Prieuré N-D de l'Atlas

I received the invitation to speak to you here rather as a snare or trap!

First of all, I would have preferred to leave the talk to our Abbot General.  Then, I am supposed to discuss "Cistercian contemplative identity," and, to put it bluntly, I don't like that expression much.  According to the papers which were presented to us from the four cardinal points of the Order, with such wisdom and openness, I believe I'm not alone in questioning this formulation.  Shall I tell you why it seems ambiguous to me?  First, because it can be taken to mean that contemplation is given and possessed as an identity, as a fixed state.  Now, to my mind, contemplation is either a seeking, or it is nothing.  Here on earth, it is a journey, a tension, a permanent exodus.  It is the invitation made to Abraham: "Walk in my presence."(1)  So I try to walk, and I must admit, this walk increases my hunger to "see" the Presence more than it satisfies it.  This is where (in Spain!) I am consoled by St. John of the Cross: "Not everyone who toils earnestly in the way of the Spirit is raised by God to contemplation, not even a half of them.  He alone knows the reason for this." (2)

Then, there is this bit of wisdom from Moslem mysticism: "He is not truly a Sufi who calls himself a Sufi."  In the same way, is he truly a contemplative who says he is?  One would have to be able to say, yes, I recognized him in the text, I saw him when he was naked, sick, hungry, ...those from whom one turns away one's eyes to keep from seeing them.(3)

And then, while I'm on the road, I'm subject to an identity crisis: Is it I who live?  Is it Christ in me? (4)  I am aspiring to this new identity: "the name of the Lamb is on me, and the Father's." (5)  If my identity still bothers me, it is because I don't have a clear vision of him who will give me my identity when he gives me himself to see: "When you are here, I no longer know whether I exist.," says the Lover to the Beloved.

Fr. Josaphat proposes "Cistercian horizon," or "Cistercian contemplative dimension." (6)  This is better yet.  This echoes Perfectae Caritatis (7) and the Code (8) which speak of institutes more or less "integrally ordered to contemplation."  To be ordered to means to accept beforehand that one is not there yet.  "I have been grasped," says Paul, "but not of myself; I continue to run the course...." (9)   Of course, this has meaning for me, as for all of us, as it lets me know that our Order is "well ordered," and so is able to keep awake my desire to see God, which is always threatened by a temptation to nod off.  Augustine puts it well: "You have made us unto yourself (ad Te), Lord, inquietum cor nostrum donec requiescat in Te." (10)  This inquies is as much a part of my identity as quies, the "resting in God" so dear to our Fathers and our Constitutions. (11)

In case you would wish to identify me more closely in spite of all this, ask my neighbor at home.  In his eyes, who am I?  Cistercian?  Never heard of it!  Trappist?  Less still.  Monk?  Even the Arab word for it isn't part of his vocabulary.  He doesn't even ask himself who I am.  He knows.  I am a rumi, a Christian.  That's all.  And in this generic identification there is something healthy and exacting.  One more way to connect monastic profession to baptism.  You will see too, that in his description, he will only be able to translate this reality according to his own religious points of reference: "He prays, he believes in God, he keeps "Lent" and gives to the poor...that's almost like us!"  Thus, after being welcomed at several of our French monasteries, our young friend Mohammed said to me, "You know, over there in France, I met some true Moslems!"

When I was a novice at Atlas, I saw one of our brothers, a convinced laybrother, standing at the window after a most difficult day.  He was watching the sunset.  He seemed worn out to me, even exhausted.  The sight of the setting sun was magnificent, truly.  And I was standing behind him, wondering that after 25 years here in the monastery, he could still stand in the same old place and enjoy a sunset.  Finally, he turned around and said quite simply, "I'm waiting for this time tomorrow evening to blow this dump."  In a flash, I understood what stability was, and many other aspects of monastic life.  I will add that this brother is still there, thanks be to God, and that he still shows up at that window, with or without me.  Really, I have nothing more to say to you on "Cistercian contemplative identity...."

