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(updated on Mqy 12, 2008)





by Armand Veilleux


The fifteenth centenary of the birth of St.  Benedict which had already given rise to numerous meetings throughout the world, also provided the occasion for the nuns and monks of Asia's great Benedictine family to meet together at Kandy, the hill capital of Sri Lanka (Ceylon), from the 18th to the 24th August 1980.  The Conference which continued along the lines of research and dialogue begun at Bangkok (1968) and resumed at Bangalore (1973), brought together about seventy monks and nuns representing 28 communities of a dozen Asian countries, from Ceylon and India to Japan and the Philippines.  Adding to their number the staff of the AIM and some invited guests from East and West, the total figure was around eighty participants.  The meeting was presided over by Dom Viktor Dammertz, Primate of the Benedictine Confederation, and Dom Simone Tonini, Abbot General of the Benedictine-Sylvestrine Congregation, was also present.  Dom Ambrose Southey, Abbot General of the O.C.S.O., was expected to act as co-president as he did for the Abidjan Conference of 1979, but was unable to come because of his Order's impending General Chapter.

A joyful welcome was accorded to some new foundations, created since the Bangalore Conference, from India and Malaysia in particular. At the same time, much sadness was felt at the absence of monks from Kep in Cambodia, whose community was liquidated by the war, thus bringing twenty-five years of Cambodian monastic life to a close.  This community had been founded in Vietnam in 1950 and transferred to Cambodia in 1952.  In 1970 the Vietnamese monks were compelled to leave, and in 1975 one European monk was executed and the other expelled.  The last three' Cambodian monks died as witnesses to their faith and their monastic life in 1979.  Henceforth, the same cloak of silence which covered the Church in Cambodia fell over Christian monasticism there too.  Our sisters and brothers of Vietnam were not able to come to Kandy, yet we know that they are faithfully and courageously upholding their monastic commitment, however difficult their circumstances.  With generosity they have accepted being deprived of practically everything and having to partake in the stringent life of their own people by working up to eight hours a day in the paddy-fields.  One community of nuns from amongst them has managed to continue its existence as a community because, long before the change of regime,.  they had relinquished their grand monastery for a poor village life,' in complete solidarity with the inhabitants there.  The Communists had in the sisters' life a practical example of their own ideal of sharing.  - Although none could come from Vietnam, still we had the presence with us of one Vietnamese nun, living at the moment in Africa.

The countries with the largest numerical representation were India (nearly twenty delegates) and Sri Lanka, one of the fields of work of t},a Sylvestrine monks, many of whom were able to attend our meeting.  The Sylvestrines have exercised an apostolic ministry in Sri Lanka since 1845, in parishes, colleges etc...  One of their number, the Rt.  Rev.  Leo Nannayakkara,.  bishop of Badulla, tools an active and much appreciated, part in our discussions.  To the Prior of Monte Fano monastery (adjoining the Kandy National Seminary where our sessions took place) and his com-munity must go the credit for the warm hospitality received by all the participants, as well as for the thoughtful efficiency with which practical arrangements were carried out.  Whereas the Sri Lanka Sylvestrines provide an example of the active dimension of Benedictine life; there were several Indian communities-in particular the Sisters of Shanti Nilayam, Father Francis Acharya's community from Kurisumala in Kerala, and Father Bede Griffiths' ashram at Shantivanam----belonging to the more distinctly con­templative tradition.

The Cistercian participation was weaker numerically than at Bangkok or at Bangalore.  The absence of the many flourishing Japanese communities was particularly deplored.  However, responding to the summons were Dom Joseph Murphy of Southern Star (Kopua, New Zealand) and Dom Francis Harjawiyata of Rawa Seneng (Indonesia),.as indeed they have done each time that a Conference in Asia has been organized by the AIM. Dom Benedict Chao of Lantao (Hong Kong) had also accepted the invitation and confirmed his acceptance, but had been prevented at the last minute by an unforeseen occurrence.


The General Theme: detachment, poverty and sharing

The majority of Asian countries suffer particularly from the scourge of poverty and destitution, those shameful sores on our contemporary world from which no corner of the earth is totally exempt.  Even the economically most highly developed countries, like Japan, are not altogether exempt from the other kinds of poverty known to the affluent West-the absence of joy, of family affection and of spiritual ideals.  Hence it is not surprising that.  the AIM's consultations should have resulted in the choice of poverty as subject of the Kandy Conference.  Besides, this is a subject of the first importance for Asian traditional religions, particularly for Hinduism and Buddhism, though these speak more readily of "detachment" or of "non­attachment".  In fact, the specific theme decided upon by Asian monastic superiors at their meeting in Rome for the Benedictine Abbots' Congress in 1977 was: "Non-attachment, poverty and sharing".

