This is a presentation that Simón Pedro Arnold, OSB gave at a meeting of Benedictines and Cistercians in Lima, Peru in July 2003. Father Arnold is originally from the Monastery of Saint Remacle in Belgium and was one of the founders of the Monastery of the Resurrection, high in the Peruvian Andes. As prior of that monastery, he has worked hard to inculturate it into the surroundings.
For nine years he was coordinator of the theological team of CLAR (Confederation of Latin American Religious) and at the moment is a member of a team of formation in a seminary that prepares future indigenous priests.
I have been asked to open this monastic encounter on formation. I begin by thanking you for your confidence. But I want to caution you beforehand to expect from me neither prescriptions nor elaborate answers. In the present conjuncture of culture, of the Church, of monastic life and of Latin America and the Caribbean, it would be culpable naivete to propose a finished discourse on matters that, on the contrary, trouble us and question us deeply.
Therefore, I will adopt here a modest and meditative position on the experience that we are called to live in our communities. I will be exploring questions and experiences to share them with you. What inspires me is deep faith in the gospel and in the capacity of monastic life, as a basic experience, to promote a spiritual journey with Christ. But I do not want to hide from you my questions and doubts concerning the requirements of today's society. Can our monastic structure, inherited basically from the renewals of the 19th century and imported from Europe and North America to our continent, respond to the colossal challenges of today in our surroundings, without going through a deep process of rediscovery and without being born again from its own source?
With this question in the background, I approach my first reflection. In fact, before debating the question of formation "in" and "to" the Benedictine monastic life in the today of Latin America, we should, first, ask ourselves about the actual situation of monastic life as a whole in the context of postmodern Latin America. It means, in the first place, letting ourselves be sincerely and radically examined by this new culture, concerning our structures, our mentality and our basic values. Are we or are we not a valid, possible, prophetic and evangelical movement in this context? If not, why not? And, on the other hand, if we are, under what conditions and at what price? This is not about selling a product little appreciated in the market. It is not about promoting a campaign of monastic marketing, which disgusts our sensitivity as monks. It is about letting ourselves be converted prophetically by the circumstances.
The Benedictine Tradition: a face to face with history.
If we speak about the best of our Tradition, beyond the folklore, we can affirm that, more than a "fleeing from the world," the intent of Benedict was to enter into a "critical and loving dialogue" with the world based on the Gospel and on the radical choice for Christ. In this sense, monastic life appears, from its origin, both as an Exodus, that is to say a "no," a prophetic critique of society and a promised Incarnation, and as a loving "yes" to this same human society.
It is this prolific Benedictine dialectic that I would like to explore here, as an introduction to our subject.
Obedience-humility as an Exodus: the experience of "no".
If we reflect on the experience of Benedict himself, according to Saint Gregory, we realize that our father was inspired not by a fear of confrontation with Rome but by a prophetic choice of distance from social sin. His leaving for Subiaco was not a flight but a pilgrimage, an exit from Egypt in search of a promised land. The monastic desert is not denial but search (a central insight of the Rule), an alternative in the manner of Moses. It was not the cowardice of a weak person but the questioning of a brave person.
The entire prologue of the Rule translates this departure experience of Benedict by speaking of obedience as return: return to the original plan of God (Eden or the Promised Land). In this sense, the Benedictine does not escape backwards but rather travels facing forward into this new unknown land of which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks.
But, as the monk is advancing on this path, following the example of his saintly patron, he discovers that Rome or Egypt is deep within himself. For Benedict it was the emotional dependency on his nurse or the temptations and the memories of the flesh. For this reason, the Benedictine pilgrimage of "no" is transformed into "communal service." Obedience becomes humility; personal desire for conversion is transformed into a communal task. Such are the conditions of human realism for attaining the spiritual freedom that the end of the Prologue calls the "expanded heart".
This dialectic of obedience-humility as a choice of "return" and a task of "conversion" is, without room for doubt, a challenge, almost a countersign, to postmodern culture. In fact, as we will see further ahead, the postmodern oscillates between "yes" and "no," in a subtle and aimless movement of perpetual pendulum, without ever pronouncing them or being pronounced by either of the two extremes.
In the Latin American context, marked by an extreme precariousness on many levels, accepting this tension is practically impossible within a strategy of simple survival in a provisional status. But we will revisit this affirmation in a more specific way in our second reflection and we will see the consequences that what we call the refoundation of monastic life brings.
