Abbaye N-D du Lac (Oka)

The challenges of the contemporary mentality

            Reviewing the minutes of the regional conferences and the preparatory documents for the Chapter on the above theme, on the whole, two primary concerns emerge.  First of all, there is the concern that the challenges differ from one culture to another.  Which brings up the question - that I submit to your reflection - are there specific cross-cultural elements characteristic of a single contemporary mentality (modern or post-modern).  Then there is the concern that we have a positive attitude towards the surrounding culture, an attitude which integrates a healthy critique without reducing ourselves only to confrontation or being "counter-culture." [i]

            It would be interesting to pursue a reflection on our attitude towards culture along with a look at our deepest motivations.  Here I will simply refer to a recent article of F. Mannion which appeared in The American Benedictine Review [ii]   where the author identifies four major paradigms or global orientations in which to situate ourselves with relationship to the world, presently found in the Catholic Church, religious and monastic communities.  These include: conservatism, liberalism, radicalism and neo-conservatism.  These various attitudes can co-exist simultaneously within a given institution (Order, region, community) - according to the tendencies which influence it - and with greater difficulty,  within the same person. They can be expressly found with respect to tradition, ecclesiology (in particular with its relationship to authority) and to liturgy. [iii]   These keys to the literature can be useful to situate and understand the profile of persons who present themselves at the doors of our monastery as possible candidates to the monastic life.

            The challenges of the contemporary mentality are numerous and varied.  In a rather schematic way, we can regroup these challenges under three large titles/categories, which indicate three distinct but inter-related levels: (1) the relationship with nature and modern technology (cosmological level), (2)post-modern man and woman (anthropological level) and (3)secularization and the return of religious sentiment (theological level).

1. The relationship to nature and contemporary technology.

            Monastic life was born and developed primarily in the context of agricultural societies.  This was a particularly favorable context for its way of life and the development of the contemplative dimension,  especially through its direct contact with nature. The particular care in the choice of locations for  monasteries and the type of work given priority (often agriculture) have allowed our kind of life to avoid the pitfalls of industrial and post-industrial societies while still benefitting from their advanced technologies.  This direction may very well continue in the context of the present technological (informational) bias , and perhaps also for economic reasons. Even more as  ecological awareness has sensitized us to the importance of preserving the environment and maintaining a healthy balance among its various components.  However, this new ecological sensitivity remains for us an interpolation. It questions our monasteries' actual relationship to the environment as well as the intervention of those who promote the "rights of nature", at the political, ethical and spiritual levels. [iv]

            The growth of urbanization in the environment - and, in certain regions, the rapid "Westernization" of traditional ways of life [v] , the economic constraints, [vi] and perhaps also, a concern for solidarity with the poor, can modify the "ideal" conditions of the work place which have prevailed in our communities up to the present.  Here we can question the communities which have opted for a factory type of industry using state of the art technologies (computers) to evaluate the real impact of these new conditions on the contemplative dimension of our life.  In comparison, we can ask about the impact that the printing press had on the scriptorium of our monasteries and the questions that this new situation may have raised, particularly on the practice of lectio divina.  This practice was not lost, even if the conditions under which it was exercised did change.  Along this line, one of the documents spoke of the term and the practice of video divina [vii] ; it would be good to reflect and have a communal sharing of our experiences with this practice.

            Beyond these more immediate preoccupations, we can ask ourselves if we are ready to evaluate precisely the long term effects of these new technologies on our way of life.  In this area, it seems that we have not yet gone beyond the level of acculturation, that is, of an intelligent and appropriate adaptation to these new procedures of work and communication, without arriving at the level of inculturation, properly speaking.  For this we will need to await new generations of monks and nuns, formed in this new culture, that of homo informaticus.  One of these major modifications left to conjecture is that of our relationship to temporality.  Using the simple example of mailing a letter we see how this was formerly done by boat, then by plane and now by FAX, [viii] so the time of waiting used to characterize the mail delivery is considerably reduced.  A culture of immediacy is taking shape [ix] , especially through the use of the computer which allow a considerable mass of information to be transferred in a minimal amount of time.  A certain atrophy of the human memory could be the result.  This could constitute a potential menace to formation and the preservation of a proper identity (personal and institutional), in the measure where the feeling of identity is rooted in the individual or collective memory. [x]   On the other hand, we can also see the computer as an aide which, by its efficiency and rapidity, liberates the memory and the human spirit, allowing them to exercise their activity in the areas where they are at their best.  As for using the computer, there has also been mentioned the risk of closing oneself off in a  world of information - or of super-information [xi] , neutral, divested of all affective content, with its more or less long term effects on human relationships or on the relationship to God which is prayer [xii] .  If such a possibility remains real and calls us to vigilance, it also has a positive counterpart, that of surpassing spatial limits which allow us to live in the rhythm of world events - conflicts, wars, famines, etc. - and can really contribute to the development of human solidarity.