The word 'poverty" is charged with ambiguity.  When we use it in.our religious jargon it is to describe something completely different from what the common mortal describes as "poverty".  There is, in reality, a poverty which is negative, dehumanizing and degrading.  This kind is the fruit o€ the oppression and the egoism of a minority, and Christians together with the rest o€ mankind have a duty to deliver its victims from it.  This degrading form of poverty is neither uniquely material nor limited just to.  Third World countries.  On the other hand, there is a positive kind of poverty-evangelical poverty as practiced by Jesus of Nazareth, to which he summons us all.  Evangelical poverty is primarily an attitude of the heart, one of detachment with regard to everything which is not God.  It is a liberation from all the enslavements of the senses, the heart or the spirit.  All the same, it does not have a disincarnate existence, capable of dwelling in the heart without any practical dispossession from material, affective or intellectual wealth.  The ambiguous nature of the concept of poverty was one of the first things to emerge from the discussions of our Asian brothers and sisters at Kandy.  There were some-though having no revolutionary or activist background or leanings-who asserted with a forcefulness springing from the heart and from long meditative experience, that it is neither valid nor possible to live out evangelical poverty whilst disassociating oneself from the very tangible poverty of those around us. 

When the Western monastic Orders arrived in Asia they usually settled in rural areas.  Despite their praiseworthy sacrifices and individual goodwill they imported a life style there which was nearer to European standards than to those of the inhabitants, with the effect that a novice entering such a monastery is not necessarily brought to detachment of heart by the' monastic context, since it may represent for him an actual material and social upgrading.  Most of these communities have set up various services for the welfare of the local people and have labored to good effect for the betterment of surrounding conditions of life, especially in the fields of agricultural techniques and of education.  Yet there are several-at all, events, some-who now feel there is a certain ambiguity in all this, since, in all such achievements, we ourselves remain part of the rich and privileged minority section of the population instead of being of the eighty: per cent who, in some countries, live below the poverty line.  Obviously, there is no easy, answer to such questions, but the problem remains.  It was the outstanding merit of the Kandy meeting-and a sign of the great maturity of Asian monasticism-that such questions could be vigorously exposed and calmly considered by the region's monastics without provoking any defensive reactions.  A not inconsiderable number of Asian monks and' nuns are these days feeling the call to share in their own people's poverty, through adopting a way of life similar to theirs.  And yet there is a gradual awareness that such a sharing is not enough. Along with the conversion of' the heart, it is equally important that the socio-political structures which engender and maintain poverty in every corner of the globe should them - selves be transformed and converted.  In which case the evangelical poverty being lived out genuinely by Christians all over the world may then become the instrument of profound socio-political changes.  To carry this out it is necessary to form a united front.

It is within this context that our Asian brothers and sisters addressed an appeal-indeed a cry-to their brothers and sisters in richer countries.  The stark poverty of Asian countries stems in large measure from the interference of the colonizing (Christian!) countries of.  the West who destroyed the ecological balance based on centuries-old nutrition habits and agricul­tural techniques to favor instead the setting up mono-cultures which would benefit the West.  Nowadays this wretched state is maintained and reinforced by the disequilibrium of the international economic system/ which permits rich countries to become ever richer, and which upholds' their high standard of living through keeping Third World countries in economic dependence.  Monks and nuns of rich countries must become conscious that the sub-human wretchedness of hundreds of millions of human beings is the price paid for the comfort and benefits given them by their own society.  What can be done? Violent revolutions often end up transforming yesterday's oppressed into today's oppressors.  Only one genuine solution remains for humanity-to apply an abrupt braking action to the race for material goods and comfort, and to make a free choice of a strict simplicity of life--in other words, to strive that everyone should agree to live simply in order that each one may simply live.  The challenge to monks, and to every Christian, is to live evangelical poverty in such a genuine and contagious fashion that the structures of social relations will be transformed by it. Voluntarily assumed poverty is the political strategy open to Christians at this end of the twentieth century--and perhaps it is also their last chance of demonstrating their credibility. Whether from the Orient or the Occident, monastics who claim to have left everything in order to follow Christ find themselves united in facing up to this challenge and in bearing this heavy responsibility.