I return to my first idea, to leave this topic to our Fr. Bernardo. This shows that my "yes" to his request was not without second thoughts. There's no reason not to tell you here what our Abbot General told us, at Fez and at Tibhirine, when he made his visits in June 1991.  He stepped onto African soil with, as he told us, "intense curiosity."  To welcome him to the continent, we had sent a real local vocation to Fez, our Fr. Pierre (Faye), who would finish his course on earth the following February 2.  No one could fail to be beguiled by the wonderful face of this seeker after God, this living witness of Africa's soul, a soul forged for contemplation long before the 20th century, when our Order discovered North Africa, and even before the arrival of the first Christian missionaries in his native Senegal.

I will just tell you that Dom Bernardo saw a lot, heard a lot, and shared everything with us, including our neighbors' visits, a trek of 100 km from one country to another in a 4L Renault, crossing the border on the very day a state of emergency was declared in Algeria....And then, one morning, he told us, "I had a dream last night!"  (It seems they dream more in Latin America than in Europe.  We also dream a lot at Magreb, rather like in the Bible.)  In his dream, our Abbot General saw a monk of Atlas in the grip of another brother of our Order who had him by the neck as he informed him roughly:

Primo, you're wasting your life here in this Moslem world which has no use for you and even laughs at you, when there are so many other places and peoples who only need the example of your witness to embrace the contemplative life and increase your community.

Secundo, you poor thing, our Order ends up taking care of a foundation like yours.  What a dead weight!

Oddly enough, in this dream it was Dom Bernardo who replied; the poor monk of Atlas was surely begin held too tightly to be able to express  himself.  Then the dream ended, the Abbot General woke up and took a piece of paper to write down his answers.  Thus he was able to tell us everything in the morning, still charged with the emotions of his nocturnal struggle.

Now as to what is the use of a house such as ours, it is clear we ourselves would never ask that question.  We are such a little place!  More deeply, we are well aware that no house could ever justify its existence before the Order.  What comes first is God's call, bringing a community to birth, here and now.  And Citeaux, like Jerusalem of old, is astounded and amazed: "Where did these children of mine come from?  Before going into labor, I have given birth! (12) The elders here will remember the time after Algeria became independent when our survival seemed to be a toss-up, indeed an absurdity, to recall the term used by an abbot of our region not so long ago.  Dom Gabriel Sortais, whose clear-sightedness was well known, was responding to one of our brethren: "The Order cannot afford the luxury of a monastery in the Moslem world."  Indeed, he had a point there.  And we feel we will remain an exception as long as the Order has no other house that is truly called to live in a strictly non-Christian area.  All our recent foundations, including the one in India, depend upon a local Christian population able to furnish native vocations.  At the time of its foundation in 1934, our monastery could count on a Christian minority population made up of a million colonists, just as could our elder brother, Staoueli, the very first Cistercian foundation on the African continent in 1843 (just 150 years ago).  Our community knows we cannot recruit locally.  That is an "absurdity" too.  We must believe that the Holy Spirit can raise up vocations coming from elsewhere, corresponding to his plans for this singular presence.  This trust in him is easier when we state that most of us have responded to a personal call of just this sort, even if there has been an intermediate stop in some other monastery of the Order.  I gladly take this opportunity once again to thank those communities who have so generously sent one of their own to us because of their own overabundance.

On the one hand, this lack of native vocations almost puts us in the situation of immigrants, and in Magreb, where emigration to Europe is so strong!  Imagine the astonishment of the young people who come to us when they realize we have taken the road opposite to theirs.  One way to suggest a possibility for a "new economic world order", which won't be viable if it's not shared in by everyone!  More directly, we may ask if this isn't how monasticism can enter into the "North-South" dialogue.  I see here a real challenge addressed to us by today's world, and also a way to involve ourselves more concretely in the issues of the what is called the "young churches."  It seems to me they receive this name according to whether they belong to what can still only be called the "third world."  For example:  We earn our living by our work, but the local currency in which we are paid is useless in buying any books or tools we need which are not available locally, not to speak of insurance.

