The Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani Abbey: Our Story
by Michael Johnson – (Updated February, 2017 J. Endriss)
Be still and know that I am God…
Lovers of the Place—Gethsemani
Since its founding in 1848 the Cistercian-Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani has held a revered place in the American spiritual landscape. Generations of retreatants have traveled to the knob hill country of central Kentucky for days of silence, prayer, rest and spiritual renewal that is available on retreat at Gethsemani. Monastic life at Gethsemani had been somewhat hidden from mainstream American spiritual life for decades. However, through the writings of one of its author monk’s, Fr. Louis (Thomas) Merton, monastic life and spiritual retreats at Gethsemani became very popular. Merton wrote extensively about contemplation and had recognized the existence of lay contemplatives who are attracted to monasteries for support and guidance in their attempt to live authentically a contemplative spirituality. He wrote in his book titled, The Inner Experience, “…It would seem that groups of lay people interested in the spiritual life should be formed in order to protect and foster something of an elementary contemplative spirituality.” (p.136)
In the mid 1980s a few Gethsemani retreatants began to inquire about the possibility of forming a Cistercian associate or oblate status with the monastery. Lay associate programs and affiliations were very common among many religious orders and congregations, especially within the Catholic tradition. These retreatants had independently been engaging the Retreat House guestmaster, Fr. Michael Casagram, and Brother Patrick Hart in conversations during retreat and through written correspondence about how to practically integrate their ‘Gethsemani experience’ within their ordinary lives as lay Christians. The questions the retreatants were asking dealt with what spiritual values and practices were needed by the person who sought a lay contemplative lifestyle. These yearnings were consistent with the reforms that were taking root among the laity as a result of the work of the Second Vatican Council. The Council encouraged lay people to embrace faith formation and spiritual development as mature adults.
Early Years and Founding of CLC (1986-1989)
Beginning in 1986 Fr. Michael and Br. Patrick had linked some of us together either during retreats or through letter exchanges. We apparently were asking common questions and visioning the development of some kind of group or program for lay contemplatives that would be grounded in the Benedictine/Cistercian tradition. In early 1987 Fr. Michael had informed us about a proposal for a ‘Trappist Secular Order’ (TSO) that was crafted by Harvey Graveline of New York and presented for consideration at a General Chapter of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappist) held at Mt. Holyoke, Massachusetts in 1984. Curious about the status of this proposal, Mike Johnson contacted Harvey Graveline to obtain information. It was learned that the proposal received minor consideration by the O.C.S.O. General Chapter and that a revision of the proposal was needed. The proposal included a section titled, a Plan of Life. The plan outlined spiritual practices that would be expected of a TSO member. In early 1987 Graveline had informed Mike Johnson that he was planning to enter the Cistercian Abbey of New Clairvaux and invited Johnson to continue the TSO project. Graveline had completed a revision of his original proposal. After consultation with Fr. Michael, Johnson agreed to work on another revision of the TSO document that would outline contemplative values and spiritual practices that would be in line with the reflections that were being shared among the small group that Fr. Michael had connected. It was apparent from Fr. Michael that the Order was not receptive at that time of the formation of an association or affiliation with a lay group. It was felt by both Fr. Michael and Johnson that the proposal that Graveline drafted was somewhat impractical and unrealistic for most lay people to follow.
By May 1988 Johnson had drafted a third revision of Graveline’s proposal paper that resulted in a document with a different format and focus. The draft document was written as a generic guide for individuals who were attracted to a lay contemplative spirituality from the perspective of the Benedictine/Cistercian tradition. The document was titled “Plan of Life for Lay Contemplatives.” Johnson shared the document with Fr. Michael and circulated it to the group that had been corresponding for over a year. Everyone was invited to offer suggestions for additional revision. By February 1989 a rewriting of the document was completed by Johnson.
Fr. Michael took the initiative of inviting the group to a weekend retreat and meeting at Gethsemani in March 1989. He wanted to begin a deeper dialogue among the group exploring a vision for a lay contemplative life that could be nurtured with support from him and hopefully other monks of Gethsemani. Fr. Michael continued to share with the group his awareness of an emerging interest of lay people for contemplative prayer and lifestyle. One title that he suggested for our reading was The Ordinary Way written by Delores Leckey who was a wife and mother. Leckey wrote about her journey of incorporating values and practices based on the Rule of St. Benedict within her domestic life as a lay person.
The original group of seekers (founders) of a lay approach to Cistercian contemplative spirituality that spent a weekend together in March 1989 were Susan Barber (Cincinnati), Michael Brown (Louisville), Bill Fahrenkrug (Neenah, Wisconsin), Michael Johnson (Cincinnati) and John Vellani (Columbus, Ohio). [Judy Ringle of Corvallis, Oregon and Marc Irish of Sacramento, California had been participating in the exchanges that occurred prior to the first Gethsemani meeting, but were unable to travel to Gethsemani for the meeting that Fr. Michael had convened.] The initial tasks for the group was to share individual experiences and their vision for the group, plus consider additional editing changes to the “Plan of Life” document. We invoked the assistance of the Holy Spirit in a prayerful and reflective dialogue among us that generated ideas and a vision. Fr. Michael encouraged us to focus on a more disciplined prayer life. He provided resources for us for the study of contemplative prayer and challenged us to begin to incorporate in our lives the elements of the Plan that we were proposing. We agreed to meet again at Gethsemani in October 1989.
By this time small groups of interested individuals who were attracted to what was being referred to as lay contemplative spirituality began meeting together in Louisville, Cincinnati and Columbus. These groups were composed of members who had made regular retreats at Gethsemani and were very interested in some kind of an informal affiliation with Gethsemani.
The second weekend meeting at Gethsemani in October 1989 was very significant, as it resulted in the founding of the lay group, Cistercian Lay Contemplatives (CLC). Additional editing of the Plan of Life document was completed and became the founding document for the CLC. Abbot Timothy Kelly had met with the group during the October meeting and had given his blessing of the Plan of Life document, however, clarified with us that the group was independent of Gethsemani. We were welcome at Gethsemani for retreats and meetings. He indicated that Fr. Michael could serve us as a monastic advisor for the present time.
We defined CLC as an association of women and men who desired to strengthen their spiritual growth by adapting a lay contemplative lifestyle that was informed by the Cistercian charism and tradition. The Plan of Life served as a guide to integrate into our ordinary lives the monastic values and practices of prayer, work, study, silence, solitude, simplicity, and service/ministry. We envisioned the formation of local CLC groups that would provide support and a sense of community among its members. Initially, there was little structure and expectations for membership. However, we felt that the individual CLC member would individually develop a self-discipline and sincerity in living the Plan of Life.
The October meeting was the fruition of many months of visioning, praying and reflecting. The founding group of CLC sensed that they had been affirmed in their effort to define a lay contemplative life plan that was conducive to an individual’s spiritual growth which embraced the Benedictine/Cistercian spiritual tradition. We felt we had been blessed with a base of support from some members of the monastic community of Gethsemani Abbey that would give us energy and nourishment to continue our journey in the Cistercian way.