Stability, commitment of solidarity and fidelity: the experience of "yes".
The first chapter of the Rule on the various categories of monks is, without room for doubt, the most anti-postmodern of all. Satanizing vagabonds and sarabaites, Saint Benedict goes crosscurrent to one of the basic tendencies of our culture: "navigation" without designated port and immediate and ephemeral joy. Also, praising communal service in long term stability (cenobitism), and praising even more solitude as attainment of freedom (anchoritism), he practically accepts the position of heretic in the context of the postmodern era.
In fact, stability consists precisely of accepting long term communal responsibility within a particular group in a place, in a specific cultural and historical context and in an era. It is, obviously, a spirituality of roots more than of movement, even if the source of inspiration continues being the pilgrim adventure of obedience as we have described it above.
This rooting is a very clear choice for definitive solidarity in the manner of Ruth with Naomi. With stability, the Benedictine accepts all risks within a community and, more widely, within a people, whatever may happen.
Stability enshrines, in our spirituality, absolute fidelity in a kind of wedding ("in sickness and in health," as it says the ritual of marriage) within a community and within its human, ecclesial and cultural surroundings.
The "yes" of monastic stability it is the most exact expression of our desire for incarnation with real people. The monk is not passing through. He is incarnated and inculturated.
This is the form of his other particular encounter with human history. The "no" of his Exodus (obedience-humility) flows out into the "yes" of his inculturated incarnation (stability).
Conversion of morals in the change of era.
But, if the Benedictine proposal of dialogue with the world is formulated in this somewhat abrupt dialectic, its attainment also goes through dynamic paths that could be synthesized by the formula of profession: conversion of morals. In fact, we monks do not make vows of poverty or chastity. We integrate these two dimensions into a dynamic nonexclusive journey. Conversion, though it implies poverty and chastity, is presented as a permanent process of availability to the always surprising grace of God. In this sense, the conversion of morals does not have a defined shape. It is like an adventurous and conscious openness to the risk of Jesus and his gospel.
It would like to honor here three dimensions of this dynamic of permanent conversion by considering them particularly consonant with postmodern sensitivity. They are what I call "Benedictine progressiveness," "Benedictine realism" and "Benedictine communal favoritism" (I borrow this expression from Emmanuel Mounier).
Contrary to the discourse of modern devotion and, later, of the counter-reformation (Teresa of Avila, for example), our Tradition speaks not of imitation nor of a way of perfection but of a progressive search for God. It is, in fact, the only condition that the Rule imposes for starting the monastic journey: do you seek God? In this regard, the Benedictine goal is not an ideal to reach but a path to travel, stirring our desire for this God that we will never reach.
Conversion of morals implies a spirituality of progressive growth by stages toward an inner freedom that is each time greater (the expanded heart of the prologue).
This growth is mainly neither moral nor willful. More exactly, it is an "emotional" matter in the deepest sense of the word. What is expanded in Saint Benedict is the enthusiasm to feel more and more free to run hurriedly toward the Loved One whom one seeks joyfully and impatiently. In this dynamic, Benedict proposes a path that goes from fear to love, free from any concern, in the manner of Saint John. The pedagogy of the father of monks permanently sustains this thought process: everything begins with fear of "hell" and ends in the totally released natural life of the "Kingdom."
In this pedagogical journey there is suggested, with subtlety, a beautifully creative mercy (see for example the invention of the "secret consolers" in chapter XXVII of the Rule) and an option for prudent confidence. The abbot, in this perspective, must be vigilant without being anxious because he trusts as much in grace as he does in human effort.
This optimism and this deep confidence of Saint Benedict do not preclude a wise realism that comes from experience. In this regard, our father is amazingly modest in his expectations. Several times, even, he seems to apologize for this modesty (which the Rule calls "discretion") arguing, even with some apparent shame, that these are no longer the times for the heroism of the monastic fathers (see the last chapter of the Rule).
So, at several opportunities, Benedict uses the word "love" with regard to the rules that are proper to monastic life. For example, rather than being chaste "already," one is to "love chastity," which I interpret as putting oneself on the path toward human relationships that are more and more freed from attachment and possessiveness.
