CONFERENCE OF SISTER MARIE-PASCALE
Abbaye de N-D du S.-C. de Chambarand
Aspects of the contemporary mentality.
These remarks are rather more a sharing of reflections, fruit of 12 years of daily living with the novices of our Community. It so happens that the group in formation comprises 3 sisters aged between 20 and 30 years, 4 sisters between 30 and 40, and 5 between 40 and 50 years. The stages of monastic life do not necessarily coincide with the age group : novices of 23 years can be the seniors of the novitiate, and postulants can be more than 30 or 40 years old. The example given may not be representative perhaps, but in any case, the remarks are grounded, that is to say rooted in a monastery of nuns in France. No claims are made for being a study in sociology or psychology, nor even spirituality. The remarks concern the young sisters in formation, and not the community. I have specially noted traits which arise from the present day mentality, trying to concentrate them in preference to the events in their own personal life story (father or mother deceased, widowed, parents divorced, remarried, a member of the family handicapped, and so on...).
In the first part, we shall underline some of the established facts either of each decennary, or of the whole group of the young sisters. The temporary professed sisters have, at the most, 8 or 9 years experience of monastic life, thus they are a good test of today's mentality for each of the age-groups.
The second part will treat more directly with the community, the hazards for the formators, and possible community break through, thanks to the impetus of the young sisters and to their seeking likewise.
First aspect : the most fundamental : what has led them to the monastery.
Of course, to seek God. But this takes many different forms, linked to the type of religious formation previously received and practiced. On this point, there is room for much diversity. For those born between the years 1940 and 1950, faith, like many other basic values is understood. Prayer, a christian life, the religious life make up the concrete elements of life, perhaps not always to be found in the family, but at least in their associations. Certain sisters had already opted in the depth of their heart, for the religious life from the time of their first communion, very early, at 7 or 8 years of age. That has been the guide-line of their life, even if circumstances had obliged them to follow other occupations before putting this project into practice. They could not quench it, moreover, they had no desire to do so. In this course of life, the choices are clear, well defined, the difficulties encountered are not at this level. The same applies to the difficulties of cenobitic life : they exist, and we must make the best of it. A long task has to be undertaken of reconciliation, of healing, of redressing all that has been closed in or deformed into a defensive reflex. The challenge addressed here to our life seems to be to keep the Cistercian ideal in all its freshness. The monastery is going to be a place where all the fervor of first love can be born again. It will be necessary, nevertheless, to oust the temptations and the occasions of withdrawing into oneself, of overcoming the limitations caused by unfortunate experiences of self-giving. To thwart wear and tear and to believe once again that everything is possible is the most frequent target at stake at this point. This is a very eloquent reply confronting the so often repeated ruptures in the young peoples circles, that they have now become common place : divorce, bankruptcy, unemployment... without forgetting the threat of illness... One is challenged to have hope, to clear the way through the power of the resurrection. Former guilt, related to the way of life led prior to replying to the first call, can become a celebration of Divine Mercy by a new commitment made without restriction or limit, an opening out to the future. Thus are made entirely interdependent so many persons who have been confronted sometimes brutally by barred routes, to make deliberate and obligatory changes of orientation. Far from being disastrous, the successions of places and states of life can contribute to discovering the Life which is always new, the new Name and the new and eternal Alliance.
For the young sisters born between 1950 and 1960, the same call can be found, early or not, but with more hazy outlines and a catechetical formation somewhat vague, strongly marked by the events of "May 1968" (we have to talk of it !) All forms exist : from the classical family where the older children have a very difficult adolescence, revolted against social "rites" and obligations, to the family which moving in an open group creates and manages its own form of catechism and of parallel education which is found to be more satisfactory being less conformist. What follows is twofold. The generations are effaced, the authority and role of parents are put into brackets. They seem to enter into adolescence and remain there for a good while! Concerning the quest of one's vocation, this is better expressed in terms of thirst, of vital question, of having exhausted the experiences of life in groups of one's own choice, chosen in order to share ones doubts and questioning. Little by little, especially in large towns, schools and churches, which formerly were places of instruction are becoming places of experimentation, where the most essential truths are related to the dimensions of the individual, and generate as much uncertainty and anxiety as incapacity to make acts of commitment for the future.
The dynamic impulse due to this thirst, to this want felt by the young people of today, is a trump card for formation. Lack of meaning, lack of perspectives for the future, lack of solidarity, lack of true relationships... all this whets the appetite and is a promising opening, permitting everything to be undertaken. There is the risk, however, of giving way to haste, and above all, in view of emotional predominance, of only making choices which orientate towards a warm and coalescing mode of relationships.
In the course of proceedings, the specific challenge to Cistercian life will be to clearly mark out the route, to put in position firm but supple guide-marks, so that one will not be constantly coming up against questions concerning the basis of observances, but rather where one will be invited to exercise with patience the practices which "build and direct love in us", beginning with the actual experience of community life, of consensus, and good fellowship. The customs of the house as some will discover, are a guide which have the power to "create order". One learns how to live, and how to live with courtesy.
