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Religious Life IN GENERAL







(This article appeared in a special issue of Monastic Studies [nº 16, Christmas 1985]
"In Honour of Dom Jean Leclercq)


The "journey" is one of the great spiritual archetypes found in every major religion and culture. It is not surprising, therefore, that monks have very often adopted the lifestyle of pilgrims. Such were the munis of pre-aryan India, the rishis and the sannyasin of Hinduism, as early as the period of the first Upanishads, the bikkus of Buddhism and the most ancient ascetics of Christianity whose life is described in the Acts of Thomas and the Liber Graduum. In the Western tradition of Christianity, the same spirituality of pilgrimage was at the heart of Celtic monasticism and inspired the missionary ventures of Augustine in England and Boniface in Germany.1

This was not a universal practice however. In the Christian East, the early Egyptian monks, while receiving a large and constant flow of visitors, were reluctant to adopt a wandering lifestyle themselves, and, in the West, Benedict clearly expressed his lack of esteem for those whom he called "gyrovagues". But although both Egyptian and Western monks after Benedict were characterized by a search for geographic stability, monastic life continued to be viewed by them as a journey, although essentially an interior one.

In our times, Western monasticism has known new forms of pilgrimage. After being restricted to Europe for several centuries, it has suddenly entered into a large movement of foundations, first in North America, and then in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Along with this implantation in various sectors of the Third Church, Western monasticism has begun, especially since Vatican II, to exercise a very active role in the Dialogue between Christianity and some of the great non-christian religions, of the Far East especially Hinduism and Buddhism.

Faithful to Benedict's preoccupation to distinguish between authentic spiritual pilgrimage and gyrovagism, it might be important at this point in the evolution of the monastic dialogue with other cultures and religions to ask ourselves what are the conditions for an authentic and fruitful pilgrimage.


* * *


Our century is characterized by the acceleration of history and the relativization of distances, as well as by a massive encounter of all the great cultures and religions of the world. Only half a century ago, few people had the opportunity to live in a culture other than their own. Few Westerners ever went to Asia or Africa, and the opposite was still more of an exception. Now, it has become a common practice. In the past, only a few specialists could study the great cultural and spiritual traditions -- old and new -- of other continents. Intercultural encounters and interreligious dialogues are more and more frequent.

One should be aware however that although about everybody is affected by such a cultural shift, very few are actively and consciously involved in the encounter and the dialogue mentioned above. These are generally limited to either specialists or liminal individuals.

Among the crowds of Westerners (mostly young people) going to the East in the fifties and sixties, there were authentic pilgrims, pursuing their spiritual journey beyond the limits of their native environment. There was also a very large number of cultural exiles and spiritual gyrovagues running away from a land were they had been unable to grow roots. Some found their roots over there; some found them in their own land when they came back. Many remained for ever rootless wanderers.

While the gyrovague is rootless, and therefore cannot really grow, the authentic pilgrim is someone solidly rooted. Either he has a "home" from which he comes and to which he will return at the end of his pilgrimage; or -- if he has adopted the existence of a permanent pilgrim -- he has found enough inner rootedness to go beyond the supportive environment of a geographical and cultural rootedness.

The pilgrim is at home everywhere without trying to build a home anywhere. He has a sense of freedom that can easily become a threat to anyone who still finds his security in the fact of belonging to a specific place and group or to a solid system. He is not a good client for the merchants of foreign spiritual goods. The gyrovague, on the contrary, builds temporary homes everywhere he goes, buys all the last products on the market and becomes the naive disciple of the last self-made master.

* * *


At the time when so many young people of North America and Europe were looking toward the East, European monks were busy making foundations mostly in Africa, and North American monks were doing the same in South America, although both Americans and Europeans did make a few foundations in Asia also.