Developmental Years (1990-2000)
The founding group continued to dialogue among themselves and with Fr. Michael primarily through letter exchanges. There was a need to address issues that were important for the fledgling CLC organization. As indicated above, there was much agreement among the group to avoid any highly structured organization in the beginning stages of development. However, basic needs of providing support and resources for individuals who wanted to join the CLC network, of supporting the formation of local CLC groups and of maintaining a plan to keep connected through a newsletter, an annual CLC retreat at Gethsemani and regular biannual meetings were components of an action plan at the time.
Marc Irish and John Vellani agreed to produce a simple newsletter to assist keeping CLC members informed and connected. They would also maintain a mailing list of CLC newsletter subscribers. By the end of 1990 there were approximately 50 persons on the mailing list and local CLC groups were organized and meeting monthly in Louisville and Cincinnati.
In late 1990 we became aware that a similar lay group had formed an affiliation with the Monastery of the Holy Spirit (Cistercian) in Conyers, Georgia. The group was known as the Associate Oblates of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. A representative of their group had contacted the Abbey of Gethsemani when they became aware of the CLC group that had formed. Representatives of the two groups agreed to meet for the purpose of exchanging information about their group and to broaden a dialogue regarding the emerging Cistercian lay contemplative movement. The Conyers group wanted to have the meeting at Gethsemani. Arrangements were made and a weekend meeting was scheduled for August 1990. Fr. Anthony DeLisi, the spiritual director of the Associate Oblates of Conyers and Fr. Michael, the monastic advisor of the CLC, would serve as moderators for the meeting. Five members of each lay group participated in the dialogue. The first item on the agenda was for each group to provide an overview of their lay group that included a brief history and description of the group, founding documents, any formation program for new members and the relationship the group had with their monastery of affiliation.
It was obvious that the Conyers group had developed a highly structured lay associate program with defined membership expectations for formation and attendance at monthly meetings. It was helpful to listen to the experiences of the Associate Oblates who met regularly at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. An interesting session focused on the presentation of the CLC Plan of Life document. Much feedback and suggestions were provided by Fr. Anthony and the Associate Oblates on how the Plan would probably be more attractive to a broader spectrum of lay folks who are not able to be responsive to much structure.
The August 1990 meeting at Gethsemani was significant in that it was the first of what would be a series of meetings and exchanges among the emerging lay associate groups affiliated with Cistercian abbeys in the United States. It was interesting that common topics of discussion at these encounters of lay groups dealt with criteria for membership in the groups, initial and ongoing formation in the Cistercian charism, relationship of the individual groups with their monastery of affiliation and with the broader Cistercian Order and spiritual growth in general.
The Cistercian Lay Contemplatives continued to experience increase in membership. By late 1991 there were approximately 85 people on the mailing list. The majority lived in Kentucky or Ohio, however, twenty-five states of residence were noticed on the list. An annual CLC retreat at Gethsemani occurred in the Fall of each year. Regular biannual meetings were scheduled to address a variety of issues and challenges that confronted CLC. It should be noted that CLC was invited to submit a copy of the Plan of Life to be included in a 1991 issue of the “Regional Mailbag,” a newsletter that was circulated among U.S.A. region Cistercian monasteries. This provided more exposure of CLC among Cistercian monastic communities and provided interested monasteries with one model of a lay contemplative organization.
During a weekend in August of 1992 a meeting within the context of a retreat was held at Gethsemani for CLC leadership at the time. This meeting was one of visioning for the future of CLC and addressed critical issues for its continued development. The theme for the meeting was ‘Sharing the Vision of CLC’ and a purpose that focused on sustaining both individual and community commitment of living the CLC Plan of Life. Sister Danielle of nearby Bethany Springs was invited to facilitate the meeting and record minutes. Topics that were discussed included the formation of CLC members, the role and duties of CLC local contact persons, the status of the CLC newsletter, the need for an informational brochure for CLC, the development of a spiritual reading list and the need for a general meeting with the increasing number of lay associate groups affiliated with Cistercian abbeys in the U.S.A. Much time was allotted for prayer and silence during the weekend that strengthened our commitment to CLC and living the Plan of Life. Participants were given assignments for follow up.
As a result of a CLC meeting at Gethsemani in November 1993, Mike Johnson agreed to assume responsibility for producing the CLC Newsletter quarterly and serve as the contact person for CLC. He continued in that role until 2006. The renewed effort would include regular news items, Fr. Michael’s homilies and reflection papers, contributing input from CLC members of poems and reflections, plus spiritual resources.
The year of 1994 was marked with significant events for the CLC. Early in the year the Association of Contemplative Sisters (ACS) located in Indianapolis had contacted Gethsemani to invite CLC to participate in a study sponsored by ACS on lay contemplative formation programs in the USA. The ACS had received a grant from the Lilly Foundation to undertake this study. It was one of their intentions to publish a guidebook of existing programs. Fr. Michael and Mike Johnson completed ACS surveys on behalf of CLC that provided information from both the monastic and lay perspective. They also participated in separate interviews with ACS representatives. The results of the ACS study was eventually published by St. Anthony Messenger Press in 2000 under the title The Lay Contemplative: Testimonies, Perspectives, Resources. CLC was included along with twenty-two other lay contemplative formation sites. The book provides an overview of the lay contemplative movement and perspectives of the lay contemplative experience.
Beginning in 1994 additional local CLC groups were formed and inquiries were forwarded directly to local contact persons. It should also be noted that two CLC members residing in Washington, DC, Maryle Ashley, and in Massachusetts, Cindy Clark, formed CLC groups that had affiliations with Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia (Maryle) and with St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. These groups eventually became independent from CLC and continue to exist today as Cistercian lay associate programs.
In October 1994 the Associate Oblates of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit hosted a weekend meeting of existing Cistercian associate groups. An invitation to the weekend was also sent to the Cistercian abbeys in the United States encouraging interested monastics or lay persons to attend this mostly informational gathering. Several monks/nuns and lay persons participated in the weekend dialogue. There were representatives from New Melleray Abbey in Iowa, Mt. St. Mary Abbey in Massachusetts, Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky and the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. Each group had the opportunity to make a presentation about their lay group with input from the perspective of each of the monastics from the Cistercian abbeys present. It was a joyful experience that allowed all to share the spirit of their experiences and to strengthen a collective vision for the future.
In the summer of 1995 Fr. Michael of Gethsemani and a few other monks in the USA Region were sent to a new Cistercian monastic foundation in Venezuela for three years or more to assist with formation and other needs of the community of Nuestra Senora de los Andes (Our Lady of the Andes Monastery). Br. Paul Quenon was assigned by Abbot Timothy to serve as the monastic liaison and advisor to the CLC. Before leaving for Venezuela, Fr. Michael shared with CLC a copy of a paper written by the Cistercian (OCSO) Abbot General Bernardo Olivera in January 1995 titled “Reflections on the Challenges of ‘Charismatic Associations’.” By this time Cistercian associate groups had been forming in other parts of the world. Fr. Bernardo’s paper would be the basis of a broader dialogue among lay members of the groups and monastics regarding the emergence of lay groups who desired to develop a lay expression of Cistercian spirituality. Its significance would not be fully realized until several years later when international encounters of Cistercian groups would meet.
