Abbaye N.-D. d'Altbronn

Cistercian contemplative identity 

A contemplative approach

In the following reflections I have tried to follow a pastoral approach to the proposed theme of the Cistercian contemplative identity:  how to support and encourage the contemplative orientation of our communities in our service as Abbots and Abbesses.

Please allow me to speak in the feminine only, since this is a fraternal sharing from a personal point of view.

It seems to me that the Abbess can only serve the contemplative identity of her community in the measure that she has clear and strong convictions within her.  These heartfelt convictions, and her continuous personal conversion, can then be expressed in her teaching and pastoral care and inspire her vigilance and discernment regarding the day to day living - practical as well as spiritual - of the community and each of its members.


1. To Believe in the Grace of Our Vocation.

Like the baptismal grace in which it originates, the contemplative identity is engraved in us, as a seed, with promise of what it can become by the grace of our particular vocation in the Church.

This free gift can only unfold in someone who is free of self, detached and given over to the action of the Spirit.  Thus, we are called to enter into the dynamic of conversion for the integration of our being, in love.

Marked with the seal of serious commitment in the way outlined by the Rule of St. Benedict and our Constitutions, it will take an entire lifetime for us to "become what we are": called to live "through love in His Presence" (Eph 1:4), to "be conformed to the image of His Son" (Rom 8:29), by participating in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus "under the guidance of the Gospel".

It will take an entire lifetime for us to "be responsive to the Holy Spirit and so attain purity of heart and a continual mindfulness of God's Presence". (Cst 3:2)

2. To Return to the Heart.

To dispose our heart to receive the image of Jesus, to allow the Holy Spirit to make of us a devoted and loving being who resembles the well-beloved Son, it seems to me that the fundamental interior disposition is presence to oneself, an attentive, recollected being.

"Where to look for the Well-Beloved?" asks Bernard..."It is He who is present and I who am not". (S.Div.4:2)   To be there, to find the road to our heart, to leave the surface in order to enter into our depths, to pass from forgetfulness to remembrance.

"To live with oneself, in one's own heart and stay there in the presence of the Master of the earth" (Div 3l:l). 

Presence to the other, the neighbor, God; this is only possible in the measure one is present to oneself, in profound attention of the heart, since self-knowledge is the way to the knowledge of God.

"Advance as far as yourself to meet your God.", Bernard so rightly says. (Adv.1:10)  Throughout the whole of Biblical Revelation, God does not cease to manifest Himself as an "I", does not cease to say to us: "I am with you".  "Here I am."  He is only able to be met by our "Here I am", which brings us into our depths, into the One who is.

3. A Self Awakened in Faith, Listening.

In the concrete reality of our life, we need to pass from "God was

there and I didn't know it" to a living faith in His loving and active Presence, to an awakened consciousness of His loving look upon us "at every moment...everywhere" (RB 7), constantly listening to His voice, His Word, which is Jesus, to the Spirit who prays in us: Abba, Father.

When presence to oneself opens out into a faithful adherence to the Divine Presence, listening is possible:  You are there...I am there... "Happy the soul who perceives in silence the pulsing murmur of God, and who often repeats: Speak, Lord, Your child is listening." (Div.23:7)

Listening to the Word proclaimed in the liturgy, meditated, savored in Lectio, welcomed in prayerful silence, in fraternal love as well as in daily events...all life becomes a place of listening to the Word which transfigures.

Whoever wants to be a disciple of the Word, let him/her offer Him attention and interior silence, fruit of vigilance of the heart, which allows the Word to speak Itself within the disciple, to bear fruit in the measure of his/her consent to accomplishing this.

A Self Tending to Unity in Love.

Listening causes knowledge and commits one to filial obedience, awakens and nourishes "the love poured into our hearts", and leads us to mark all our actions with the seal of love, to walk toward our unity and freedom, receiving ourselves from our Source, remaining bound to Him in everything and detaching ourselves from what is secondary in order to center ourselves on the One, through the example and prayer of the Virgin Mary.

A Self Committed to Conversion... the dynamism of hope: "the hope of pardon, of grace, of Glory". (Div.22:5)

If love unifies the self, it cannot be conceived without conversion; this conversion which at each instant tends to "restore the likeness through ascesis of the heart body, of the monastic observances.

4. Today as Yesterday, the Rule of St. Benedict...

...made concrete by the Abbess, in the light of our new Constitutions, is word and "lamp to our feet, to lead us along this way of a Godly life, centered on a Presence - recognized and loved in everything and everyone in faith, and by listening to the Word.

Today as yesterday, "the practice of our Rule can introduce us to the lived truth of the evangelical Beatitudes".  (Paul VI)


I will now point out several themes which seem to me to represent, and at the same time sustain a life seized by the Divine Presence and oriented toward it.

1. To Awaken to the Essential, to Tend toward Consistency

In the name of the authority which is confided to her - and I mean authority in the etymological sense of the term, which speaks of service for the development of the other, assistance in growth -the Abbess is missioned to be a presence calling forth, to remain awake and to constantly awaken others to the Essential, to recall our monastic identity and its contemplative dimension.  This is what we are called to be, through grace, and from this flows the imperative of consistency, of ceaseless adaptation of our heart and our behavior.

Thus, the teaching of the Abbess will consist more in returning to the person, her new identity in Christ and her monastic vocation, than in an external law.

2. To Have a Keen Sense of Grace and the Movement of Grace.

Can one "lose one's life" in adoration, praise, humble service of the community, received in obedience, without keeping the gaze of one's heart fixed on this prodigal God and, in faith and the awareness of being a sinner, have a keen sense of grace and its movement in us?

What is more contrary to prayer and its contemplative regard than a soul that has become used to wonder, insensitive to the gratuity of the gift given to it?