The first wave of foundations, at the end of last century and the beginning of this one, with the exception of the two Trappist foundations in Japan, were mostly in the tradition of missionary benedictinism. The monks of St. Ottilien, usually accompanied or followed by the Sisters of Tutzing, realized a wonderful work of evangelization and education. But dialogue with the local culture and local religions was not the first preoccupation at that time.

A second wave of foundations, after Pius XII's appeal to the contemplatives, was different. A reasonably large group of founders came bringing both their monastic tradition and their culture. They were usually humble, good monks and nuns, and they rapidly realized the need to adapt their monastic way of life to the traditions of the local cultures. But this has never proved to be an easy task, either for the founders themselves or for the first generations of native monks or nuns. The dialogue with the local cultures was made extremely more difficult by the fact that those cultures were in a period of radical and rapid transformation, especially after the beginning of the movements of independence in Africa, in the sixties. Furthermore, the young who joined the new foundations were not necessarily those most in touch with the aspirations and problems of their own countries. A similar situation could be found in Latin America, specially since the development of the theology of liberation and the spirituality that grew out of it.

Since Vatican II, very few foundations have been made from Europe in Africa or in Latin America. But a new phenomenon has appeared. Instead of founders coming from outside and looking for candidates, we have now in several countries groups of aspirants to monastic life looking for founders, or at least for someone to help them start indigenous foundations. This approach to foundations is extremely promising, but has difficulties of its own. It is not rare that native members of such foundations are more reluctant to make adaptations to local cultures than most foreigners would be!

The growth of monastic life in the Third Church was greatly fostered by an initiative that owed much to Dom Jean Leclercq in its origin and in its development: the A.I.M. (Aide à l'Implantation monastique, later rebaptized Aide Inter-Monastères). Providing various forms of help to isolated monasteries, it also organized in each continent (Africa, Asia, Latin America), conferences of superiors and other representatives of the local communities. While creating a spirit of common search and common openness, it developed a spirit of "pilgrim". The founders realized more and more that they were pilgrims in a foreign land, bringing a tradition, a presence, and making the obvious external adaptations, but leaving to the next generations the responsibility to do more radical and profound adaptations.

Much has been said about acculturation. My own feeling is that what is needed is not so much acculturation as deculturation. What I mean is that we must become free form every culture, transcend every culture: the one we come from and the one we find ourselves in. If one is free, he will have no difficulty in expressing his values in the language and customs of the tradition in which he happens to be a pilgrim, but he will remain himself and he will also be free enough to challenge the culture where he is on pilgrimage. For, if it is true that Christianity (and monasticism) must speak to every culture in a language they can understand, it is also true that every culture must be challenged by Christianity and monasticism. It is not enough for a monk to become Indian or African; he must become an Indian monk or an African monk... and evidently a Christian monk.

* * *


Various circumstances have caused the large conferences organized by the AIM in Asia to be opportunities for contact with representatives of the Eastern religions. Because of that, the Holy See asked the monks to assume a responsibility and a leading role in the dialogue with Eastern spiritual traditions. In fact, interreligious and intercultural dialogue can be a form of pilgrimage extremely consistent with the monastic vocation, since the monk is called to a final integration going beyond any particular culture. The A.I.M. accepted to fulfill that task, and two sub-commissions were founded one in America, in the Summer of 1977 (North American Board for East-West Dialogue) and, a few months later, another one in Europe (Dialogue Inter-Monastères).

Interest in such a dialogue has developed among monks and nuns of Europe and America more than among members of the Christian monastic communities of Asia. And in Asia, it has often been promoted by Europeans who have been living there for a long time rather than by Asians themselves. The reasons for this do not seem to be often understood in the West. Asians who have grown in contact with other religious traditions are at times in radical reaction to them, but I have rarely found that attitude in monasteries of the East. The Eastern monks and nuns rather believe that they have learned from the local traditions through the daily contacts they have had since their youth and that it has really affected their lives. Westerners fail often to understand that Eastern people who follow a traditional external form of Benedictine or Cistercian life can be much more influenced in their spiritual experience by their Eastern background than Westerners (living in the East or in the West) who have adopted Eastern customs of sitting and clothing and Eastern techniques of concentration and meditation. Easterners are often, and quite rightly so, amused or offended by that Western naiveté.