2.  Post-Modern Man and Woman

            Post-modernity is characterized by a certain disillusionment following the collapse of the myth of progress (1960-1970), that is, the human person's ability to conquer/master nature and the Marxist utopia (1980-90), therefore the mastery of history by the human person.  The two typical figures that represent this era, the man or woman of progress and the militant, have lost their place to the "problematic" man or woman.  "Problematic" in this sense refers to being deprived of significant identity roles and / or of global coherence, of a life project.  This seems to describe the profile of a good number of present candidates to the monastic life.  The absence or quest for references is verified in various levels constitutive of a culture, whether it be the level of expression (language, symbols, etc), the level of institutions (family, educational milieu, economic and political structures, etc) or the level of values (aesthetic, ethical, etc.) [xiii]

            At the level of expression, the healthy pluralism of our contemporary cosmopolitan societies is particularly manifested in the multiplicity of languages it uses, languages which most often reflect various anthropologies. [xiv]   The particular challenge encountered by those responsible for formation is increased by the fact that they are trying to transmit a spiritual patrimony and an experience that is very characterized and best expressed by twelfth century thought.  However, the frequent absence of previous facts regarding the language of faith, and even more, the monastic tradition, allows them to be received in a fresh way.  This is on the condition that an appropriate hermeneutic accompanies their transmission.

            Perhaps it is at the level of institutions that the challenges encountered vary the most from one culture to another.  Let us mention a few of these.  In the minutes of certain regions, there was mention of the crisis of the family institution (families broken up and reformed, single-parent families etc.) which seems to reduce the possibilities in young people even to make a vocational choice:  psychological problems, emotional immaturity, etc. [xv]   The challenge which this situation presents to our communities is that of identifying/understanding their capacity for welcoming, integrating and accompanying such persons, without risking an internal disorganization. [xvi]   In other regions, it is the more elevated standard of living in our communities, both materially and educationally, in relationship to the surrounding culture, which calls into question the real motivations involved in the choice of a monastic vocation.  The challenge here is the discernment to be exercised in the short, medium and long term. Here the experience of our communities and recent foundations in the young Churches is very valuable.  The promotion of women, in various sectors of society, and a few sectors of ecclesial life, is perhaps linked to the present crisis in feminine religious communities, especially those in the active life.  In this area, our Order with its nine centuries of existence, and its recent Constitutions, can perhaps offer a unique contribution on the way of living the  masculine/feminine alliance within an institution.  Doubtless we still have distance to cover.  Our reflection on the revitalization of the pastoral organs of the Order could make a contribution here.  Some regions also mentioned the mistrust of institutions and social structures, whatever they be, entertained by the young and in particular, the corruption of the surrounding political-economic system.  Others question the influence of the democratic spirit on our communities and on various practices of our Order, particularly on the service of abbatial authority. [xvii]   These situations and questions particularly challenge superiors in the exercise of their ministry, as well as all the department heads in our communities.  In the instance of the General Chapter, we must bring up the question of the delegates' right to vote, which has not yet been resolved in a definite way.

            On the level of values our communities perhaps prophetically question society more than they are questioned by society.  At least this is the over all impression that comes from the reading of a good number of the minutes of regional meetings, where a rather long list of counter-values are listed, which are opposed by evangelical values transmitted by the Rule of St. Benedict and the Cistercian tradition: materialism/spiritual life and liturgy; consumerism/poverty and detachment; individualism/cenobitic life; hedonism/ascesis and simplicity of life, etc.  Each of these themes could be greatly expanded.  In all cases, this rather unilateral vision should not conceal the questions and challenges posed to our communities from the authentic values which inspire the present generation, as expressed, for example, in the Directives for Formation in Religious Institutes. [xviii]   Values mentioned were:  sensitivity to the values of peace, justice, and non-violence; openness to fraternity and solidarity;  movements in the interests of life and nature; hopes for a better world.  Our spirit of initiative and our creativity are stimulated to find new ways of showing solidarity while at the same time, respecting our contemplative identity.  I will but mention here, by way of example, the greater or lesser participation of some communities or of monks/nuns in the movement of the ACAT (Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture) and refer to a situation that is known but pin-points even more the role of "peaceful mediation/negotiation" as was practiced by the community of Lac in the autochthonous crisis of their local area (Oka, Quebec, Canada) during the summer of 1990.