Also, with regard to poverty (a word that is never used in the form of precept in the Rule), he prefers to speak of the "abominable vice" of private property. To avoid it, he takes care that each has what is necessary, not according to a uniform norm, but considering the immense variety of necessities, of forces and weaknesses. Once again, what Benedict proposes is a progressive conversion. He sees, as a point of departure, not a pre-established ideal to be reached but the reality in which we find ourselves.
The same thing happens with obedience to the Abbot. This is not an infantile submission but rather the attainment of an adult option for Christ. This option implies knowing how to give one's opinion and also knowing how to accept the decision of the abbot without murmuring, always for love of Christ. But, even this acceptance is modified by the invitation to communicate to the abbot that which seems impossible to us.
This deep human realism presents the path to us not as a sports race (although it has requirements that are almost military) but as a progressive treatment of wounds and untying of bonds so we can be happy in the enthusiasm of our human pilgrimage.
This monastic wisdom is deeply present in our continent where, as we will develop later, all the candidates who call at our door arrive with serious emotional wounds, inherited from the family drama, the economic drama or the political drama of universal violence.
I borrow here an insight of Father Frederic Debuyst, OSB, a monk of Clerlande. He himself borrowed this expression from the philosopher Emmanuel Mounier, applying it to the art of monastic living in the school of Saint Benedict.
I prefer, in fact, to speak of "art" rather than of monastic rules or ideals. So in the case at hand, Saint Benedict shows himself to be a great artist handling the difficult balance between communal solidarity and the personal growth of each brother or sister. This implies constant and meticulous attention, by the abbot, to the rhythms, needs, experiences and moments of both our communal progress and our personal journey. A difficult but admirable Polyphony where the abbot is the director of a chamber orchestra and takes care of that no instrument escapes from the common tempo or dictatorially imposes its own tone and its own rhythm (not even that of the abbot). But he also looks after the specific score of each instrument, its own coloration so that the result is not a kind of shapeless mass but an embroidery of charisms.
The community must respectfully provide for the birth of the new man in each person, and each person must provide for the Kingdom coming into existence in the New Jerusalem which the monastic community hopes to be.
In this sense, if we refer, once more, to the first chapter of the Rule with regard to the different kinds from monks, we might affirm that everything Benedictine is both cenobite, that is to say communal in embracing and achieving the monastic New Jerusalem, and anchorite, solitary, in its mysterious path toward its Lord. Neither communist collectivism, nor capitalist individualism but communal favoritism.
This proposal has everything to seduce the postmodern man and woman. But it cannot be without cost, untangling the prophetic requirement of "no" and "yes" from the options with which we begin our journey.
To avoid this danger, Saint Benedict plants a firm spinal column that articulates the two dimensions of his humanism: person and community. This column, both unifying and separating, is Christ himself. So, the person must prefer nothing to the love of Christ, which keep him from falling into the individualistic trap of his "own will." But, also, the community must see in every human being, beginning with its own brothers and sisters, the face of Christ. This avoids beforehand any temptation of collective dictatorship.
Benedictine life: a lay path.
Continuing our demanding dialogue between postmodernity and monastic life, I would like to touch here on an essential aspect of the insight of Saint Benedict: the lay dimension of our path. In fact, if there is an aspect of the ecclesial structure that is particularly in crisis, in this conjuncture, it is clericalism. It cannot be denied that, throughout history, Western male monastic life has become more and more clericalized. At the time of the Vatican II we returned to consciousness of our identity which is lay or, as some postconciliar monastic constitutions say, "neither lay nor clerical but essentially monastic". This unique identity affirms a certain marginality and freedom with respect to the global ecclesiastical structure, and a certain solidarity and proximity with sectors of the Church, and of society as a whole, that are quite distant from the ecclesial institution. This borderland position is surely a strong element to take into account in the present dialogue.
An evangelical path of daily life.
The monastic proposal has its own family flavor that rewards the modest and repetitive simplicity of daily life. To borrow an expression in vogue among today's theologians, we favor small stories and we spontaneously distrust abstract ideologies, large stories. In the Rule, for example, the chapters on feeding, work, schedule, food and sleep are no less important than those that deal with spirituality. Also the large is discovered in the small, the sublime in the trivial, the divine in the relationships of every day. In this sense, the monastic life is more a gospel parable than an ideological or theological discourse. This is how I understand, personally, aspects such as silence, monastic discretion and the enclosure, for example.
