At fixed times all the abbots/abbesses come together. They discuss there the salvation of their own souls and of those committed to them. They take measures regarding the observance of the Holy Rule and of the Order where there is something that needs to be corrected or added. They foster anew among themselves the benefit of peace and charity. They devote themselves to maintaining the patrimony of the Order and safeguarding and increasing its unity. (C.77)

Friday, September 16, 2011

The salvation of our souls

Formation is the main theme for this Mixed General Chapters. Friday morning the abbot general, Dom Eamon Fitzgerald, gave a conference about the ongoing formation of the superior. After a discussion in the plenary session the theme was further developed with a sharing in the mixed commissions.

Dom Eamon’s starting point was that the MGM is an assembly – mainly of superiors of the Order – who have come together to discuss the salvation of their souls and of those committed to them:

-         The abbot is a monk, and does not cease to be such when he takes on the ministry of abbot. He walks the same path of being transformed through the monastic life so that the grace of baptism comes to fruition in him as a child of God, one who is truly like Christ. It is a journey from fear of God to love of God without fear, he said, referring to the Rule of St. Benedict: The abbot is to fear God and keep the Rule.

Before starting his conference, he gave the footnote that he would use the words abbot and monk including in these words abbess and nun.

The fear of God is a fundamental disposition required of all monks, but particularly evident in those who hold positions of responsibility. It is a rock on which virtue is based, and a motivating force in how we respond to others and to the tasks we have to do. It is a faith in the reality of God, his concern for us, God who sees all and to whom we are answerable. He sent his Son to redeem everything, and we are called to imitate the Son, living in accord with the will of the Father, and thus becoming truly his sons and daughters:

 - It is towards his Kingdom that we travel in this life and the journey does not make any sense if we forget that.

(This clear aspect of eternal life was also a strong theme in the musical “Chiara de Dios” which was seen by two busloads of the capitulants Thursday night in the old town of Assisi, a youthfully presentation of the life of St. Clare.)

-         It is this disposition in faith that determines our relationships with others and with things, an attitude of reverence for God, of honoring others, and a respect for all that he has made.

The ground for ongoing formation is the same for the abbot as for the monk, both are on their way, said Dom Eamon, referring to St. Benedicts list of the qualities of the cellerar and the qualities of the abbot as examples of a holy and good model: It is living out the imitation of Christ as described in the degrees of humility, the fruit of lives lived in an evangelical spirit, putting the Father’s will first and the giving oneself in the service of others.

He emphasized that this outpouring of oneself in service imitating Christ is what gives the energy to make possible the life of monks that Benedict proposes. It is a life founded in relationship and lived in the knowledge that one is loved. Abbot as monk lives the pattern of prayer and reading, meals, rest and work:

-         The ongoing formation takes place through the living of the life of the community with all that this involves.

The abbot general then went on to the special challenges in the ministry of the abbot to the community:

-         Avoiding personal preferences in relating to the brothers, because all are one in Christ. In an age of dialogue and community votes the danger might be to cultivate like-minded people and those who side with one’s views.

-         Adapting to the temperament and character of others rather than expecting them to adapt to him.

-         Putting the welfare of souls before material considerations. In a time of economic crisis and adaptation of buildings it is easy to get taken up with activities going on in the monastery for the good of the community. But this can lead to other tensions and make life difficult for the brothers.

-         Remembering that he is called to care for sick souls not just healthy ones.
To work with the people he has, rather than ones he would like to have, is a challenge not only for abbots. It is a real danger to avoid those who are more tiresome and trying and staying with the stimulating and supportive.

-         Realizing that he is not always the best person to help someone, and being free and trusting enough to use others as the need arises, recognizing his own limitations.
-         Knowing how to heal his own wounds he can heal those of others.

-         Being of profit to the brothers, not just presiding over them. The danger is liking the glory rather than the work, becoming image conscious.

-         Pride is a more serious hazard, when we are sure we know what the community needs or because we feel we have all the answers.

-         Benedict warns against jealousy and being out of touch with one’s own weakness – seeing the faults of others and not one’s own.

With all these challenges it is important to watch over one’s own soul, renewing oneself  with the Scripture and the writings of the Fathers. If monastic life provides a way to growth in holiness and humanity, the many pitfalls along the way are evident.

Dom Eamon took up again the question about the abbot’s need to be conscious of and heal his own wounds:

We are who we are. Some wounds can be healed, others we have to live with, and according to St. Paul even rejoice in. Such a disposition is the work of God in us. The Sacrament of Reconciliation, spiritual guidance and prayer are ways that can lead to healing or living more peacefully with who we are. The important thing is to b e truthful with ourselves before God, and it can be a great help also to have this kind of openness to another person.

The abbot general mentioned different ways of doing this, inside or outside the community, helping the superior to be freer in their service of God and the community, and enabling them to live the monastic ascesis with renewed zeal.

Because of their ministry, the abbots are more exposed to others. This can be both a service to others and a school of ongoing formation, he said, quoting the document of the Holy See about the service of authority and obedience:

“It will be the responsibility of persons in authority to keep a high level of openness to being formed as well as the ability to learn from life.” Sometimes this learning about ourselves in relationship with others can mean making mistakes, saying I’m sorry, being humiliated as well as experiencing friendship:

-         Keeping a high level of openness is not easy but is a path of humility and of life.
Another quote from the above mentioned document from the Holy See was much appreciated by the assembly: “Persons in authority can also become discouraged and disillusioned. In the face of the resistance of some members of the community and of certain questions that seem insoluble, he or she can be tempted to cave in and to consider every effort for improving the situation useless. What we see here is the danger of becoming managers of the routine, resigned to mediocrity, restrained from intervening, no longer having the courage to point out the purposes of authentic consecrating life and running the risk of losing the love of one’s first fervor and the desire to witness to it.”

Dom Eamon encouraged the abbots and abbesses to believe in their calling, responding freely and willingly, and using the means of the monastic life: leading the life of the community, the liturgy, lectio divina, work and fraternal life:

 - We won’t get our ongoing formation all right, but we can accept in faith and trust that there is a Providence who has it all in hand and whose paths and purposes will be realized despite us, to our delight and for his glory!

Sr. Hanne-Maria of Tautra