On the other hand, this special life of ours leads us inevitably to change somewhat certain constants of the Cistercian charism because of our environment: we run a cooperative rather than just pay wages; we never cease to seek a balance between openness and enclosure in our relations with our neighbors; there is a challenge in the life of prayer and of faith to join in, when this can be done, with the practice of the Moslem faith.  Thus at the time of Ramadan or of feasts, there is always something to share together.  We have little Arabic in our liturgy, but our intercessions at the Hours and at the Eucharist, especially on Friday, are marked by a more spiritual form of sharing.  Bell and muezzin, whose calls to prayer rise, as you know, from the same enclosure, join together to bid us come to prayer, further than words can say.  The ritual prayer of a Moslem is short, it engages the body, turns all one's attention towards the One Source of all life, is said by heart, and greatly resembles the Office of our former laybrothers.  Some of us would certainly like our Office to recover some of this stripped-down simplicity, without ever losing its character of being the prayer of the Church.

Father Bernardo told us, "You are sent to inculturate the Cistercian charism so that this form of monasticism can be enriched by what you have gleaned in the local culture."  And he added, "This inculturation can bring on fear, a fear of losing your monastic identity.  In order to avoid this or be freed from it, the first thing to do is deepen your monastic culture."  With the limited means at our disposal, this is what we're trying to do.  We are learning that the exacting fidelity demanded by others is God's gift to us, and therefore an object of contemplation that may inspire new forms of communion.

In this sense, it would be up to us to present the urgent call to the world religions as another real challenge of the present day.  This is a call to learn to dialogue on the very level of the spiritual experiences which these religions awaken while, at the same time, to be summoned to a humility dependent on God's forgiveness for the unfeeling and sometimes shameful response given by the believer (monks included) to the Lord's inmost promptings.  In practice, we have hardly begun the interreligious monastic dialogue with Islam.  Few believe it is possible.  We have already gone much further with Far Eastern religions.  In Dom Frans's document, so rich in its viewpoints, he presents this dialogue as the central axis for reflection in the churches of Asia (13).  If we were to follow his proposal for a "continental congress" of the Order, our heart would be tempted to go with Asia (where Islam was born), but are feet are deep-rooted in Africa, and our head was pre-fabricated in Europe.  How could we test the imagination of the Order in its proposal to have better-adapted structures?  Could we form a sub-continent with Latroun?

Is this another challenge for us?  In 1990 we received an unusual request from a community of older folks (recovering from drug or alcohol abuse) who asked one of us if we could share a prayerful presence that could help to sustain their fragile determination to recover, with God's help.  Communal prayer, both morning and evening, and self-supporting work are the two key concepts for Berdine (France).  Ora et labora!  It seemed to us that we had no lessons to teach them, so we should allow ourselves to be taught.  It was thus that we felt we could be part of a "twin community;" and there has grown up between us communion and social contacts.

There remains the basic question: "You're wasting your time," as our nocturnal opponent said.  "So many people await your witness elsewhere."  And Fr. Bernardo answered, "Their mission is to be a silent, living, and vital presence, that of Jesus and of the Gospel.  It is also to

offer a heartfelt welcome to the Moslem brother, so that they themselves can be better Christians.  It is by this openness to Islam that they will learn how to be Christians, here and now.  No use waiting for them to come halfway.  Don't wait to open yourselves up; this would be contrary to the generosity of love.  If this generosity is present, they will give thanks to Him who has allowed and given it....Of course, they need to learn something of the Muslim world, for it has cultural and religious values intended for them.  They can then help to awaken and stimulate the contemplative dimension in the heart of each Muslim...."