For the youngest sisters, those born after 1965, the call has reached them from even farther afield, in a world almost foreign to the Faith. Instinct has set them off : God exists, and they want to go towards Him. We find, naturally, all the various degrees of human, cultural and religious formation, and also all the degrees of social levels. What appears to be a constant factor is the "restlessness" which resides in them and surrounds them : a disjointed schooling, sometimes without any obvious results, a marginal existence in family life ; the multiplying of experiences according to passing whims and fancies; escape into a precocious sexuality, or again escape by the television watched without interest and with boredom; dreams and fantasies nourished by the pornographic trade : all these things result in emptiness. And in this emptiness God allows the encounter. Often it is through an experience which has been "felt" : feeling, even sensation are privileged means of acquaintance. At this point, a long time of catechetics remains to be accomplished in order to bring to hand the possibility of stating precisely who is the God of Jesus-Christ, the God of the Gospels confessed by and in the Church. The challenge, with these young people, its seems to me, lies in the apprenticeship to interiority, to endurance, to perseverance in interiority. Time, punctuated by the Liturgy, by the organization of the monastic day according to Saint Benedict, by the slow, step by step entry into a life of prayer, becomes an ally permitting the person to mature on all the levels of this being, body, affections, senses and even the reconstruction of his capacity to judge, apprenticeship of objectivity.
Second aspect: integration into monastic life
In all the domains of monastic life as it presents itself, there are questions which are going to find their answer if the Community is alive and full of good zeal (RB 72), that is to say if each of its members in spite of his limitations, lives fully and simply each moment of the day, taking part to the maximum in community consensus in a joyful and responsible manner. All the questions concerning the meaning of existence, of the consecrated life, of a fruitful renunciation of one's own will, of joyful poverty and fraternal agape, all this questioning is a power house of renewal for us, concerning the way in which we live the contemplative dimension of our life. It is a time of verification for each one of us as to the meaning of fraternal relationships, the meaning of continence, the meaning of manual work, the meaning of the liturgy, of a life freely given, free of all servitude to material income, to the meaning of a life wholly consecrated to God, bearer of life for the world, and fulfillment of the person in all his potentialities.
The chief anxiety which confronts each one, in a unique, but at the same time uniform manner is: "who am I really ? Can you help me to know myself better ?" This question is asked by each one with more or less agitation of mind, according to the rules of identification which have been positioned. The accession to adult life requires for everyone a very long quest. The elders go through the crisis of rejecting their parents, whom they perceive as the cause of all the failures of their earlier life. The contribution of human sciences has helped in finding explications to the behavior of parents, but has not automatically pronounced on the way to accept them such as they are or have been. Integration in the community proceeds by this work of reconciliation, by accepting all that made us such as we are. By our faith, we firmly believe that God will not tear out a single page of our life story, neither the "high lights", nor the most painful. This is quite the contrary to our mentality today which wants to flee from suffering in any form, and above all, to flee from death. What a challenge to raise when a commitment, precisely until death is envisaged. What set backs, at times, to avoid by all possible means that "it is beginning again", above all when a form of common life (marriage, another community) has previously deceived many hopes and caused many wounds.
The search of identity, for the following generation, takes a slightly different form. Universal truths having suffered by "Contestation", the young have begun another stage of the "death of the Father". The creation of new forms of community life, based on fraternity, has opened the way to a valuation of the affective, of the emotional, of a choice made in function with sentiment and, hence, no longer the true and strong values. The stress is put on the team, the group, and thus the fear of all hierarchy,of all authority renders the entry into real obedience more laborious. All the valuation of the person, his spontaneity, his creativity is very positive. There remains, however, the major challenge : namely to inscribe in a collection of criteria, guide lines for morals and relationships. The whole classification of what was formerly called the "US", here takes on all its importance. To enter cistercian life infers something very new for more than half of our young sisters. A manner of relationships built on respect of persons in their own identity, in their differences, in their respective role. Saint Benedict describes that in Chapter 63 : of the rank to be kept in the community, or ch. 26 and 27 : how to deal with those excommunicated, and in order to channel initiatives which will only be motivated by good sentiments, St Benedict clearly defines the persons who should do this.
When the Rule speaks of the Abbot, it says very precisely that he will be called Dom and Abbot because he holds the place of Christ in the monastery (RB 63. 13). And again : he ought always to remember what he is called, and correspond to his name of superior by his deeds (RB 2,2). This brings to light the importance attached to places and to persons when they are really what they are. "Let the oratory be what it is called, a place of prayer : and let nothing else be done or kept there" (RB 52). At times, I wonder if this is not the greatest challenge with which we are confronted during the last 20-30 years.
This downward trend is expressed by the seniors of this age group, either in taking part in militant groups of Women's Liberation (MLF), in adopting the unisex mode, or else at times in sexual living outside of marriage, with a succession of casual partners, then abandoned, in valorizing "love without risk", where feeling no longer has room to develop and grow, to give birth and to make grow. Amongst the younger ones, one has come to even more vague experiences, more narcissic, where the relational life is levelled, at times denied. One finds individuals who have many points in common with the girovagi and the sarabites as described by St Benedict, always on road, never resting, seeking ceaselessly immediate pleasures. And they are well capable of describing themselves as such, recognizing themselves under the traits of these two types of monks !