            Beyond these particular challenges, the great challenge asked of us by a waiting world, and especially by the young of this post-modern society, is perhaps that of a clear identity, of a coherent anthropological (and theological) project, where the three levels of values, institutions and expression do not contradict one another.  Of this identity and this aim, our recent Constitutions present the fundamental features;  it remains to be seen if our communities are in basic agreement. [xix]

3.  Secularization and the Return of Religious Sentiment.

            In the religious dimension, the transition from modernity to post-modernity is characterized by the transition from a strongly secularized mentality to a return of religious sentiment with its most diverse and ambiguous manifestations (fraternities, sects, New Age, etc).  In some regions and certain sectors of social life, secularization is still predominant, while in others, it co-exists with the most unexpected and irrational forms.  Therefore, a twofold challenge faces our contemplative identity and our specific mission in the Church. [xx]

            Secularization, with its characteristic attitudes - pragmatism, rationalism, relativism, anthropological reductionism, etc.- incites us to continually become greater "witnesses to the transcendent," in a spirit of openness and dialogue, welcome and respect, sharing and gratuitousness, especially in the service of hospitality, in the unconditional welcome of guests.  Witnessing to the Absolute, as well as to our faith in the human person and his/her capacity for contemplation, as the constitutive dimension of his/her being often waiting only to be awakened.  This is what inspired R. Pannikar to say that the monastic life is a universal religious and human archetype that continually summons us. [xxi]   On the other hand, if in the beginning, the human sciences (anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc) developed in major part outside of a religious framework, it seems that we have not yet fully appreciated their contribution to a better comprehension of the dynamic of the spiritual life (personal, communal and social).

            Besides a similar attitude of openness, hospitality and dialogue, the adherents and representatives of the new religious movements find - or expect to find - at our monasteries places favorable to a "spiritual experience."  In this context,  our patrimony is of particular interest when we consider the importance given by our Cistercian Fathers and Mothers to experience, as well as to the current theme of desire.  The heritage of a multi-secular tradition is also important in the exercise of discernment required for an authentic spiritual quest that is often expressed in multiple languages and rites, borrowed from the most diverse traditions.  Faced with such syncretism, it seems important to make our ecclesial roots prominent - both in the local Church and the universal Church - as well as the specific Christian charism of our spiritual tradition, a specificity that does not harden into opposition, but becomes enriched by the contact with other traditions. This is what we are invited to do in the present ecumenical, inter-confessional and inter-religious movements. [xxii]   

            In concluding this brief presentation, a short text from Jean-Yves Baziou, taken from an article in the review, Christus, entitled: "Getting Beyond Disillusionment. Another Way of Living in the World," describes well, it seems to me, what should be the attitude of a Christian, and even more of the monk/nun facing the challenges presented by the contemporary mentality:

            Instead of reading the collapse of absolutes in a negative way, we can adopt a fresh vision in the biblical manner of reading crisis situations.  In the Bible, cultural mutations and times of transition, as well as conflicts appear as privileged moments of God's revelation...a God who breaks the idols that we make of him, of man/woman, and of the Church.  We discover them to be larger, newer than we had imagined.  Cultural change becomes the occasion of spiritual progress. [xxiii]


[i] . The ASPAC Region even voted on this:  "While recognizing the dangers inherent in certain aspects of the contemporary mentality, ASPAC notes that it is equally important to see in the contemporary mentality so many expressions of fundamental human aspirations.  It believes that attention to the positive aspects of contemporary culture will help to guarantee the authenticity of our monastic program."  (vote 22, p. 37, a unanimous vote of the participants).  See as well the text of Dom Columcille (Region of the Isles, Mount Melleray, 1992, p 5-6.).  The Central Commissions retained this aspect as the third point to take into consideration in the presentation of the theme regarding the challenges of the contemporary mentality at the General Chapter (the two others being the impact of the contemporary mentality on our contemplative life, and the challenges caused by the problems of our society on our communities; Gethsemani, 1992, p. 28.)