All of these questions were raised from the very first day of the conference, during the discussions on the subsidiary topic of "Poverty in Christianity", which formed a sort of general introduction to the conference theme.  This subject was presented by Father Francis Acharya of Kurisu­mala, a former Cistercian monk of Scourmont in Belgium who went out to India in 1955 to join rather Monchanin and Father.  Le Saux (Abhishiktananda), and who soon after, together with Father Bede Griffiths, founded the monastery of Kurisumala in Kerala.  After having described the radical detachment to which we are called by both the Old and the New Testaments, as also by the example of the Fathers of Christian monasticism, Father Francis proposed the following question to the discus­sion groups: "Does our monastic life, in the way in which we live it, lead us to detachment?" Such was the incisive question which led to the heart searching described in the preceding paragraphs.  The second day of our meeting was dedicated to "Poverty in non-Christian religions"; and the last three days to the following subjects: "Poverty and life-style", "Poverty and socio-economic context", and, finally, "Poverty and Prayer".


Poverty and non-Christian religions

During the latter years.  of his life, Thomas Merton was fascinated by the great spiritual riches to be found in the Oriental religious traditions, particularly in Buddhism.  His presence at the Bangkok Congress (1968), where he was called back to God, helped to give a dimension of inter­religious dialogue to that Christian monastic meeting.  This feature was further emphasized at the Bangalore Congress (1973), at.  which several representatives of Hinduism and Buddhism participated.  A short while later, Cardinal Pignedoli, president of the Roman Secretariat for dialogue with non-Christians, wrote to the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation to ask that monks should assume a leading role in the dialogue between Christianity and the great religions of the Orient, given the fact that monasticism is one dimension that Christianity has in common with nearly everyone of them.  After consulting with the Abbot General of the O.C.S.O., the then Abbot Primate, Dom Rembert Weakland, asked the AIM to assume this responsibility.  Two bodies were subsequently created with this aim in view, the first in America, the North American Board for East-West Dialogue (NABEWD), and the other shortly afterwards in.  Europe, the Dialogue Inter-Monastères (DIM).

There has been at times a certain feeling of unease on this subject, within the AIM's Management Board, far some of its members felt that activities relating to inter-religious dialogue lay beyond the AIM's field of competence.  The Abbot Primate devoted an important section of his opening speech at the Kandy Conference to this topic, offering his unreserved encouragement to the AIM as well as to NABEWD and DIM.  He nevertheless emphasized that the monastic aspect of this dialogue should be concentrated upon, that is to say, dialogue between Christian monks and non-Christian monks.  There are many reasons justifying this restriction, but one has to remark all the same, that whereas it is relatively easy in Christianity (at least the Western kind) to distinguish between what is monastic and what is not, this is much less so for the great religions of Asia, especially for Buddhism which is essentially monastic.  And what about Islam, where at present there are no monks, but which has known them in the past, and where the mystical tradition called Sufism has many points of contact with monastic spirituality? The Abbot Primate further reminded the nuns and monks of Asia who live in contact with these great religious traditions, that the responsibility for inter-religious dialogue is first of all incumbent upon them, for American and European groups must here play a subsidiary role.  During the second day of the Kandy meeting we applied ourselves to listening to our non-Christian brothers, to hearing.  what a Hindu, a Buddhist.  and a Moslem had to say to us about the understanding of poverty in their respective religious traditions.  The Venerable Anuruddha Thera, Buddhist professor at Kelaniya University, was able to come for only this one day, but the Hindu representative, Swami Siddhinathananda, of Sri Ramakrishna Ashram, Trichur in Kerala, together with the Islamic expert, Professor Jaffar Ali of Bangalore, shared in our discussions throughout the whole of the conference.  They won everybody's hearts with their modesty and sincerity.  Most of the great Oriental teachers whom one has the opportunity of meeting in Europe and America seem incapable of establishing any relationship other than that of master to disciples; hence I was personally very touched by the simple way in which Swami Siddhinathanandaji and Jaffar Ali joined in the discussion groups just like all the other participants.  Although Hindus and Buddhists had been present at Bangkok and Bangalore, it was the first time that a representative of Islam had taken part in our debates.  (Though it must be added that a Moslem had been invited to Bangalore, but was prevented from coming at the last moment).  This presence was all the more significant in that we are today witnessing throughout the world, ari awakening of Islam---one that is deeply religious, and which one must be careful not to confuse with the fanaticism of a Khomeini or a Ghadaffi.  The Christian monk cannot but be challenged by the radicalism with which Hindu sannyasis and Buddhist bikkus practice detachment from all material things, and he is thereby confirmed in his struggle to reach a more profound purity of heart.  As for Islam, whilst it may reject monasticism and regard poverty as above all a cancer from which society has to be delivered, yet it has always harbored individuals who have chosen voluntary poverty, and exercised a considerable influence upon the people and their leaders.  Professor Jaffar Ali was able also to give us a perception of Islam's understanding of humanity as one great family belonging to God.


