Abbaye de Scourmont

Armand Veilleux's Homepage


Writings and talks of a general interest

(updated on July 23, 2008)







Possibly you have noticed that the title of this article was inspired by another article published a few years ago in the magazine Christus. [1]  The author of this article described a new species of Christian which had just appeared and which he named "the third man". This "third man" is the Christian who, disappointed and worn out by the battles and oppositions of the conservatives and progressives, withdraws, peacefully indifferent, from ecclesiastical institutions. He does not give up his faith. He is neither bitter nor aggressive. He does not even dispute about the existing institutions and structures. He contents himself with withdrawing, calmly and serenely, without even trying to justify his attitude. The efforts others make to main­tain or adapt the existing institutions leave him utterly indifferent.

Fr. Roustang did not put a stamp of approval on this attitude. He simply recognized it. He concluded, though, by the following warning: "If we do not pay attention, and refuse to see the obvious, the unconcern towards the Church which is already widespread will continue to increase". It will not take on as in the past the form of opposition or abandonment, but of a tranquil lack of interest in this mountain of efforts which, they say, brings forth untiringly only mice.

In fact, since the article was written, this "third man" attitude has con­tinued to spread. More and more numerous are the Christians we meet who are not at all interested in the institutional Church and yet who believe in Christ and, at least in some ways, in the Church, and who have some­times an authentic prayer life.

Now we do not have to be extremely perceptive to notice that this attitude has likewise penetrated into our Order and implanted itself there. The need for renewal is no longer doubted, and one does not have to dispute to make people admit its legitimacy. On the other hand, a good number of monks and nuns wonder why the renewal of a life of evangelical simplicity requires so many General Chapters, commissions, sub-commissions, dialo­gues, meetings, encounters and I don't know what else. They realize the necessity-or rather, the inevitability-of all that; but they are not in­terested. There must be General Chapters, they say, but that is the abbots' business; they pay no attention. Study sessions are necessary, they admit, but they leave the bustle to those who are interested. They themselves intend to live their monastic life in peace!

It is perhaps especially in the domain of the liturgy that this attitude reveals itself most clearly. In the Order, as in the Church in general, the renewal began with the liturgy. For a long time those who felt the need for renewal but who refused to revolt had no choice but to suffer in silence. This suffering proved to the fruitful. The Council embarked us in a decisive manner on the way to renewal. Tensions were then often created, in more than one community, between juniors and seniors (these terms are not always in direct relation with age) and between the partisans of the preser­vation of traditions and the partisans of adaptation (both sides invoke Tra­dition). This tension also bore fruit, and the movement of renewal little by little imposed itself everywhere, though at varying rhythms.

This movement of renewal required multiple efforts of research and dialogue. It gave birth to many projects. It led to the creation of many new structures. Many monks and nuns had founded great hopes on these efforts, these trials, these modifications of structures. And finally they find themselves the same as before: little or nothing has changed in their prayer life. They had counted much on the introduction of the vernacular into the liturgy, but they find themselves as distracted and dry as before. They expected much from the renovation and simplification of the rites, but they quickly became as accustomed to the new ceremonies as to the old. Then, many lost confidence in the renewal. They do not dispute. They know that the liturgical rites must be purified, renewed, adapted. But that, they believe, is the work of the liturgists. For them, it hardly has any importance. They are not at all opposed to the idea that the liturgists should do their work and compose new offices; but it is with an indifference as complete as it is serene that they look upon these efforts and accept these offices.

This "third man" attitude is a dangerous one which if it became permanent would totally jeopardize the efforts for renewal in every domain. Moreover, a glance at the life of the Church during these past few years will prove that this attitude has produced nothing positive and constitutes a blind alley. It will be useful to analyse it and to try to detect the motives.

The "third man" is firstly a disappointed man. And the cause of that disappointment is that we have counted too much on the reform of institu­tions and structures without being sufficiently concerned about the conver­sion of hearts. At the level of community life in general, we believed that the introduction of structures of participation and dialogue would renew community life; but we have had to admit that these structures foster the expansion of the spirit of fraternity only where that spirit is already present. In the domain of the liturgy, we had also anticipated too much from the reform of rites and texts. We had forgotten that if these reforms were necessary in order to foster the development of a spirit of prayer, they were by themselves utterly incapable of making up for the absence of that spirit, where it was absent.

This disappointment underlying the attitude of the "third man" is often accompanied by a veritable spiritual sloth, an unavowed refusal to make the effort for interior conversion which must go hand in hand with the exterior renewal. But even graver is perhaps the fact that the "third man" often takes a pharisaical attitude towards his brothers and sisters who continue to believe in the necessity of an effort for renewal. Unjustly, he includes in the same haughty look of pity both the restless personalities who have found in the movements of reform an outlet for their itch for activity and the authentic monks and nuns who, looking first to the interior renewal, have applied themselves courageously to the many tasks required to make possible and further the interior renewal by an adequate reform of structures.

