(Conferences at the General Chapters, October - November, 1999)






We Cistercians have a long history to tell of and we like to think that a history to build lies before us.  We are invited to be faithful to our past and to be creators of our future.  Without creative fidelity, our tomorrow will amount to a mere yesterday.  On the other hand, without sanctity and boldness, there will be neither fidelity nor creativity (Cf. Vita Consecrata 37).


Six years ago, at the 1993 General Chapter, I shared my convictions about the necessity of inculturated spiritual renewal.  On that occasion, I presented the causes, the context, the guiding ideas, the instruments and the actors in a new stage of renewal.  In short, it was a pressing invitation to center our lives on the person of Jesus, following together in his footsteps, entering into the Mystery of the Father.  The program was and is, therefore, christocentric, evangelical, cenobitic and mystical.  Today I return to this same topic, highlighting other aspects.


1. Unavoidable Urgency

In their recent years of renewal, all forms of consecrated life have gone through a difficult and trying period (...)  The difficulties however must not lead to discouragement.  Rather, we need to commit ourselves with fresh enthusiasm, for the Church needs the spiritual and apostolic contribution of a renewed and revitalized consecrated life (...)  As a consequence of the above, it is the Holy Father’s wish that reflection will continue and lead to a deeper understanding of the great gift of the consecrated life (...)  and that consecrated men and women, in full harmony with the Church and her Magisterium, will discover in this Exhortation further encouragement to face in a spiritual and apostolic manner the new challenges of our time (Vita Consecrata, 13).


Concerning the above, I in no way mean to call into doubt the many assets our monastic life has received from postconciliar renewal, whether on the institutional level or in daily life.  At the same time, I cannot overlook the price that has been paid.  I mean by this a certain impoverishment in some aspects of our “monastic culture.”  Indeed, some values, as for example fraternal correction and fasting, have all but disappeared.  In like manner, we are feeling a certain lack in the areas of law (the penal code...), ritual (the weekly mandatum...), symbol (vestments, posture...), custom (prayer when beginning work...).  It remains true that, with too much of this, one lost sight of the essential, yet it is also true that we lacked creativity at the time of the changes, for it is easier to eliminate than to substitute.  The impoverishment of our monastic culture could be the cause of a weakening of fraternal unity and of the structures of coherent living.  The mediation of monastic culture is essential in the area of formation; without it, it proves almost impossible to give “monastic form” to our own existence as monks and nuns.


To be sincere, we must also confess another serious limitation in our renewal effort.  I am referring to misunderstandings that need to be cleared up, such as between poverty and economy, personalism and individualism, generosity and activism, liberty and independence, unity and uniformity, pluralism and individualism, charity and tolerance, fidelity and habit, authenticity and spontaneity, incarnation and conformity to the ways of the world, dialogue and debate, asceticism and gymnastics, fasting and dieting, prayer and emptiness, inculturation and folklore, charism and hobby, autonomy and self-sufficiency, transformation and change, perseverance and survival...

These confusions are no doubt different from those Saint Bernard evoked with a certain mischievousness in his Apologia for Abbot William: they count frugality avarice, and sobriety austerity, while silence is reputed gloom.  Conversely, slackness is called discretion, extravagance liberality, chattering becomes affability, guffawing cheerfulness, soft clothing and rich caparisons are the requirements of simple decency, luxurious bedding is a matter of hygiene, and lavishing things on one another goes by the name of charity (Apology 17).  Though the confusion be different, it remains true that a disorder in language sustains a disorder in the mind.


There is yet another reason urging us to welcome renewal as an ongoing process.  The young monks and nuns were not instrumental in the renewal of yesterday, but they are called to be so in the renewal of today.  They also have a contribution to offer since the creative and renewing Spirit is also present in their lives.  It would be an idle display of pride to consider renewal as something already complete, leaving no room for further innovation.


