Teachings of Modern Cistercians

Trappists living in our times draw on our rich history, their own experience as well as the context of modern life to provide wisdom and inspiration.

When the angel spoke, God awoke in the heart of this girl of Nazareth and moved within her like a giant. He stirred and opened His eyes and her soul and saw that in containing Him she contained the world besides. The Annunciation was not so much a vision as an earthquake in which God moved the universe and unsettled the spheres, and the beginning and end of all things came before her in her deepest heart. And far beneath the movement of this silent cataclysm she slept in the infinite tranquility of God, and God was a child curled up who slept in her and her veins were flooded with His wisdom which is night, which is starlight, which is silence. And her whole being was embraced in Him whom she embraced and they became tremendous silence.

Cistercians have been dedicated to Our Lady from the very beginning of our Order in the 12th century. She is our life, our sweetness and our hope. She is bride, she is Mother, she is Queen, and none of these has passed from the present into mere memory. She is the sign of the Church: glorified when her full number is attained, purified from whatever is nothingness and non-being, from all the smudges and stains of the sins of her members. Whatever praise rises to her goes right through her to God, as light through a pane of glass. There is in her nothing to block the flow of the glory of God. And some day, with the help of her prayers, there will be nothing in us to block that stream of glory. May we too, in our small capacity, be windows of heaven for others, at least in our dying moment! But whether or not that happens in any perceptible way, may we be drawn more and more into the mystery of God, in Jesus, through Mary, even now. Seek, knock, ask, and it will be given to you!

A few afternoons ago I was out back, burning trash, when I heard the unmistakable call of geese from far away to the north. It took me a while to find them high in the sky against dark clouds—mysterious, impressive, flying in splendid formation in that sweep of wing which is so majestic, so deliberate, a flock headed south with purpose.

But then, when they were just over Gethsemani the V-shape fell apart for some reason, and where there had been order there was chaos and a mess. Dissension. I thought: some want to stay over here like they did last year, some want to keep on going, or maybe it was just that the leader tired and no fresh one was forthcoming. So they wheeled about, several hundred of them, with great noise, each telling others that something had to be done. Now and then a single goose would take a try at leadership and wing off with a few others following him, but no more would take him up on it, and so that would peter out, only for another to try it. It took ten or fifteen minutes for them to reach a consensus, and then, suddenly, one gander took the lead, the others followed, and in a matter of moments a great echelon appeared in the sky, the honking happiness resumed, and they were off to Nashville and the Gulf of Mexico beyond. And I went to Vespers thinking about it.

The readings in the Liturgy of the Hours and in the Eucharist these past several weeks have been pretty heavy. Grim stuff, most of it, about the end of all things at the end of time, wild imagery and fiery horsemen carrying out the orders of an angry God. One brother asked me, “Why do they read such stuff? The visitors must be very upset to hear all that.” “Well,” I said, “they are perhaps not the only ones to be upset, it may be a question of something we ought to hear and think about.” Which says it, I think. For however you may describe it—and it is a challenge to the imagination—the end is to come one day, soon or late. The lesson is: this place, this earth, this universe, is temporal. It is not forever. Tennyson’s brook that goes on forever, the eternal mountains and the everlasting seas, are poetry, not reality. It is all going one day. That much is certain. How, we are not so sure. When, certainly not. And what will follow is also a rather vague scenario: something new, renewed, that we know. And, most strange of all, we are part of it. What makes such readings rather hard listening, it seems to me, is that we live in an age in which the end is very possible. If we cannot destroy the entire universe, we are capable of bringing an end to the one that is home to us. Hence, the scriptures do not sound nearly as wild as they once did. An angry God is a possibility. And He is our God.

And if there is to be a final disintegration, we deal also with the collapse of a culture we live in. When whole cultural patterns fall apart, we have a preview of the final act, and it is no less trying to the men’s souls than the actual performance. I do not spell out the details of this scene. Things do change. And they change enormously and they change fast. We live in the midst of disintegration. New things come, are in process, yet have not come yet. No consensus.

And there is another [disintegration]: the personal apocalypse which is death. If the days of the world and the universe we know are numbered, if cultures shift and fade, so do our days, too. Come early, come late, the end will come, and the stars will fall from our heaven and the earth shake beneath our feet, the angels of God will come to announce the end of all things for us. Death, the great mystery is closer than today’s sunset, for any one of us could be gone before the sun goes down this afternoon.

When the delightful order of the flying geese fell apart and confusion, chaos, how fitting a revelation of our feelings about the ultimate destiny of the world. How like the cultural confusion we know when patterns of behavior break down, values disappear, codes and cults collapse, everything loose and wild and crazy. Like the music that tells it, the world rocks and reels. Which again is the way we feel, I suspect, when death comes down our corridor, to our door, opens and enters: everything we knew and loved slips away and we approach the edge of the cliff and know we are going over it in some mad dream.

