CONFERENCE OF DOM PAUL
Abbaye de Latroun
How do we concretely live the deepest value of monastic life, of all Benedictine and Cistercian life, that is to say, contemplation? This is what I must talk about, since I was asked to do so.
I do this not without a certain feeling of uneasiness which some of you probably would also feel in my situation:
---first, because in our Cistercian tradition we do not theorize or preach about contemplation;
---next, because it is far more important and (dare I say it?) far easier to live contemplation than to hold forth about it;
---finally, because, in this area, it is always difficult to speak without mixing in our personal experience; we are also somewhat reluctant to reveal ourselves.
We all recall how often we had to remember to avoid, in our Constitutions, the use of the expression "wholly given to contemplation." We had to give in to pressure from Rome. But now we can see that Rome's insistence and our reticence were equally justified. For it is evident that, setting aside the understandings and misunderstandings, we cannot conceive of monks who would not be contemplatives or at least tending in that direction: otherwise there would be a contradiction in terms. And yet we rightly refuse a certain modern meaning that has been given to contemplation. The monk is a contemplative or he is not a monk. If we doubt this, we show that we have understood nothing of monastic life.
But what is contemplation?
Simplex intuitus veritatis, St. Thomas tells us. That is all, and it's that simple. Like everything that is true.
Like everything that is authentic. Like life. A simple, pure, naked looking upon truth. And if God is Truth, as St. Thomas reminds us, we can say equally well that contemplation is a simple, pure, naked, habitual looking upon God.
This definition corresponds perfectly, it seems to me, to Benedictine and Cistercian contemplation. By means of its simplicity and purity we find exactly what St. Benedict urges us to live out and what the Benedictine tradition has always tried to live out.
When we speak of our way of living out contemplation, let us underline its simplicity: a simplicity that means also purity, authenticity. Most often, this involves a contemplation which itself lives, which is life, with no turning back on itself. A contemplation which does not analyze, describe, or seek itself; which pays no attention to itself, since it is turned toward God, attentive to him. In other words, a contemplation which is not sought for itself.
We look in vain in the Rule of St. Benedict for a theory, a definition, the very word "contemplation." Our Constitutions themselves only make very discreet mention of it....
In this area, the simpler it is, the truer it is. Do not methods and systems run the risk of hiding what is essential and leading to emptiness? Contemplation is life and life cannot be put into a system. Life is not ruled by theories.
Contemplation is an activity of love, and love, like life, makes demands which St. Benedict, following all the Fathers of monasticism, has written of with perfect wisdom and balance. We find its echo in our Fathers at Citeaux, throughout the life of the Order, right down to the very beautiful and recent example of the simplicity of Blessed Rafael.
More than in any other area, we must return to our sources, to our roots: Citeaux, St. Benedict, the Desert Fathers. I lament, without wishing to condemn, those who cannot be satisfied with the soberness of this tradition and who must turn to modern methods (however valuable they may be) which do not have the vital strength of the tradition handed on by St. Benedict.
Although the word "contemplation" is not found in his Rule, who would dare to suggest that the reality is absent? Who would dare to say that the Rule is not a most reliable school of contemplation? That it has not formed, and is not still forming, after 15 centuries, an uncounted number of authentic contemplatives? In this, as in so many other things, St. Benedict is not an innovator; he faithfully transmits the enduring monastic tradition.
When I speak of our Fathers, I think of course of Citeaux and St. Benedict, but also of the Desert Fathers, who were the teachers of St. Benedict and the Cistercian Fathers. Permit me now to bring up the particular situation of Latroun, to point out what the geographical context and local tradition have revealed to us in the search for our contemplative identity. Since it is life, contemplation is necessarily conditioned by its milieu. Moreover, it is in this sense that we have drawn up our report for the General Chapter.
We try to live our contemplative monastic life in this land which I call the Holy Land, first because it is holy by reason of the birth, life, Passion and Resurrection of the Lord, but also to avoid calling it by other names which are contested.
In this Holy Land, then, there was born and developed an important type of monachism, with its own distinct look, as original as it is unknown. The more prestigious monachism of its powerful neighbors---Egypt, Syria, Cappadocia---overshadow it, just like the country itself which, as far back as we go in history, has always been under the domination or influence of its powerful neighbors: Egypt and Assyria.
This monachism grew greatly in numbers, making it proportionately more important, perhaps, than that of Egypt or Syria. The proof of this, among other well known proofs, is the great number of monastic traces, both in the heart of the country and in the deserts roundabout: the Judean Desert, Gaza and the Negev. In the interior, many localities bear the name Deir = "Monastery" and this is proof that they developed around a monastery, as in Europe we have Muenster or Moutier. Recently, I was able to find about 30 place names with Deir in them on a tourist map, not counting those places totally ruined or without sightseeing value. What really delighted me was to find in the area of Mt. Hebron, where we sometimes take our men to work in our vineyards, a little village called Deir Samet, or Silent Monastery, exactly what our monastery in Israel is now called.
More than its numerical importance, great as it was, the principal interest of this Palestinian monasticism is in its legacy of a message of simplicity and balance, for us, the sons of St. Benedict. Set against Egyptian or Syrian monasticism, with their tendency to ascetical excess (just think of the stylites of Syria), Palestinian monachism shines by its moderation, though this is not to say it was less demanding! This is especially noticeable in the Fathers of Gaza: John, Barsanuphius, Dorotheus, Dositheus....Do we not find in them a certain childlikeness, like the "little way" of Therese of Lisieux? Dositheus, the disciple of Dorotheus, died at the age of 24 and is like her spiritual twin brother.
Would it be too daring to think that the Palestinians were the direct inspiration for the moderation and balance of St. Benedict and the Cistercian Fathers? In any case, they can be the inspiration for our seeking after monastic and contemplative authenticity by a simple return to our roots.
And for us monks of Latroun, what an encouragement to do this in the very places they lived! We are only 30 km from the Judean Desert, 70 from the Negev and Gaza.
There is also a certain cosmopolitan element in this Palestinian monachism which helps to inspire us in our insertion and integration into this Holy Land where so many peoples, races, and cultures strive to live together; where in the Church herself---or rather in Churches of every rite---it is most difficult to sort out and find the purely local element. It has always been so here and monks are not exempt from this rule. Most of the renowned monks of Palestine were foreigners: St. Jerome, St. Saba, St. John Damascene, Dorotheus....
Could not this be the true and proper vocation for this Holy Land whose past is so rich for us all, and whose present is so tortured, so laden with violence and suffering, a land which is all mankind's most precious patrimony? We read in the tradition of the Jewish people, who claim this land as their exclusive inheritance, this verse of Psalm 86: "Zion shall be called 'Mother,' for all shall be her children." Is this not her vocation, and the solution of her insoluble political problems? She belongs neither to Jews alone, nor to Arabs alone, but to all men, Jews, Arabs, and others, united in love of Him who has hallowed this Land and put its love in the hearts of all.
This may also be the meaning of our silent presence in this torn and divided land, at the very juncture of the territories of two peoples who fight and kill each other for love of the Land, for love of the same God whom each side wishes to honor by wiping out the other.
From its location in the heart of the country, could not our monastery be the place where they peaceably meet, after being so long the place which was their battlefield? We have the firm hope and desire to bring it about.
Our frequent meetings with both sides prove to us that the most effective means to do this is to show them, in silence and all-embracing love, the face of the God who is love, the friend of all mankind who is able to fulfill the true longings of man; this God to whom young and gifted people consecrate their lives in contemplation and intimate dialog with him.