[ii] . "Monasticism and Modern Culture: I. Hostility and Hospitality - Religious Community and 'The World' ", M. Francis Mannion, The American Benedictine Review, (44:1) March 1993, 3-21.

[iii] . We can give a brief resume of each of F. Mannion's paradigms.  Conservatism is characterized by a minimum openness to the surrounding culture. It is concerned with restoration of past institutional models, centralized and hierarchical ecclesiology, pre-conciliar liturgy.  In monastic terms, there is a predominance of the fuga mundi (in its pejorative aspect).  The liberal attitude is a "dynamic dialogue between the Gospel and human culture" (p.10).  It primarily concerns the adaptation of Christian and ecclesial tradition to the aspirations of the modern world.  It wants to democratize, de-romanize, and de-Europeanize the Church. It aims to inculturate the liturgy with creativity without any fear of innovation.  De-ritualizing what presently exists and re-ritualizing according to a liberal model characterizes its effect on religious and monastic life. Aggiournamento stresses a"return to the sources."  The radical approach is not content in harmonizing the Christian tradition with modern society, but it wishes to create a new religious and cultural order, using selective literature and a deep critique of past and present institutions (as for example, in liberation or feminist theology.)  This direction calls for a complete reconfiguration of the Church, its structures and symbolic expressions.  Religious and monastic life are presented as an alternative sphere, at the frontier of Christian tradition and of the surrounding socio-cultural environment.  There is talk of "refoundation" (in the strong sense of the word) and of "ecclesiogenesis."  Finally, Neo-conservatism  is characterized by an approach that is both open to and critical of the contemporary world, with regards to Christian origins, but at the same time, pointed towards the development of tradition, in so far as it concerns theology, ecclesiology and liturgy. "New cultural elements can always enter into the Christian synthesis, but the Church's continuity with its origins must always be preserved." (p. 16)  A deep confidence in the heritage of religious and monastic traditions is manifested, as well as in their vitality and their capacity to interpolate the surrounding culture.  The research and conclusions of F. Mannion on this subject parallel to a large degree those of Avery Dulles, S.J., who also identifies four paradigms (substantially the same): traditionalism, liberalism, prophetic radicalism and neo-conservatism.  See Avery Dulles, Catholicism and American Culture:  The Uneasy Dialogue (New York: Fordham UP 1990).

[iv] .  Attention to the environment and to ecological problems, in the larger global framework of attending to social problems, became the subject of a vote in the USA Region:  "We recommend that social problems (linked to war, torture, refugees, the homeless, the oppression of indigenous peoples and the destruction of the earth's resources and the ecosystem) be taken into consideration in the secondary theme of the General Chapters: "The Challenges of the Contemporary Mentality" (Conyers 1992, vote 23a, p. 8; accepted unanimously by the participants).

[v] . See in particular Father Josaphat Kato Kalema's treatment on this subject: "The Cistercian Contemplative Identity," Part II, Point 1: The Challenges, p.42.

[vi] . The economic question, linked to the growing complexity of administrative concerns, is emphasized by the FSO region (Timadeuc, 1991, p. 6; see also the grid prepared for the region on the theme of the challenges of the contemporary mentality., p.13).

[vii] . Text of Dom Frans Harjawiyata on " The Cistercian Contemplative Identity," point 2.4 The Christian Contemplative Life in Our Cistercian Monasteries," p. 7.

[viii] . In our Order, 54 communities of monks (out of 92), and 19 communities of nuns (out of 62) now own and use the FAX (Elenchus 1993).

9.  As also in the case of the instantaneous and provisionary, with its inevitable repercussions on the values of stability, permanence and duration which characterize our life, as noted by M. Marie St-Pierre (CRC, Prairies, 1991, p. 13).

[x] . On this subject see the minutes of RIM (Tre Fontane, 1992), "The Contemplative Identity and Formation of Christian Conscience:  Listening - Memory - Desire," p.3-36.

[xi] . A theme mentioned in the minutes of several regional meetings, including that of RIM (Vitorchiano 1991), where the Abbot General used the term "information culture" whose injurious effects on the life of our communities is to arouse curiosity and to entertain a certain superficiality (p.18).  In the minutes of the American region (Santa Sabina Center, 1991), Dom Bernard McVeigh used the term "Information pollution." (Appendix a, Challenges of the Contemporary Mentality, p. 12).