Poverty and life style

This subject was presented by Father Francis Harjawiyata, Cistercian abbot of Rawa Seneng in Indonesia, in a brief and incisive talk wherein a series of practical questions was raised, suitable for constituting the programme of several General Chapters.  Father Francis began with the principle that monastic poverty and life style are outward expressions o£ a deeper reality in the monk's heart; a desire flowing from the Spirit, impelling him towards renunciation of self and o€ everything else for the sake of seeking God, following in the footsteps of Christ.  This profound desire was translated in the sixth century by Benedict of Nursia into concrete terms, as a structure for daily fife.  As this Benedictine life structure has been molded by Western tradition and transported into Asia in the period of monastic implantation, it comprises many elements making true com­munity poverty difficult, in a Third World context.  To quote some of the questions asked by Father Francis: Should we maintain coenobitism as the principal form of monastic life, accepting the eremitical life only in excep­tional cases, or should we create a larger place for the eremitical or semi­eremitical life? Should there be a separate room for each community activity, where people meet just for a few hours (or even a few minutes) a day, or could we not entertain the possibility of multi-purpose rooms, as they exist among the poor of our region and also in some non-Christian monasteries? There were many other questions like these; however, more than one of the Benedictines commented that the Cistercians were more directly concerned by them; for several of the suggested adaptations were already quite common amongst Asian Benedictines, for instance the existence of "annex" houses.

However, our questioning has to go beyond all these practical details.  The usual attitude consists of starting from the present context of our traditional Benedictine life to ask ourselves how it is possible to live it according to the ideal of poverty.  Should not the right attitude be rather to begin from the actual material and cultural situation wherein we find ourselves, and then to ask ourselves what form of Christian monastic life may be lived in such a context? Father Francis framed the question like this: Which monasticism do we represent? Christian or Benedictine?-and answered it: In fact, we represent both.  Or, more exactly, we represent Christian monasticism in its Benedictine form.  Nevertheless, he continued, here lies the crucial question! In what measure is the Benedictine specifica­tion essential to us? Are we under an obligation to maintain the Bene­dictine form of our Christian monasticism? Or is it more important for us rather to concentrate our attention on the Christian dimension of our monastic life? In other words, is Benedictine monasticism for us a primary value which has to be carefully kept intact? Or is it rather one particular form of Christian monasticism which has to be judiciously acculturated? In the interests of acculturation, are we to be permitted to abandon certain main elements of Benedictine life, so as to discover a form of Christian monasticism more in tune with the religious sensibilities of the local culture?

Obviously, altogether plain and precise answers cannot easily be given to such questions.  It was remarkable, all the same, with what calmness one was able to debate them, both in the discussion groups and in the full assembly.  Indeed, the problem of acculturation is not peculiar to Asia, but is experienced just as keenly in Africa.  Yet over here it bears a new aspect, for whereas traditional African cultures have never known organized monasticism, in Asia monastic traditions are very much alive and well, going back in history to six centuries before Christ, for Jainism and Buddhism, and nearly two millenniums before Christ for Hinduism.  The adoption of local customs within a European monastic system is never easy.  It is significant to note that those few monasteries which have achieved the most far-reaching measures of acculturation do not belong to the great international Orders.  One difficulty of acculturation stems from the rapid evolution of customs, doubtless through the influence of the West, but also through other deeper causes.  For this reason, young people often show profound disappointment if given the impression that they are required to return to the past or to put a brake on their society's evolution.  One superior (European) mentioned how, in their monastery in Japan, they had introduced some years ago the traditional custom of sitting on mats on the floor during chapel prayers, but that young Japanese of the present generation are incapable of doing this, having been used to chairs ever since childhood.  In reality, the true work of acculturation has to go much deeper. It is indeed certain that the less overloaded community life is with elements foreign to local usage, the fewer psychological obstacles there will be for the novices to overcome, and the more chance they will have of adapting to the life and persevering in it. This is why indigenous founda­tions sometimes receive more vocations than those coming from outside, or those under the control of foreigners.  But it is also quite as certain that the essential contribution made to monasticism by the cultures of Asia and Africa must proceed from a different level than that of diet, clothing, musical instruments or whatever. It must come from the level of religious experience itself, and be rooted in an originality of vision concerning God, man and the cosmos, and their subsisting relations.

