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For a General Chapter in a Prophetic Spirit

(Paper written in preparation for the General Chapter of 1971)


Armand Veilleux



During the last meeting of the Consilium Generale I expressed the hope that the next General Chapter would be a "prophetic" Chapter, rather than a Chapter with a predominantly legislative concern. This suggestion seems to have aroused some favourable reactions at the Consilium, and afterwards several persons -- Capitulants as well as other members of the Order -- have asked me to clarify my ideas on the subject. That is my intention in the following pages. I am quite aware of my total inexperience as a "Capitulant" so that I hope that those who do not share my opinions will have the charity to read them with a touch of good humour.

Our Cistercian founders thought of our Order as a community, a sort of "larger Cîteaux," living in fraternal charity its fidelity to the same ideal. For them the General Chapter was founded as a means of "revitalizing the bonds of peace and mutual charity," and where they might handle questions of "the salvation of souls," and if need be, where they might decide what should be corrected or added to the observance of the Rule and of the prescriptions of the Order." It seems quite clear from a simple reading of the Charter of Charity that the primary object of the Chapter was living out in a concrete way their mutual charity, whereas its legislative character, though admittedly real, was of secondary importance.

In the course of the centuries it seems that the two roles have been re-versed and the General Chapter has become mostly an organ for administrative and legislative ends. In our times when revision of the whole legislative organization is to be undertaken, there is a risk of this tendency becoming dangerously over-emphasized. Is it not a symptom of this that in the past several years there was a tendency to suppress the reading of the Visitation reports, when it was precisely in this element of the Chapter that the "communion" aspect had been preserved -- although this element had become perhaps sclerotic and a mere formality in many cases?

From now on, the many problems that the General Chapter is called upon to face, as well as the increase in the number of persons participating in the assembly, will force the General Chapter to revise its mode of procedure and the methods of working together The danger here is to think of this adaptation -- as also of the general government of the Order -- simply in terms of administrative functionality. But, for a General Chapter, or for the whole Order, or for a single community on the local level, "good functioning" cannot be an end in itself. It would be quite easy for the administrative machine to run empty!

The requirements of the work to be accomplished in the past few years have forced us to increase the structures (commissions, sub-commissions, councils, committees, etc. etc.), and that on the level of the whole Order, as well as of the Regions and local communities. That also carries with it a danger, for it could easily lead to a sort of totalitarian system of renewal, based admittedly on participation, but which often ends up by killing spontaneity and, in the long run, participation itself. The unfolding of institutional initiatives in order to stimulate a greater dynamism at the grass roots often ends up by inducing attitudes of passivity.

If we go too far in this direction, it is to be feared that chances for a real spiritual renewal are going to be slim. A Chapter with a predominantly legislative orientation works within a given system, recognized and accepted as such, the structures of which cannot be questioned. It is a universal observation in all spheres of human activity that, as soon as a system becomes over-organized it generally becomes intolerant towards members considered non-conformist. By its method of procedure, such a system tends either to assimilate or eliminate the "prophets," i.e. those who are more far-seeing and sensitive to certain needs that call for a modification of structures, or to certain demands that are too compromising. In a short article that seems to have been too generally overlooked, Thomas Merton has described with an exquisite sense of humour – along with a genuine prophetic intuition -- how we take great care in our institutions, not to let the Holy Spirit get out of hand![1] And yet, the history of religious life is there to prove that genuine movements of spiritual renewal were the work of charismatic persons and charismatic communities (often non-conformist), and not the doings of a committee ad hoc.

In the long run, the most fundamental problems which monastic life has to grapple with are not problems that can be resolved by legislation. There exist tensions and antinomies which are essential to monastic life, and which it would be illusory to expect to handle theoretically by rules and regulations. They have no solution except through a lived experience on the level of the local community. I cannot forego including here a splendid citation from Martin Buber:

"Man's religious situation, his being there in the Presence, is characterised by its essential and .indissoluble antinomy. The nature of its being determines that this antinomy is indissoluble. He who accepts the thesis and rejects the antithesis does injury to the significance of the situation. He who tries to think out a synthesis destroys the significance of the situation. He who strives to make the antinomy into a relative matter abolishes the significance of the situation. He who wishes to carry through the conflict of the antinomy other than with his life transgresses the significance of the situation. The significance of the situation is that it is lived, and nothing but lived, continually ever anew, without foresight, without forethought, without prescription, in the totality if its antinomy"[2].