The first Cistercian Associates Conference of lay groups in the USA was held at the Shalom Retreat Center in Dubuque, Iowa the weekend of May18-20, 1996. This gathering was hosted by the recently founded Associates of the Iowa Cistercians (AIC). This lay group was affiliated with both New Melleray Abbey and Mississippi Abbey that were located near Dubuque. The Cistercian associate groups that were represented at this meeting were the Associate Oblates of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit (Conyers), the Genesee Lay Contemplatives (Abbey of the Genesee), Cistercian Lay Contemplatives (Gethsemani) and the Associates of the Iowa Cistercians. Mike Johnson represented the CLC at the meeting. The primary focus of this meeting was to review and reflect on Abbot General Bernardo Olivera’s 1995 paper titled “Reflections on the Challenges of Charismatic Association.” This was another opportunity between lay associates and monastics for dialogue on important issues confronting the emergence of Cistercian lay groups and their relationship with Cistercian monastic communities. The outcome of the meeting was the drafting of a lay response to Abbot General Bernardo’s paper. The letter was actual presented to the Abbot General in person during his visit to Gethsemani Abbey in July 1996 for the ‘Gethsemani Encounter’ that was part of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue between Buddhist and Christian monastics. Trisha Day of the AIC who facilitated the May meeting in Dubuque presented the lay response letter to Abbot Bernardo. The letter was later published in a 1997 issue of Cistercian Studies Quarterly , Vol.32.2
The Associate Oblates of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit hosted the second Cistercian Associates Conference at Conyers on the weekend of May 23-25, 1997. Five representatives of CLC participated along with thirty-two representatives of five other lay groups. The theme of this conference was formation for Cistercian associates. Several monks presented talks on topics ranging from the purpose of formation, lay associates relation with their monastery of affiliation and the role of the Holy Spirit in the process of formation. Each associate group had an opportunity to present what formation processes they had in place for their group. CLC obviously had the least structure for formation, however, many participants expressed support for CLC’s current informal approach to formation that met the needs of a broader audience. The dialogue between the lay associates and the monastics was rich and much ground work was laid for ongoing dialogue. It was decided that the Abbey of Gethsemani would be the site of the 1998 Cistercian Associates Conference.
In October 1997 Cistercian associate groups worldwide received an invitation from Abbot Olivier Quenardel of the Abbey of Citeaux in France to attend the March 1998 celebration of the ninth centenary of the founding of the Monastery of Citeaux, the birth of the Cistercian charism in March 1098. The Abbey of Citeaux is the ‘mother’ abbey of the Cistercian Order. One of the CLC founding members, Susan Barber, and her husband traveled to France representing CLC at the event. A few representatives of other Cistercian associate groups attended the 9th centenary event. Most notable was the fact that representatives of Cistercian lay associates groups was invited to participate in a “Cistercian synaxis” (presentations) by all branches of the Cistercian family. Jacki Rychlicki, a member of the Associate Oblate community affiliated with the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers represented all the USA lay associate groups that had formed by that time. She spoke about how all the Cistercian associate groups were striving to translate the basic aspects of Cistercian spirituality in their lives in the world. Participating in this historic event provided much exposure of the lay groups to the various branches of the Cistercian Orders.
Another factor that is most noteworthy about this 9th centenary event of the founding of the Cistercian Order was the content of the letter from Pope John Paul II to the Cistercian orders with reference to the new expression of the Cistercian charism by lay people. In his letter the Pope stated:
I encourage you according to your circumstances to discern with prudence and a prophetic sense, the participation of the lay faithful in your spiritual family, under the form of “associate members” or following the present needs in certain cultural contexts, under the form of a temporary sharing in community life (Vita Conserata, 56), and a commitment to contemplation, provided that the special identity of your monastic life is not impaired.
The event at Citeaux also allowed the lay associates present to obtain a realization of the international dimension of the Cistercian lay associate movement. Lay communities had formed in Europe, Africa, South America and North America by this time. Susan Barber provided a lengthy report of her ‘pilgrimage’ to Citeaux that included day trips to Molesme and Clairvaux. She spoke of a conversation that she happened to have had with Fr. Basil Pennington during the celebration about CLC and Gethsemani Abbey. Fr. Basil expressed much support for the Cistercian lay associate growth and remarked, “…We are in a new centenary of Cistercianism and getting ready for a new millennium of Christianity.” In her report Susan expressed much gratitude to CLC members who provided financial support for her trip to Citeaux.
On the weekend of September 4-6, 1998 fifty-eight members of eight Cistercian lay associate groups and eight Cistercian monastics gathered at the Abbey of Gethsemani to participate in the third Cistercian Associates Conference hosted by CLC. The groups that were represented at this conference included new lay groups that were formed in the last two years and connected to Redwoods Abbey in California, Holy Trinity Abbey in Utah and Assumption Abbey in Missouri. The theme of the conference was “Conversion as Our Heritage and Way of Life: A Continuing Dialogue Among Cistercian Associates.” Sister Marilyn King, RSM was invited as a guest observer. Her task was to provide a synthesis of the conference talks and the many panel presentations and discussions. At the conclusion of the weekend, Sister Marilyn gave a brief summary of the weekend and followed up with a written synthesis that was available within a month. The Gethsemani meeting was another milestone in the evolution of Cistercian associates. The experience had a profound impact on the groups that participated; as we felt deeply the energy of the Holy Spirit working among us to more fully embrace a way of life that we were envisioning. There remained some confusion and disagreement on some issues; however, the monastics that interacted with us that weekend were in many ways affirming us as a lay expression of the Cistercian charism. Sister Marilyn in her concluding remarks of her synthesis stated “…I have been impressed with the seriousness of your commitment to your call. You want a way of life, not a prayer group or a group of spiritual friends…Dom Bernardo (O.C.S.O. Abbot General) calls you to a “secular re-reading of the charism.” In your re-reading I urge you to think BIG. Think big in matters of the interior life, in the depth of your spirituality…Think big in matters of our outer world by your radical way of life.”
The year 1999 marked the tenth year of the founding of Cistercian Lay Contemplatives. As with other Cistercian associate groups we experienced increase in CLC membership and subscribers of the CLC Newsletter. Fr. Michael Casagram had returned to Gethsemani and joined Br. Paul as monastic advisors for CLC. Both had been providing CLC with rich resources for our spiritual reflection and deeper understanding of the Cistercian charism.
In the spring the Lousiville CLC community organized a day of prayer for its members St. Meinred Archabbey located in southern Indiani. The Cincinnati CLC community also organized in June a day of prayer for Ohio CLC members at St. Michael Church in Columbus, Ohio. All CLC members were invited to attend these days of prayer.