This Nazareneness of the monk agrees discreetly with the pragmatism and the search for intimacy of our contemporaries. Distrustful of all ideology, the postmodern man or woman wants to experience the good things of life in their very concrete incarnation. In this regard the monk does not propose a learning of truths and techniques. Like Jesus, he presents himself in the manner of a parable. His silence is saying: "let him who has ears listen," and "come and you will see."
The lay sensitivity of monks.
Without doubt, Saint Benedict and we Benedictines have a lay sensitivity. Our father was a layman and largely distrusted all types of clergy. What frightened him in the clerical order was the permanent temptation of great power and the search for privileges. Both chapters in the Rule that speak of the subject reflect this concern.
Perhaps it would be an exaggeration to speak of Benedictine anticlericalism. But Saint Benedict does consider the order as a charism and a ministry at the service of the community and nothing more. We might say that the frame of reference for the entire monastic organization is lay and that clerics are themselves subject in everything to this same reference (with the exception of the honor that their sacred ministry deserves and, even more, their moral and spiritual merits as persons). Differently from later orders and active congregations, where everything is considered subject to the clergy, the monastic life inverts the chart and makes the clerical monks a kind of minor diaconate of their brothers and of the community.
This lay figure of monasticism proposes what we would call an ecclesiality, that is to say a dynamic of ecclesial relationships that is multiple and familiar. In some manner, the "monastic church" is a prototype of the people of God even in their immense diversity of generations (see the chapters on the children, the young people and the old ones), of social classes (noble and poor) and of gender (see the episode of the encounter with Scholasticism in the Dialogues).
Hospitality as an experience of Pentecost.
Although Benedictine hospitality certainly is centripetal, nevertheless its outlook is most universal. Traditionally, in fact, the monastery appears as a refuge for everyone (according to the beautiful expression of Benedict), a well in the desert of the world for all the thirsty ones. In this sense we monks are a Church of the borderland and without a border, for the "world" that is found at the edge of the World and the Church.
This borderland concern of monasteries implies a quiet and discreet listening to the "universal otherness," to differences that are social, cultural, moral and religious or ideological. "Discretion" is translated into an absolute respect for the secret of the other. The basic universal Christology of monastic hospitality (to see Christ in every guest) has neither condition nor limit.
Presenting monastic hospitality as an experience of Pentecost (speaking a diversity of languages and being understood in the language of each) implies a specifically monastic mission: presence. The monastery performs a ministry of simple presence, of communion, of discreet and benevolent support of human history in its diversity and fragility. This pentecostal characteristic of monasticism enters, once again, into harmony with our unsteady and varied postmodern civilization, and brightens the abrupt and scandalous structure of Benedictine stability.
A path of reconciliation.
In terms that are more postmodern, I would dare to speak of obedience and humility as a journey of reconciliation. I will approach here three dimensions of this path: reconciliation with oneself, contained in the quest of the "solitary one," the monk; reconciliation with the universe and God, through contemplative liberation, and reconciliation of gender through style of life and hospitality.
Presenting monastic life as a slow and continuous process of reconciliation, I am thinking, obviously, of this society that is broken, hurt and divided. In this sense, I do not imagine the monastery as a gathering of "elites" and "the perfect" but as a hospital of souls and bodies. This option will have much importance at the moment we consider the criteria for vocational discernment and the modalities of formation into monastic life. The objective is to heal wounded people and not to separate exceptional people from the painful cyclone of the world.
"Monastic life" as reconciliation with oneself.
I am convinced that the monastic quest points in the first place to reconciliation of the person. Panikar speaks of "simplification." We use the word unification in the same sense. The monk undertakes a long path of unification of the dispersed and conflicting energies of his existence. This process points destroying in oneself all fear and all violence. The path of this reconciliation is obedience and humility in silence, retreat, discretion, enclosure, etc. In some manner the goal is to reach the freedom of Saint Benedict, of whom Gregory says that "he was always with himself." This idea is good news in a continent and a culture destroyed by shame, distrust, low self-esteem, anguish and doubt of identity at all levels (sexual, cultural, social, etc.).
From the monastic to the contemplative: a reconciliation with the universe and God.
I know we cannot identify the monastic with the contemplative and many of our monasteries could not be defined as essentially contemplative in a narrow canonical perspective. Nevertheless, it seems me that contemplation impregnates the totality of monastic life and that the essential spiritual goal is "to prefer nothing whatever to the love of Christ," according to the expression of the Rule, that is to say to be in permanent communion with Him.