In fact, we can easily see how the Spirit can arouse in the hearts of many Muslims we know a charity like that of the Samaritan in the parable, and of which Jesus would say elsewhere, "Do this and you will live." (14) We see too that the Muslim tradition knows how to pass on to others a desire to see God: "All will pass away but for God's face," as the Koran says (15)

We could even say that all normal perspectives are set aside when I, a Christian, am granted an authentic spiritual experience through what a Moslem has been given to experience in himself in order to sustain his search for God: the call to prayer, ejaculations, gestures of sharing, joyous response, the peace-filled countenance of a man of faith, a verse from the Koran (since I believe it is possible to do true lectio divina using the Koran, especially in Arabic, which is so close to the original milieu of our own Scriptures. It is always rather painful to see a man of prayer, a man with an interior life, being held up by faith-statements in a dialogue with another tradition and be kept by their disagreements from seeking in the other the heights and depths of openness to the Spirit in himself and in Islam.  The first time a neighboring Sufi community asked to meet with us---it was Christmas 1979---the spokesman took care to say that they had come to us to share about prayer.  "We would rather not," he said, "begin a theological dialogue with you, for man-made barriers often arise.  We feel we are called by God to unity.  We must therefore allow God to start something new between us.  This can only happen through prayer."  He added, "There are few Muslims who would understand.  Then too, only a few Christians would believe it.  But this is what we feel called to do with you."  This is an exceptional case, you might say.  Perhaps, but the exception does exist, and it is not the only one.  It helps me avoid constructing or receiving a fixed or settled idea of Muslims, even what most of them may say of themselves.  Could the monk be said to be a "true" Christian because he is rather rare in the Christian world?

"Does Algeria help you to live out your religious consecration, and if so, how?"  This was the question recently asked by our bishops as they prepared their response to the lineamenta proposed for the 1994 synod on religious life.  If consideratio, so dear to St. Bernard, means (as Fr. Charles Dumont says in his document) "a reflection on the experience of concrete existence," (16) then this is just what it brought on in our community, and also what I am about to speak on.

Well then, YES, this is what helps us to feel part of the mass of humanity and yet separate from it, in the world yet not of it, neither important nor well-known.  We are preserved from any worldliness here!

This necessarily helps us to stay small and dependent, without any great importance as to what is happening in the country.  It also forces us to be true to the official "social reason" given for our existence: prayer and self-supporting farm work.  We also have before us the lives of our neighbors, largely modest, religious folk.  It would be scandalous, in such a context, were we not to live our vocation well.  They know what sharing is.  Relationships and hospitality are very important to them.  We practice them too, and often receive lessons in how to do so.  We are with them in the situation of insecurity and confusion which is the present condition of the country.  "How can you live in a monastery that exists among such uncertainties?" asked a Sister.  More pointedly, how could we remain contemplative in a house with too much certainty, that was too bene fundata?  At the beginning of our Order the founders left a house that was stable and wealthy at Molesme, for Citeaux, a "desert inhabited by wild beasts. (17)

As I have said before, it helps us in every way to be confronted everywhere by the Muslim presence.  How can we respect it without excluding it a priori, and without overdoing it?  It speaks everywhere of God.  It is a sort of "microclimate" which frees our faith from all human respect and false reserve.  Moreover, there are those values that animate Islam and which we also ordinarily expect to find among monks: ritual prayer, prayer of the heart (dhikr), fasting, vigils, almsgiving, a sense of praise and of God's forgiveness, a naked faith in the glory of the Wholly-Other, and in the communion of saints.  This last mystery, so essential to us, reveals a place of encounter, but no idea on how we can get there.  It belongs to the Spirit of Jesus to do his work among us, and I feel that in this process, he also uses our differences, including those that offend us the most.  In our prayer side by side with our Sufi friends, which we have now been at for quite a while, we remind ourselves that we are following a "way" (a tariqa) together, "ordered" to an active and passive search in a mysticism of desire leading to union with God.  The spiritual competition then becomes mutual charity, common evidence that we are being drawn in the same direction.  There is also a humble avowal to stand together in mutual support.

