berryville meeting we went over the program, discussed some items and assigned topics to various Abbots and Abbesses to present at the meeting so as to facilitate their discussion. The list of topics is fairly extensive and includes such matters as a discussion of the Theme of the Chapter as reflected in the House Reports which are to be presented at the meeting. D. Bernard Johnson of Conyers, GA will take up the topic of temporal administration in relation to the revised statute being proposed to the Chapter. D. Thomas of Vina, CA is to present the question of delegation of the Regular Visitation every 6 years. I was interested to learn that another of our monasteries that voted on this question rejected the proposal. I am to give a report on the hermit life in our Order during the last 25 years and will make some recommendations in light of responses received to a questionnaire I had sent to the monasteries of the Order. There will also be an introduction to Cistercian Associates by D. Brendan and M. Gail from Iowa. Dom Damian will treat of Cistercian Publications which is to undergo some considerable restructuring in its management. M. Agnes of Wrentham, MA is to treat of the question of junior solemn professed. This topic came up due to the fact that a number of communities in the Order have experienced rather painful difficulties in regard to monks in the early years after their final profession.

Dealing with weakness, one's own and those of members of the community was surely a topic that, in our more personal exchanges, received the most attention and stimulated the most personal reactions. Perhaps I might share with you one of the observations I made that seemed to meet with a rather general agreement of our assembly. The difference between the younger abbots and the more experienced ones is that the young feel that the problems they meet with can be definitively resolved and life will be simpler; the older know one must learn to live with them and remain at peace.

There are many things in life that are never fully put to rest and resolved. Humility, patience, realistic expectations and a willingness to carry some small portion of suffering are learned only by confronting the difficulties and trials that arise from one's own faults and those that come from others and from adverse events. There is no substitute for such testings and prolonged trials in the process of acquiring the virtues essential for contemplation and union with our Lord. In our exchanges it was chiefly such matters that repeatedly came up as each participant spoke of his or her own spiritual life and of experiences in ministry. The respectful and sympathetic hearing that each experienced in the course of these communications led to the development of a heightened confidence and a sense of community among ourselves. I feel quite sure that all of us have returned to our monasteries resolved to work as effectively as we can to contribute to a similar increase of trust and fraternal unity in our communities. Such efforts will succeed only in the measure that all of us individually and as a group strive, each in his own manner, to contribute to the building up of mutual trust by practicing a consideration and respect for the views and experiences of all. Then will we reflect something of that same charity that made the witness of the early Church so efficacious in leading people to Christ. May it be said of us as it was of those first Christians that THE COMMUNITY OF BELIEVERS WAS OF ONE HEART AND MIND, AND NO ONE CLAIMED THAT ANY OF HIS POSSESSIONS WAS HIS OWN, BUT THEY HAD EVERYTHING IN COMMON (Acts 4:32). In this way God will be glorified in all things by his servants, the monks and by all true believers.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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