Each year Cistercians throughout the world keep the memory of our Holy Founders – Robert of Molesme, Alberic, and Stephen Harding – on 26th January. This year our new Abbot General, Dom Bernardus Peeters ocso, has written a letter to the monks and nuns of the Order asking that we take this annual day of celebration as one in which we turn our needy hearts to the Father asking him to raise up new vocations in the Order. In common with many parts of the Church throughout the world, we too feel the dearth of new vocations, and know that, without other men and women hearing God’s invitation deep within their hearts to come and seek him in this monastic life, our own future giving this special service in the Church remains worrying and uncertain. The renewal of our monasteries depends very much on the renewal of our communities with new members – thus, the Abbot General’s letter is a timely reminder, and invitation, to renew our own outreach. Today, we share some of his thoughts, both as provocation to further reflection, and invitation to consider this life as your life.
The Abbot General recalls for us that the early years of the New Monastery at Citeaux were certainly not easy, and that the project of living a monastic life according to a truer observance of the Rule of St Benedict seemed doomed to failure:
“At that time Citeaux was still just a novelty and just a little flock living under the venerable Stephen, their abbot. They were beginning to grow dejected because of a lack of vocations, and their hopes for future numbers were fading. It appeared that they could not pass on their inheritance, which was holy poverty, to anyone, because although their holiness of life was admired by all who saw it, they kept away from that severe austerity”.from William of St Thierry’s Vita Prima Bernardi Clarevallensis
It’s a striking image, and one which many of us know only too well! There is a great desire to pass on an inheritance, namely, the way of life which is our way of life, for which we have forsaken all other ways, and which we know has a value in and of itself, since it is part of the vast tapestry of God’s plan which he makes for his own people. And of course, according to the nature of an inheritance, we ourselves have received this life since it has been lived by others before us, indeed, stretching all the way back to our Holy Founders and their committed search which began in the place called Citeaux in 1098. What we have received we wish to pass on, so really being an act of tradition, literally, that which is handed on.
Equally important is the resistance to despondency, a type of despair which abandons, effectively, our trust in God’s plan and his providence. Even if it appears that new vocations are lacking the desire to live this life which has been handed to us and which each of us has found, following, if you like, the clues dropped around us by God, must be maintained. The temptation to ingratitude and joylessness at every turn must be avoided, since both joy and gratitude characterize the Christian’s experience and attitude, and should lie at the heart of monastic witness. The monastic is, above all, one who allows every deed and word to become a hymn of praise and thanksgiving, because we are in the extraordinary position of having been given everything that we need, not only to live fully now, but to aim for that life which is fullness itself.
The Abbot General continues, commenting on the eventual arrival at Citeaux of Bernard and a great group of his relatives in answer to the prayers of the fledgling community:
Instead of focusing on the quantity of this fruit of their prayer, I want to draw your attention mainly to the fact that they experienced the fruit of their prayer as a gift from God. Prayer for vocations will lead to disappointment if we only pay attention to the number of vocations it will or will not bring us. It is not so much a matter of numbers as about a deep understanding of our own and others’ vocations as a gift of God. It is about receiving vocations as a gift from God. That is the much needed culture for vocations in a monastic community.
This challenge again invites us to place ourselves in God’s hands, rather than always trying to wrest control from him for ourselves. But it also requires a wholehearted and singular unity of community spirit and vision. It is not enough for one or two, or even the majority of community members to acknowledge this and hand all over to God: the entire community, united in mind and heart, living and professing an early Church koinonia, must acquire a single identity, as it were, a corporate heart, a Church heart, expressing both in gratitude and desire the Church’s own and our Order’s own cry from the heart to God our Father: Give us that water always! In many ways, the prayer for and desire for new vocations cannot be the many prayers of all the members uttered in singularity, but must be a single prayer, a single desire, made with the intensity which each one brings, but made new because it is fired and given life by the Spirit who prays in a way which superabounds our prayer.
In some way, there is a renunciation needed here, a new type of poverty: I renounce my ownership of this task of seeking out and attracting new vocations to this life, and I recognise that it is wholly and completely God’s work, and not in any way mine. I am called to discover a new poverty in this attitude and way of handing over: it is God’s work, and for as long as I think it is mine, claim it as mine, I become the obstacle which prevents him from being the one who leads, and with whom I can only cooperate. This is a new way of living poverty. This is a new way of renouncing ownership.
The focus of our vocation, writes the Abbot General, is closely linked to the renewal of our Cistercian life. When we discover our vocation as a gift, the life we lead will change. This is an ongoing process that takes place repeatedly – unless we are no longer willing to listen to the call of God within us. Living from vocation provides clarity, focus and confidence to act (the vow of stability). However, it is not always the easiest path (obedience). After all, living your vocation is not optional and requires you constantly to make choices and sacrifices (the vow of conversatio morum). Are our communities – anywhere in the world – really places were we live out our vocation?
Renewal of a life which has been handed down over centuries, with observances and ways which have become hallowed by tradition and practice, is in itself a challenge. What concretely does a renewal of our Cistercian life imply? This vast question is one which can be confronted by each community in its own way of living the Cistercian way of communio, and how that has been best expressed in the concrete and daily service which is given. Certainly, that initial desire of our founders cannot be far from our minds: to live the Rule of St Benedict in a way which expresses its profound sentiment and end. And that is always indeed a question which can help shape our thoughts around renewal of our life: do we live toward that goal which our life has in mind, to which it aims, and in which it makes specific use of specific tools? That often discomforting word in the Gospels and in St Paul – “perfect” – in Greek has precisely this meaning: living according to the end which properly defines my way of life. Renwal begins with a frank recognition of the fact that we are or are not headed in the right direction!
The final few words of Dom Bernardus’s letter can give us pause for thought:
Bernard had in his heart the need to be constant in following his vocation, so that he constantly said in his heart and even often on his lips, “Bernard, Bernard, what have you come for?” This question should not leave our hearts and lips. It helps us to return to the prayer and witness of our lives. The text from the life of St Bernard is full of hope and shows how prayer and witness can turn a “lost vase” into a “chosen vessel”. Prayer and witness made St Bernard a fruitful person, for himself, for the community, and for the Order.
It’s a wonderful question: What have you come for? It answers, in fact, another question, or more properly, rephrases it, a question which is asked of all who come to the monastery seeking entry: what do you seek; what do you ask; what do you expect to find here that you won’t find anywhere else? The Brother Novice, when he is receiving the habit and is prostrate on the floor of the Chapter Room, asked this question, answers: The mercy of God and of the Brethren.
One comes because one seeks; one comes because one has felt, in some way, perhaps in a way which defies words or description, God stirring his heart and inviting him on this journey. It’s a question and an answer which has the potential to change our lives radically, literally, at their very root, so that we embrace a new way of living. And above, because I desire it, I ask for it; I seek it; I embrace it. Perhaps that is the greatest encouragement which our Holy Fathers offer us: continue to live toward him whom your heart seeks, and never despair of his mercy.
-Part of our ‘Vocations’ series-