Due to the increasing number of CLC members it was becoming more difficult for members to participate in the annual CLC retreat at Gethsemani Abbey. Eventually, a few CLC retreats were planned and held in Conyers, Georgia at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit and at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Massachusetts. CLC members who lived closer to these monasteries attended these retreats.
The fourth Cistercian Associates Conference was held October 15-17, 1999 at the Abbey of the Genesee located near Piffard, New York. Mike Brown and Mike Johnson represented CLC at this event. There were 33 lay associates and five monastics participating in this dialogue that represented ten Cistercian lay associate programs that had been formed by this time. The participants were pleased that Fr. Basil Pennington attended this meeting at the request of the abbot of St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. For a few years Fr. Basil had been expressing interest and support in the phenomena of the emerging Cistercian lay contemplative movement. He referred to the movement as “a lay response to a call of the Spirit to explore ways in which lay persons could embrace the Cistercian charism.
The primary work of the conference at Genesee was to review a draft document that was written by the Associate Oblates of Conyers titled “New Charter of Charity for Lay Cistercian Groups.” The document had been circulated among the registered participants prior to the conference with instructions to come to the conference prepared with suggestions for modifications and inclusions of the ‘martyr’ text. The purpose for the document was to articulate essential elements which all current and future Cistercian lay associate groups could agree as consistent with an expression of Cistercian spirituality for lay persons. [It was immediately apparent to the CLC representatives that the draft document was very similar to the elements outlined in the CLC Plan of Life.] As a result of prayer, reflection and discussion the final draft was voted on and approved. It was given a title as “The Bond of Charity for Lay Cistercian Groups.” The rationale for the change in the title of the document was because The Charter of Charity was one of the founding documents of the Cistercian Order, thus inappropriate for its inclusion in a title of a document composed by lay associates.
By 2000 CLC continued to experience challenges, such as, its increase in membership (140) and the broad geographic base of its membership. Beyond the local communities in Louisville, Cincinnati and Columbus there was an increasing desire for connecting CLC members through some kind of community experience. Some members within the CLC network were making contacts with other Cistercian abbeys in an attempt to establish a relationship. There was increasing concerns for the need of better defined formation for CLC members in the Cistercian charism.
Leadership among the local CLC groups consulted with Fr. Michael, who had returned to Gethseamni from Venezuela, and Br. Paul about the need to plan a meeting to engage in needed dialogue. A meeting was planned for the weekend of August 25-27, 2000 at Gethsemani. Eight CLC members along with Fr. Michael and Br. Paul met to discuss a full agenda that was prepared beforehand. Two major objectives for the meeting were: 1) to clarify a sense of CLC’s identity as a lay associate program and its relationship with Gethsemani Abbey and other Cistercian abbeys, and 2) to develop a plan for managing CLC that included a formation guideline, uniform criteria for organizing and supporting local CLC groups, a CLC web site and maintenance of a central point of contact for CLC inquiries.
This weekend meeting allowed a heart to heart sharing and visioning for CLC. The meeting resulted in specific action steps or assignments for participants. It was decided to complete a CLC survey and needs assessment among the CLC membership within the next six months, prepare guidelines for CLC formation, maintaining CLC information brochures in the Retreat House at Gethsemani and draft another revision of the CLC Plan of Life to include the practice of stability. It was also decided that the group that met at Gethsemani in August 2000 would form a CLC advisory committee or council. The committee agreed to meet at least annually. We left this meeting with a renewed vision for CLC and a stronger bond and commitment to each other and our fellow associates within the CLC membership.
The spiritual needs of CLC members continued to be nourished by Fr. Michael and Br. Paul with homilies, reflection papers and poems. During CLC gatherings at Gethsemani and at a day of prayer planned by Fr. Michael at the Sisters of Loretto motherhouse near Gethsemani in September 2000, Fr. Michael presented talks on spiritual themes related to contemplative spirituality. We were provided written copies of these talks that along with an expanded reading list that gave CLC rich resource material for our spiritual development as Cistercian associates. The papers were titled “Spiritual Direction and the Lay Contemplative Life” (Gethsemani, July 2000) and “Discerning the Movement of Grace in Our Lives” (Loretto Motherhouse, September 2000).
Coming of Age and Transition to Lay Cistercian Identity (2001-2007)
In early 2001 the recently formed CLC Advisory Committee circulated via the CLC Newsletter a survey and needs assessment among the CLC membership. By late spring fifty-six (56) CLC members, representing approximately 38 percent of the membership at the time responded to the survey. The responses were reaffirming of CLC as a lay associate program and provided important feedback for the advisory committee. The committee was able to evaluate the growth of CLC and assess its capacity to enhance and improve its effectiveness as a support network for lay contemplatives affiliated with Gethsemani Abbey.
The respondents to the 2001 survey generally felt that CLC was providing an adequate level of support to them in their lay contemplative lives. The responses to the survey generally indicated a need for some kind of ongoing formation guidelines, an affirmation of the CLC Plan of Life as a practical daily/weekly guide for CLC members and the need for CLC members to have opportunities to connect with each other in local groups. A sampling of responses to the survey was included in the newsletter.
In August 2001 Fr. Michael completed a CLC formation paper that was well received among CLC membership. This was the first attempt to provide CLC members with substantive formation guidelines that addressed prayer, the school of the Lord’s service, Cistercian conversatio, lectio divina, work and commitment. Fr. Michael drew heavily on Ratio Institutionis, a document prepared by the O.C.S.O. that set up formation guidelines for Cistercian novices and professed monks and nuns. Fr. Michael’s paper titled, “Toward the Formation of CLC Members,” complimented the CLC Plan of Life. Local CLC group leaders were encouraged to incorporate Fr. Michael paper in formation efforts within their local communities.
In the fall of 2001 Bob Seigel of Midland, Michigan contacted CLC to inform that he and five members of a contemplative group in his area had been making retreats together at the Abbey of Gethsemani for several years. They became aware of CLC recently and requested to become not only members of CLC, but also a local CLC group. The group had been in formation studying the Rule of St. Benedict and elements of Cistercian history.
In late 2001 Dianne Aprile had published a second book that focused on Gethsemani Abbey. In 1998 at the time of the sesquentenneial celebration of Gethsemani she published an extensive history of the Abbey titled, The Abbey of Gethsemani: Place of Peace and Paradox. For work on her second book Aprile, spent a week at Gethsemani to capture what the daily activities are like at a Catholic monastery. The book titled, Making a Heart For God: A Week Inside a Catholic Monastery, helped readers obtain a glimpse of monastic life and spirituality. Aprile interviewed CLC member, Michael Brown of Louisville, about the CLC program for inclusion in her book. The chapter was titled, “Living Like a Monk,” and provided insight about lay contemplative life and the CLC program affiliated with Gethsemani.