How to know who one is, when man and woman are no longer situated by relationship one to the other in a healthy distinction favorable to dialogue, and where the child can find its place ? When the marriage partner, the parents, the educators, the adults are rejected or no longer accepted to be what they are, that is to say those on whom the children can model themselves.The anxiety expressed most frequently by the younger sisters is : "Am I normal ?" A question which covers all domains, from the deepest to the most superficial. The information diffused by the media aims at making uniform, aseptic and standard experiences, behavior, feelings, clothing, not forgetting the repertoire of songs and films, (much more rare, that of books !) Is this not a form of security when one is able to refer to symbolical persons known by the members of a group ?
The trump card for the formation of the young people is their lack of acquired knowledge, more particularly that of the Bible, everything is new, not worn out by distracted reading. As they will quickly discover how very nourishing such a reading can be, they will feel a real appetite for it, and this is an excellent thing ! It remains however to overcome the habit of changing trivially from one thing to another, or of skipping through their reading, which St Benedict combats in a far-seeing manner : "read this book all through and in order." (RB 48, 15). This is chosen ground for lectio divina, which aims at giving its axle to our whole person, beginning with the Word of God and Tradition ; apprenticeship of the tenets of the Faith, but also a long re-education of the intellect, of the will, of the imagination too. Even the role of the body in the Liturgy, for example, is heavy with discoveries and reconciliations.
The anthropology which one can trace from the writings of the Cistercian Fathers surprises and seduces greatly, by its spiritual and scriptural depth, and by its concreteness, its closeness to life. It is in this sense that the young sisters orientate their quest, but without being aware of such a correspondence with their own experience. The desire to learn the truths which give life is unanimously shared by all the young, and one sees them entering with joy into the biblical, patristic, philosophical and spiritual tradition.
An almost general feeling for ecology, for the value of the body for proximity to nature, and consequently for fraternity, are also important motives ready to contribute to the adventure of the maturation of these young people. To develop charity within the community, the members of which are chosen by God and not by each another will also be an important step towards a more authentic liberty : the very generous ideal of fraternity, universal love and abolishing of frontiers which all this generation share, will quickly find there a concrete and direct field of applications.
Another active and daily challenge will be to maintain the course of christian faith with the asceticism, sometimes with privations that it calls for. To come back from the mirages of occultism, sometimes practiced or even only approached, is not easy. It leaves not only spiritual traces, but also an attitude somewhat of the magic type, one wants to avoid the "risk", the unknown, hence one seeks to lay hands on the private life of the others, to keep him within a framework without surprises.
The last generations have not lived any of the great historical or social events, they have not even, for some of them, had to encounter Death in their family. Their innocence a little egocentric, even narcissic, is going to require of us a lot of patience to begin with ! It is a question of granting them much listening time without giving way to the temptation of minimizing their tried experiences, so much longer to recount because they have not well defined lines.
A new element in the contemporary mentality is due to technological progress. It has so many positive sides to it, that one cannot discern the consequences which, little by little have installed themselves in the ways of thinking and of reacting. The greatest challenge arising from technology is to find again the sense of risk, of opening to the future, of Abandon to Providence... Imperceptibly, all pain, all suffering receives a remedy and one can no longer do without it, support it, endure it. All that does not procure a complete and immediate satisfaction, is used, then thrown away. There is no place for the unexpected, for the non-programmed, for what is uncomfortable.
Henceforth, we should look for a way of getting out of this imprisonment in a universe where contraception has been raised to a system, because it is considered acceptable and reasonable. The guarantee formulated : "A child if and when I want it", and which several young sisters have heard on the lips of their own mother, or have said themselves in their own life as a couple, is going to produce a sort of sterilization, perhaps more pernicious than abortion. In the one case, the "embarrassing child" is suppressed, in the other it is avoided just as one seeks to avoid any danger. When, in such a way, one loses sight of the nature of human relationships, when the sterilization is used not as a remedy in objectively difficult situations, but as an ideal in seeking one's comfort, one closes the road to the future, right down to the most ordinary of choices in daily and especially fraternal living.
Of course, God does not escape from this peculiar quest of security, it has always been the field of spiritual combat throughout the centuries ! In fact, the important challenge for formators is well and truly one of doing all that is possible to allow an authentic experience of God to be made by the young people in the heart of their fragility, of their limits, of their anxieties, but also of their eagerness, their experiences, of their confidence day by day.
At times, the account of their erring or of their wanderings can be very heavy to receive, almost intolerable. A blessing and an advantage for the young, and a stimulant for the communities and formators is this confident opening out towards their elders. Now, more than ever we have to be ready to acknowledge the hope which is in us and which does not deceive, because love is poured out in our hearts by the Spirit.
(Conference read by M. Marie-Claire of Chambarand)