Mother Paul, Soleilmont

          I have been asked to say what conformity to Christ means to me.  I shall try to do so very simply.


          We read in Genesis: “God said: ‘let us make humankind in our image according to our likeness’ ” (Gen. 1: 26).  “Man was made in the likeness of the One who made him”, says William of St. Thierry[1].


          He is “an image of the true nature of God” (Wis. 2: 23) .  Speaking of this nature St. John exclaims “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8).  He also says: “The only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made him known” (Jn. 1: 18)  He became one of us, taking our form to reveal the Father to us, to lead us to him and allow us to “find again our natural affinity that had been deformed by sin”[2]  Christ is the way.  In him “man is called to transform image into likeness by means of grace, in the full sense of participation”[3].


          “Man does not conform himself, he is conformed”[4].   And “his love is made to receive form, to become from God a love with the features of God himself, who is love”[5].  Conformity to Christ is, therefore, a grace to be received, a gift to be welcomed.  It is in the order of being before giving dynamism to our moral actions and changing “our heart of stone into a heart of flesh”.  It unceasingly tends to unite being and doing.  It belongs to each one to find, “under the inspiration and fire of the Spirit, a way that is personal and therefore incomparable of being with Christ”[6], who is the Alpha and Omega, the perfect Image of the Father and the living Head of the Church. 


          Baptism brings mankind into the Body of Christ.  “As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” says Saint Paul (Gal. 3:27).


          Before seeing how conformity to Christ comes about in religious consecration, in the Cistercian charism and more specifically in the abbatial office, I should like to point out the work of the Holy Spirit acting in humans independently of all link with the Church and the sacramental life.

          I think of man, disfigured by sin, living in the greatest indifference and ignorance of his dignity as son of God and yet retaining like a watermark the features of the divine image.

          I think of Mahatma Ghandi, the courageous apostle of non-violence, who wrote: “Since I have rejected the sword, I have now nothing else to offer those who fight me except the weapon of love”[7].

          I think of the Dalaï-Lama who, in his own words “breathes in all the brutality and persecution his people are made to suffer, and simply breathes out compassion”.

          I think of our sincere Moslem brothers, and of so many simple people of our de-Christianized regions of Europe who, without knowing it, radiate a goodness, patience, and mercy that have their source in Christ.


          How does the Christian, incorporated into Christ by baptism, consecrated to God by religious profession, come to grow in the conformity of his life to that of the Son of God?  His Holiness John Paul II, in his post-synodal apostolic Exhortation on the religious life, expressed it this way:


“Consecrated persons not only make Christ the whole meaning of their lives but strive to reproduce in themselves, as far as possible, ‘that form of life which he, as the Son of God, accepted in entering this world.’  By embracing chastity, they make their own the pure love of Christ and proclaim to the world that he is the Only- begotten Son who is one with the Father (Jn 10:30, 14:11).  By imitating Christ’s poverty, they profess that he is the Son who receives everything from the Father, and gives everything back to the Father in love (Jn 17:7, 10). By accepting, through the sacrifice of their own freedom, the mystery of Christ’s filial obedience, they profess that he is infinitely beloved and loving, as the One who delights only in the will of the Father (Jn 4:34)[8]”.


          The consecrated person, drawn by Christ, wants to be moved more and more by the sentiments that animated Christ Jesus. 

“ This Model, Christ”, as Mother Blanca tells us, “will be all the more completely assumed by us, and we by It, to the degree that it is contemplated, discerned, touched and obeyed.  It will be necessary to remain so much in his presence that the Power that flows from his Person can keep doing his work in us.  That is how his influence as Model can transfer into us his own form, as if by osmosis.  At the same time we, on our part, need to offer him our active passivity, our welcoming silence, full of hope in his transforming action”[9].


          This leads us to speak of configuration to Christ through the Cistercian charism.  Our Constitutions say: “Christ is formed in the hearts of the sisters through the liturgy, the abbess’s teaching and the fraternal way of life” (C. 3.2).


          It is in the liturgy, and especially the Eucharist as from a source, that grace pours into  us.  The liturgical life is an opening to God, who calls us to celebrate Him all day long in faith and love.  Together we glide in, we lose ourselves in the great priestly prayer of Christ and unite our poor praise to His to the glory of the Father.


          Let us also mention the values of the Cistercian life which are solitude and silence, personal prayer, lectio, work, etc.  These values well lived favour a climate of true recollection which makes us act “in the awareness of the presence of God, under his eyes, with gratitude to him and attention to our neighbour”[10]

.  It is, according to Maximus the Confessor, “to keep the mind attentive to God in great reverence and love,... to count on God in all our actions and in all the events of our life”[11]: unceasing prayer that permeates, pacifies and embraces the whole being.