Quite a number of these antinomies which are current in the life of the local communities are on the Program of the General Chapter: Separation from the world / Openness to the world; Development of human values / monastic asceticism; Authority and coresponsibility, etc. It would be quite useless to set up laws, no matter how general they be, in these fields. The Chapter, to my way of thinking, should handle these questions from another angle. What do I mean ? To explain myself, I feel I must first propose some reflections on the subject of the authority of the General Chapter, looking at it from a wider point of view: of authority in general in the monastic life, and before all else, on the level of the local community.

Even if Obedience remains in its essence an evangelical reality which does not change, the forms it has taken on in the Church and in the religious life, in the course of the centuries, have always been conditioned by the sociological structures of the time. The ideas which we formed of it up till the last few decades have been the same as those of Christianity in the Middle Ages. The Superior's role was extremely vast and the participation of the monks very limited. We have made much progress in this field but it is a progress which, to my mind, is charged with ambiguities. There is a danger that we do no more than change the medieval structures in order to borrow new methods of government and administration from our industrial society -- exactly at the time when this is being violently challenged and a new post-industrial civilization is coming into existence. It would be wrong to look upon the evolution that should be effectuated in the religious life as no more than a business of introducing democratic methods. The reason is: whole sectors of our society have lost faith in the democracy of participation, and Marcuse is probably not wrong in say­ing that democracy is the most effective form of domination, and the one which anesthetizes individual liberty most effectively. Here again, Martin Buber, with his prophetic instinct, had a right view of things, back in 1923:

"Speechmaker, you speak too late. Just a little time ago you would have been able to believe in your own speech, now you no longer can. . . .the masters smile at you with superior assurance, but death is in their hearts. They tell you they suited the apparatus to the circumstances, but you notice that from now on they can only suit themselves to the apparatus - so long, that is to say, as it permits them"[3].

In times past, monks played the part of pioneers in this field. It is a matter of common knowledge, for example, that democratic representation is a monastic invention, and the British Parliament borrowed a great deal of its structure from the model of the Charter of Charity of Cîteaux.[4] It would be regrettable to see adopted today without distinction, a sort of parliamentarianism, several centuries late and just at the moment when this form of government is on the point of disappearing...

Since the Council, a great need has been felt of having everyone actively participate in the life of the Community. Fine! But as our ideas of government and authority remained unchanged, this has only ended up in complicating tremendously the administrative machinery, in order to have as many as possible take part in it. This has led to a sort of cancerous multiplication of commissions, committees, etc... But it isn't certain that we succeeded in interesting very many people in government, or even in participation itself.

Just the same, I do not want my intentions to be misconstrued. My opinion is not that we have gone too far, but not far enough -- and I understand this "not-far-enough" as a question of kind and not quantity. For to my mind, the true meaning of evangelical communion goes far beyond mere democracy and governmental participation. As long as we think in terms of these categories, we are bound to maintain the old dichotomy between the community on one side, and authority on the other -- looked upon, more or less explicitly, as something exterior to it. For the fact that authority is shared by a more or less great number of persons or organisms changes nothing in the system. At the utmost even if an experiment of a Community without a superior should be tried out, the same system still holds if the deliberating numbers of a group consider authority as something exterior to and above each of the persons making up the group. For all that, a koinonia does not necessarily exist, and everyone knows how the dictatorship of a majority can be even more uncompromising than that of a single person.

A community is essentially a grouping of brothers or sisters who are "called" -- each one, personally -- by God. They unite in order to be mutually responsible for each other, to share together their ideal, their search, their groping, their spiritual experience, their interpretations of God's Word in the daily events of life, etc.

Christian obedience consists in accepting the will of God as one's own. Obedience in a community or coenobitical life consists in accepting to read the will of God in one's brothers, in admitting to be conditioned by a Community of brothers in one's spiritual conduct. The ideal community-the one where people would be "one heart and one spirit" -- would, of course, need no superior, for it would live its obedience in a complete and continual consensus. (The submission to hierarchical authority, which was given by Christ to the Apostles and to their successors, is a question of another sort altogether.) But as the ideal Community does not exist, our religious communities normally must have in their midst - and I emphasize in their midst and not over them -- a member of the fraternity to whom they confide the role of helping the community in its search for the will of God, and of guiding it in the up-building of that consensus.

And in contrast to the ideal community, there is to be found the community -- and it is not at all an imaginary situation -- where the existence of the communion and the links of cohesion are so weak or inexistent that the consensus, and even the search of such consensus, or the common effort to heed the Word of God, would not be possible. The only solution in this case would be to hand over to someone the business of making decisions in the name of all... which corresponds more or less to the notion quite commonly held of authority and obedience. But isn't that a case of erecting into a system a way of exercising "authority" required by the abnormal situation of a community life in a state of degeneracy? "You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you." (Mt. 20:25-26).