[xii] . This aspect is developed in particular by Dom Bernard McVeigh (USA, Santa Sabina Center, 1991, p.12), as well as several other aspects relative to the use of computers.

[xiii] . I am borrowing these categories from Dom Armand Veilleux, in his article "Monasticism and Culture" (Monasticism and Contemporary Culture)" , Appendix 6 from the minutes of the meeting of the CRC, Mistassini  1992, p.7.

[xiv] . The Spanish region treated this point in its minutes (San Pedro de Cardena, ) 1992), p. 3-5, and in a more developed way in two texts presented in the appendix: "Desafios de la mentalitad contemporanea",  p.30-36, especially point 4: La muerta del hombre, and Incidencia de la mentalidad actual en nuestra vida contemplativa" (p.37-44, notably in point 2: Problema del lenguaje,  p. 38-39, and point 4:Temas relativos a la persona,p. 40-44).  We are also aware of Dom Bernardo's concern regarding the question of anthropology:  how to work out a personalistic and cenobitic anthropology for our communities, which also takes in account the multi-cultural dimension of our Order.  

[xv] . This aspect is stressed in the minutes of REMILA (Humocaro 1992), p.12 and in Oriens (Nishinomiya,1992), p. 10 (point 2.4 Discussion).  Regarding the difficulty experienced by some young people to make or hold commitments, the Netherlands Region suggests the possibility of other forms of commitment to the Cistercian life (e.g.,oblate status), or besides this, an adapted form of initiation, which implies for the community that there would be a less stable element requiring more flexibility. (Zundert, 1991, p.11).

[xvi] . Or without our communities adopting what G. Arbuckle names "the (relational) therapeutic model"  (USA, Santa Sabina Center, Appendix A. p.14).  Another communal model which is not without repercussions on our contemplative life is the "associate" model (see the minutes of the CNE Region, Oelenberg, 1991, p.13).

[xvii] .  These three points:  promotion of women, mistrust of institutions, the influence of democracy on the abbatial service, are mentioned or treated particularly in the minutes of REMILA (Humocaro  1992, p.11-13).

[xviii] . Roman (Vatican??) Document Potissimum institutioni, February 2, 1990.  See in particular Chapter 5, paragraph A:  "Young Candidates to the Religious Life and a Pastoral on Vocations" (p.57 in the French edition published by the Canadian Religious Conference.)

[xix] . It is to such a reflection that F.Placido Alvarez particularly invites us in his text on "The Cistercian Contemplative Identity", p. 20-24, especially on p.21:  "In the second stage of reflection, we can ask ourselves how we live the various elements on which we base our reflection.  What inconsistencies exist between that which we recognize as a contemplative dimension and what we actually live?  Why are there these inconsistencies? On the other hand, what impetus towards life do we find and what encourages this impetus?" 

[xx] .  These two aspects are well identified by F. Charles Dumont in this text on "The Contemplative Cistercian Identity", section VI:  The Challenges of the contemporary mentality, p. 31-33.  We can also refer to the document being prepared for the next Synod of Bishops on consecrated life:  "Consecrated life and the Mission of the Church in the World.  Lineamenta" (1992), to see that on the whole, very little place is reserved for institutes wholly directed to contemplation.

[xxi] .  Pannikar, R. Blessed Simplicity.  The Monk as Universal Archetype, New York:  The Seabury Press, 1982,  Cf. also Dom Jean Leclerc, Monastic Studies 18 (1988) 64-78.

[xxii] .  We mention here the magnificent synthesis made by Dom Frans Harjawiyata who identified, on the theological level, particular challenges for each of the six continents: secularization vs. Mysterium Salutis in Europe;  inculturation vs. Mysterium Incarnationis in Africa;  liberation vs. Mysterium Liberationis in Latin America; and inter-religious dialogue vs. [xxii] . Mysterium  Revelationis in Asia. (Text of the document on "The Contemplative Cistercian Identity," point 1.2 The Evolution of the Church p.1-2).

[xxiii] . Jean-Yves Bazio, "Moving Beyond Disillusionment.  Another Way of Living in the World," Christus 157 (Janvier 1993) 8-17, the citation on P. 14 echoes this word of hope from the African region:  "A new world, perhaps a more interior one, struggles to be born, but it still lacks the assurance which comes from maturity and incorporation into the whole of the human culture."  (Awhum, 1991, P. 7)