In present day literature on religious life there is no lack of an ever more urgent reflection on the “refoundation” of religious institutes.  Though the term may be ambiguous, it fully retains its value when referring to being faithful to the Lord  as he speaks through each new historical situation.  For some institutes the challenge is considerable, admitting only two alternatives, life or death.  The situation of institutes of monastic life is perhaps not so urgent.  Nonetheless, if we do not re-evangelize our concrete structures and ways of living out the charism that sustains us, we will fall into ecclesial anonymity.  We will be “bad news” for the man and woman of today and end up in the wastebasket of history.


2. A Threefold Meaning

It now seems important to me to clarify briefly the meaning of the programmatic phrase “inculturated spiritual renewal.”  We will take up each of the three words separately in inverse order.  We will see very quickly that they form an inseparable unity.


2.1. Renewal

Renewal obviously refers to “newness,” not just any sort of newness, but rather that which is contrary to both the “outmoded” and “the very latest.”  The apostle Paul tells us this: since Christ has risen from the dead, we walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4).  The Exordium parvum defends the newness of early Cîteaux, using an expression from Paul: stripping off the old self, they rejoiced to clothe themselves with the new (XV,2; Cf. Eph 4: 22-24; Col 3: 9-10).  Consequently, the newness of renewal is quite different from mere “innovation” or the latest fashion, which is intrinsically ephemeral.  Were fashion to endure, it would go out of fashion, all of which shows the foolishness of such unstable transitoriness.


Our new life implies above all else a return to the person of Jesus and to the good news of his gospel.  Moreover, as Cistercians, our “newness” requires a return to our origins since the founding charism of Cîteaux remains a life-giving source without which there is no possibility for originality.


Let it also be said that originality has the advantage of continually remaining in the present time, just as the essential of what is truly traditional always remains current.  The present day situation of an institute can be judged on the basis of its ability to incarnate values and make them manifest in a way appropriate to the reality of its time.  It is important therefore to know how to avoid the modernization of inessentials and the kind of being-up-to-date that lacks history.  This return to our origins requires a capacity for mobility, mobility like that of a circle that turns on an unmoving center, mobility as opposed to settling in or being unavailable.  Returning to the origins is a re-creation, not so much of the outer events, but rather to what inspired them from within.


The history of institutes of consecrated life show us that any effort towards renewal is a cause of conflict.  Clearly it is less a matter of useless antagonisms occasioned by loud protagonists than of conflict arising from faithfulness to Jesus and his Gospel.  Whether or not a conflict is genuine is discerned by the fruit it bears in terms of the regenerativity of persons, communities and structures, regeneration that, starting with the personal, attains to the organizational, by way of the communal.


2.2. Spiritual

The word “spiritual,” in the context of renewal, refers above all to the activity of the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, it is thanks to Him that we can live by the Spirit and be guided by the Spirit, that we can be renewed in the spirit of our minds and clothe ourselves with the new self (Gal 5: 25; Eph 4: 23-24).  Consequently, spiritual is opposed above all to “carnal” and not to bodily or temporal.  Moreover it refers to “metanoia” or inner conversion of heart.


The interiority I allude to at present implies at one and the same time: the human person as conscious, free, responsible and social; living in order to love and be loved; and the divinizing life that is present in sanctifying “grace” and expresses itself in faith, hope and love.  This spiritual interiority must never lose sight of the fact that the human being is a corporal being, that is to say, an embodied spirit.


Living in the Spirit is both a gift and a task involving both receptivity and effort.  And if it is to continue over time, the initial grace must be brought to completion through the gift of perseverence.


2.3 Inculturated

Culture is something distinctively human.  Human beings alone “cultivate” their relationship with God (religion, worship), with other humans (language, social and political life) and with creation (economics, work, technology, art).  Since each people has its own culture, we can speak of “cultures” in the plural.  Each of us is at one and the same time the child and the parent of the culture we live in.  Thanks to our own culture, we live in a human way.  Because of our culture, we live in a limited way.  Though every person exists in a specific culture, there is more to us than just culture: there is something in us that transcends culture (Cf. Pontifical Council for Culture, Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture, 1999).


