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The Importance of the Monastic Community and the Church in the Contemplative Life

The word "contemplation" is a beautiful and rich word. It is also an ambiguous one, because of the various ways in which it has been understood in the Christian tradition. The expression "contemplative life", used in the title of this talk, does not have the same ambiguity. It expresses very well what I consider to be the most important dimension of contemplation. Contemplation, as I see it, is not an isolated act, some kind a peak experience attained in some rare occasions. It is a way of life.

As Christians, we have our spiritual roots in the religious experience of Israel, and the main characteristic of the religious experience of the people of Israel was to have perceived God as someone present to its life -- its victories and its defeats, its joys and its suffering. A contemplative person is not only someone who sees God, that is, who sees God in everything and in everyone, but also a person who sees everything and everyone with God's eyes. The contemplative person is the one who is deeply present to everything she/he lives and experiences.

The God of the Bible and the Father of Jesus Christ, is neither someone far distant in Heaven who cannot be reached by human beings, nor someone who deals with isolated individuals. Our God wants to establish deeply personal relationship with each one of us, but always reminding us that we are part of a people, of a family of believers, of a family of nations. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God of Jesus Christ, who is the first born of a multitude of believers.

For that reason, there is an essential relationship between contemplative life and the experience of community and church. Christ is the Sacrament of Salvation, because he is the perfect visible manifestation, the perfect incarnation of the Father's desire of salvation for the whole humankind. The Church, that is, the community of those who believe in Christ, is the visible manifestation of the same reality under the sign of a visible and active communion in love, faith and hope. To receive Christ's message is to be called to follow him with others and to embody his message of universal love in our life of service, worship and universal compassion, with others. A monastic community is a particular way of realizing that mission and that sacrament.

This, of course, can be lived in various ways. I will speak from the experience of a coenobitic monastic tradition that follows the Rule of Saint Benedict and that has been handed down to me through the Cistercian way of life.

The only way to speak about such reality is to speak from experience. I could speak from my own experience, sharing with you my desires, my trials and my failures, but also my ongoing commitment to this contemplative search. I could also speak from the experience of all those who have shared with us what they have tried to live, through their teaching and their writings. And the body of Christian and monastic literature on contemplative life is very large. I have rather chosen to present to you the experience of a concrete community of Christian monks who have recently achieved, through their martyrdom, the ultimate realization of their contemplative community experience. They developed that experience through several years of common life, and showed its authenticity by facing death together. What they lived was particularly well expressed in a short text written by one of them.

You have already understood that I am talking about the community of O.L. of Atlas, in Algeria, and about Dom Christian de Chergé's Testament.

That small monastic community was a typically Christian community, that is, not a group of people who had chosen each other, but a group of persons who had chosen the same vocation, or rather who had all been called to the same mission. The history of the community is complex. Founded as a refuge by a group of monks from Slovenia in 1934, it soon became a regular foundation of a French abbey, when Algeria was still a French territory. The monastery survived the war of Independence of Algeria and the departure of almost all te French from Algeria. At some point the Order thought of closing it, but then decided to maintain it as a Christian contemplative presence in a Muslim society. The community was then refurbished with monks coming from various communities and different monastic traditions. They were all strong people who had chosen to come to Algeria. It was only through dialogue, prayer and contemplative attention to the manifestations of God's will that they attained a deep and amazing unity that kept them joyfully courageous during the dangerous last three years of their life.

Let us now look at some aspects of their experience through some passages of Christian's Testament (which was a text written on the day when the first threats against their life were made):

    If it should happen one day... that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family to remember that my life was given to God and to this country.

There are several elements of great significance in that short sentence. Christian wants his community, his Church, his family to remember something. His life has not been a solitary relationship between him and God. He is aware of belonging to a community (my community); to a Church (my Church) and to a natural family (my family). All those relationships were very important for him. But more important was the fact that his life did not belong to him. It had been given. And it had given not only to God but also to this country, that is, Algeria. Everything here is very incarnated. He does not own his own life; he does not own his community, his church, his family; he has renounced them; but they remain important for him. He is, therefore, a free man, a poor and a pure of heart who can see God.