Cindy Clark who became a CLC member in 1997 guided the formation of a CLC group in Massachusetts and its relationship with St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. She informed CLC that the group considered themselves independent of CLC beginning in 2002. There was a similar occurrence with the CLC group that formed in the Washington, DC area under the guidance of Maryle Ashley. The group established a relationship with Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia and eventually was recognized by the Abbey in 2002. CLC considered these two groups as ‘daughter’ communities of CLC.
Of most significance in 2002 was the beginning of broader participation of Cistercian lay associate groups in international meetings. Late in 2001 CLC was informed about an international encounter of Cistercian lay associate groups to be held in April 2002 at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia and hosted by the Lay Cistercians of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. This was considered the second encounter, as the first international meeting had occurred in Quivo, Chile in 1999. That meeting was only attended by three or four lay associate groups, including a representative of the Lay Cistercians at Conyers. During the 1990s numerous Cistercian lay associate groups were formed in Europe, Africa, South and Central America, Australia/New Zealand/ Philippines and in the United States. By the time of the meeting in Conyers it was estimated there were about 35 lay groups. Monks and nuns of affiliated Cistercian monasteries were also invited to the international meetings to engage in the dialogue. As with the CLC who had an informal relationship with Gethsemani Abbey, the lay associate or lay Cistercian groups were formed as a growing interest in Cistercian spirituality by lay persons was occurring. The Lay Cistercians in Conyers were very instrumental in the planning of the international encounter that was going to include the attendance of the O.C.S.O. Abbot General, Fr. Bernardo Olivera. Representing the CLC were Michael Brown, Br. Paul Quenon and Mike Johnson.
The six day international encounter from April 24 through 30 was an experience of grace, growth and community building among Cistercians lay associates worldwide. The encounter included communal prayer, work sessions, private conversations and presentations by monastics. There was constant mention throughout the event of the Holy Spirit’s role in the emergence of a lay expression of Cistercian spirituality. The level of dialogue among the laity and monastics was so evident and was something that we all had envisioned many years prior. It was a time for listening with our hearts and sharing our individual and collective experience of how we were responding to the Spirit’s invitation to participate in the Cistercian charism.
The work produced at the encounter in Conyers was the first stage of establishing structures between and among the different groups of Lay Cistercians. A steering committee was elected to provide a liaison between the International Lay Cistercians (ILC) and the General Chapter of the O.C.S.O. A communications committee was commissioned to establish an international Lay Cistercian web site that would provide access to materials and resources of value for Lay Cistercian groups. The web site would also provide linkage to further information that would support and facilitate the Lay Cistercian movement.
Another outcome of the Encounter was the invitation from the Abbot General for a representative of the lay Cistercians to attend and present a letter composed at the Encounter at Conyers to the OCSO General Chapter in September. A committee of monastics responded to the letter which expressed favorability of the emerging lay Cistercian movement.
As a follow up to the encounter, Martha Krieg of Ypsilanti, Michigan organized a panel discussion at the Cistercian Studies Conference at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo in May 2002 to focus on the lay Cistercian movement. Other panel members besides Kreig were Jackie Rychlicki of the Lay Cistercians of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers and Mike Johnson of the Cistercian Lay Contemplatives (Gethsemani Abbey). Prior to the panel presentations and period of Q & A, there was an overview of the recent Second International Encounter in Conyers. CLC was recognized for its capacity of providing a source of broad based connection and support for persons who are drawn to Cistercian spirituality.
The meeting of the CLC Advisory Committee in August 2002 resulted in the approval of initial guidelines for a minimum six months discernment process for candidates for CLC membership and the provision of mentoring support. This was the first effort to identify mentors among the CLC membership. Feedback by CLC members indicated that the guidelines provided focus, clarification of expectations for membership and an initial framework for ongoing formation in the Cistercian charism.
Beginning with the CLC retreat in the fall of 2002, a CLC commitment service was implemented for members. The service was conducted at the conclusion of the retreat weekend in the guest chapel and a written prayer program was prepared for the event. A statement of commitment was publicly made and signed by the member. In the future members who complete a period of discernment were encouraged to make a commitment to CLC during annual CLC retreats.
CLC continued to increase in size through 2003 and 2004. The Advisory Committee began meeting twice a year, as it strived to provide support for CLC and a forum for dialogue with the monastic liaisons to strengthen our relationship with the Gethsemani community. Common agenda items for Advisory Committee meetings addressed the development of resources for CLC formation, maintenance of the CLC web site, practical management of the increasing size of CLC and solicitation of financial support among CLC membership.
During the September 2004 Advisory Committee meeting another milestone was reached for the lay associate program affiliated with Gethsemani. Following deliberation among representatives of the Advisory Committee, a request was made to the abbot, Fr. Damien, that our group be known in the future as the Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani Abbey (LCG). After consulting with his council, Fr. Damien informed that an approval was giving to the name change. This change of name of the associate program was followed by technical changes, such as, the construction of an upgraded LCG web site and e-mail address, a new format for the quarterly newsletter and enhance guidelines for initial and ongoing formation for LCG members. The initial period of discernment and formation was expanded to one year effective October 1, 2004.
Early in 2005 LCG prepared to participate in the Third International Encounter of Lay
Cistercians that was scheduled to occur in June near the site of the Abbey of Clairvaux. The abbey was closed during the French Revolution and used by the French government as a prison. [There is a monastic museum on site that features the history of the abbey and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, its first abbot.] Michael Brown and Mike Johnson were selected to be the LCG delegates for this meeting. This international meeting was especially memorable due to its location. We would gather near the geographic origins of the Cistercian Order. The lay associate group of La Grange of St. Bernard of Clairvaux hosted the meeting from June 1-7, 2005.
Dom Bernardo Olivera, abbot general, again was present for the entire week of the encounter at Clairvaux. His active participation in the encounter provided a sense of paternal warmness and reassurance that the Holy Spirit was gently forming us as lay Cistercians, in spite of our frailties and doubts. The discussions at the encounter focused on the importance of community. The events of the meeting and the memorable experiences of visiting the site of the Abbey of Clairvaux and the Abbey of Citeaux had a profound impact by providing clarity of who we are as lay Cistercians and our role in nurturing the Cistercian spirit in our lives and within our local faith communities. On the final day of the encounter we enjoyed a day visit to the Abbey of Citeaux, the motherhouse of the Cistercians founded in 1098. Abbot Olivier Quenardel and the monastic community of Citeaux extended hospitality and provided a tour of the monastic grounds for the participants.
The outcomes of the Clairvaux encounter included the election of a steering committee represented by the language groups who would plan the next encounter in 2008 to be hosted by a Spanish language community. This committee was to be the official voice of lay Cistercians in its ongoing dialogue with the General Chapter of the O.C.S.O. An international web site was developed (www.cistercianfamily.org) to provide extensive information about the lay Cistercian communities, the work of the international steering committee and the many documents and presentations that were produced during the international meetings.