Someone may, like Merton, have learned a good deal, and grown a lot, in his spiritual life through various forms of contact with great masters of other traditions, although he has never felt the attraction or the need to use their techniques. On the other hand, someone may have replaced his chairs with cushions, decorated the walls of his praying room with pictures of Buddha or Confucius and ornated his chapel with an artistic (?) mixture of Christian statues, Hindu gods and goddesses and perhaps a few African sculptures, without drawing any spiritual fruit from such eclecticism. Any one who has traveled somewhat in monastic circles knows that this is not only a caricature. And this may be the best way to portray the difference between an authentic pilgrim and a spiritual tourist or gyrovague.

For a very long time the most active participants in monastic interreligious dialogue have been specialists who, as part of their spiritual search of for academic reasons (or both) have acquired a very respectable knowledge of one or many traditions and at times have adopted the use of spiritual techniques from these traditions. Along with those authentic pilgrims, the roads of dialogue are cluttered with spiritual gyrovagues settling successively in zazen, yoga, T.M., etc... Even the pilgrimage of the specialists runs at the time the danger of being a pilgrimage into the past. The Vedas and the Upanishads are masterpieces of spirituality from which we can always learn. They are not however the most direct introduction to concrete Hinduism of today. Just as Origenes' Peri Archon or Meister Eckhart's sermons, while being very deep Christian writings would probably not be the best introduction to present day Christianity for a Buddhist or a Hindu.

The real challenge at the present time is really to make the masses of monastics of the East and of the West -- christians and non-christians -- aware of each others' religious traditions. Some important steps in that direction have been made recently through various forms of hospitality programs: Buddhist monks have spent some periods of time in various Western Christian communities, and Western monks and nuns have done the same thing in the East. In that way not only a few specialists, but whole communities, on both sides, are in contact with a living spiritual tradition different from theirs. This is certainly more necessary and more useful at this time than anything else.


* * *


In order to be an authentic pilgrim one usually needs to undergo a conversion. Anyone -- from the West or the East -- who journeys into a foreign world tends naturally to be an explorer and potentially a conqueror. A pilgrim is a person absolutely powerless.

As long as the early Christians were a poor, small, persecuted group of people, they were powerless, open to dialogue. Christian theology knew its most wonderful development at that time, in dialogue with Greek philosophy. Early Christian asceticism and early monasticism developed also at that time, in dialogue with local cultures and they adopted forms proper to each local Church. But starting with the fourth century, the Church getting used to the exercise of the power received from the Roman Emperor, lost its capacity for dialogue. No dialogue is possible between two parties when one of the two is in a position of power. Dialogue presupposes that someone first renounces power, or at least the exercise of power.

The greatest danger of Inter-religious dialogue today is probably that it can easily become a conspiracy of the powerful against the powerless. Here, what I want to say has been said much better than I could do by a man who has been for a very long time one of the most active and most courageous pioneers of dialogue between Christians and Buddhists, and a real monk at heart, although a Jesuit by religious profession, father Aloysius Pieris:

"I cannot help concluding these comments with a warning that much of Zen-Christian dialogue could be an escape from many serious demands of our society, and that this is quite contrary to both the spirit of Zen... and of Christianity. It was clear to me, after visiting many centers of "oriental mysticism" (a blanket term that covers practically everything from zen to yoga) in certain parts of America, that it is "White middle class Americans" that frequent them. The Blacks, the ethnic minorities who are struggling for justice and equality, are looking for structural changes to bring peace, and are not attracted to Meditation! It is naive to think that peace obtained from zen or Christian prayer can automatically spread over the wide earth without an organized effort to change the systems within which humankind is made to operate egoistically.

