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Presentation of my document on Lay Cistercians


 By : Armand Veilleux


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I am certainly not going to read the whole document that you have received and that was composed as a written document and not as the text of a talk.  The Internet link has been communicated to you, and I have the impression that many of you, if not most of you, have read it.  This morning I will only to single out the main points of that document.


I wrote that paper recently, but it had been germinating in my head – and my heart – for a long time.  In writing it I had two goals.  The first one was to describe the main lines of evolution of that movement that we call the “Lay Cistercians”, during a period of more or less a quarter of a century.  The other goal was to identify the main questions and the main challenges with which the Cistercian family (nuns, monks and lay people) is presently faced, and to indicate the main possible choices.  Some of these choices can be made by the Lay people themselves;  others by the respective General Chapters with – one should hope – a real concertation.


In the historical part of my document, my goal, as I just said, was to describe the broad lines of evolution during the last quarter of a century.  This is not the “history” of the movement properly speaking.  It would be too early to write it.  Of course, I have not said everything, and there are certainly interesting and rich experiences that I have not mentioned and probably some that I am not aware of. What seemed important to me was to perceive and convey the dynamics of a movement that is, as I am convinced, a movement of the Holy Spirit.  After producing numerous expressions of the Cistercian charism in the past, the Spirit is in the process of giving a new expression of that same charism.  Since the Founders of Cîteaux called their foundation Novum monasterium (new monastery), one can say that “newness” is part of the particular charism of Cîteaux in every period of history.


Someone could ask : “Is there really anything new?”  There were always, indeed, lay people, men and women, who established deep spiritual bonds with a monastic community either of men or of women.  They found a place of prayer and sometimes the spiritual direction or accompaniment of a nun or a monk in the monastery, and, in their fraternal relationship with the community, an encouragement and a support for their lay life in the world.  This always existed.  It is a reality of which one can rejoice and give thanks to God; but there nothing new nowadays in this.


Likewise, there we always also lay people who found a inspiration for their won spiritual life in the Cistercian culture and literature and also in the spirituality that was transmitted through that literary and spiritual tradition, whether these persons had a particular relationship with a monastic community or not. 


What is new in what is happening presently lays, I think, in two main elements:


a) The first element is the fact that lay people who found a profit and a source of inspiration for their own life in their relationship with a monastic community and its spirituality have discovered that other lay people around them lived the same reality and felt the need to enter in communion with them – among lay persons – in the same grace.  Thus, were formed, -- generally around an abbey but not always – group of lay persons  living that same experience. According to each one’s cultural and spiritual different sensitivity, this groups have been called simply “groups” or “brotherhoods” or “communities”.  Under those different names, and in spite of the great variety of forms of expression, there is the same charism that is found in each group;  which is the charism of communion, of koinonia, and therefore an eminently ecclesial charism.


b) The second element that constitutes the originality of your movement – and I insist that it is “your” movement, because it came from the lay people and not from the Order – is that it the “incarnation” of the Cistercian charism in the life of lay persons.  And we can distinguish two aspects in this.  The first aspect  is that, more or less everywhere around the world, lay people felt the need and the call not only to establish a close relationship with a monastic community, but also a call to live of its spirituality.  The second aspect , which is a consequence of the first, has been the call felt by many lay persons to incarnate – or embody – in their lay life (that is, in their family, in their work situation as well as in their social or political involvements) the essential values of Cistercian life – values that monks and nuns strive to live in their own way.


In order to see this new development in a broader perspective, a few historical observation can be useful.   There was in the twelfth century, in the whole people of God, outside the monasteries, a growing movement of spiritual renewal, that called for a return to evangelical simplicity, to simple and contemplative prayer, to poverty and, most of all, to the ideal of the first Christian Community in Jerusalem.  The foundation of Cîteaux was born out of that vast movement of renewal that blew over the whole Church, and that was essentially a lay moment at the heart of a Church that had become extremely clerical in the last centuries before the twelfth one.


Cîteaux gave a monastic expression to that spiritual movement of renewal and it has maintained it alive in the just till our time, through its ups and downs, its periods of decadence, of reform and of renewal.  Today, the Holy Spirit, who does not lack a sense of humour, seems to want to use monastic communities, many of them are rather precarious and, from a human point of view, weak, to revive this charism of renewal among the lay people, at the heart of the People of God, where that charism was born and where the monks and nuns received it.  Thus the circle is closed.



Questions and challenges for lay people and for the Order today.