In April 2006 the LCG Advisory Council met for a weekend meeting in Oxford, Ohio that was hosted by the Cincinnati LCG Community. “It was a Cistercian weekend in Oxford,” said Fr. Len Fecko, pastor of St. Mary Church, during his welcoming remarks at Mass on Sunday. Br. Paul traveled from Gethsemani to participate in the weekend meeting that was held at the local Izzak Walton of America lodge facility near Oxford. The setting was somewhat remote that allowed time for prayer, reflection, meetings and fellowship.
This gathering was a milestone in LCG development. The members of the Advisory Council participated in a team building session on Saturday morning facilitated by Jane Endriss. This session included an opportunity to share how we have been changed or transformed by our commitment as Lay Cistercians. We discussed our vision for the Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani.
The outcome of the meeting resulted in many structure changes for LCG and the Advisory Council. It was decided to elect officers of the Council and pursue tax-exempt status as a religious nonprofit organization. Bob Siegel assumed the role of LCG coordinator and would serve as initial contact person for LCG inquiries. Jane Endriss (Vice Coordinator) agreed to take responsibility for producing the quarterly LCG newsletter, formerly done by Mike Johnson. Mary Guilbert of Columbus was to continue to serve as LCG web site administrator. (The LCG newsletter was to be made available on the LCG web site, thus discontinuing the mailing of the newsletter to members.) Don Buckingham of Columbus agreed to complete the application process for obtaining tax-exempt status in the State of Ohio. Mike Johnson agreed to continue to serve as LCG treasurer and liaison for LCG to the International Lay Cistercian steering committee. On Saturday evening Cincinnati LCG members joined the Advisory Council for Evening Prayer, social hour and dinner. A presentation by Br. Paul and Night Prayer concluded the day.
The next meeting of the Advisory Council in the Fall of 2006 continued the discussion on the amount or level of structure that would define LCG at that point in its evolution. The discussion of structure resulted in the assignment of officers for the Advisory Council that would be consistent with the needed bylaws for tax-exempt status. Also, two options were presented for consideration that would define the role of the Advisory Council. They were:
Option 1: Is the role of the Advisory Council to develop resource materials that would benefit the local LCG communities? In this scenario, the local groups would not be required to follow explicitly the decisions and directives of the Advisory Council. However, they would be encouraged to do so. The Advisory Council would mostly “broker resources” for the local groups to use. Each local group would provide the level of leadership that best supports their stage of development.
Option 2: Is the role of the Advisory Council to both function as a developer of resources and processes, but has the authority to expect compliance among all local LCG groups in the spirit of unanimity? The Advisory Council would share a leadership function with local group leadership to insure uniformity of practice.
A vote resulted in the majority of Advisory Council members favoring “Option 2.” Thus, the Advisory Council has continued to function basically as defined by this option. It should be noted that the Advisory Council’s discussions has always pointed out the importance of the role of local community leadership.
It should be noted that LCG was expanding with the formation of additional local LCG communities. A community in Columbus, Ohio was formed by Mary Guilbert and Don Buckingham. Mary also began serving LCG as the developer and administrator of new LCG web site. Carol Andrejasich and Charla Banner organized a LCG community in the Indianapolis area in 2005. In 2006 two more LCG communities were formed; one in Chicago under the guidance of Bob Johnson and the other in Nashville, Tennessee by Juli Gallup. Jane Endriss formed a LCG community in the Toledo, Ohio/ Ann Arbor area. Jane eventually established an online community in 2008 that served LCG members residing in a broad geographic area in the Northeast.
In September 2006 the International Lay Cistercian Steering Committee (ILCSC) representing the language groups that was formed at the 2005 Clairvaux Encounter of Lay Cistercians, requested that communities prepare a comprehensive assessment of their perception and practice of the Cistercian charism as lay communities. This task took several months to complete and the results shared with the international steering committee for broader distribution would serve as the basis for the work of the 2008 encounter in Spain. The emerging need to articulate Lay Cistercian identity was felt to be a critical issue by the lay communities, as well as the OCSO General Chapters.
The ILCSC survey consisted of three questions for the communities to consider. The survey was shared with the current LCG local communities for their reflection and response. Each community was asked to coordinate a group discussion of the survey questions. All felt that the exercise was an excellent individual and community assessment of LCG membership experience. It was also felt that the exercise had a positive effect in both clarifying our identity as Lay Cistercians and strengthening the bond with the Abbey of Gethsemani. The questions presented were:
1) What does it mean for you to live a Lay Cistercian life in the world?
2) What does it mean to live a Lay Cistercian life together in community?
3) What does it mean to be in spiritual relationship with a Cistercian monastery?
LCG communities were given several months to reflect on these questions and provide responses. The responses were compiled within an eight page report and submitted to the ILCSC in August 2007. The following response is indicative of the sincerity of the lived experience of a LCG member:
Living a lay Cistercian life in the world with authenticity requires an ongoing discernment of the invitation of the Holy Spirit to follow the Benedictine/Cistercian path in faithfully living the Gospel message of love of God and neighbor. My basic Christian commitment is reinforced by my integrating Cistercian values and practices in my daily life. This formula encourages me to be more Christ-centered and other-centered. There is always the challenged of everyday successes and failures in living the LCG Plan of Life. The way of life of a ‘lay monk’ must be real, life giving and transformative. The daily routine of balancing prayer, work, study and ministry must bear fruit in me and in the communities in which I live, such as, marriage, family, parish, neighborhood and the community which I share with fellow lay Cistercians.
The LCG hosted a USA region Lay Cistercian meeting at Gethsemani in November 2007.
The last USA region meeting was in 1999 prior to the onset of the international encounters. The USA communities submitted house (community) reports prior to the meeting. These reports updated demographic information about each community and allowed individual communities to provide input for building the agenda for the meeting. Trisha Day of the Associates of the Iowa Cistercians facilitated the meeting the included lay and monastic representatives of ten lay communities and their monastery of affiliation.
The Gethsemani meeting provided an opportunity for the participants to meet prior to the 2008 international meeting in Huerta and share their community’s responses to the survey conducted by the international steering committee. The participants also engaged in a discussion on formation issues and working relationships with their host monasteries. The stated expectations for the meeting were to better understand the organizational structure of each group, so as to allow a sense of Lay Cistercian identity to emerge. Related to this was to assess the diverse ways the lay communities were relating to the abbeys. If time permitted, the meeting wanted to briefly address the growth in membership and how to handle it, plus the customs of the various groups. In summary, the meeting did result in fruitful exchanges and contributed to a sense of wholesome development over the last ten years. It laid ground work for the tasks ahead at the Huerta meeting. Several founding members of the USA lay Cistercian communities were present to share memories of our beginnings.
LCG and the Impact of the International Lay Cistercian Dimension (2008-2011)
In early 2008 LCG was saddened to learn of the untimely death of Bob Siegel who had been serving as LCG coordinator since April 2006. Bob and his contemplative group in the Midland, Michigan area had formed a support group that made retreats at their beloved Abbey of Gethsemani for many years before they formed a CLC/LCG identity. Jane Endriss who had been serving as Vice Coordinator for the LCG assumed the role of coordinator at that time with consent of the Advisory Council.
