Cistercians


For those who don’t know about it and may be interested, I have just watched the trailer and two extracts (here and here) from Xavier Beauvois’ film Of Gods and men which I gather has been showing in Europe and the USA. I’ve no idea if it will be coming to South Africa, but, if not, I hope that I get to see it somehow.

There are also reviews in the Guardian and the New York Times.

The film deals with the 1996 martyrdom of the Cistercian community of Our Lady of the Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria, an event that has deeply affected many people, including myself.  (There is also helpful material here from the author of The Monks of Tibhirine, including extracts from his book).

Update: For those who read French, after posting this I discovered a recent interview with Brother Jean-Pierre, one of the two monks who survived attack, in Le Figaro. I ‘ve only skimmed through it, but it certainly looks worth reading.

Another update: It turns out that it is showing in South Africa and I saw it on Friday night. I won’t say more now as it triggered emotions that I don’t really want to speak about online, but it was definitely very good, and an accurate reflection of the events (although I do agree with the Guardian reviewer that the refectory scene was a bit over the top). In any case, please do go and see it if you possibly can!

An interesting snippet of information from a email from Jim Forest: During Thomas Merton’s famous trip to Asia in 1968 on which he died, he carried with him relics of the following saints:

  • St. Bede
  • St. Thomas of Canterbury
  • St. Teresa of Jesus
  • St. Peter Damian
  • St. Bruno
  • St. Romuald
  • St. Nicholas of Flue
  • St. Charbel
  •  

    So much for Merton ending his days as a relativistic, synchetistic, New Age, quasi-Buddhist who’d lost his faith, which both the “left” and the “right” would somehow seem to have us believe. The truth, of course, is far more complex.

I was recently dipping into a new history of our Order in the twentieth century* and came across an interesting account about a certain Dom Alexis Presse, abbot of Tamié in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a reforming abbot and an expert on early Cistercian history and liturgy. “But he was not merely a historian, and dreamed of bringing his Order back to its original practices by sweeping aside all that had been added since then, especially since Rancé and Lestrange.” (200) As abbot he got into trouble for suppressing practices such as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in his own community, even forbidding his novices to make “visits” to the Blessed Sacrament. A gifted and visionary person, it appears that he was less than diplomatic and that he became increasingly arrogant and unstable, resulting in rebukes even from sympathetic friends such as the great Dom Anselme Le Bail of Scourmont. The sad outcome of an extended conflict was that he ended up being secularised and, supported by some of the French bishops, went on to form a community outside the Order.

That is an interesting titbit of history, the details of which I won’t go into. But I raise it here because of the comment of the authors of this history who judge his approach “overly archaeological” and ask “Had the Holy Spirit inspired nothing good in the Church since the sixth century?” (206-207) I am interested in this because the shift in Eucharistic understanding and practice in the late Middle Ages, and the persistence in emphasis on the Holy Gifts outside the Eucharist, is something that also concerns me. The authors of this history, like vast majority of Latin Catholics, seem to accept that this development was a good thing. And to simply object to it on the grounds of “archaeology” does indeed seem problematic. There have, after all, been many developments in the history of the Church; the question is how we discern which of them are genuine developments and which involved a shift in meaning that represent a departure from the tradition. Do such innovations really matter?

I have previously noted Father Louth’s discussion of the reversal in understanding concerning the mystical Body of Christ in the twelfth century, based on Cardinal De Lubac’s work Corpus Mysticum. A few months ago a friend sent me an article entitled “The Eucharist in the West” by the Irish Jesuit Michael McGuckian (New Blackfriars, March 2007), which also draws on De Lubac’s work which had showed that prior to 1050 the term Body of Christ had referred to the Church and that the Eucharist had been referred to as the Mystical Body, but that that after this the Eucharist became the Body of Christ and the Church came to be referred to as the Mystical Body. Father Mc Guckian comments:

De Lubac opines that the change can be considered ‘good because it was normal’, but it seems to me that the change in terminology betokens a most profound change in mentality, and it is from this shift that I take my cue as to what is going on here. I suggest that the change results from the loss, among Western Christians, of the sense of the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Church. (146)

McGuckian traces this loss of consciousness of Christ’s presence in the Church back to Saint Augustine, who in his conflict with the Pelagians conceded that “the bride without spot or stain” will only be revealed in heaven, and to the emphasis on the institution that resulted from the Gregorian reform and was further strengthened in reaction to the Protestant Reformation. He writes:

