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Bertoniere, The Monks of Spencer

Gabriel Bertoniere, The Monks of Spencer: Through Faith and Fire (New York: Yorkville, 2005)

Published in Cîteaux: Commentarii cistercienses, 60.4 (2009), 294-6

Late on 19 February 1843, fire broke out at Petit Clairvaux near Tracadie, Nova Scotia, consuming much of the small monastery that had been founded from Bellefontaine eighteen years earlier. The superior, Father Vincent de Paul Merle, reported to the bishop of Halifax that efforts to quench the fire had come to nothing. Thus, at midnight ‘Brother Stephen made a sign to me and to the others to go back to bed since there were still two hours before the beginning of Vigils […]. We followed his advice.’ A conflagration that destroyed guesthouse, cellar and kitchen was a remarkable event. Yet in retrospect it seems almost equally remarkable that the monks not only maintained silence in the midst of disaster (orders were given by signs), but went back to bed. They did not fold their arms to watch or throw them up in despair. While flames roared, they retired to gain strength for the Night Office, which began at 2 a.m. as prescribed.
The episode conveys in a nutshell several themes that direct the narrative of Gabriel Bertoniere’s excellent, readable Through Faith & Fire: The Monks of Spencer 1825-1958. It provides a first encounter with the eerily recurring experience of destruction by fire. More fundamentally, it speaks of heroic regularity in the face of the extraordinary. It also implies a lesson about the relative importance of place, of boards and nails, bricks and mortar, in the life of a monastery.
To begin with the last point, Fr Vincent and his brethren catnapped as they did knowing that the essential element in the community’s survival was not so much the buildings they inhabited as their continuing life of shared worship. The nature of Benedictine ‘stabilitas’ as fidelity to a faith-reality embodied in a human group, not to an edifice, is examined from various angles throughout the book. It is the history not of a monastery, but of a community, which, in the period indicated, pitched its tents on four separate sites, first as a makeshift huddle, then, with time, in forms that expressed strength and self-confidence. Yet in its various locations, whether as a small assembly of tired old men or as a hundred-strong unit bursting with youth, the community remained one and the same.
This fact did not always go uncontested. When in 1900 the brethren from Petit Clairvaux abandoned Nova Scotia for the Rhode Island property of Our Lady of the Valley, Abbot Oger of Oka (appointed Father Immediate in 1898) questioned their canonical status. The original community had been founded from Bellefontaine, well and good. Yet in the light of funds and personnel recently contributed by Oka, should not the Valley be considered a foundation of their present mother house—a new entity notwithstanding the presence, as it were, of a few recycled units? Dom Oger’s question was contested by the community, who gained the support of General Chapter in 1901. Although temporarily deprived of its status as an abbey, the transferred community was recognised as continuing the monastery of Tracadie, just as the Valley itself later migrated to Spencer without losing its identity. It is one of the achievements of the book to present this continuity in narrative form, drawing a coherent portrait of a single, living entity.
The record of the 1843 fire at Petit Clairvaux compares strikingly with the account of a similar disaster a century later, when, on 21 March 1950, Our Lady of the Valley burnt down. Then, too, attempts were made to organise the response by signs. But somehow the conviction was gone. An eye-witness relates his thoughts at the time: ‘Well, that’s the end of the Valley, and maybe God isn’t as interested as I am in the Strict Observance.’ Another monk experienced the fire as a ‘pleasant interlude’ bringing ‘something new’: a break from the austere monotony of Trappist discipline, an event not so much of destruction as of promise.
Bertoniere sensitively analyses the rationale and form, developments and aberrations of Trappist observance. The story that emerges is one of paradox. As the bedrock upon which Petit Clairvaux was founded we find, side by side with the charismatic Father Vincent, Fr Francis Xavier Kaiser who throughout his monastic life clung to the Regulations of La Valsainte ‘as to a rock’. He could be stubborn and inflexible. His one desire at the end of life was ‘to be left in peace to follow the Rule’. Such attachment must be seen in context. In 1835, when Francis Xavier was first in charge of the house, he was the community’s only choir monk apart from Fr Vincent, who was in Europe on business. During his years as superior, vocations were scarce indeed. Apart from a handful of stalwart laybrothers, most candidates came and went. One senses that, for Francis Xavier, the idea of observance substituted for the reality of community. When it came to the crunch and actual relationships were concerned, he spontaneously put first things first, taking on even the formidable Dom Hercelin of La Trappe when he felt the latter had slighted Fr Vincent.
In situations of precariousness, devoid of props, monks can tend to absolutise observance. It may be the only way in which it can survive to be passed on. Once a monastery becomes a human reality, however, ideals must, to be fruitful, descend from the realm of the transcendent and become incarnate, with everything that entails in terms of blurred edges. Bertoniere posits that Petit Clairvaux’s foundation of Saint-Esprit (1863-1872) perished chiefly through inflexibility in this regard. The latter part of the book examines the interplay of Rule and Life as it unfolded, not always unequivocally, in the American Trappist expansion after the Great War, placing the evolution specific to Spencer within a wider picture.
Through Faith & Fire is impeccably researched and documented, yet the mass of end notes does not impede the elegant flow of the text. Anecdotal details of human (and animal) interest are judiciously drawn on, adding colour and humour without becoming merely chatty. Parts One and Two provide acute historical analysis. Part Three, covering 1951-1958, has more the character of a chronicle. It includes a nuanced portrait of Dom Edmund Futterer. The decision to conclude the story with the completion of Spencer and the foundation of Azul makes for a somewhat abrupt end. It could have been helpful to account for this choice more fully in the introduction. As it stands, this fine book invites a sequel to recount how the faith and fidelity that carried the community through 130 dramatic years of almost continuous movement and construction fared with the onset, in a purpose-built stable setting, of Ordinary Time.

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