Bob Siegal had been a tremendous unifying force for the Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani. His gregarious and extroverted nature, together with his deep sense of spirituality, inspired many people to come to the Lay Cistercians. Bob had good managerial skills, and spent a lot of his free time contacting member of the old CLC members to see if they were interested in forming new local communities. Bob Siegal and Jane Endriss moved to implement more Cistercians topics and instruction into the newsletters and retreats. In was under the leadership of Bob and Jane that many of the organizational documents guiding the Lay Cistercians became developed. (By Laws, Articles of Incorporation, Formation guide, formation of local communities, mentoring process, updating website (through the skills of Mary Guilbert), etc.) Bob’s friendly smile and inviting spirit were instrumental in unifying and forming the ideas and spirituality of the Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani. He truly lived the Cistercian charism hospitality and prayer.
The fourth encounter of the International Lay Cistercian association was held from May 31 through June 7, 2008 near the Monasterio Santa Maria de Huerta in Spain. Bob Johnson and Mike Johnson were selected by the Advisory Council to be LCG delegates at the Huerta meeting.
The outcome of this encounter advanced and affirmed the lay Cistercian way of life as a new expression of the Cistercian charism. It paved the way for the OCSO General Chapters to officially recognize the presence of the charism within the lay communities affiliated with their monasteries by a vote.
The three major items for consideration at the Huerta encounter focused on Lay Cistercian identity, creating a permanent international association of Lay Cistercian communities, and a request for recognition by the General Chapters of the Cistercian Orders when they met in September 2008. Similar to previous international encounters there were items for business, plus presentations by monastics and steering committee members on topics that enriched our understanding of the Cistercian charism and strengthend our relationship with monastic communities of affiliation.
Before the work of the encounter began, the delegates were provided a synthesis of each language group of the results of the pre-meeting survey conducted among local lay Cistercian communities. This served as the basis for deeper reflection on common elements that define our identity and unity as lay Cistercians.
The resulting document, ‘Statement of Lay Cistercian Identity,’ reflected a final synthesis extracted from the synthesis of the three language groups. The document defined characteristics of the lay Cistercian vocation, way of life and community. It also addressed the bond that Lay Cistercian communities have with monasteries of association. The document would serve as a point of reference for ongoing dialogue with the General Chapters and serve the purpose of self-reflection for individual lay Cistercians and lay communities.
Another document that emerged from the Huerta encounter was ‘Bonds of Charity that Unite Us.’ The document created a temporary steering committee that would interact with the General Chapters and lay communities until the fifth encounter to be held in 2011.
Even though the international encounters work through diverse opinions and positions with respect to critical factors of lay Cistercian development, it was obvious to the lay and monastic delegates of a profound sense of the work of the Holy Spirit guiding all to fruitful results.
It should be noted that Fr. Elias Dietz had recently been elected abbot at Gethsemani Abbey. He had been serving as secretary to the Abbot General, Dom Bernardo Olivera, for a few years. Both were present and participated in the Huerta encounter. Fr. Elias served as a translator and facilitator for several of the plenary sessions.
In October 2008 Fr. Elias began to share chapter talks with the LCG. Chapter talks are given on Sunday mornings by the abbot that provide commentaries on the Rule of St. Benedict and other topics that enhance ongoing formation of the monks. The talks are circulated to the LCG membership electronically. The talks provide LCG rich material for formation, as well as strengthening its bond with the Gethsemani community.
The LCG Advisory Council continued to meet semi-annually with the guidance of Jane Endriss. Jane and her family relocated to Pennsylvania. Jane was committed to the formation of a LCG community or network in the Northeast. Due to the broad geographic locations of members in several states, Jane was eventually successful with establishing an online LCG community that is now known as Spiritus. Members of this community live in the United States and Canada.
In April 2010 Bob Johnson, a member of the Chicago LCG community, assumed the role of LCG coordinator following a vote by the Advisory Council. Bob utilized his organizational skills to address several organizational challenges that have confronted LCG due to the increase in membership. He provided both legal and fiscal expertise to insure more accountability for LCG as an organization. Bob worked with the Advisory Council to enhance the functioning of local LCG communities.
In April 2017, Nancy Sparrow, a member of the Kentucky LCG community, was elected to the role of LCG coordinator. Jane Endriss was elected Vice Coordinator. Nancy continues to work with membership needs, and promoting a deep sense of the Cistercian charism.
Due to the increased interest in LCG membership by individuals who live a great distance from a local recognized community or for other reasons that do not allow them to participate in a local community, a second level of affiliation was established. The Advisory Council established the ‘Friend of LCG’ status. Friends of LCG are people who are interested in living the elements of the LCG Plan of Life and growing in the Cistercian charism, however are not available or inclined to commit to a two year formation process and cannot fully participate as a member of an LCG local community. Friends of LCG are able to attend LCG retreats at Gethsemani and receive via e-mail all the information that regular LCG members receive, such as, updates, chapter talks, etc.
Beginning in 2010 LCG retreats were scheduled regularly in June and September. Local communities rotated responsibility for the planning and presentation of the retreats that would have a theme. As noted previously, the LCG retreats also included a LCG commitment service for candidates who has completed their time of discernment and initial formation. The commitment services occurred on Sunday afternoons at the conclusion of the LCG weekend retreats. They were conducted initially in the guest chapel. The commitment services eventually were moved to the abbey church on Sunday with an invitation to the monastic community to attend. Most recently they have been included in the Saturday evening Vespers service with the monastic community present. The abbot provides a blessing.
The fifth meeting of the International Association of Lay Cistercian Communities was held at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa the week of May 21-28, 2011. Again, LCG participated in the encounter along with fifty-three Lay Cistercians representing 35 of the worldwide 60 communities. There were also ten monastics who accompanied some of the Lay Cistercian delegates to the event. Representing LCG and the Abbey of Gethsemani were Kathleen Ellison, Fr. Michael Casagram and Mike Johnson.
The primary goals of the Dubuque meeting were to reflect and share the experience of relationships that the lay communities have with the monasteries with which they are associated, discuss what formation means for Lay Cistercians and to establish a permanent association of Lay Cistercian communities. Most of the delegates agreed that the goals of the meeting were ably met.
The significance of the Dubuque meeting, as well as that of previous international meetings will probably take some time to distill in terms of its impact on Lay Cistercians and their local communities. Each of the local/regional communities has their unique experiences of relationships with Cistercian monastic communities of affiliation and their distinctive development as lay associate communities. There was an overall sense of maturing in the development of Lay Cistercian communities in our collective sense, however there was a sense that major issues still needed to be refined. The documents that have emerged from these international encounters provide reassurance that the Spirit is at work in our midst. It was recognized that both individual member and communal attention continues to be needed with regard to identity, relationship with monasteries of affiliation, formation and accountability.