In most Asian countries there is a Christian monastic presence which is fervent, or at any rate, very much alive.  Yet it does not seem to me all the same that one could speak about a Christian monasticism proper to Asia-or one that is Indian, Korean, Indonesian etc....  Should this surprise us? After more than a century of monastic presence in North America, is.  there yet a monasticism truly American or truly Canadian?-though of course there is an American and a Canadian way.  of living the European monasti­cism transplanted there a century ago.  Then again, is the originally mediaeval monasticism which has been maintained in Europe up until the present day, or which was restored there a century ago, much more adapted to the religious sensibilities or the spiritual needs of the majority of today's young Europeans than it is to those of young Sri Lankans or young Japanese? It is my personal conviction that in order to assimilate the mental categories, the language, customs and the Weltanschauung which still constitute the vehicle of monastic tradition in the West, a young European or young American of today has to be deculturalized and let himself be assimilated into a culture that is strange to him, just like a young African or young Asian.  The only difference is that, in the first instance, the gulf to be bridged is probably narrower.  It is true also that such a cultural migration, with the hint of the esoteric that it contains, has a more alluring quality in a society convinced of its own solidity and superiority than in one of those societies having to worry about losing or about retrieving its own identity.

Simultaneously with this necessary and praiseworthy effort to preserve, sometimes to rediscover, the national cultural traditions, we are also witnessing a profound transformation of local cultures, all of which, throughout the world, are disintegrating as highly structured systems of traditions, beliefs, rituals and moral principles which formerly gave a clear direction to life.  At the same time a new, universal culture is emerging the -world over-by which expression I mean a new level of consciousness and a new manner of "being human", nothing to do with the sale in every continent of Coca-Cola or Sony equipment, nor with.  any other form of export of occidental or oriental "ways of life".  In the face of this new cultural context, I do indeed wonder whether the concern for developing an Asian or African monasticism, like that for creating Indian, African, Latin­ American or whatever Churches, is not out of date in terms of historic evolution.  To me it seems that today's great challenge is rather that each should make its own original contribution to the creating of a new, universal Christian consciousness, and to the developing of a monasticism of multiple aspect, rooted in this new Christian consciousness now being born.  To attain this end, it is vital that monks of every continent and nation make a communication in depth with the profoundest spiritual traditions of their people.


Poverty and the Socio-economic Context

The subject of Poverty and the Socio-economic Context was introduced by Father Aloysius Pieris, Sri Lankan Jesuit and lecturer at the Buddhist University of Colombo, director also of a centre for dialogue between Christians and Buddhists, and of a magazine entitled "Dialogue", published in Colombo.  Father Pieris restated in a more eloquent and striking fashion the distinctions already described between positive and negative poverty, and between the various aspects of evangelical poverty: its ascetical dimen­sion and that of solidarity and sharing; also its socio-political responsi­bilities.  He underlined the importance of the eternal struggle between Abba (God the loving Father of every man) and Mammon.  Poverty as a lack of what is necessary to man in order to live with dignity is an evil, objectively speaking---the fruit of sinfulness.  But when someone adopts.  poverty voluntarily, after Christ's example, as a life style, then by this very action he affirms his stand for God and against Mammon.  Conse­quently, even in its ascetical dimension (that of liberating the heart so as to attach it to God), evangelical poverty necessarily contains an element of denunciation-of everything which is the cult of Mammon, hence of the abuse of wealth and the oppression which generates poverty.  In its solidarity and sharing aspect, poverty should not be regarded as a state or condition deserving of charity, upon which one can get rid.  of one's surplus, but as a call to an act of pure justice by which one distributes fairly amongst the children of God the good things received from the Father.  Was it not declared by the Fathers of the Church, long before Gandhi, that everything we possess which is not necessary to us at this moment belongs not to us but to the poor? So that when social structures generate or maintain a state of poverty, the person who has opted for God and not Mammon-has a duty to denounce them.  Thus the political facet of evangelical poverty is discerned as a plain consequence of the two other aspects.

