Review by Mother Miriam, CSM

The Trappistine Cistercian monastery of Vitorchiano has a unique modern history of growing numbers of Sisters, adding six new daughter foundations since 1968, while many religious orders have experienced a painful decline since Vatican II. The religious authorities wanted to know Vitorchiano’s “secret.” Mother Cristiana is the most knowledgeable person to reflect on Vitorchiano’s history and the Cistercian influences that added to the community’s prosperity. She summarizes well her aim in writing this book:

  • To render present and relevant the pedagogical patrimony left us by those who have gone before me in the abbatial ministry I am currently trying to exercise;

  • To confront this patrimony with our present experience of the manifold reality of our Cistercian foundations, often situated far away;

  • To enrich our patrimony by reflecting on the experience that has led us to maturity in the school of our own history. (p. 2)

Since Mother Cristiana is writing primarily for her own congregation familiar with the cultural disconnect between life in the secular world and within the monastery, Dom David Foster gives an astute analysis of the worldly culture from which seekers come to the monastery.

In the world of today we see the sad spectacle of lives lived without any density of being, lives deprived not only of historical memory but also of that more substantial memory formed by the awareness of having an origin, a tradition, a destiny. Hence we have developed the tendency to adopt a radically subjective perspective on every human experience, even on religion and morals. By it, relativism of belief and ethical norms has become systemically established (p. xx).

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For the sake of English-speaking readers, Dom Foster gives a brief history of Cistercian spirituality, springing primarily from St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Medieval Cistercian monasteries were beehives reclaiming wasteland during the high Middle Ages, but more importantly, along with their Benedictine brethren, they preserved the intellectual and spiritual treasure of the patristic age. St. Bernard was rightly declared a doctor of the Church for his understanding of the personal relationship of the committed Christian in Jesus Christ as an adopted son of the Father. “Sonship” is a relational word for the Cistercians that applies equally to men and women, as adopted children of God in Christ.

The book is challenging for those outside of the monastery. Many of the names cited are unfamiliar to Anglicans; the only name familiar to Americans would be Thomas Merton. The year 1969 was crucial as

the challenges faced were various: the extraordinary rate of historical and social change in the world at large; the arrival in our monasteries of a new generation carrying a different cultural baggage and a spiritual, social, and ecclesial sensibility that often did not match that of previous generations; the [Cistercian] Order’s ever greater missionary expansion. (p. 39)

Mother Cristiana tells how Vitorchiano attracted and actively taught modern European women first to love reality and truth in themselves, then to go deeper in contemplative prayer, and to bond as a new generation of community within community. Her collected wisdom from past generations at Vitorchiano is adapted to the changes that smartphones and tablets bring to contemporary people. The fear of silence and the lack of imagination to go into the depths of prayer to find God had made the monastery seem a strange and forbidding place rather than a crucible of love. The key to her handed-on pedagogy is a modern synthesis of St. Bernard’s sense of “sonship.” It shows how we belong to God our Father.

Mother Cristiana discusses how reforms in liturgy (lex orandi, lex credendi) and formation in the Italian Trappist Congregation affected the monasteries of women, especially Vitorchiano. The General Chapter’s Declaration on Cistercian Life and Statute on Unity and Pluralism no longer required rigid conformity of liturgies and monastic custom. This allowed cultural sensitivity within the novitiates to build community based upon the frame of reference from which new members came. Ascetical custom and theological teaching needed to take into account new psychological understandings, globalization, and new awareness of Eastern religious traditions. The order transformed itself from a community focused on concrete observances to one of a consensus-forming family.

Mother Cristiana spends significant time on the assimilation and adaptation of the Second Vatican Council’s definition of ecclesiastical authority and obedience for the monastic community, much of which may appear unnecessary to Anglican readers. Within the evolving community of the late 1960s, the leading insight of Vitorchiano held that “if a sister cannot be really integrated among the members of her own generational group, she will never become a fully integrated member of the community as a whole.” At the same time, there flourished a capacity for positive insight that encouraged each person to give her best. Any tendency to withdraw to the margins of the community was sternly censored, as were expressions of self-justification that, while masquerading under the name of charity or high spirituality, in fact represented a conflict with authority. (p. 14)

This community has the confidence in the ageless monastic communal wisdom that “personal growth and development of a monastic vocation cannot happen apart from the educational, healing role of the community; that it presupposes paternal or maternal authority as the wellspring of sonship; that it must follow the proven path of monastic conversion and Benedictine humility.” The vowed commitment of obedience is the pathway to true freedom of the person in Christ. Family values are learned from parent to child. It is the same in forming community. The community leadership stands in the place of Christ for the novice in order that she may learn this true freedom. Mother Cristiana quotes another abbot who expressed this as the antidote to modern youth’s “self-absorption, anti-authoritarianism, and restlessness” (p. 67).

Vitorchiano’s watchword for this catechesis and integration of new members is “Return to the heart.” This is the ancient Benedictine vow of conversion of manners. In discovering what is in our hearts we discover both the scantiness of our interior values and how they arose, but also that “vital point of divine likeness that lies deep within us. The God who is Love makes himself and his redemption known in this inward space where we encounter ourselves in the light of his Word” (p. 67). Here is the heart of her wise interpretation of the Benedictine rule of “Good Zeal,” in which a disillusioned generation of youth in the 1990s — seeking peace, belonging, accomplishment, but with convenience — can be molded into confident self-sacrificing brethren of a monastic family.

These were the ideals that set the community of Vitorchiano on a path of missionary zeal. As requests came for the planting of
new missions in far-off places, the bonding of community in each class of new sisters was the glue — first at Vitorchiano, then in other parts of Italy, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Indonesia, Philippines, and Angola — that established stability in each new location. Each founding group of five to seven sisters were allowed a year in their old community to begin to learn the language and customs, then to live closely with each other as community within community, before they traveled so far from all that was familiar, never to return. They then transferred their obedience to one of their number, the abbess of the new foundation, adopted their new country, and accepted vocations from the local community once more. That took tremendous courage and grounding in the love of God, but most of all it took more than one person in which to establish such a foundation in Christ.

Like many of us in the monastic life, Mother Cristiana felt she should speak about methods of prayer within her pedagogy, her corpus of formation of new members in her community. It was to be the epilogue, but like St. Benedict she found that the best method to teach prayer is simply to pray the Office, with the members of the community, flowing from the celebration of the Eucharist. It is not hard, but it takes a whole life and a whole lifetime.
This is a good book for anyone concerned with a committed life within the Church, whether in monastic communities or small parish groups in the fellowship of a whole parish. The terminology of pedagogy and patrimony and sonship might discourage the average American reader from persevering to the end of the book because of the technical and non-inclusive language. But the prospect of having the secret of a lifetime’s successful community-building is worth the price of working with unfamiliar expressions and stretching to focus our lens upon a unique frame of reference.

Mother Miriam is superior of the Community of St. Mary, Greenwich, New York.

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