The geese stayed together. No one took off on his own. That, for one thing. So, no panic. Second, they knew there was a leader among them and they knew he would emerge. A leader all would accept, no one impose. Nor could one take the honor to whom it is not given. When the leader emerged, something electric happened: they all agreed, they all followed, order returned, the journey began again. The happy honking told their peace. The leader emerges from consensus and when emerged, there is communion. Without the communion you can never get anywhere. The geese would still be wheeling around Gethsemani skies if they did not know this. No community gets anywhere without leadership and without the followship which is consensus in action. Fellowship without followship is fraternity-house theology, not Christianity. And followship without leadership is a kindergarten, for there is no communion of action. And if every bird is not flying full with all he has, the pattern falls apart: no free loaders. There is no beauty without the harsh dedication to the common, to the love of Jesus with one another and for a dying world that so needs the witness of men who believe what they say. Who can make a pattern against the dark skies of our times? It can be a marvel of beauty to restore hope to the wondering and confused: we know where we’re going and we know how to get there, and honey, we’re on our way.

Faith, then, in the face of ultimate apocalypse. Faith in the midst of mixed times. Faith in the face of our own disintegration, is what we need. There is no magic, secret formula. Not a solution for your problems. It is rather to affirm that God is in us and in our midst. Who guides geese guides us. We believe that. We mean it.

We know that after the Holy Spirit, the community is the most important factor in forming new people into monks. So there are several things a community should have to be a formative community.

The community should be open to receive new members. This is not as easy as it sounds. To be open means to be a welcoming community. It is a place of hospitality. If you are open to new members, it means you are open to changes. Everyone going through the stages of formation and eventually becoming a solemnly professed monk changes the face of the community. St. Benedict reminds us that there are a variety of characters in any community. We do not restrict admittance to only those who think like us. We have liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats in the community. We have unity within diversity.

But there are boundaries, and this brings us to the seventh point—a strong community identity. Every community that opens its doors to new members and welcomes diversity has to have a strong sense of its own identity. We have to have unity of purpose and a common vision of the monastic life.

A healthy community will have good communication between its members. There will be a certain affectivity and warm personal relationships. Problems will be addressed and not just left to fester. A community with healthy relationships fosters growth, both human and spiritual growth.

As we would expect, such community is capable of generativity, the passing on of life and the fostering of life. If the community is self-centered, there is no generativity. At one time or another, we may go through a self-centered stage. This is reflected in statements like, “I do not get anything out of the liturgy” or “What is in it for me?” Our liturgy is a participation in the prayer of Christ to the Father. The monastic liturgy especially appeals to the Spirit praying within us, not to a lot of externals to catch our attention.

A community that is centered on God instead of self is capable of leading a novice into a life of prayer. We are not here for ourselves. We are called together in the name of Jesus. We are a praying community whose practice and example leads the novice deeper into the prayer of his own heart. The monastery is a school where we learn how to pray and serve one another.

Because the monastery is a school of love in the Lord’s service, formation of a novice or a prospective member is a significant factor in the Cistercian life. Actually, formation is an ongoing aspect of our monastic life.

We are moving into the deepest dark of the year and with it comes a silence that we do not necessarily experience at other times of the year because of the darkness. As we begin our Advent season we instinctively move into the darkness and silence as we await the coming of Our Lord as the luminous light in our darkness.

One of the most poignant excerpts in literature for me is in Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen. It is the story of two Jewish boys coming of age, Danny, raised in the Hassidic tradition and brilliant; and Reuven, raised by his father in a more liberal Jewish tradition. They are both very good baseball players and in this way their two worlds meet. Reuven, the liberal shares life with Danny and his family often when his own father is traveling. He notices that something is strange about Danny’s relationship with his father, Reb Saunders. Danny reveals to Reuven that his father never speaks to him outside of the time of studying Torah. He has been raised in silence. This has caused Danny much anguish and pain. It has also taught him:

For a long moment, Danny said nothing. His eyes seemed glazed, turned inward. Then his face slowly relaxed. He smiled faintly. “You can listen to the silence, Reuven. I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it.

The words came out in a soft singsong. He sounded exactly like his father.

“You don’t understand that, do you?” He asked.

“No.” He nodded.

“I didn’t think you would.”

“What do you mean it talks to you?”

“You have to want to listen to it, and then you can hear it. It has a strange, beautiful texture. It doesn’t always talk. Sometimes—sometimes it cries, and you can hear the pain of the world in it. It hurts to listen to it then. But you have to.”

I felt myself go cold again, hearing him talk that way. “I don’t understand that at all.” He smiled faintly.

I read this book long before I entered monastic life. The truth of these words resounded in me. And they have stayed with me ever since and they helped to form me. Reuven is summand by Danny’s father and in this summons understands that Danny’s father has been communicating with Danny through him. Reuben answers the summons. The father explains to Reuven why he has treated Danny this way; Danny is there too listening. Reb Saunders, Danny’s father speaks:

“Reuven, I want you to listen carefully to what I will tell you now.” He said Reuven. His eyes said Danny. He was talking to Danny through me.