If I talk about the last vision of Saint Benedict in the Dialogues, where our father sees the entire universe concentrated in a single point of light, I consider that it symbolizes the progressive expansion of the prayerful heart of the monk. This heart, while freeing itself from every particular desire, runs at full speed because it has learned to breathe within the dimension of the world and of God. Like many mystics, what Benedict experiences in this vision is encounter with the world and with God, final and total reconciliation in the person of the contemplative. This experience is somehow related to the insights of Teilhard de Chardin.
Without any doubt, our postmodern culture, especially in Latin America, is more sensitive to the experience of mystical harmony than to ideological and ethical discourses. Monastic Life responds somehow to this aspiration of "well being" and, even more, of "being well" with one's surroundings, with oneself and with God.
Contemplation, really, is the summit of "monastic rehumanization". Here I include both sides of the scale of humility: soul and body reconciled in Christ.
A Benedictine experience of gender.
Far from being misogynists (fearful of men men in the case of Benedictine nuns), I consider that the monks, by their style of life, seek, as in a delicate embroidery, to harmonize feminine and masculine, the constituents of all true humanity. Without falling into caricatured stereotypes, we can affirm that the life of enclosure is a true adventure of gender because of the search for beauty, hospitality, liturgy, listening, work, respectful affection between generations, etc.
Along this line, I incline to think that the evident emotional attraction of Saint Benedict to women (his nurse, his lover and his sister) and the evident attachment of them to him, must have influenced the style of relationship and coexistence that Benedict proposes to us. The death of Scholastica, for example, as Saint Gregory tells us, above all the episode of the common tomb demanded by Saint Benedict, is all an eloquent symbol of this holy final reconciliation of the woman and the man after long struggles to free themselves from the bonds of desire, a reconciliation that is the true name of chastity and, even more, of charity.
For the postmodern man and woman, deeply wounded in their identity and their sexual relationships, this Benedictine way of liberation, reconciliation and transfiguration of the erotic is a source of an immense joy.
Crisis of monasticism in postmodernity.
Up to here we have emphasized, in the Benedictine face to face with the world, the aspects that are more prophetic and more favorable to dialogue in the present conjuncture. This presentation might err by idealism and naivete if we do not confront it with the evident and deep crisis of monasticism in the situation of today's Latin American society. In fact, if we have at hand, in our best Tradition, so many convincing elements, why do we convince so little? I would like, precisely, to dedicate this time to asking myself, sincerely and humbly, this very question.
In the perspective of refoundation, which I chose at the beginning of these reflections, the question of crisis always points in two directions: the first is our infidelity to these foundations of Benedictine spirituality. If we do not convince it is because we are no longer signs of what we proclaim. Through time, our life has been caricatured, "wordly," perverted, even arriving at flagrant contradictions. Even more, in our institutional style and way of life, mechanisms have been introduced that are perverse, dehumanizing, pathogenic. This affirmation is not exclusive to monastic life. It applies to all of Consecrated Life. But it is important to question ourselves concerning these mechanisms in our context. For if we do not denounce them and we do not heal them, we will always repeat the same errors, we will fall infinitely into the same impasses. Also, we can ask ourselves if it is legitimate to propose to this generation a model that is going to make them more ill instead of healing and releasing them.
But it is certain also that the cultural, social, political, economic and even religious conjuncture of our continent and of the postmodern world questions even that which is most sublime in our proposal. What we are called to live is no longer a Pentecost among diverse human languages but a dialogue between extremely distant planets. The risk of this situation is double: either monastic life is considered entirely unattainable in its form and contents and so is condemned to the "death of Socrates," enclosed in its noble mantle of certainties; or we yield to the seductions of the market and we shamefully devalue the prophetic requirements of our proposal to be able to survive in a mediocrity as deadly as the previous position.
Refoundation tries to avoid these two stumbling blocks. It proposes, in the first place, a re-encounter with the basis of Tradition, even if it is abrupt and scandalous for today's world. For this purpose, restoring implies repentance and conversion, rebirth of the Spirit in the manner of Nicodemus, and taking leave of the counter-testimonial aspects of our styles and institutions.
But, to refound implies also letting ourselves be questioned by the present culture to ask ourselves again what it can teach us. What new gospel language for today, what sleeping or unpublished charisms can it reveal to us? In fact, monastic life, like all religious life, is first of all an historical answer and not a preconceived model. The Spirit is both constant and changing, like life, like history, and we must let him change us for this era. We must not confuse stability with the rigidity of corpses, even if they are corpses dressed with the prestigious gold of our traditions.