"Both Buddhism and Christianity have to dialogue also at this level of "action for collective peace". Dialogue of the nature described above as happening in Japan, and in the West, should not degenerate into a self-enclosing experience of the upper classes. It would be unfair by both religions. It would be a further confirmation of the well known Marxian thesis that religion is an illusory peace which prevents the real peace that comes from equality. Dialogue should not be a conspiracy of two religions to make themselves irrelevant in a society that defines peace as unselfish sharing of world resources."2

Another pioneer of Dialogue in Sri Lanka, Lynn A. de Silva has something similar to say:

"The question that arises... is whether an inter-monastic dialogue between Buddhists and Christians would ever be worth the effort, here, in Asia, if it ignores the plight of the Asian masses. If it does, would not such a dialogue amount to a monastic conspiracy against the masses that serve and support the monks?"3

What Father Pieris and Lynn de Silva say of Asia and North America could be said also of Africa and South America. In these two continents, among the large groups of young people who invest all their faith and their energy in the fight for justice and for the structural changes that will make peace possible, there is a very deep spiritual experience. There does not seem however to be much dialogue between them and those who live in the monasteries. I lived in one African country for a few years, and had the opportunity to visit several others. In my African community I had a good group of excellent aspirants. But in the same period, I established some contacts with young people of the YCS (Young Christian Students) movement; and at times it was very difficult to believe that the two groups came from the same culture.

In a Church that preach a preferential option for the poor, dialogue with the local religion must be a dialogue with the religion of the masses fighting for survival and liberation. In those conditions, a dialogue with a few alienated intellectuals would be at best dilettantism. More than one in Africa think that most of the efforts make to inculturate the liturgy by introducing in it external local customs (that are already considered as folklore by a large part of the population) are a way of avoiding the real vital issues of the masses.

* * *


In an article that had probably an autobiographical flavor Thomas Merton described monastic life as a therapy and the accomplished monk as someone who had reached final integration.

"The man who has attained final integration is no longer limited by the culture in which he has grown up. 'He has embraced all of life... He has experienced qualities of every type of life': ordinary human existence, intellectual life, artistic creation, human love, religious life. He passes beyond all these limiting forms, while retaining all that is best and most universal in them, 'finally giving birth to a fully comprehensive self.' He accepts not only his own community, his own society, his own friends, his own culture, but all mankind. He does not remain bond to one limited set of values in such a way that he opposes them aggressively or defensively to others. He is fully "catholic" in the best sense of the word. He has a unified vision and experience of the one truth shining out in all its various manifestations, some clearer than others, some more definite and more certain than others. He does not set these partial views up in opposition to each other, but unifies them in a dialectic or an insight of complementarity. With this view of life he is able to bring perspective, liberty and spontaneity into the lives of others. The finally integrated man is a peacemaker, and that is why there is such a desperate need for our leaders to become such men of insight."4

Nobody can enter the paths of dialogue as an authentic pilgrim without having reached at least a certain degree of such integration. Merton was such a man. Deeply rooted in his own tradition, he was able to understand almost by osmosis the basic teachings of other traditions and to develop deep friendship with authentic representatives of these traditions. It is also extremely important to note that the period of his life when he more and more entered into that dialogue was the period when he became also more and more deeply concerned with the fate of the oppressed and of the victims of war.

Great "pilgrims" can easily be found throughout the history of monasticism. Let me mention only one from the past -- in many ways one of the greatest, Evagrius Ponticus. He came to the desert with the best education one could acquire in his time. Formed in the school of Alexandria he had drunk deep not only from the Greek wisdom but also from non-hellenic springs of spirituality. Having reached a great personal unity and freedom, he came to the desert with humility and learned from the experience of the great army of monks who had preceded him in Nitria and Kellia. And he was able to express that experience (his and that of other monks from whom he learned) in a powerful spiritual system.