The suggestion I am making is that this loss of the sense of the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Church encouraged our concentration on his presence in the Blessed Sacrament. The Church, for us, has been a focus of disunity, and failing to find our consolation in the presence of Christ through his Holy Spirit in the Church we sought our peace in the Blessed Sacrament, and this has led to an imbalance in our spirituality. St Paul simply said ‘You are the body of Christ’ (1 Cor 12.27), and the concentration on the Eucharistic body must not be allowed to distract us from that primary mystery, to which the phrase, the Body of Christ, should spontaneously refer. Sacrosanctum concilium 7 teaches that Christ is present in different parts of the liturgy, but especially in the Eucharistic species. Pope Paul VI, in Mysterium fidei 38, teaches that the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species is a presence ‘surpassing all others’. It seems to me that the considerations presented here call for a review of these affirmations. On the simple principle that the whole is greater than the part, one must affirm that the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic liturgy as a whole surpasses the presence in the Eucharistic species alone. The mystery of transubstantiation and the miraculous presence of Christ’s body is more accessible to our imaginations than the mystery of his presence in the people, in the presiding Bishop and in the proclaimed word. However, those other presences surpass the presence in the elements in their personal quality, their dynamic force and their effects on our spirits, and are not to be undervalued. And surely we must affirm that the presence of Christ through the action of his Holy Spirit in the Church, which includes all the rest, is the most important, the most fundamental, presence of Christ on earth. There is need, it is being suggested, for a contextualisation of the Eucharistic presence in the larger whole, and the proper recognition of the absolute priority of the presence of Christ in the Church. (148)

While this touches on themes that require considerably more background, reflection and working out, it seems to me that being concerned at certain developments in the western Church in second millennium is not simply about “archaeology”. It is not simply about a romantic desire to return to the old because it is old, but rather because the changes that have occurred have impoverished our consciousness of the fundamental Christian mysteries. Of course, I cannot comment on Dom Alexis’ motivation in these things, but that is where my interest lies.

I have recently read the account of Archimandrite Placide Deseille’s conversion to Orthodoxy. Well, “read” might not be the best word as it is in French and my French leaves much to be desired. But, although I didn’t have time to sit with a dictionary and read it all carefully, I understood enough to find it interesting. Father Placide was a Cistercian monk (of Bellefontaine in France) and one of the leading scholars of the Order and so I have always been rather curious about his story. While there are aspects to it with which I am less than entirely comfortable, notably his rebaptism on Mount Athos, I must admit that his tone is more irenic than I had been led to believe. It is also fascinating for the light that it sheds on Cistercian life in the middle decades of the twentieth centuries. He speaks with fondness and appreciation for his superiors and formators and the grounding that he received in the Fathers of the Church and the monastic tradition. But this appreciation for the Fathers was not shared by everyone: he tells of one superior who, while admitting that there were good things in the Fathers, argued that there was no true theology in the Church before Saint Thomas Aquinas and no mysticism before Saint Bernard, and even that had to wait until Saint John of the Cross before reaching maturity! Perhaps the less said about that the better.

What I find interesting though is his discussion of what happened to the preconciliar biblical, liturgical and patristic renewal. He writes:

I expected much of these efforts but two things disturbed me. On the one hand, they clearly had a limited audience and did not reach the majority of French diocesan clergy. On the other hand, a powerful and vital party in the Roman Church was engaged in the Catholic Action movement and in pastoral research emerging from the worker priest movement. I was moved by a real sympathy for the multitude of initiatives and the undeniable apostolic fervour that they expressed. But at the same time I was aware that, despite the partial convergence, the climate there was different to that of the biblical and patristic renewal. The praxis of Catholic Action implied an ecclesiology that was without doubt that of the Counter Reformation and which did not sit easily with that of the ancient Church. One also saw in this movement a tendency to the types of celebrations that were foreign to the spirit of the traditional liturgies. I encountered in all this a new incarnation of modern Catholicism rather than living return to the sources which would have demanded a radical renewal.

I did not sufficiently appreciate that it was the second current, rather than the first, that represented the real logic of modern Catholicism and which would in all likelihood neutralise and supplant the other tendencies. I was hoping that the dry bones would revive, that all that the traditional elements that the Roman Church had conserved in its institutions and liturgy would be rediscovered as a tonic to nourish modern humanity. I was hoping that everything of the Catholicism of the Counter Reformation that was alien to the great tradition of the Church would give way to a resurrection of the “Western Orthodoxy” of the first centuries as a result of the meeting of the ancient heritage and the living forces of the present.