A deep institutional crisis.
All who study our era agree in their characterization of contemporary culture as the death of all ideological discourse and of the entire institutional system which it sustains, justifies and maintains. All discourses, in postmodernity, have lost their credibility, especially the discourses that propose salvation (religion, marxism etc.). It is not astonishing, then, that religious discourse is one of those most affected by this cataclysm and, within the religious world, the systems that are the most institutionalized .
We cannot deny that the monastic life, throughout time, has been institutionalized more and more. Within the range of forms of consecrated life, monasticism is surely one that allows the narrowest margin for improvisation and for the unexpected, not only in its schedules, forms and styles of prayer and celebration, but also in the expression of feelings and personal journeys. Our stability has been incarnated into a kind of agrarian monotony (although we constantly transgress the model at an individual level and in an unofficial manner), that is very different from the creative perpetual motion of urban life.
Indeed, more serious than what is monolithic in our styles, we must denounce the individualism that has been introduced into our precious communal favoritism.
We must recognize, in addition, that Benedictine discretion always lends itself to the risk of what in French is called "dilettance." This concerns a form of living that is agreeable, humanist, elegant, but without greater relevance for the individual, the group and society or the Church. We do not bother anyone but neither do we signify anything decisive on the landscape. We are "aficionados" more than professionals of the prophecy that we try to live. And if this "estheticism" without danger, proper to historical Benedictinism, is clothed with the privileged symbols of the good bourgeoisie, our social, ecclesial and cultural neutralization becomes complete.
In our continent, unlike old Europe for example, there is no true monastic tradition and the image of monasticism in public opinion seldom goes beyond folklore as it appears in novels or soap operas. Is the reality of our living in the world of mysticism, of asceticism, of historical engagement with our suffering people, of fraternal relationships convincing enough to change this image? A serious and essential question.
The crisis of fidelity.
The religious sociologist Danielle Hervieu-Léger characterizes postmodernity as a social mutation of a group structure toward a system of networks. In this perspective, all human history, and in particular the modern era, was structured around groups: family, community, ethnic group, religion etc. The function of the group is, precisely, to give identity and consciousness of belonging to the individual. This identity and this belonging point to permanence and are based on an ideological discourse and an institutional construction. Western teaching and morality as a whole, including of course Christianity, submit entirely to this viewpoint.
The culture of networks, which we are entering rapidly, seeks neither identity nor belonging, and even less permanence and ideals. Its ideal is multiple and ephemeral communication, producing successive harmonies. In this sense, we are present at what we could call a kind of "orientalization" of the West into a culture of perpetual change with neither shape nor defined goal other than harmony.
How, therefore, do we include in this "dune" culture, as we have called it on another occasion, the Benedictine ideal of stability and its goal of sanctity and salvation? How do we demonstrate the joy of a unique and definitive commitment in the permanent style of the Benedictine "search for God?" If this question goes across all Christian activity in a culture of impermanence, it particularly concerns us as monks.
The postmodern quest, instead of appearing as a plan for salvation, hopes for a healing, a happiness, a reconciliation that is dynamic and immediate. In what we have rescued from our Tradition, it seems to me, therefore, we must honor the dimension of seeking reconciliation and healing more than the institutional and ideological aspects of our model. This means, it seems to me, an understanding of refoundation that brings out of Benedictine treasure the old and the new.
The crisis of authority.
Within the global postmodern questioning of ideology and its institutions, doubtlessly, the justification and the exercise of authority seem to be the most undermined. I suppose all men and women superiors here present secretly share my feelings. Personally I wish no one the misfortune of being abbot or prior in these times and, at the same time, I would wish that, immediately, ten enthusiastic candidates for successor would appear. To be a superior today is something that resembles martyrdom without even the consolation of some recompense.
This drama of authority in a postmodern context is accentuated even more in the monastic Tradition in which this service is honored above any other and is understood as a definitive or, at least, long term spiritual paternity. How good it would be, in the modern and democratic way, to limit our service to a healthy and effective administration of the monastery and its members for a reduced time, as in any more recent congregation! But, unfortunately, this is precisely what Saint Benedict rejects. The abbot must be above material preoccupations to be in the care of "souls," that is to say of the spiritual journey of each and of the group itself, of their vocations. For this reason, our father insists that he delegate to others whatever could distract him from this responsibility, like finance and administration (even if these should ultimately be dependent on him).