Just as there is a positive and a negative poverty, the same is true concerning religiosity.  The negative is every form of religiosity which is ,a compromise with money or power, and which by that very 'fact becomes a force for subjection and oppression.  The positive is every form of.  religiosity which is free of Mammon and -which liberates. In Asia, Christianity's great problem is that of credibility.  Thus, it is important that the Church should relearn how to effect prophetic actions. This is the place of the monastic calling.  The monk must know how to create a synthesis of the positive aspect of poverty with the positive and liberating aspect-of religiosity.  As did Jesus at his first baptism in the Jordan and his second baptism on Calvary, we shall find and we shall demonstrate our identity in prophetic action.


Poverty and Prayer

The Kandy monastic conference did not start from abstract principles in order to reach practical conclusions. It did things the other way round.  The participants let themselves be challenged, first of all, by the poverty of the hundreds of millions of Asians living below the poverty line.  They then had to ask themselves what relationship there was between this most real poverty and their own vow of poverty.  This led them to envisage a more complete transformation of their own life style.  Such a process inevitably brought them to embark upon contemplation, whence emerges a right vision of the reality in its entirety, and the road to which is genuine detachment. Here a process may be recognized which was noticeable more than once in Latin America, for there it was realized that commitment in action to the liberation of the oppressed, if carried to its logical con­clusion, leads us to contemplative prayer.  The subject of Poverty and Prayer was dealt with by a son of the West one who received his Benedictine training in England but who has lived twenty-five years in India.  He was co-founder of Kurisumala with Father Francis Acharya, and has led the Shantivanam ashram since 1968.  Father Bede Griffiths has profoundly assimilated India's contemplative soul, and his is one of the most respected voices these days an the theme of prayer.

Prayer -- or contemplation -- is a receptive attitude of openness towards God.  This openness, this expectant state of the heart; is possible according to the measure in which the heart is free in regard to material factors, the family, social status and above all, the "ego".  While reminding us of these great and essential truths, Father Bede's talk also had a more practical character.  In the preceding days, much had been said about simplicity of life and acculturation.  Father Bede wished to offer some examples of the adaptation of monastic structures to India's spiritual tradition, with the aim of encouraging greater detachment of heart and thus greater purity of prayer.  Among other things, he spoke of the eremitical life, about wandering monks, of life in an ashram, of meditation, and of liturgical life more adapted to the local culture.

In the West these days, we are witnessing a certain revival of the eremitical life.  Would it not be advisable also to encourage its development in Asia, where for thousands of years it has been the primary and most normal form of monasticism? It is quite simple for a hermit to live a radical form of poverty which however quickly becomes impractical for a group, especially for a large group.  As in Celtic monastic tradition, Hinduism and Buddhism since the earliest times have retained the tradition of wandering monks, whom we must be careful not to confuse with the gyrovagi so roundly condemned by St.  Benedict.  Like Christ, the wandering monk has nowhere to lay his head.  All he possesses is his clothing and the bowl with which he begs.  for his daily food.  He will stop for a time in a monastery only during the period of the monsoon. The laws of Manu ordain that a sannyasi may own neither hearth nor home (thus, no family), and must ask for food only after the householder has finished his own meal.  In contrast to the cenobite, who enjoys great material security, the sannyasi exists in an extreme insecurity, which teaches hint to rely entirely upon Providence.  This insecurity fashions in his heart an attitude of expectancy and of receptivity, allowing God to enter therein. This kind of wandering­ monk existence is doubtless quite different from the Benedictine life, yet it seems to be a form of Christian monasticism which is necessary to Asia; alongside the more coenobitic form.