It is also possible to speak of “sub-cultures” in reference to groups differentiated by reason of gender (masculine and feminine culture), generation (culture of the elderly, youth culture), vocation (monastic culture, military culture), place (urban culture, rural culture), and so on.


Inculturation of our Cistercian charism is an aspect of the inculturation of the Gospel, and inculturation of the Gospel is a consequence and a prolongation of the mystery of the Incarnation.  The inculturation of our charism is the process of its incarnation in a specific culture and the consequent enrichment of both.  It is a natural process that cannot be induced artificially, though it can be given orientation.


Our charism goes beyond all cultures and yet is in and from cultures.  This is to say that our Cistercian charism is transcultural, in reference to what is specific to human beings and Christians, but that it exists only within specific cultural forms.


Any process of renewal implies an inculturation that occasions new forms.  Early Cîteaux uprooted itself from feudal cultural forms in order to inculturate itself in the cultural forms coming to light at that time.  The whole of Cistercian history can be interpreted as a succession of inculturations.


Today’s inculturation has to take into account the pluricultural reality of the Order; it is therefore not possible to produce formulas or orientations that apply to all new places and situations.  Certain monastic cultural forms can be up-to-date in one context and out-of-date in others.  We are all aware that it is not easy to live out unanimity within pluriformity, but difficult does not mean impossible.


The purpose of inculturation in any process of renewal is: to express the charism more fully for the enhancement of cultures; to render our Cistercian life more viable, credible and universal; to communicate monastic life to local churches in a deeper way; to allow for the creation of other forms or models of Cistercian life.


Inculturation is a process that begins and never ends, for cultures change and interact.  In like manner, the degree of “enculturation” (the internalization of one’s own culture) among the members of a given culture is also changeable.


The renewal and inculturation of a charism such as ours is a process that knows no end.  Each generation, on the basis of the preceding one, is called to bring about progress in the way this charism is lived out and interpreted.  In this way the charism is deepened and more fully expressed, along with the Body of Christ as incarnate in history.


3. Realistic Utopianism

There will never be true renewal without an unconditional openness to the One who says: See, I make all things new.  Among other things, this means that we have to learn to envision or conceive of our life, whether in its totality or in the elements it is made up of,  with new categories or frameworks of thought.  Without at least a minimum of freedom in thought and action, we will never be able to create what is not yet from what already is.


I have already explained elsewhere the meaning of the term “utopian.”  Pope Paul VI, in his Apostolic Letter, Octogesimo adveniens, speaks of utopias in the following way:  this form of criticism of established society often stimulates the imagination both to find previously unknown possibilities latent in the present and also to provide orientation toward a better future.  It thus supports the dynamics of society by giving confidence to the inventive powers of the human mind and heart.  Lastly, if it remains completely open, it can also re-discover the Christian calling (37).


Consequently, I do not consider utopian to be synonymous with impossible.  The utopian is not something impossible to carry out, but rather something that is premature.  But in the realm of human realities: What is truly possible?  What is “utopian” (in quotation marks so as to mean unreal)?  And what is in fact a real possibility?  Many things once considered to be impossible (or “utopian”), as for example the abolition of slavery or the elimination of world hunger, were or still are considered to be so simply because they were not really or are not really wanted.  The same can be applied to the Order:  mixed regional meetings, the Abbesses’ right to vote in the election of the Abbot General or his Council... were considered to be “utopias” in the sense of unrealistic or as things that simply could not be brought about, and yet...


Within the order of divine grace, of new life in Christ, where is the dividing line between the possible and the impossible?  Even the apostles considered monogamous and indissoluble marriage impossible (Mt 19:3-12)!  Nevertheless, the Mother of Jesus knew very well that with God nothing is impossible (Lk 1:37; 18:27).  There is nothing more utopian than the Gospel; one has only to reflect a little on the Sermon on the Mount or on the Our Father: for new wine, new wine skins! (Mt 9:17).  This was the understanding of the early Christian community of Jerusalem (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35; 5:12-16) and of the founders of the “New Monastery.”