In a community where community life is lived intensely enough, the role of the "superior," so-called, should be a role of animation... And here I open a parenthesis to explain that, after consulting with an expert in English literature, I decided to continue to use this neologism, even if for some readers this term "animation" might evoke Donald Duck, Walt Disney or cartoon characters. It should be remembered that sociologists and scientists of allied fields are using this term increasingly in the sense given it by their French colleagues. The word "animation" generally refers to an "in-spiriting" or "life-imparting" experience; a form of leadership which consists in arousing or awakening the development of latent energies of a group, and in being a unifying and cohesive factor in the development and auto-formation of such a group.

In social animation, the animator is the person who, after taking the pulse of a group, acts as pacesetter, facilitator and catalyst for the individuals and the group. All this and more is implied in the case of the "spiritual animator." The spiritual animator is a pacesetter in that he proclaims the Lord's message by his life. He takes the pulse of the group and of individuals to discern where the Spirit is leading them, and as a catalyst he facilitates the Lord's activity in and through the group members. He does not impart life but serves as a channel and instrument for the Source and Giver of life in its fullness.[5] The animator does not make the decisions for the group; he helps the group make them -- not in the manner of a president of an assembly who proposes an issue to the vote of all, but as a sort of catalyst of individual energies which facilitate the movement toward a consensus by the group. The group will also expect that he act as its "conscience" by being the "memory" of the common options, already agreed upon or previously taken. Or again, to use an expression of Paul Claudel, he will be the délégué à l'attention, i.e. the one who is delegated to be attentive in the name of all, whose duty is to recall to the attention of the brethren their commitments, their duties, their faults, responsibilities... a role which corresponds rather nearly to that of the prophet in the Bible.

To my mind, the mental picture or image of an "Abbot-father" or an "Abbot-teacher" is attached to a set of sociological contexts belonging to another age, and to try to cultivate it in this day and age may combine in generating or supporting ambiguities. And that without taking into account that these terms correspond to a kind of relationship which, by its very nature, excludes complete reciprocity.[6]

I explained above how the ideas of authority and obedience at the different stages of the history of religious life depended on the sociological situation of the times. What this was at the time of St Benedict, or that of Cîteaux, corresponds pretty much to the description of the society of those times, given us by one of the best sociologists of our time, Andrew Greeley:

"In the Teutonic tribe or the medieval feudal manor, the leader was a man who, by virtue of superior wisdom, or superior strength, or both, was expected to know all the answers to the problems that the community might face. His followers did not have to understand either the problems or the answers; it was merely enough for them to accept his wisdom and/or strength, and to respond to his instructions. In simple societies, where skills are not complex and information gathering is relatively simple, the "answer-giving" leader is all that is required".[7]

From the point of view of the sociologist, monasteries at the time of St Benedict corresponded pretty well with this description. They needed such a leader: a father, a master, a teacher who asked the questions and gave the answers. Always from the same point of view of sociology, the situation in which we find ourselves today is quite different. I borrow its description from the same source.

"But in the modern world, no single man van be expected to have either the information or the skills necessary for making decisions. He must rely on the collaboration of both technical experts and representatives of the rank and file of his organization to provide him with the information and skills without which adequate decisions cannot be made. Decision making, then, in the modern world, is essentially a collegial process and the leader frequently does little more than ratify the decision that has been made jointly by his followers and his technical advisers. The real challenge of leadership, then, is rather different. Unlike the leader of the simple society, the leader of an organization in a complex society must ask questions, not provide answers. He has been chosen as leader precisely because he is expected to have clear insights into the values that an organization is pursuing, and the ability to ask penetrating questions about how successful the organization is in its pursuit of its values.

"The leader is a man who sees the "big picture," the man who has the "vision" of the purpose of the organization, a vision on which he relies to challenge his followers to look beyond their individual, day-to-day goals and think about their common purposes. It is a leader's job, then, to prophesy, to challenge, to question, to refuse to be content with complacency, mediocrity or dullness. In his own vision and enthusiasm, he incarnates the purposes of the organization; he symbolizes its values.