The other element which Christian monasticism could well adopt with profit from Hindu tradition is the ashram.  When, in western tradition, one wishes to make a monastic foundation, one begins by collecting the money; next one buys some ground, constructs buildings: and sets up a farm or other enterprise to make sure of the income.  After this one gets a community together, o€ monks or nuns who come to live on these premises and establish the regular life there. An ashram in India comes to birth in 'quite a different way.  It originates with a man of God, a sannyasi or wandering monk, who goes from village to village without any belongings. He comes to sit in the village temple or in front of the house of a person who has offered him shelter.  He accepts what food is given him and will perhaps, in the evening, talk with people who gather round him. One day some of these persons will ask permission to remain with him for a time, so as to benefit from his spiritual teaching, and they will build him a shelter.  They will build huts for themselves in addition round about his, and thus will an ashram be born, centered on a man of God.  He himself will have done nothing except to have prayed and to have guided his disciples in the ways of prayer. Such is the essence of an ashram, a centre for prayer. A group of disciples meet round a holy man in order to share his prayer life and receive his teaching.  Is this not just what happened in the Egypt of Antony's time, and indeed in the case of Benedict at the start of his monastic life? The ashram is a small community-it never becomes a great institu­tion. It is a community open to everyone, men; women and children.  Its silence will not be such as is found in the cloisters of a great abbey, and yet prayer will spring from it spontaneously, without need of regulations.  It is a genuine silence of the heart and of the place itself.  The prayer proper to the ashram is meditation, occupying a much larger slice of time than liturgical prayer.  Nevertheless, this latter is not absent, and is always accompanied by bodily gesture and by the symbolic use of natural elements:.  water, fire, flowers, incense; and of course by music.  There are already a good number of Christian ashrams existing in India, and in a document published in recent years the All India Bishops' Conference strongly recommended the creation and development of others.  Certainly it is a thousand-year-old monastic tradition, proper to India's religious spirit, which Christian monasticism cannot neglect in India itself, and which may well answer the aspirations also of the religious soul in many other parts of the contemporary world.

In the discussion following Father Bede's paper much was said about little communities.  Several people are tending in the direction of small communities which are annexes of large monasteries, and can adopt more easily than the latter a very simple kind of life in fellowship and solidarity with the local inhabitants.  Many such projects have already been put into practice since in a poor country it is hardly feasible for a large com­munity (requiring large buildings and corresponding sources of income) to live poorly as a community.  The discussion also brought out the need widely felt by many people throughout the monastic world for a rethinking of the balance between personal, private prayer and community prayer.  One of the fundamental characteristics of the new sensitivity now being revealed, in the universal culture of which we spoke earlier, is the new relationship and new balance now evolving between the experience of faith and the religious expressions (beliefs and rituals) of that experience.  In this perspective, the balance prescribed by St.  Benedict between private and communal prayer no longer corresponds to the religious sensitivities and the spiritual needs of contemporary man, for whom the interior dimension is more important than ritual expression.  All these reflections could not but raise once more the fundamental question of the validity of St.  Benedict's Rule in fixing the norms.  It was commented upon that, for virtually all our communities, the spiritual tradition we use for interpreting St.  Bene­dict's Rule goes back only a couple of centuries at the most.  We are prone to re-read it with the aim of finding in it justification for our present practices.  What we ought to rediscover is the Rule's liberating dynamism, designed as it is to bring about the full flowering of life's potential.

It was upon this note that we concluded our week of research and reflection in common.  The fruit it had borne had now to be described in an official document, and a brief evaluation had to be made.  The evaluation was made on the last afternoon.  A "Message", from the monks of Asia meeting in Kandy to their brothers and sisters of the monastic world, had been composed by a team during the previous few days; it was revised after discussion in the full assembly and in groups, and was finally approved by vote on the final day.  The courage and clear-sightedness expressed in it bear true witness to the great richness of this conference. 




An Evaluation

Dom Jean Leclercq, who has participated in all three of the great meetings of Asian monasticism: Bangkok, in 1968, Bangalore, in 1973, and now Kandy in 1980, as well as in similar.  meetings organized by the AIM in the different continents, was called upon to give his assessment.  He emphasized the extent of the ground that had been covered; Bangkok being a discovery of new territory, Bangalore the further exploration of it, and Kandy a profounder knowledge and an unearthing of fundamental issues.  This is true, whether one thinks of the encounter between persons or of that between religions: at the first meeting, people got to know each other; at the second, they carne to love each other; and at the third, they loved each other enough to be calmly objective and critical.  The Kandy Conference was less spectacular than its predecessors, went on Dom Leclercq, but it was more neighborly.  It produced less in the way of theories, but more in the way of practical ideas.  One noticed in it a greater liberty with regard to our own heritage and history.  With reference to the Eastern religions, we can now more easily distinguish in them, as in our own case, the gap which exists between an ideal and its putting into practice.  We continue to admire their spiritual wealth, whilst we are now better acquainted with their problems-not so very different, after all, from our own.  There are three questions confronting us, said Dom Leclercq: 1) What has the Orient to offer to the Occident, including these thousands of young people from Europe and America who go there in search of spirituality and in search of themselves? 2) What has the Occident.  to offer to the Orient; and, amongst others, to the millions of Asians living in Europe and America who are often in the poorest strata of society? 3) What have East and West to offer to the consumer society, whose pernicious influence is found in every country of the globe? In order to reply to this third question, monks have to proclaim with their lives their belief in a supreme Being-and for us Christians this belief is a faith in a God who is the loving father of all men.  We also have to bear witness, through a life of renunciation, to our out-and-out quest for this God.