It is impossible for a utopian world to supplant an extant world without a certain freedom of mind and action with regard to the latter.  This attitude implies overcoming a passive acceptance of the world as it is, and at the same time avoiding a general condemnation of what is currently in place.  Radical non-conformity is just as imprudent as systematic and uncritical conformity.  It is not always easy to find one’s right place on the continuum between passivity and refusal, intimacy and distance, fusion and divorce.


Living tradition is the very source of consistent progress, and an open future is the necessary condition for safeguarding the tradition as it moves on.  Traditionalism, on the other hand, clings to the material aspects of the tradition, whereas progressivism advocates novelty without continuity, rootedness or coherence.


Tradition and progress must learn to go hand in hand and not become “isms” (traditionalism, progressivism...).  The very worst is when such “isms” become ideology, that is, a coherent, articulate and operative system of thought that offers proofs and motivations for solving everything.  Ideology, by simplifying reality, very often supplants it and modifies persons according to pre-established patterns.  Ideology can become a mental straight-jacket that warps, bridles and hardens, in order to justify the unjustifiable.


For progressivist theology, evil lies in the past and good in the future, and vice-versa for traditionalist ideology.  Cistercian history abounds in examples of tensions between traditionalists and progressivists.  Nor has the ideologist demon been absent, though perhaps in a more subtle way, turning spirituality into ideology.


The current stage of renewal is urging us to give free scope to the creativity of our utopian thought and practice.  Here perhaps lies the path most apt to provide answers for some of the challenges we have to face.  Concretely, I am thinking of the question of the Cistercian Family and of the need to re-proportion economic and work structures to fit the needs of the local reality.  A bit of utopianism will perhaps be needed likewise to find renewed meaning and new ways of incarnating certain monastic values such as silence, separation from the world, evangelical poverty and fasting.


4. Meaningful Presence

Lastly, I would like to speak of another reality which, to a certain extent, encompasses all that has been said thus far.  I am referring to the attractive evangelical witness we have to give simply by our presence.  Our monastic life must be a sign of the heavenly kingdom in the changing conditions of our time (Perfectae Caritatis, 1 and 2): our very identity demands “meaningfulness.”


Our identity and the vitality of this identity show themselves in the form of meaningful presence, presence being the visible manifestation of our identity.  Our monastic charism has drawing power precisely because of its particular form of presence.  Sociologically speaking, we exist because we are present and seen.


Our presence encompasses many different realities, bringing together all the fundamental aspects of our life.  The most influential aspects of our presence are:


-For each one of us, monks and nuns of the Order:  the dedication of our lives, our perseverence, our risk for the sake of the absolute, our radical daily options, our joyfulness... or, to the contrary, our mediocrity, discouragement, greed, selfishness...


-For each of our communities: the kind of relationships among its members, how welcoming its, its sharing and communion, its insertion into the local area, its prayerful witness...


-The kind of work activity and participation in a given economy: agriculture, various types of factories, stores that sell one’s own and others’ products, employees serving the monastery...


-Buildings and properties: where they are sited, the type of construction, the amount of land...


-Other visible signs that indicate other realities: clericalism, mediaevalism, mystery, welcome, separation...


Our various forms of presence, then, manifest our identity and our charism to a greater or lesser degree.  We must also take into account in this context that the secularized culture of certain areas of the globe is little inclined to recognize signs of transcendent values.  Nevertheless, we might ask ourselves if our presence is:


-Production-oriented: we are there because of what we do or make (cheese, beer, chocolate...)


-Patronizing: we are there because others depend on us or are at our service (those who benefit from our presence, those we employ, various monopolies...)


-Provocative: our simple life raises questions, makes people wonder (what are they seeking?  They are like everyone else, and yet there is something more...).


-Contradictory: the signs are unintelligible or self-contradictory (poor but at the same time wealthy, dressed up or disguised in an out-moded way...)


-Prophetic: the Lord uses our presence to speak to believers and unbelievers alike (the Kingdom of Heaven is already in your midst...)


