(Chapter Talk by Fr. Michael Casagram to the monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani):
When we began reading and sharing within community on the Experientia Project it was suggested to me that I might talk about it and our sharing on March 9thduring a Chapter talk. I thought to attempt doing this, this morning.
Early on in our discussion on March 9th it was mentioned that major changes have taken place since the mid-sixties, e.g. changes in our practice of silence, the unification of the Lay brother and choir religious, the praying of the Office in the vernacular, as instances. Generally it was felt that these changes were for the better though some aspects of our observance have been lost. I’ve wondered whether we are at a point where we might discuss in greater depth both the gains and losses of this period as a way of refreshing and deepening our experience of monastic life.
One does not want to idealize the past, for as many of us who lived through it know, it is only what the Holy Spirit is calling us to today that will give lasting vitality to our life. There is no doubt in my own mind that God is calling us as a community to live more authentically our way of life but how to discern this divine invitation demands a lot of soul searching if we are going to be really open to the Holy Spirit and not impose our own limited insights onto others. Back before Vatican II with the Spiritual Directory for Religious and The Book of Usagesour life was highly regulated. So much so, there was very little room left for personal initiative or responsibility. Now we are allowed more time for personal prayer, lectio divina, other reading and manual labor that is of service to the community.
As was said during the dialogue on the Experiencia Project, the monastery is to be “a school of charity, a chance to grow, to serve, to evolve—it is a training ground where we get to discover and appreciate diversity.” Another pointed out that: “In a world of fear and friction, we are a community of love and praise.” One does not have to expose oneself much to daily news, to experience just how polarized our country and world are so that to have an oasis of peace and mutual respect is important not only to members of the community but to the many visitors and retreatants who come here. Many of us have heard from them personally just how much this means to them who spend time with us.
This does not mean our community life is without struggle. Hardly a day passes for any of us without challenge for then we are brought to the limits of our own ability and have to rely more completely on the grace of God. I suspect in fact, that this is why we are here in the first place, that we might come to know the limits of our own resources so that in humility, we may experience the wonder of an all loving God. Initially we may have been attracted to this life as a way of truly seeking God, having experienced the movement of grace in our lives. Gradually we have to know what seeking God really means, for when push comes to shove we learn that only divine initiative can overcome what separates us from union with the Divine. The human heart has an unquenchable thirst for the divine, a yearning that only intensifies as the relationship deepens. Faith alone, received as an undeserved gift, overcomes the divide.
Another brother said in our dialogue: “I can’t separate my experience of getting to know monastic life and life with my brothers from getting to know myself.” I don’t think it can be said often enough, just how intertwined all three of these aspects of our life are with one another. I suspect this is why St Benedict speaks of cenobites as being the strongest kind of monks. After all, we are destined to reflect the very Trinitarian of God, the close and fruitful exchange within the three Divine Persons. Should it surprise us then, that we enter into this through our lives with one another and come to know who we truly are in the process of doing so? Our relationships are constantly revealing what the love of God is all about and teach us in a thousand ways how to grow in this love.
Dom Bernardo Bonowitz, drawing on one of the early Cistercians, Baldwin of Forde, tells us of how our community life “leads to an experience of communion with one’s fellow human beings… Beginning as a lowly communion in fallen human nature, this experience of oneness with others, particularly in the context of a monastic community, comes to flower in a communion of grace and finally in a communion of glory.” Self-knowledge is at the heart of it all, for then we see our own humanity in its continual need of grace through which it reaches its true destiny, realizes its full potential. A growing self-knowledge not only exposes us to but guides us through the degrees of humility that St Benedict elaborates so well in his Rule. It grounds us in the true self that becomes more and more made in the very image and likeness of God. It teaches us, as one member of the community has observed “the wisdom of insecurity” that “leads us to ask for help” both from one another and the divine source of all good.
Much more could be said about the exchange that went on in early March and during our last sharing in groups. The Experiencia Project has a great potential for building us up personally and as a community, and for making our life ever more attractive to those seeking religious commitment.