          Fraternal life, this life of prayer made concrete, plays an important role in our formation.  A single calling unites us, but the responses are different, since each one has his own path, his own particular grace.  The essential thing is to belong entirely to Christ, to give him first place.  To let ourselves be fashioned each day by clashes, joys, mutual edification is painful but constructive.  We can truly speak of fraternal “communion”.  It is good and encouraging to perceive the action of the Spirit in each person.  I think of that venerable sister whose smile and shining eyes radiate peace, and of that other one whose weary hands never stop telling her beads, of the generosity of the one who is entirely given to her community task and of the brand new enthusiasm of a young sister...  Someone has spoken of the attractiveness of the fraternal life.  It is true, a community is a deeply beautiful thing!  Are not those men and women who live in community signs of the brotherhood that the world so painfully tries to achieve?  Don’t they become effective channels of intercession for the Church and the world by the patient listening and help they give to those who knock at the door of the monastery?


          When he speaks of the abbot’s teaching, Saint  Benedict wishes it to be given through his actions even more than through his words (RB 2:12). To live in Christ, to be conformed to the Gospel - as he expects of his monks - is thus the first requirement of the abbatial service.  If the teaching flows from experience it will be more authentic and will bear more fruit.  If the gaze he turns on the community is lit up by that of Christ it will be full of kindness and mercy.


          Reading again chapters 2 and 64 of the Rule of Saint Benedict, I was struck by his insistence on the care the abbot must have for those whom the Lord has entrusted to him.  “He has been given the care of souls” (RB 2:34).  Faced with the daily experience of our limitations, we have to employ all the means possible to our human and spiritual personality and all the riches of grace to make our sisters grow in knowledge of the faith, in the joy of giving and in the unity and liberty of love.  It is not always easy:

- to sustain in each one the desire to put nothing before the love of Christ

- to awaken the sense of co-responsibility

- to reconcile different sensitivities

- to gather opposing opinions into a common vision

- to encourage or establish programs of reconciliation and dialogue.

Fortunately, Christ promised to be with us to the end!


          We also have recourse to those monks and nuns who have gone before us in the Cistercian way of life.  Their writings, full of light and fire, stimulate us still today.  Listen to Bl. Aelred advising his sister who was a recluse: “Let your love be fixed on Him alone”[12]

“Break the alabaster vase of your heart and pour over the head of your Spouse all your devotion, love, desire and affection, everything you have, adoring the Man in God and God in the Man”[13].

          Beatrice of Nazareth reminds us, “This is above all the work of love: to desire the closest  union and the highest state, where the soul surrenders herself to the most intimate union”[14].


          We think of the wise recommendation of Saint Benedict: “Whatever good work you undertake, beg the Lord by most earnest prayer to bring it to perfection” (RB Prologue).  For “Prayer is the drill that digs a deep well from which God may spring forth”[15].  The prayer of the Lord for each one of the sisters entrusted to our care is what should be most important to us and should turn us most naturally to Our Lady, our Mother.  “She desires to form her Only- Begotten Son in all her sons by adoption.  Although they have been brought to birth by the Word of truth, nevertheless she brings them forth every day by desire and loyal care until they reach the stature of the perfect man, the maturity of her Son”[16].


          With Saint Bernard and for the whole human race we repeat, “ Look to the Star, call upon Mary”[17].


          And so day by day, in spite of our slowness and helplessness, our doubts and darkness, we go forward reminding ourselves that, although our action is necessary it is of secondary importance.  The Spirit’s work in us is more important: his grace that raises us up and his gratuitous love that arouses our love.  Now “love is the likeness of God in the human person, and it is this very conformity that makes us one spirit with Him”[18]. This conformity, says Saint Bernard, marries the soul to the Word (Song: 83, 3).


          Isn’t this the ultimate goal of our life while waiting to reign with Him, the Risen Christ, in the Kingdom of the Father?


Sister Paul, Soleilmont


[1] William of St. Thierry: Treatise on the Song of Songs, Cant.1. VIII: 94: Efficitur ad similitudinem facientis.

[2] Ch. Dumont:  An education of the heart, p. 215

[3] O. Clément:  The prayer of the heart, Oriental Spirituality 6bis, p. 49

[4] J. Delesalle: “Being one spirit with God” in the Works of William of Saint-Thierry (typed Thesis) p. 210.

[5] Ibid: p. 212

[6] O. Clément: Questions about mankind, p. 50.

[7] L.A. quoted in: “J. Pyronnet, C. Legland: Two weeks of Prayer with Ghandi, A New City, p. 76.

[8] Vita Consecrata n. 16

[9]Mother Blanca Lopez Llorena: Cistercian Grace Today: Conformity to Christ, Working Paper to help the communities in preparing their House Reports for the General Chapters of 1999, Introduction p.1.

[10]               10  O. Clément: The prayer of the heart, Oriental Spirituality 6bis p. 59.

[11] The Book of Asceticism, the Little Philokalia, quoted in: O. Clément: the Prayer of the Heart, Oriental Spirituality 6bis p. 59.

[12] Rule for a Recluse, 32 SC 76 p. 153.

[13] Ibid. 31 p. 129.

[14] The Seven Degrees of Love, trans. J.B. Porion, Martingay, p. 248.

[15] J. Loew: As though he saw the Invisible One, p. 76.

[16] Guerric of Igny: 2nd Sermon for Our Lady’s Birthday, 3 SC 202 p. 493.

[17] Cf. Bernard of Clairvaux: in Praise of the Virgin Mary, 2 17.

[18] C. Dumont: Fervent Wisdom, p.  323.