"It is easy to answer questions. But to ask questions and to preside over the communal consensus of response to those questions is far more difficult. Paradoxically enough, the leader who asks questions and presides over consensus has far more power in the organization than does the man who is content merely with providing responses to questions, for the latter is very likely to find that those who ask the questions do not really take his answers very seriously.[8]"

Would it represent a depreciation of the virtue of obedience to understand in this manner the exorcise of authority in a monastic community? I do not think so. All obedience is directed finally to God. The mediations to which man binds himself in his seeking God's will are human structures that he forms to reach the knowledge of this divine will. And so those structures must be adapted concretely to the psychological and sociological needs of the persons for whom they were established. In today's communities, where ail have a sufficient education, where there are several who can teach and guide their brothers much better than the abbot in many fields, and where all are invited to reflect on the orientations, present or to come, of the religious life and of the Order, what we need are prophets, leaders who can ask the telling questions, who can bring their brothers an intuitive and global vision of the monastic ideal and the demands of the time, who can prick the consciences of their brothers and help them read God's will, to accept freely and community-wise its demands. Is "obedience" anything but this "reading" and this acceptance of God's will?

Thus it is evident that the function of the superior cannot be limited to that of a distributing-machine for permissions and orders, nor to that of a professor of monastic spirituality. At the same time it is clear that the function of animator, of which I have spoken, is capital for the renewal of monastic life. It would be dangerous and sterile to work out structures which would suppress such a personal role, or lessen it to the extreme limit, in such wise that all the function of leadership would end up with commissions or impersonal organisms.

All this may seem irrelevant to the question of the General Chapter. And yet it is not. For our idea of the role of the latter will be in function to our concept of authority, in the same way that our idea of the Order will depend on the one we have of the local community.

A monastic Order is not an organization, but a living organism. It is not a society, but a community of communities. Their bond of union is their working towards a common ideal or plan, and communion in pursuing and putting to effect that common ideal. This communion presupposes and demands exchanges of every type. In all events, it is the primary and funda­mental reality in the Order -and not the existence of a central govern­ment, which is rather to serve this communion. If the latter were not a living reality, bonds on the juridical plane would be a fiction. And that is why our efforts towards renewal should aim at intensifying the communion between the (individual) communities much more than at oiling the cogs of an administrative machine.

The General Chapter should then, above all, be an instrument of this fraternal communion. But by this I mean much more than simply the fart of meeting on a fraternal basis of sympathy and affection. The important thing for those who are the délégués à l'attention in their respective communities, is to meet in order to be attentive together to the Spirit, to confront their "vision" of the monastic project, to render themselves more sensitive to the problems of the monastic life and of the Church as a whole, to "take the pulse" of the Order and to come to a more lively awareness of the movements and aspirations existing in the Order. From this point of view, the Chapter will have an eschatological orientation as well, in the sense that the eschatological is there when you have matters where the end is already in the beginnings, or implied in them. Such a Chapter will be a communal effort of awareness (conscientization) on the plane of the Order. It will give attention and sympathy to all the new movements, either in the Order or in the monastic life in general, quite aside from whether or not those movements could be accepted in the Order. Prophetic writings, like some of Merton's texts, should be examined and meditated together. We should be attentive in all humility to whatever is thrown as a challenge to monks, either in the world or in the Church today: the rapid growth of the charismatic Christian communities (communautés de base), the hippie movement, the seeking for spiritual experience by the use of drugs, life in "communes," the attraction of oriental spirituality on the young, etc. For it is in function of this whole context that monastic life must be re-examined today.

A General Chapter is a human group and, as such, needs certain structures established by legislation. And it is the same thing for the Order itself. But we must not forget that the purpose of such legislation and  structures is simply to give character and stability to our conduct in matters of minor importance (nos comportements accidentels), in order to release all one's attention for the basic issues. It would be an upheaval of values if the General Chapter devoted a large part of its energy to its own functioning and machinery.

It seems to me that all this can influence the question of the Constitutions. During the last Chapter I tried to draw attention to the danger of canonizing in the Constitutions a sort of "official theology" of Cistercian monastic life. It was a little bit the orientation of the New Charter of Charity, a plan that anyway has been set aside. But it seems to me that in the projects that are circulating at present, there are other dangers: that of expressing the fundamental values of religious life, or of Cistercian spirituality, by means of juridical prescriptions, and that of wanting to solve by legislation the antinomies of which I spoke above, and which cannot be solved outside of the actual life. I am wondering too, if we are not "wasting," in a certain manner, a large sum of precious energy in trying to find a form for Constitutions, the contents of which will be made known to us only by the experience of the years to come.