Is "Benedictine paternalism" compatible with the modern democratic mentality, above all with its extreme neoliberal caricature? This question is not so easy to answer. On the one hand, a monarchic exercise of the authority is nowadays impossible and even perverse. Democracy is a good that cannot be renounced even in monasteries. Besides, the postmodern abbot does not have shoulders sufficient for such a load. On the other hand his exaggerated centrality in the monastery reduces him more and more to a kind of communal "punching ball" where all the brothers of all ages and the group itself exercise their fists, thus expressing their congenital insecurities, their most recent family wounds and their bulímic eagerness for independence as well as their contradictory emotional dependency. With this description, somewhat caricatured but close to reality, I want to affirm that it is surely this sacred abbatial institution, the spinal column of the Rule, that, with greater urgency, needs to be refounded. But do not ask me how. I guess that this will depend on the temperament and maturity of each community confronting the Rule within the communal and cultural reality of its own context. I believe that neither general chapters nor congresses of abbots should refound the role of the abbot. This is a task of all the members of the community, including the youngest, as Saint Benedict indicates in his chapter on counsel. But this task promises conflicts, discouragement and impasses. It is necessary to have the courage to risk consensus. Beyond this common effort I expect little, in the future, from our monastic learning institution. Because, behind this debate, are obedience and humility which need to be refoundd to be taken up again. If we do not refound them they will continue to be what they are today: a salute to the flag without any convincing incarnation.
So, this postmodern generation (I do not speak only of young people) has both an itch for independence and a congenital incapacity for initiative and independent risk. This contradiction causes the abbatial "punching ball" to serve also as a shipwreck buoy for a community that has become tremendously fragile. The abbot finally becomes, in this contradiction, the hostage of an impossible game, faulted on one hand as a dictator and on the other hand as indecisive, which literally corners him into impotence.
At this crossroad of the monastic authority, the dialectic of asceticism-pleasure enters by way of example. In the perspective of the Rule, the abbot is the one in charge of directing the brothers/sisters toward community and the spiritual freedom that implies mysticism and asceticism. But, in the exaggeratedly individualistic postmodern context, criticism, or simple observation, above all if it is made in community, is a taboo whose transgression is considered by the group as the worst fault of an abbot. In this dialectic, authority is reduced, once again, to a mute institution. But, the problem is not so much the questioning of the monastic scheme of authority, a criticism that, personally, I consider valid and useful. What is serious is the abysmal emptiness left by neutralization of the abbatial mechanism through this process.
Conclusion: is it possible to be monks today in Latin America?
I do not want to finish this first reflection by scandalizing you beyond all remedy. I began by saying that my meditation would be a reading of faith: faith in Jesus Christ and his Spirit who cross all History and, therefore, our history; faith in the relevance of the consecrated life in all times and, in particular, in our time; faith and deep love for the Benedictine Tradition to which I owe practically everything.
But I cannot close my eyes. The times we live are very serious, in every sense, including what Benedict says of "gravity." This gravity concerns not only what it would dare call, with much affection, our gentile "monastic decadence" but also the challenges that the new culture raises to what is most fundamental in the gospel and in Christian experience.
Therefore, I would not dare answer the question that I myself throw to you. I still do not have an answer but, rather, many questions and still more objections and doubts. What is certain is that the future of monasticism on our continent and at this conjuncture will be difficult and will imply a radical conversion with quite modest expectations in terms of the number of monks and the prestige of our communities.
Of course, we could adopt a rollback position, and those who listen to these sirens are not few, returning to premodern schemes and guarding a scrupulous isolation of monastic life from every postmodern miasma. But this seems to me an option (an unconscious and irresponsible option) for death.
If, however, we seek to be faithful both to the Tradition and to the signs of the times, we must prepare ourselves for a long process of liberation and radical conversion that, in this context, I call refoundation.
This proposal, happens, evidently, but not exclusively, through formation. If, in my second reflection, I dare to lay out a proposal of monastic formation for today's Latin America, it is because, in spite of my very many doubts and my infinite questioning, I choose to believe in a new and prolific future for monks on this continent. I see this future not so much from preoccupation for our own survival, but because I believe that we can be good news of happiness and liberation for our people of here and today.