While he welcomed the Council “with great joy,” he gradually realised the ambiguity of the various currents of ideas and his hopes for a return to the sources began to fade. The Council did not so much cause this as reveal what was going on. Much of the traditional institutions, and to a certain extent the liturgy, was able to survive because of strong central power. But people, especially the clergy, had to a large extent lost the deeper meaning and this would lead to a rebuilding on a new basis.

While the rapid disintegration of twentieth century Catholicism was troubling, Father Placide came to realise that it had deeper roots and was part of a certain logic of Catholicism itself.

This led me to reflect on the religious history of the West, and especially on the profound changes that one can identify in all areas between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. In this period one sees changes in the institutions of the Church (notably the understanding of the papacy in the Gregorian reform), the sacramental rites (abandoning baptism by emersion, communion under two species, the deprecative formula for absolution etc.), doctrine (introduction of the Filioque in the Symbol, development of the scholastic method in theology). At the same time one saw the appearance of a new religious art that was naturalistic and broke with the canons of traditional Christian art that were elaborated during the course of the patristic period.

(If anyone is interested, Aaron Taylor of Logismoi recently posted on an essay of Fr Placide Deseille on Orthodoxy and Catholicism).

It turns out that I am a Rule 73 Benedictine. I had never heard of Rule 73 Benedictinism before, but I have it on the good authority of Andrew Louth, who, as all my readers know, has near infallible status on this blog.  Last week I received Father Louth’s Greek East and Latin West. The Church AD 681-1071 as a belated profession gift. I regret that I am not going to get to reading it seriously for quite a while, but have been dipping into it now and then, hence the discovery that I’m a Rule 73 Benedictine. This was a movement that preceded the Cistercian Reform in which

chapter 73, the last chapter of the Rule, came to be regarded as a signpost to the real purpose of the Rule – to lead the monk to “the loftier heights of wisdom and virtue,” doctinae virtutumque culmina. It was such an understanding of the Benedictine Rule that would inspire the reform of the Cistercians. (278)

No doubt I will discover many other things of which I am profoundly ignorant when I eventually get to reading this book!

I’m rather late mentioning this, but for anyone interested who hasn’t seen it elsewhere, on Monday, 8 September, feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, Dom Eamon Fitzgerald was elected the new Abbot General of our Order.

Please pray for Dom Eamon, for the Order and, perhaps most especially, for his monastery of Mount Melleray in Ireland who have just lost their abbot.

Please pray for the General Chapter of our Order, which opened in Assisi yesterday. Apart from the usual pastoral and juridical issues that the abbots and abbesses gather to discuss every three years, they are also going to be electing a new abbot general as Dom Bernardo Olivera is retiring after eighteen years as abbot general.

In case anyone is interested there is a blog with news of the Chapter here.

Christian reminded his audience of John’s words: He who hates his brother is a murderer. “Each person must ask, ‘Have I eradicated all forms of hatred from my heart?’ We cannot live in this country today, wishing for peace, if we don’t go to this extreme of removing hatred from ourselves … and no one can say he has done this.

“When I approach my neighbor, I also become his guardian, which means to become his hostage. Justice begins with the other. Take the case of Sayah Attia. I was not only the guardian of my brothers in the monastery but his guardian, too, of this man who stood opposite me and who should have been able to discover within himself something more than what he had become. I think this happened in some small measure, to the degree that he gave way that night, or made an effort to understand me. People say these types are disgusting animals, they are not human, and that you can’t deal with them. I say that if we talk like that, there will never be peace.”

“… We could not keep going if we did not pray and, in our prayers, seek to rid ourselves of the spirit of violence, prejudice, and rejection within us. After the episode with Attia, I wanted to pray for him. What should I pray to God? ‘Kill him?’ No, but I could pray, ‘Disarm him.’ But then I asked myself, Do I have the right to ask God to disarm him if I don’t begin by asking, ‘Disarm me, disarm my brothers.’ That was my prayer each day.”

John W. Kiser, The Monks of Tibhirine. Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria, (NY: St Martin’s Griffin, 2003) 219-220.

Today is the twelfth anniversary of the deaths of our brothers of Tibhirine in Algeria. Caught up in the violence ravaging that country they chose to remain in their monastery, in solidarity with their neighbours, creating a space for hospitality and dialogue. Captured and beheaded they became in life and in death a sign and a plea for Christian-Muslim understanding, which was expressed in Brother Christian’s testament that was released after his death and can be found here.

For more on the monks of Tibhirine (Atlas) see here.