A) The question of some type of recognition of Lay Cistercians


First of all, we must say that any person may integrate in her or his life the Christian values that are at the core of Cistercian Life.  And, obviously, nobody needs any permission to do so.  But when a person or a group give to themselves a name that has a very precise meaning in society and in the Church, some form of recognition is necessary – ad this is true for lay people as well as for monks and nuns.  The Cistercian charism does not belong to any group.  It belongs to the Church, that is to the whole People of God.  But the Cistercian Orders and Congregations presently recognized by the ecclesiastical authority of the Church are the guardians or the stewards  of that charism.  If a person or a group without any link with a recognized monastic community uses the Cistercian habit and say : we are “Cistecians”, the Church authority will have to say, “they are not Cistercians”, even if their way of life may be very edifying, so that the People of God may not be misled.  It is the same thing with lay people.  Lay people may call themselves “Cistercians” only if they have received some form of official recognition.


For the last twenty-five years, the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance (which is not the only Cistercian Order, but that about which I can speak with some knowledge) chose to let the movement evolve, giving each community the responsibility of making its own discernment in this situation.  Personally, I always thought that it has been up to now the pastorally wisest attitude.  However, I belong to the growing number of those who think that the time has come for some type of more official recognition.  This can be done at various levels.


a) The local community. Many groups were born out of the initiative of a few lay persons who found an openness on the part of a member of a monastic community.  In some cases, the abbot or the abbess simply gave a tacit agreement. In other cases the agreement was more explicit and sometimes it was the abbot himself who accompanied the group.  This may function well, but remains very precarious.  Indeed, the monk who accompanies the group may die, or go elsewhere, and the abbot may say that he has no one to replace him.  Likewise, an abbot may be favourable to the presence of a lay group attached the abbey, but his successor may very well not want to hear about it at all.  This is a reason why some think that it would be important, after some time, for the conventual chapter of the community to approve the existence of that group of Lay Cistercians by a vote, so that the next abbot would not be able to suppress it easily.  An abbot, however, may very well not feel bound by this vote, if the existence of such a lay community, which is not mentioned in our Constitutions, is not explicitly approved as a possibility by the General Chapter.


b) The Order. The General Chapter may, as it did in the past, invite Lay Cistercians to the General Chapter.  It may also receive a letter or a message from Lay Cistercians reunited in an International Conference and give an answer to it.  All this evidently constitutes an implicit recognition of the movement.  That implicit recognition runs however the risk of not having much sense and even of being irresponsible, if the General Chapter does not say clearly what it recognizes and under which conditions.


Such a recognition could take many forms.  Of course, one cannot ask the General Chapter to recognize each one of the groups of Lay Cistercians individually.  The recognition I am talking about could, for example, simply reside in the fact that the General Chapter, through an official vote, would say that each community is free to create an association with a group of Lay people.  The Chapter could specify some conditions.  For example, it could stipulate that for lay people to call themselves “Cistercians” they must belong to a community of lay persons approved by the conventual chapter of a Cistercian community; and could perhaps state that neither the abbot or abbess alone, or even the community, will be able to suppress that lay branch of the community unless some conditions be fulfilled.


Theoretically one could think of other forms of official recognition by the Order, such as the creation of a type of Third Order, parallel to the two male and female monastic branches.  But that solution has few proponents; and therefore I won’t devote time to it here.


Likewise, I will not dedicate time considering another option that would be that all the Lay Cistercian Communities would ask to be recognize by the Church as an International Association of Lay Cistercians.  Still fewer are willing to go down that road.



B) The practical management of an international movement.


The various groups of Lay Cistercians that exist have, for a long time, felt the need to establish a communion among themselves.  This is what led to the holding of three International Meetings, before the present one.  At each International Meeting, the representatives of the groups that were represented asked a few persons to prepare the following meeting and to ensure some coordination of the sharing among the groups between the meetings.  The mission of the group, however, was never clearly defined, at least not in a text voted by the Assembly.


An additional difficulty is that, once the International Meeting was finished, the group of persons that had elected the Steering Committee did not exist any longer.  There is no moral person (an organisation or an association, etc.) from which the Steering Committee receives its mandate and to which it must give an account of its mandate at the time of the next meeting.  Would it not be the time to constitute yourselves into a kind of Free Association of lay Cistercian Communities, with a minimal amount of rules and statutes, in order to coordinate the communion and communication among the groups and in order to give the Steering Committee a clear mandate. (This is totally different from an Association of Lay persons in the canonical sense).



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