At the level of community life in general, the effort for renewal can only be the fruit of a common research. This research necessitates a certain minimum of communication between brothers and sisters and a certain minimum of exchanges of viewpoints and dialogues. Our "third man" will then pretend to consider these dialogues and communications as concessions made to today's youth who, according to him, feel the need for interpersonal relations and have not yet attained a sufficient degree of interiority. He will concede this necessity to the "imperfect", while he himself keeps his distance, saying that he has been called by God to a more interior type of monastic life which transcends such needs. If we exclude the rare cases of authentic eremitic vocations, such an attitude constitutes a disguised and inadmissible refusal to participate in the communal effort for authenticity. Evidently, such attitudes are often provoked by an abuse of communications or an excessive introduction of dialogues, conferences, sessions, etc., which have disturbed the atmosphere of peace and silence required by a true monastic life. Nevertheless, the fact remains that if such community dialo­gues are superfluous they are so for all and not only for a group of "perfects"; and in the degree to which they are required if the community is to progress sincerely and authentically in its efforts for renewal, no one may exempt himself without being unfaithful to the fundamental claims of his cenobitic engagement.

It is the same in the domain of the liturgy. For centuries the liturgy was the spontaneous expression of the spiritual experience of each ecclesial community. Today we are tending once again towards that ideal, but after the sad experience of several centuries of fixation. The transition therefore cannot be made without some groping and an alternation of successes and failures. Certainly it is more demanding to have to endeavour repeatedly to give our prayer an adequate and authentic form of common expression than simply to accomplish rites prepared beforehand and given. the tide of "the official prayer of the Church". It is precisely these demands that the "third man" finds too heavy; and he withdraws into the background. Some people, he argues, need this liturgical exteriorization, but as for him, he feels called by God to a more solitary and interior form of prayer (as though the interiority of prayer and its communal expression were incompatible]). So he is uninterested in the entire effort of liturgical renewal within his com­munity. Let the others busy themselves with this renewal; for himself, it is enough just to pray, as he proclaims with doubtful humility. Such an attitude is a disguised refusal of the sacramental economy of the faith.

As I said above, the path of the "third man" is a blind alley. The renewal cannot continue in the Church and in the Order unless another attitude becomes predominant, that of the "fourth man". This "fourth man" is neither a reformer nor a reactionary. Still less is he uninterested in the ecclesial and monastic institutions, as is the "third man". He attempts rather to renovate these institutions from within, by giving them a new vital breath. He knows that monastic life is above all an interior attitude o€ presence to God--of prayer, detachment, solitude and spiritual poverty. All his efforts, his ascesis, tend to develop in himself and help develop in his brothers this interior attitude. He knows that without this interior re­newal all the changes of structure are useless. But he knows also that this interior life itself will be an illusion if he does not incarnate it adequately in his daily life. He tries, therefore, to live in the existing structures as sincerely as possible and to make them, as far as they are apt, the expression of his own interior life. Thus, little by little, he discovers, not by abstract studies but through the positive tensions of his own vital experience, that some of these structures should be renewed or suppressed because they have become an obstacle to interior life instead of being its expression. Gradually there imposes itself on him, also, the need for new structures-not the fruit of abstract reflection or reading but of the internal claims of existence. What I say of individuals holds equally for communities.

The "fourth man" realizes that prayer is first and foremost a personal and interior reality which should penetrate his entire being and mark his whole life. But he also knows that because baptism has made him a member of God's people, and monastic profession has made him a member of a specific ecclesial community, he should communicate visibly with his brothers in prayer. He knows that this communal manifestation has to be made concrete in exterior forms whose proportion to the interior reality will always be imperfect but which should always be made more perfect. The needs of this common search for authenticity will doubtless sometimes lead him to experiments or forms of expression of prayer which he will not personally find fulfilling, but which he will accept as an integral part of ecclesial and community living-freely chosen by baptism and monastic profession. To turn aside from community prayer or neglect to join in the efforts necessary for its preparation and successful realization, under the pretext of a personal vocation to a more interior prayer, would seem to him like a clever means of camouflaging spiritual sloth under the cover of greater perfection. For prayer, to be authentic, should always be as interior and personal as possible. The communal expression of prayer does not make it any less interior; and interiority does not justify one in abstaining from communion with one's brothers in expressing outwardly this interior prayer.

In the efforts to get the necessity of a loi-cadre for the divine office acknowledged, we utilized the very true principle that the liturgy, in order to be genuine and alive, should emanate from the life or spiritual experience of each community. Has this become a reality? Yes, it seems to me, but only in very rare cases. Most of the time, in present circumstances, it would seem that the renewal of the liturgy is really making progress in places where there are a few individuals who have a real comprehension of litur­gical prayer and a spirit of initiative, and who sense the still inarticulate needs and aspirations of the community so that they then may express them in a manner acceptable to all. This is all very well, but it is only the first step towards the ideal envisaged. We are only at the stage of com­munity consent, not at that of community creation. Here liturgical creation does originate in a sense from the spiritual experience of the community, but only indirectly. The reality of fraternal communion is not yet suffi­ciently alive to engender directly its own expression.

Actually, the entire question is probably here: how to form real commu­nities. For centuries the structures of our common life consisted in the juxtaposition of individuals rather than in the creation of a true communion. The introduction, often somewhat excessive, of communications and dialo­gues certainly cleared the atmosphere a bit, but it only developed the growth of spiritual union at a profound level there where it already existed. Else­where, it has only led to a sort of superficial camaraderie. And yet, the first condition for carrying out a genuine renewal, one that is both interior and communal, is to transform our monastic groups not, certainly, into clubs of good bourgeois, but into real communities enjoying a profound com­munion at the level of the fundamental realities of monastic life: seeking God, prayer, asceticism. Which probably comes to saying that we are still at an early stage of renewal.



Translated by

Sr.  Claude Busch,



Cistercian Studies vol. 6 (1971) 255-260.

[1] F. Roustang, sj., "Le troisième homme", Christus, no. 52 (1966), pp. 561-7.