Thursday, September 8, 2016

from community to communion

Where does the Divine dwell?
The answer is unambiguous: inside and outside.
The Divine is immanent and transcendent.
Many mystics will say God wanders,
between us, inside and outside,
goes in and out, appears and disappears,
strays, dwells.
                        Raimon Panikkar

The weather has remained mercifully cooler. We even had a little more rain yesterday afternoon, and I even slept with my windows closed to the cool breeze––and the sound of traffic circumabulating the Foro Romano 24/7.

Abbot Bernard is also the author of two books.

We had a keynote address yesterday, our first real spiritual conference. I had heard of this monk before, Abbot Bernard Bonowitz, OCSO, who was born a Jew, converted to Catholicism as a late teenager, baptized at the Trappist monastery in Genesee, NY, joined and professed as a Jesuit, and then entered the same Genesee only a few years later. He was then sent to Brazil, where he has spent the past 20 years. (Yesterday was also Brazil’s Independence Day from Portugal. I’m not sure if it was planned this way but besides Ab. Bernard we also had the Brazilian Joao Cardinal Braz de Aviz, head of the Congregation of Religious at the Vatican as our principal celebrant at Mass yesterday.)

Ab. Bernard’s main emphasis was on moving from “community to communion” and, at that, “communion enlightened by the Word of God.” As he spoke I kept thinking that he was very much coming from a Trappist approach. I remember one of my friends back at St. Meinrad who was infatuated with the Trappists leafing through a photo book about their life and repeating over and over again the caption, “In community––always in community.” Ab. Bernard emphasized over and over again that the monk’s personal identity can never be detached from koinonia, the single corporate identity, even before family ties, and that our deep responsibility for one another is the real Opus Dei, the real road back––as the Rule emphasizes our return to God from whom we have strayed. His allusions and citations were wonderful, also drawing on his own Jewish background and knowledge of Scripture, Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St. Thierry. He spoke about very practical issues in the monastery, men who are “Thessalonians” (those who eat but do not work), men who submarine and try to live like hermits (ouch!), and those who cringe when the smallest favor is asked of them. He also said at one point that he tells his monks, “If this is not the place you want to spend the rest of your life––in this place with these people–– then leave now while there is still time!”

He spoke a lot about the Word of God, and perhaps this was a particularly Jewish thrust: he said that like the Book of the Covenant the Word’s main task was building and sanctifying a People; God doesn’t speak to make mystics and build a “particular friendship” with us; God speaks to make us prophets and judges. He also noted that the rabbis considered the Song of Songs a sacred text because it spoke of G-d’s relationship with Israel. (I later asked him, but wasn’t it your own Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux who was the first one to write so eloquently about the Song being addressed to the individual soul? He answered, yes, but only in second place. Still…) One image that stayed with me was the two edged sword from the Letter to the Hebrews: the way the Word exits us is just as important as the way it enters us, how the Word empowers us, what it orders. It reminded me of the way I always talk about how the love of God poured into our hearts has to be complemented by stream of living water that flows out of the believer’s heart.

I must admit that I found him a little harsh. In the end he spoke about the joy being greater than that risk, but I didn’t find a lot of joy in his words, more a kind of old Trappist dura et aspera. Of course I had a specific optic as well, being from a hermit tradition and the prior of a hermitage. One of my main emphases has been to ensure all those above things as the basis for our solitude and to fill out our charism, the three-fold good. But I must admit I do not find our Saint Romuald to be a very good model when it comes to community and communion: he never stayed anywhere long, so it is hard to imagine him really giving himself to any community, nor his heart to any place in the broadest sense of the word.

We broke up into language groups then; the English-speaking group was so big that we broke up again into four smaller groups. That was very good, very interesting, to hear abbots speak from their own experience about the difficulties of being an abbot, and of holding communities together and guiding them through tough times. There was a lot of talk about the sexual abuse crisis, which has now hit England and Ireland broadside, and how that was all tied into some kind of real lacuna in formation. Several of them spoke about the problem of monks trying to live like hermits in their communities, and that being a problem with the Trappists as well, at one time their having an accent on “hermits living together,” concerned only for their own spiritual growth. I recalled the late Francis Kline’s notion that the Trappists were built on a faulty ecclesiology.

I’m still looking for the prophetic edge in this gathering, even here. I read through Panikkar’s Blessed Simplicity with a friend of mine this past year, and while I am here I keep thinking about his idea of integration rather than renunciation being the way of the new monasticism. And I am currently reading his Rhythm of Being, which is mind blowing, by the way, while I am traveling now; and it’s hard to see how any of that has infiltrated this. New wineskins. I’m still looking for and hoping for a new depth anthropology.