The inexhaustible grace with which we are filled calls for the gift of self in return and a measureless gratitude, for ingratitude sterilizes the gifts of God and "keeps us from making progress in our Christian commitment". (Div.27:8)  Thanksgiving is the prayer of the Son.  It unites us to the Eucharist of Jesus and "prepares in us a space for grace...Therefore, happy the one who, for the least benefits, gives heartfelt thanks". (idem)

3. To Open Oneself to the Gift of Filial Confidence

Is not filial confidence the fruit of welcoming in faith and love the revelation of the Mystery of the Trinity?  A trait characteristic of the son who knows himself to be loved, taken over by something greater than himself?

One of the obstacles to loving attention to the Presence of God, to availability to His Will and putting oneself in His Hands, is concern for self, for the realities of this world, for the morrow.  This keeps us from remaining in the present moment, clutters the heart and stifles the seed of the Word.  How can the one who is preoccupied by egotistic and disordered concerns be free for listening, for the prayer of praise, or intercessory prayer?

Is it not also filial confidence that teaches us to consent to reality, to who we are, to our Community as it is?  To also welcome the fact of ageing and the lack of vocations, as a grace, as a challenge to our faith and hope?

Will our heart believe and love enough to be confident and commit itself without compromise or anxiety for the morrow, in the fidelity of this day where only what is born of love has value for eternity?

Will we consent to enter more deeply into the dynamism of the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of the grain that dies "so that all may have Life" and believe in the mysterious fecundity of a life given over for the Church and the world? 

It is for us to be witness of hope, "to be signs that it is possible to live with hope in insecurity" (Jean Vanier).

4. To See Everything in the Word's Cone of Light

Listening teaches us to see!  It is in the cone of light of the Word of God that we are given to see the profound dimension of all reality, the dense Presence, hidden in the heart of human realities, of all events: "there is more here than...".

Yes, the fruit of listening, this new vision capable of discerning in every reality of this world, the reality of the Kingdom which is inscribed there and is to be integrated into the present moment.  The gaze of the Son is given to a faith that listens.

5. To Commit Oneself in an Authentic Lectio...

...a fundamental contemplative activity where Scripture becomes a personal Word that God addresses to my freedom this day.  The Word, scrutinized day after day, meditated, prayed, memorized, welcomed in a heart disposed to accomplish it, brings:

The fruit of knowledge, and this in the Biblical sense of the term: an approach to the Mystery of God, of His Plan of Salvation, openness to the mystery of the new self in Christ that I am called to become.

The fruit of conversion: the Word whose mission is to fructify the soil of our heart, to evangelize and restore in us the likeness by reconciling us to the ways of God. "It is living and active...discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" and brings us a criterion for the discernment of spirits, setting straight our interior reference points.

The fruit of prayer: it awakens us to the marvels of grace and to the response of thanksgiving.  It reveals to us our sinful nature in the light of the Face of Christ, and moves us to the admission of our sin and to His Mercy.

Assiduous association with the Bible in lectio, sows into our heart the "memoria Dei" and offers us a space for recollection, a place of privileged listening where interiority deepens.

6. To Commit Oneself just as Seriously to Work in Service of the Community

For whoever gives herself to the action of the Spirit, there is no strict separation between spiritual and profane activities.  Fraternal service does not compete with the service of God.  Everything can become a pathway to love, everything can leave a trace of the Beloved's Presence.

In giving it its rightful place, the commitment to work is thus at the same time a verification and a means to our progressive integration in love.


In order to develop favorable conditions for the orientation of the heart toward God, it seems important to me that we pay particular attention to:

l. Persons and the Building up of the Body.

To encourage each sister to move toward her deepest truth, in the knowledge and acceptance of her limitations and failures, and by fidelity to her personal grace, her own gift which is her "manifestation of the Spirit for the common good". (lCor l2:7)

By this self-knowledge, the development of her human and spiritual potentials and the ability to give of herself, a true self emerges in each member and allows for the building up of the Body, the Community.

2. The Primacy of the Self.

How to follow Jesus, to be like Him turned toward the Father, simple in every day life, simple in doing or having, and by careful vigilance watching to avoid pretentions, appearances, the false security of possessions, in personal behavior as well as in community options.

The exigency of authenticity and purity of heart is fundamental.  External accomplishments should flow from these and not become the objective in themselves. 

3. Detachment.

A fundamental ascesis which frees the heart in the gift of self to God in obedience and opens the hands to share and to serve one's sisters in imitation of the Son, who wanted no other wealth than the love of the Father, no other food than to do His Will.

4. The Quality of Community Life.

Community life is a test of our openness to God and of our relationship to ourself, a proof of our listening to the Word, our welcoming of the Good News in our life.

Filled with the mercy of God, we are called in return to show kindness, goodness and trust to our neighbor.

The more the Son is at the heart of the Community, the more it becomes a sign of the Kingdom, capable of mercy, of forgiveness given and received, of this look of hope which has some chance of bringing out the best in the other.

Other realities of our life call for the vigilance of the Abbess and of the Community because of their strong influence on "the work of the heart" (Isaac the Syrian): the atmosphere of silence, solitude, simplicity of life, the daily horarium, the organization of the work, for example.  But I cannot speak about everything and in closing will only mention a very important principle expressed in our Constitutions:

"The monastery is an expression of the mystery of the Church, where nothing is preferred to the praise of the Father's glory.  Every effort is made to ensure that the common life in its entirety conforms to the Gospel...(Cst 3:4)

And that, "The entire organization of the monastery is directed to bringing the nuns into close union with Christ, since it is only through the experience of personal love for the Lord Jesus that the specific gifts of the Cistercian vocation can flower."  (Cst 3:5)