This enables us to feel integrated into a local church made up of people with faces, people who have made choices similar to ours.  In conditions often more difficult than our own, the majority of the local Christians have had to go deeper and deeper in faith and prayer in order to maintain their peace and generosity.  Our hospitality at the guesthouse bears clear witness to the vital need for regular spiritual refreshment.  We feel a duty to be more available.  Paul VI called us Cistercians to the "apostolate of the hidden life." (18)  This vocation secretly draws us very close to the few hundred Algerian Christians who must blend the Gospel and the hidden life while remaining in the fray.

Some years ago, in a very beautiful pastoral letter, our Bishops of Maghreb invited the faithful to "receive and welcome what is coming to birth in the Church in this region." (19) It is possible, indeed, for us to forget that our Christian identity is always in the process of being born.  It is a Paschal identity.  Is it not the same for our Cistercian identity?  Would it still be contemplative if it was afraid to meet new horizons?  By this is meant, of course, the horizons of modern times; but it also means the search for God beyond the well-worn paths of Christianity.  And if Christianity is dying off, could it not be to bring to birth a new humanity which will need our care to help bring about its own birthing?

Our bishops said in another important document, "Turned towards the future, we foresee a broadening of our vision of man and of Jesus, a broadening which will give birth to an intense interaction between the Christian cultures of today and the questions posed by men of other traditions." (20)  With this perspective, it could become evident that it is no longer possible to found a monastery all built and formed in advance because the contemplative life, more than any other, shows itself to be dependent upon the human life-conditions of the land, its culture, its history, its customs, and its religious traditions.  This is a viewpoint developed especially by Fr. Raguin, with his experience in the Far East (21).  We verify his insight and its demands, in the concrete, day after day, in one way or another.

Faced with a world overcome by a theoretical and, even more so, by a practical atheism, the monk is astounded that he can remain faithful to himself, and finds that he is an "expert in atheism" according to an expression of Andre Louf that is well grounded in tradition.  All the same, in the face of new incursions by Islam, it is good for the monk to show himself "expert in Islam" since he has vowed his own "submission to God" after the example of the loving obedience of the Son to the Father.  In this sense, Jesus is really the only "Muslim."  It is thus that I see him henceforth, transfiguring what is sought in him, in a give-and-take between us and our neighbors, there where we have been called to be witnesses of the Kingdom that is being born..."but it is by night. (22)



(1) Gen 17:1; cf. Dom Frans, Preparatory Documents, p. 4.

(2) St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, ch. 9.

(3) Mt 25:35ff. and Is 53:3.

(4) cf. Gal 2:20.

(5) Rev 3:12.

(6) Fr. Josaphat (Victoria), Preparatory Document, p. 37.

(7) PC 7.

(8) CIC can 674; cf. CST 2.

(9) Phil 3:12ff.

(10) Augustine, Confessions, I,1.

(11) cf. especially CST 20.

 (12) Is 49:21 and 66:7.

 (13) Dom Frans (Rawaseneng), Preparatory Document, p. 2.

 (14) cf. Luke 10:37.

 (15) Koran 28:88.

(16) Fr. Charles Dumont (Scourmont), Preparatory Document, p. 25.

 (17) Exordium Parvum 3:2.

(18) Paul VI, cf. Chapter Documents OCSO 1969-1977 or D.C: 1969, #1540, p. 542 f.

(19) Letter of the North African Bishops on New Situations in their Churches, D.C. #1724 of 17 July 1977.

(20) Christians in Maghreb, Letter of the North African Bishops, D.C. #1775 of 2 December 1979.

(21) Fr. Yves Raguin, cf. esp. "La profondeur de l'homme, chemin vers Dieu" in Spiritus 47 (1971), p. 385.

 (22) N.B.: Certain elements of this text were presented at the Regional Meeting FSO (France Southwest) at Timadeuc in September 1991, and published in the report of this meeting, in Annexe 3, pp. 17-20.