-Mystical: the offering of one’s life and the primacy of personal and communal dialogue with God are clearly visible to all (the mystery is revealed to the simple and pure of heart...)


Surely our presence will communicate more than one message and will have more than one meaning.  I consider it urgent, at the present time (in the era of social communication), to evaluate the visibility of our charism and identity, since our witness depends on them.  This will imply at least:


-Distinguishing whatever might obscure or confuse the witness of our life.


-Shortening or lengthening distances to avoid con-fusion or e-strangement.


-Being attentive to the signs of the times and knowing how to inscribe new signs into the times.


-Learning the difficult art of public and social communication.


Our monasteries are present in 44 different countries.  The cultural, religious, political, social and economic circumstances are extremely varied.  Nonetheless there are common demands and necessities.  Contemporary reality invites us see how our presence and witness measure up against:


-The poor and poverty in all its forms.

-The young people who want to play an active role today and certainly will tomorrow.

-The thirst for spirituality on the part of the men and women of today.

-The desire for communion in a world torn by so many divisions.


I don’t think I am mistaken in affirming that the quality of our meaningful presence and witness depends, in the final analysis, on a single reality:  the deep living out of an integral spirituality abounding in divine and human values.  Only thus will we be able to make visible the marvels wrought by God in the frail humanity of those who are called (Vita consecrata 20). 


Our simple presence must make our monastic charism and the distinguishing characteristics proper to it visible.  This presence must inspire, within our immediate environment, the desire to share in the life that shines forth in us.  There is no better vocational program than the witness of a meaningful presence.


While it is true that every presence has something about it that remains unclear or inexpressible, it is also true that some signs can only be read by means of faith and openness to mystery.  Nonetheless, today it is imperative that we ask ourselves if indeed our light shines before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven (Mt 5:16).


5. A Basic Requirement


Because renewal requires effort and is likely to occasion conflict, the only ones who persevere in it are those who have a good sense of humor.  Indeed, if you take life with a sense of humor, God will free you from what is tragic.  If you are able to distinguish between mountains and mole-hills, you will avoid a lot of worries.  More concretely, if you reflect before you set to work, and if you laugh while you’re reflecting, you will avoid doing a lot of foolish things.


A sense of humor – an expression of Cistercian joy – in the context of renewal keeps one from absolutizing the relative and allows one to relativize the absolute in relation to the one and only Absolute.  This gift of God, which renders human beings so attractive, is:


-Something more serious than just funny, better understood by the humble than by the joker or the wit.


-A vaccine or an antidote against the venom of pride or megalomania.


-The ability to see the seriousness of what is foolish and the foolishness of what is serious.


-A source of relaxation and refreshment when we are tense and hot.


-The simplicity of the child with the experience of the elder.


A great mediaeval reformer and advocate of renewal, Bernard of Clairvaux, reminds us of a truth that we mustn’t forget: charity is laughter, for it is joyful (Various Sermons, 93; Letter 87:12).  Scripture, for its part, teaches us to call on God saying: Lord let your face shine on (smile at) your servant (Ps 31:17; 119:35).  And likewise recommends that we look to him and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed (Ps 34:6).


The unavoidable and urgent task of taking a step forward in renewal leads us to call on the intercession of that Mother who received into good soil the seed of God’s humor and brought forth fruit a hundred-fold:


To you, our Mother, who desire the spiritual and apostolic renewal of your sons and daughters in a response of love and complete dedication to Christ, we address our confident prayer.  You who did the will of the Father, ever ready in obedience, courageous in poverty and receptive in fruitful virginity, obtain from your divine Son that all who have received the gift of following him in the consecrated life may be enabled to bear witness to that gift by their transfigured lives, as they joyfully make their way with all their brothers and sisters towards our heavenly homeland and the light which will never grow dim.  We ask you this, that in everyone and in everything glory, adoration and love may be given to the Most High Lord of all things, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Vita Consecrata, 112).



D. Bernardo Olivera

Abbot General