It is not by accident that one of the contemporary theologians who has most violently reacted to the present movement of dialogue with the East, Hans Urs von Balthasar, (whom Father Pieris sees as "the most formidable defender" of Western Christianity) has always considered Evagrius as a threat, considering him as more buddhist than christian.5 Other have shown that Balthasar has interpreted Evagrius' pre-Chalcedonian christian experience with post-Chalcedonian concepts and, because of that, has failed to see him as authentically christian.6 In fact, nobody would deny that Balthasar was right in judging severely what, in this article, I have called "gyrovagism". What I find distressing in his voice and in the voices that joined his is the (at least apparent) refusal of the possibility of a pilgrimage beyond the limits of a religious system into an experience that transcends all the systems. Is it not what monastic life is all about?7

Evagrius lived sixteen centuries ago. If we want to find in our own time someone who has manifested himself as an authentic "pilgrim", we will think immediately of the great monk to whom this Festschrift is dedicated.

If Dom Jean Leclercq has been, during the last three or four decades, the object of so much love and admiration all over the world, it is because he went everywhere as a very simple and humble pilgrim. Rooted in his own tradition, he has always remained himself, never trying to transform himself externally into anything else that what he is. And, because of that, he is at ease everywhere and with everyone. From everyone he learns something and to everyone he has something to teach that he has learned from his previous experiences and encounters. Many of us have been initiated to dialogue by him and to all he has shown in his life what it is to be an authentic pilgrim monk.



Holy Spirit Monastery Armand Veilleux, o.c.s.o.
2625 Hwy 212 S.W.
Conyers, Ga. 30208-4044




1 - For early Christian monasticism see: Antoine GUILLAUMONT, "Le dépaysement comme forme d'ascèse dans le monachisme ancien" in: Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Ve section: Sciences religieuses, Annuaire l968-69, t.76, Paris 1968, 31-58; Reprinted in: Aux origines du monachisme chrétien. Pour une phénoménologie du monachisme, (= Spiritualité Orientale, no. 30), Bellefontaine l979, pp. 89-116. For the Middle Age, see: Jean LECLERCQ, "Mönchtum und Peregrinatio im Frühmittelalter" in Römische Quartalschrift 55 (1960), 212-255; "Monachisme et pérégrination du IXe au XIIe siècle, in Studia Monastica 3 (1961) 33-52; these two studies were published again in J. LECLERCQ, Aux sources de la spiritualité occidentale, Paris, 1964, 35-90.

2 - Aloysius PIERIS, "The Zen-Christian Dialogue in Japan - The first Impression of a Sri Lankan Christian", in Dialogue, New Series 3 (1976), 111-112.

3 - Lynn DE SILVA, "The Monks and the Asian Reality", in Dialogue, New Series 7 (1980), 47.

4 - Louis [Thomas] MERTON, "Final Integration: Toward a 'Monastic Therapy', Monastic Studies, No. 6, 1968, 94.

5 - Hans Urs von BALTHASAR, "Metaphysik und Mystik des Evagrius Ponticus", in Zeitschrift für Aszese und Mystik 14 (1939), 32.

6 - Aloysius PIERIS, "Western Christianity and Asian Buddhism: A Theological Reading of Historical Encounters", Dialogue, New Series 7 (1980), 59-60; David GRIFFIN, "Evagrius Ponticus, Mystic Theologian", Benedictine Confluence, Latrobe, Winter 1973, 15.

7 - See Paul MASSEIN, "The Buddhist and the Christian Points of View about Meditation Techniques", A.I.M. Bulletin, no. 27, 50-55 (analysis of von Balthasar's article "Meditation als Verrat [A Meditation - Betrayal]"); see also Pierre de Béthune's review of a recent book by von Balthasar and several other authors (Des bords du Gange aux Rives du Jourdain, paris, 1983) in Bulletin. Secretariatus pro non Christianis, 19 (l984), 103-107.