That radical detachment was not something done one day once for all, and done alone. It was a common experience he had done with the rest of his community. In their last circular letter, in December 1995, the brothers of Atlas said, speaking of a possible death: "the violent death of one of us or of all of us together would be simply the logical consequence of all the forms of renunciation we have already done: of family, country, community in order to follow Christ..."

Because of all these encompassing forms of renunciation, the real community of Christian and of his brothers his made up not only of the twelve monks of Tibhirine and Fès, but also of the members of their respective family, and of all the Algerian people, whom they loved.

Christian loves them so much that he cannot desire martyrdom, since this would be to desire that someone whom he loves should commit a terrible crime against the God of live.

    I don't see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder. It would be too high a price to pay for what will be called, perhaps, the "grace of martyrdom", to owe this to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

Someone who has reached that level of purity of heart is a real contemplative. And this is the deep relationship between community life and contemplative life. We must now read the most important section of Christian's text:

    "... my most insistent curiosity will then be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills, immerse my gaze in that of the Father to contemplate with him His children of Islam as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playing with the differences."

In everything that has been said and written about inter-religious dialogue, I don't think there is anything whatsoever that has reached such a depth. On the one hand their is this contemplative attitude that wants to see through God's eyes and contemplate all his children of Islam (of Buddhism, of Hinduism, of Israel, etc.) as he sees them, in all their shining beauty. On the other hand their is this beautiful vision of a playful God who takes a secret joy in establishing communion, refashioning in each one the original likeness (His likeness), playing with the differences.

Then, Dom Christian thanks God for his life:

    "This life lost, totally mine and totally theirs,
    I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely...
    In this THANK YOU which is said for everything in my life, from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, O my friends of this place..."

Then comes the most mysterious and most beautiful part of the text. At the beginning of the Testament there was a kind of sub-title: "Quand un A-Dieu est en-visagé" The French word A-Dieu is much stronger than the English equivalent "Farewell". (Actually, it corresponds to the original meaning of Good Bye). Then there is a play with the French word en-visagé; which means "envisaged", contemplated, but can also mean, in the line of thought of Lévinas, en-visagé: that is something that has received a visage, or has been transformed into a visage.

With this in mind we can understand the final part of the message, where Christian speaks to the person who might take his life:

    And you too, my last-minute friend, who would not have known what you were doing.. Yes, for you too I say this Thank You and this A-Dieu "en-visagé de toi": that is, commending you to the God who has taken a visage in you (or in whose face I see God).

This capacity of seeing God's face, God's incarnation, in the person who is slitting your throat is certainly the fruit of a profound contemplative life lived in deep relationship with a group of brothers, with a Church and with the whole human family.

The community of O.L. of Atlas was an ordinary small monastic community, living a life of solitude, prayer, work and silence. When it became dangerous for foreigners and especially for Christians to stay in Algeria, and when they were all invited to leave, several people said to the monks: "You should leave. We understand that missionaries want to stay in order to continue their work of evangelization; but there is no reason for you to stay here, since you can continue your life of prayer in any other place. To pray here or to pray in France is just the same thing." Such a reasoning did not make any sense to these monks. Because they had lived that life of prayer for so long together and in that place, not only had they become deeply united as a community, but they had created deep bonds with the whole local Church, on the one hand, and also with a group of devout Muslims, especially a Sufi community, that regularly came to the monastery to reflect and pray with them, on the other hand. They had also developed deep bonds of friendship with the local population, to the point of letting the local Muslims use a building of the monastery as the village mosche.

Does all of that has anything to do with contemplative life? Of course it has. It was their presence, not as individuals, but as a Christian community in a Muslim world that gradually enabled them to see God -- not an abstract God, but a God who had been "en-visagé", that is, who had assumed a face in each one of those Muslim brothers, including the one who might slit their throats.

And the story has not stopped with their death. Because of what these very humble and simple monks lived, and because of the way they died, millions of people, including millions of Algerian Muslims, have also seen something of God's face in them. Contemplative life has no frontiers.

Gethsemani, July 25, 1996


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