Being invited, in turn, to make an evaluation of the Conference's proceedings, especially from the point of view of group dynamics, I made the following principal remarks.  With regard to the assembly's composition, the numerical importance of the Indian delegation was certainly a positive - factor, because of the wealth of experience to which its members gave testimony.  All the same, this tended to concentrate the attention on India -­rather too exclusively, and the very different experience of some other countries was not sufficiently brought to notice.  In the same way, the strong Sri Lankan delegation contributed a lot, but the fact of its - representing the more active Benedictine tradition meant perhaps that the contemplative communities-a minority in any case-made little mention of their experience.  The balance between the number of "experts" from outside the region and that of the delegates of Asian communities was better than at Bangalore.  Then, in fact, there had been a considerable number of highly competent experts, and rather colorful speakers too.  Without wishing to and without really realizing it, they had at times monopolized the discussions.  In conformity with the wishes of the Asian superiors, few experts--and those mainly monks-had been invited to Kandy.  Their participation was discreet and there was fruitful interchange between them and the other Conference members.

The talks which launched the discussions each day were given by monks of the region (apart from the one by Father Pieris), and all were practical as well as challenging.  The atmosphere for these discussions was astonishingly serene, considering the burning nature of the subjects discussed, and the sharp, even abrupt way in which some questions were framed.  One noticed that a great evolution had taken place since Bangalore in the level of awareness of socio-economic problems and of their reper­cussions on the practice of monastic poverty; and of the sense of urgency for a greater adaptation of monastic life styles to local cultures.  One observed, quite naturally, considerable hesitation too, for many of the questions raised had no obvious, answers, but no one took refuge in entrenched positions. The proof of this is that the "Message" was approved by a unanimous vote.  To summarize, it may be said that at Kandy, Asian monasticism demonstrated that it was in the best of health. There is only one qualification that I would add to this statement: it seems to me that, in their great effort at clear-sightedness and sincerity, the monks of Asia were too severe and too negative with regard to their own past and present.  I would have liked a more positive and encouraging attitude towards everything that has been achieved and is at the moment being achieved, of very positive value, in their midst.

The Abbot Primate pronounced the closing speech and in it he stressed the many-sided character of the great Benedictine monastic family, with some communities more orientated towards contemplation and others towards the active life.  He underlined too, his appreciation of the fact that our dialogue had led us back on the final day to the subject of prayer and contemplation.  Over and above all that we may achieve outside, our most important gift to Asia will always remain that of being men and women of God.

The young monks of Monte Fano monastery who had seen to all the wants of the participants throughout the course of the conference surpassed themselves by arranging a wonderfully colorful final Eucharist, which became at the same time the official celebration of St.  Benedict's 15th Centenary for the monks of Sri Lanka.  Sinhalese and Tamil instrumental music and singing alternated with the Latin and English, thereby giving everyone the opportunity of sharing in the joy of this final and concluding liturgical celebration.  Along with the meeting of African monasticism last year in Abidjan, it proved one of the best of all the great monastic encounters that have been organized by the AIM.





Mistassini, Qué., CANADA


[1] * The Asian Monastic Conference, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 18th-24th August 1980: The 15th centenary of the birth of St Benedict was the occasion for Christian nuns and monks of Asia to meet yet again in pursuit of the common search initiated at Bangkok in 1968, and continued at Bangalore in 1973.  This third meeting took place at Kandy, with nearly 70 participants from 28 Benedictine and Cistercian communities from Asia, Australia, and New Zealand-12 different countries in all.  At its conclusion, A MESSAGE was unanimously approved by the participants.  We hope to publish this in our next issue (C.S.  1987.:1).