WHO IS YOUR NEW ABBOT GENERAL?
Brothers and sisters,
After the election, many of you, but especially the communities that could not be here, asked me to tell you a bit more about myself. I understand that need and will try to tell you something about myself so that you will know who your new Abbot General is. I do this with a text by Thomas Merton in the background. You will already know that Merton has been a faithful companion and friend in my monastic life. In New Seeds of Contemplation Merton writes: ‘But if you ask me to identify myself, don’t ask where I live, or what I eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask what I think I live for, in detail, and ask what keeps me from living fully what I want to live for. Between those two answers, you can determine the identity of each person.’
I was born on 18 January 1968 in the south of the Netherlands, in a region that borders Germany and Belgium. My father was a brick-maker and my mother a teacher of special needs children. Both my parents have passed away, but I am very grateful to them for a good childhood and a good upbringing, both on a human and a religious level. From my father I inherited an organizational talent and from my mother a great feeling for the weak, the vulnerable people and the capacity to listen. I have one older brother who has a family and works as an international truckdriver.
I received my religious vocation very early in life. As a 6-year-old boy I was allowed to become an altar boy in a chapel of apostolic sisters. I was too young to serve the Eucharist but was allowed to serve the daily Adoration. Every day, the priest wore a cope with the words: Deus caritas est. (God is Love.) I paid absolutely no attention to the Holy Sacrament but was fascinated by these three words. I asked my parents what those words meant but they didn’t know exactly either. The sisters in the sacristy thought I should be a little more attentive to Our Lord. Nevertheless, I insisted and kept repeating the words. Slowly I discovered the meaning and these words also planted themselves in my heart. (Maybe this was my first experience of lectio divina!) Early on, this love of God was also given to me as an overwhelming personal experience.
I wanted to become a missionary because there was a Major Seminary of the Sacred Hearts Fathers (SSCC) in our village. These missionaries were sent out at the end of the school year to countries with exotic sounding names: Ecuador, Paraguay, Chile etc. I wanted that too! Until I visited a Benedictine abbey with my school class. Even before we had spoken or seen anyone – on the threshold of that house – I knew that this life is where God wants me. This is your place!
I got to know this Benedictine community but never entered it because in a conversation with the master of novices I noticed that I would miss the balance between prayer and work. It was mainly a place of study and little manual work. I wanted to do something with my hands. The novice master then said to me “go see the Trappists, I think they still work manually, that’s what I did and I discovered the community of Tilburg where I entered in 1986.
At that time there were still 40 monks in Tilburg, but they were all very old. There were no young people. In the year before, however, a number of young people entered. I did my novitiate with 11 young people who suddenly knocked on the abbey door. It was like a miracle. Of these 11, I am the only one left. In 1997 our community decided that our oldest brothers would go to a nursing home and the nine youngest brothers made a new start in this huge abbey. This great sacrifice of our older brothers resulted in new life for our community. Under the wise guidance of my predecessor we actually made a kind of a re-foundation.
I studied theology at the Catholic University of Tilburg and passed my final exams in Christology with the German-Italian theologian Romano Guardini (the one you need to know to understand the teachings of Pope Francis) After my university studies, I specialized in the Christology of the Cistercian nuns of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. I was prior of our community from 1997 and had the responsibility of novice master and director of the brewery. In December 2005, the brothers elected me as their abbot. After my election, I chose as my motto the words from my favorite prophet Amos: ‘Seek God and live!‘ (Amos 5,4)
As abbot, I have tried to make of my community a place where one can meet God, oneself and the other in a fraternal life of silence, sobriety and solidarity through prayer, lectio and work. For me everything is anchored around the encounter with Christ. That is the center of our life. I always like to refer to the story of the amplexus of St Bernard. There are many variants of that famous story but I like Caesarius of Heisterbach’s version. He let a novice go in search of the secret of the great abbot of Clairvaux. After many unsuccessful attempts, the novice discovered that after compline, Bernard went back into the church to pray in silence. He followed the abbot, hid behind a pillar and then saw the crucified Jesus come down from the cross to embrace Bernard. For me, that is the monastic life.
The Jesus who embraces me in the silence and simplicity of prayer is also the Jesus I embrace. He who is present in my brothers, in the Church and in the world. I embrace Him because He embraces me. In that embrace, the cry of this world with its crises of ecology, refugees, wars and the unequal distribution of money and goods is also heard. It is with all these and other wounds that He embraces me and I can embrace Him with my own personal wounds.
Our monastic response is to make that cry of Christ ours in prayer but also in concrete action. Silence, sobriety and solidarity are therefore essential responses for me. Silence teaches me to listen attentively, sobriety teaches me to take responsibility for creation. Solidarity teaches me to be open to everyone and to everything.
In the years as an abbot, I was able to learn and receive a lot. One of the most beautiful (but not easy) experiences and most instructive was the moment in 2006 when our youngest daughter house, Victoria (Kenya), was caught up in a war situation. The brothers of Victoria had to flee and leave everything behind. Their situation was already problematic before the war. Many tell me that there was no future for this community and that it was better to dissolve it. But I felt the responsibility and I said to my brothers: look we are small, vulnerable and humanly incapable of helping our brothers of Victoria but we have to do it for the sake of the Gospel and the carta caritatis. The community supported me and despite our vulnerable situation we helped another fragile community. It called us to give of our poverty itself, and thus to bear fruit for both communities. . This also taught me that in the midst of a crisis there is always the danger of locking oneself away from reality. But Jesus teaches us to do just the opposite. Come out and proclaim the Good News!
I am deeply indebted to all the daughter houses. I have always felt privileged to be part of these communities and the lives of so many sisters and brothers. All the tasks that the Order has entrusted to me over the years have also formed me and given me a great love for our Order. My own community and the Order have given me a sense of belonging. In the end, it was always an encounter in, with and through Jesus Christ.
The openness for the Holy Spirit gave me strength to fulfil all kind of responsibilities even outside our community. For the past six years I have served the Church in the Netherlands and especially the religious of our country. After the Second Vatican Council our Dutch Church fell into a serious crisis of polarization and division. When I took responsibility for the assembly of major superiors in our country, I did everything to restore unity between bishops and religious. It was a joy to serve the religious life in our country and to see not only the end of many congregations and orders but also the small beginnings of something new.
I want to serve the Order in the same spirit and moving forward together is very important to me. I am really counting on each of you to help me fulfill this ministry that you have entrusted to me. Every one of you, each brother and each sister are important and are bearers of the same charism, based on one and the same baptism. May all our communities, we and all our brothers and sisters, be places of encounter where God can meet us. Dear brothers and sisters, seek God and live!
Assisi, 13th February 2022
Br. Bernardus Peeters, abbot general