“A man is born into this world with only a tiny spark of goodness in him; the rest is ugliness and evil, a shell. The spark is God, it is the soul. The spark must be guarded like a treasure, it must be nurtured, it must be fanned into a flame. It must learn to seek out other sparks, it must dominate the shell. Anything can be a shell, Reuven. Anything. Indifference, laziness, brutality, and genius. Yes, even a great mind can be a shell and choke the spark.

“Reuven, the Master of the Universe blessed me with a brilliant son. What an anguish it is to have a Daniel, whose mind is like a pearl, a sun. Reuven, when my Daniel was four years old, I saw him reading a story from a book. And I was frightened. He did not read the story, he swallowed it, as one swallows food or water. There was no soul in my four year old Daniel, there was only his mind. He was a mind in a body without a soul. It was a story in a Yiddish book about a poor Jew and his struggles to get to Eretz Yisroel before he died. Ah, how that man suffered! And my Daniel enjoyed the story, he enjoyed the last terrible page, because when he finished it he realized for the first time what a memory he had. He looked at me proudly and told me back the story from memory, and I cried inside my heart. I went away and cried to the Master of the Universe, ‘What have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul!’”

Reb Saunders then explained:

“My father himself never talked to me, except when we studied together. He taught me with silence. He taught me to look into myself, to find my own strength, to walk around inside myself in company with my soul. One learns of the pain of other by suffering one’s own pain, he would say, by turning inside oneself, by finding one’s own soul. And it is important to know of pain, he said. It destroys our self-pride, our arrogance, our indifference toward others. It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how we must depend upon the Master of the Universe.

“You do not understand this, Reuven. I see from your eyes that you do not understand this. But my Daniel understands it now. He understands it well. He learned to find answers for himself. He suffered and learned to listen to the suffering of others. In the silence between us, he began to hear the world crying.”

Later, Danny and I walked through the streets. We walked for hours, saying nothing, and occasionally I saw him rub his eyes and heard him sigh. We walked past our synagogue, past the shops and houses, past the library where we had sat and read, walking in silence and saying more with that silence than with a lifetime of words.

Aren’t we too called to be tzaddik, a holy one, a compassionate one like Danny Saunders? St. Bernard says that to go to God we must have self-knowledge. We are called to listen to the silence, to walk around inside our souls so that we can know ourselves; to see what is there. When we pray in the dark and in the silence all of our pain and woundedness arises for Jesus to heal and anoint. By His wounds we have been healed. It is hard to face our wounds, our own brokenness but unless we do we will never come to compassion, to hear the pain of the world in the silence. Bernard says this is the second step in coming to God. “We can hear the pain of the whole world in the silence,” says Danny’s father. So can we: as we sit in prayer and listen. And in that prayer we can bring the luminous light of Christ into the darkness and silence of others’ pain and woundedness. And then we too go to God. We become a holy one.

So let us not be afraid to enter into the silence, not be afraid to be healed and to bring the light of Jesus into the whole world. Let us be more and more women of prayer; listening in the darkness for the coming of Our Lord, our Master, Jesus Christ and then bring him to others. Amen

The Spirit inspired the Scriptures; therefore, it is present and speaks through them. If it breathes in, it also breathes out.

The Scriptures breathe life by the inspiration of the Sprit; that is why they are the breath of the Christian monk.

Because God is infinite, his Word is also Infinite; Scripture enshrines infinite mysteries, its meaning is unfathomable.

The literal meaning of the text is always the point of departure; the letter reveals the deeds and presents the persons; history is the foundation.

The Gospel is the body and blood of Christ, to pray and live it is to eat and drink it.

The Gospel is the power of God because it shows us the way and gives us the strength to follow it.

The cenobite understands the profound meaning of the Word only when living in communion and concord with his brothers.

The humus of humility is the good soil in which the Word produces abundant fruit.

Only in recollection can one receive; only in silence is heard the beating of the heart of God.

When we are “nailed” to the Book through our perseverance and diligence in the practice of Lectio Divina, then we will comprehend the folly of the good God.

“Here I am, may God write in me what he wills,” Mary said. When the heart is a letter written by God, all of God’s letters resound in the heart.

He who lives the Good News offers the world reasons to live and die.

People will tell you that silence in a monastery is something sad, a difficult point of the Rule. Nothing could be more mistaken than that idea. Silence in a Trappist monastery is the most cheerful jargon imaginable! Indeed, if God enabled us to read hearts, we would see that from a glum-looking Trappist who passes his life in silence, there flows in steady streams a gloriously jubilant song to his Creator, a song full of love for and joy in his God, the loving Father who cares for and comforts him. Trappists converse with God in silence.