A revision of the LCG formation guide was finally completed and approved by the Advisory Council in November 2011. It was expanded to include formation for ongoing spiritual growth of LCG members. LCG has developed extensive formation resources over the years that now include several chapter talks by Abbot Elias that are made available to LCG members. Over the years Fr. Michael has provided LCG with several papers and homilies on a variety of spiritual topics. Br. Paul has also enhanced our contemplative life experience through his unique gift of poetry and photography. An extensive spiritual reading list that includes numerous resources for the study of the Rule of St. Benedict, Cistercian spirituality, contemplative life and prayer and the works of both LCG members and monastics is available for LCG members.
It should also be noted that the Advisory Council approved in late 2011 the “Covenant of Unity” document that provides unique clarity of identity and expectations for local LCG communities, individual LCG members and the Advisory Council. It is expected that LCG will experience richness in its present experience and sustainability in our future, if both individual members and local communities embrace these guidelines.
Current LCG Structure and Relationship with Gethsemani Abbey (2012-Present)
On March 10, 2012 three LCG members, Mary Haley, Bob Johnson and Mike Johnson gave a presentation to the Gethsemani monastic community. LCG was invited to speak to the monks to familiarize them with the current functioning of LCG. The presentation was requested by Abbot Elias in preparation for the anticipated vote of the conventual chapter at Gethsemani on LCG recognition. The presentation included sharing with the monks an overview of LCG highlighting what spiritual benefits have been experienced as LCG members. The monks also wanted to hear about how LCG members are being formed as Lay Cistercians in living the charism.
A week later on March 18 the LCG Advisory Council was informed that a vote by the conventual chapter at Gethsemani resulted in the official recognition of LCG as the lay associate group affiliated with the community. This vote by the Gethsemani community along with the vote of the 2008 OCSO General Chapters (Vote #71) which recognized “…the existence of a lay expression of the Cistercian charism in the lived experience of the groups of lay persons associated with a number of monasteries of the Order,” were significant mileposts for LCG. The 2008 vote was not a formal recognition of Lay Cistercian groups, nor did it imply that the charism was conferred on lay people. It was simply a statement recognizing the presence of the charism in the lives of the groups.
These votes provided a needed affirmation of the Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani in their spiritual journey. LCG has emerged as a lay organization with clarity of identity and structures that sustain the spiritual goals of its members. Our relationship with the Abbey of Gethsemani is one that strengthens us in our commitment to live our lay contemplative lives with grace.
Thus, the vision of our founders, who came to the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1987 to engage in a dialogue in response to an impulse to embrace a lay contemplative lifestyle, has continued now for twenty-five years. It was not the intent of the founders initially to establish a formal organization. However, the founders challenged themselves and those who would be joining them to live simply the elements and values of the Plan of Life for lay contemplatives as best they could, given individual circumstances. It was their intent to live out in their ordinary lives the wisdom of St. Benedict and the Cistercian tradition.
As with the development and growth of any human organization, no matter how small or large, we have seen that CLC/LCG experienced over the years many times of gifted insight and resource enhancement, but also times of challenge and lack of clarity of identity. In hindsight we can now identify important factors that were pillars of our development: community, formation in the Cistercian charism and leadership/accountability.
From the beginning of our spiritual journey, the importance of community life was highlighted by our monastic advisors as one of the key elements of Cistercian spirituality. Community life as lay contemplatives within the Cistercian tradition requires much creativity and effort to sustain the monastic impulse. With the onset of international Lay Cistercian meetings in 2002 that expanded the dialogue among diverse Lay Cistercian communities worldwide and with the General Chapter of the O.C.S.O., there emerged a greater sense of mission, identity and continuing vision that positively impacted both individual Lay Cistercian communities worldwide and an alliance among them.
In like manner, the Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani has strived to support and nurture local or regional LCG communities, as well as create a collective community that maintains a link with the Abbey of Gethsemani through the Advisory Council. It should be noted that there has not always been agreement with the LCG structure that has emerged. However, a consensus has occurred that supports a level of autonomy for local LCG communities within the parameters set by the LCG Advisory Council.
The spiritual bond that LCG has with the Abbey of Gethsemani is one of collaboration and sharing in the rich spiritual life of the Cistercian charism. It has been important that LCG members respect monastic boundaries.
LCG acknowledges that it is in active participation in the life of the local community and within the context of one’s daily practice of prayer, silence, lectio divina, work and service that the Lay Cistercian is formed in the lay expression of the Cistercian charism. Thus, the Lay Cistercian is equipped to share the fruit of the charism in the world.
The function of leadership in the LCG is primarily exercised by the LCG Advisory Council. It has been the responsibility of the Advisory Council to develop and approve guidelines for formation, to set criteria for the recognition of local LCG communities, to secure financial resources and to encourage and support the spiritual life of the local communities.
However, it is the unique leadership function of local community coordinators or leadership teams to insure compliance with established guidelines approved by the LCG Advisory Council. If the Cistercian charism is to flourish and produce fruit in the lives of LCG members and within the local communities, both leaders and community members must hold themselves accountable.
In conclusion, the Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani, as with many other Cistercian associate communities, have found a model for leadership and community within the Rule of St. Benedict itself, as well as insights for formation. The visible functions of community, formation and leadership can provide the structure or rich soil for the cultivation of the Cistercian charism. The charism is strengthened and flourishes well when the individual Lay Cistercian internalizes the spirit of St. Benedict and the Cistercian tradition in his or her life. The spiritual journey of the Lay Cistercian of Gethsemani Abbey is now aligned with that of the monastic community of the Abbey of Gethsemani. We draw nourishment in living the Cistercian charism from both Gethsemani and fellow LCG sisters and brothers with whom we share the journey.
It may seem presumptuous to some lay associates and monastics alike, however warmly felt by others that Lay Cistercian life has emerged as a branch of the Cistercian ‘school of love.’ Many LCG members have given frequent witness to a sense of mission by incorporating the Cistercian spirit to their vocation as ordinary Christians. They feel a close spiritual bond with the community of the Abbey of Gethsemani with whom they forge a partner relationship in strengthening the broader Christian community with Cistercian values.
In one sense local LCG communities are themselves ‘monasteries without walls’ whose members share a commitment to each other in building a unique support system for living Lay Cistercian life. LCG has formed a network of independent local communities who are spiritually linked to each other and the Abbey of Gethsemani. The network shares common directives and guidelines for living a lay form of Cistercian life. The Advisory Council nurtures continuing development of LCG with kind oversight and support.
The journey of the Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani Abbey has been a joyful and blessed one. It is one that has produced abundant spiritual fruit. We continue the journey with a sense of reassurance that the Holy Spirit has called us to live a lay expression of the Cistercian charism. We are challenged to be fully alive in the Spirit and to be more faithful to our baptismal commitment to build up the people of God. All is gift in the ‘school of love.’
Updated February 2017 – J. D. Endriss