At the same time this allows me to give a word of explanation on my article "The Cistercian Nuns at the Crossroads." If there I was trying to show the advantages of juridical autonomy for our Sisters, it was because I was not envisaging the possibility in fact of a change in orientations for the General Chapter of the monks before a number of years. It seemed to me then that to establish mixed General Chapters -- with all that this implies from a juridical point o£ view -- was to devote a considerable sum of energy to getting structures under way that were destined to disappear a few years later. If the General Chapter takes, this very year, the direction that the Consilium Generale seems to have wanted, that is to say, if it becomes more and more an instrument of communion and less one of government, the question of relations between the two branches of the Order will take on a different colour, as Dom Flavian has pointed out to us in his letter of March 4, 1971

The Regional Conferences have been, up to now, in a very large measure what it seems to me the General Chapter should become. They are essentially an instrument of communion and of awareness (conscientization). They allow the representatives of the different communities to become aware together of life as it is lived in the Region. Between Chapters, the Consilium Generale could in its turn be a very useful instrument of communion between the Regions. There is no objection to considering the same Consilium as a means for the Regions to participate in the decisions concerning the whole Order, which might become necessary between the Chapters. But this "government" function would have to remain secondary and subordinate to the one of communion.

If, as it has been proposed, the Consilium Generale is formed by the Regional Presidents, then their role should take on a new character. It seems to me that the President of each Region should make a point of keeping up with everything that takes place in the Region: the hopes, the tensions, the new experiments, likewise with sociological and ecclesiastical evolution, and with the orientations of religious life as a whole, etc.... And after every meeting of the Consilium Generale, he should inform the whole Region of what he has learnt and discovered during the meeting, and of the new outlook that he has on the monastic vocation, and on its demands before God today.

As for the role of the Abbot General, his function within the Order seems to me more and more important. That he be freed as much as possible from all kinds of administrative tasks is undoubtedly an excellent thing. But I believe that it is very important that we keep within the Order someone who fulfils for it the role of "animator," that is, the function of the local abbot in his community. It seems to me that there lies the role that is needed for the Abbot General. It can be very useful for the Order to have an Abbot General who visits the communities -- not to make canonical Visitations -- but to enter into personal contact with each member of the Order, to be a bond of fraternal communion by the warmth of his human relations; to create, for instance, links of friendship by causing contacts between persons living in different latitudes, but who have the same preoccupations. In this way he could become sensitive to the problems and aspirations of each one, and help each one to become aware of the problems and aspirations of all. That is certainly a role that might be called “prophetic” and could in no way be entrusted to a commission or to some organism.


*    *    *


In the history of the Church there are two types of reform. At certain periods, for instance the XIIth century, we see a tidal wave, an irresistible movement of the Spirit which brings about an awareness, generally and universally, of certain Gospel-values and of new needs in the Church. This charismatic movement then raises up a fresh life, the energy of which cracks open the old structures and generates new ones. At other times the need for reform and renewal is apparent only to an élite, more intuitive and clear-sighted, which uses its influence to change the structures and to bring the others, in this indirect way, to a new awareness. Perhaps it is more particularly to this latter type that the renewal in the Church and in the Order since Vatican II would belong. But it might well be dangerous to go too far in this direction, because to make the structures and legislation into pedagogical instruments would be to deviate both from their purpose. It seems to me more important today to devote all our energy to an effort of "awareness - taking" (conscientization). What we need is a charismatic renewal and not a technocratic reform. That is why I think we need a Chapter of a prophetic nature much more than a legislative one. Would it be utopian to hope for it?

March 19, 1971

[1] Thomas Merton. "Final Integration : Toward a 'Monastic Therapy'." Monastic Studies, n 6, 1968, pp 87-99 -- especially 95-96.

[2] Martin Buber. I and Thou. N.Y: Charles Scribners Sons, 1958 (2d ed, paperback), p 95.

[3] Ibid, p 48

[4] Cf Jean-Jacques Walter, « L'Abbé et les formes modernes de l'autorité », in Collectanea Cisterciensia, 31, (1969), pp 161-163.

[5] Cf NOTE in Bulletin of the Canadian Religious Conference, December 1970.

[6] Cf Martin Buber's Address, "Education" in Between Man & Man. N.Y: Macmillan Paperbacks Edition, 1965, pp 83-113.

[7] Andrew Greeley. "Sociology and Church Structure," in Concilium. N.Y: Herder & Herder, 1970 (October), n 58. Burns £ Oates: 1970 (Oct), vol. 8, n.6, p.27.

[8] Ibid, p. 28