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On Breathing Differently

1 Introduction

Very shortly I shall be going to Rome to start a licentiate in Eastern Church Studies at the Pontifical Oriental Institute. The degree course lasts two years and involves, beside Byzantine and Syriac Patrology, classes in Slav history, contemporary Greek Orthodox theology, and Eastern liturgy and canon law. Great stress is placed on the study of Oriental languages. The second year involves a dissertation based on personal research. When the Abbot first announced this prospect, one of you exclaimed: ‘And what’s the good of that?!’ I propose to use that question as a starting-point for our enquiry this morning. Not that I shall present an apology, which would be both tedious and unnecessary. I should merely like to share with you some of the hopes I carry with me to Italy, to convey why both the Abbot and I think there is great good involved, not only for me, but for all of us. It goes without saying that this venture is intended not only for my personal benefit. I undertake it as member of our community; I invite you to share it with me from the outset in the fullest measure possible. The present paper is as much a testimony as an argument. I shall start by outlining the terms on which we may most fruitfully approach a Christian tradition not our own. Next I shall indicate what you might call the existential stakes involved in such encounters. I shall then examine how these dynamics have been played out in history, especially Cistercian history. This will call on us to address the perennial tension between tradition and innovation. On that basis we can return briefly to the beginning and ask specifically what good we may expect, here and now, from a close engagement with the Oriental Christian tradition. 

2.1 The Terms of Encounter

The Pontifical Oriental Institute was founded by Pope Benedict XV on 17 October 1917 as an academy dedicated to the study of Eastern theology, liturgy, and canon law. Its situation within the city of Rome indicated the Pope’s view that these traditions have a place at the heart of the Roman Catholic establishment. The first president of the Institute was Alfredo Ildefonso Schuster, the learned abbot of Saint-Paul-outside-the-Walls (later archbishop of Milan), recently beatified. In 1922, however, the Society of Jesus was given charge of the Institute by Pius XI, who took a lively interest in it and contributed out of his own pocket to the development of its library. He transferred it to its present location next to the basilica of St Mary Major and associated it to the Gregorian University. Over the following decades, the Oriental Institute prospered. In 1971, a faculty of Eastern Canon Law was established alongside that of Eastern Church Studies, and there are now plans to raise the Institute to the status of an independent university. Alongside postgraduates from Western Europe and America, students are drawn from the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Syro-Malabar community, and various Orthodox Churches—for while the Institute was founded primarily for the benefit of Oriental Churches in communion with Rome, ecumenism has been part of its charism from the start. From among the faculty, many will know the pioneering work of Irénée Hausherr and Thomas Spidlik on monastic theology; others will have read books by the liturgist Robert Taft. Most distinguished among alumni is the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, who did his doctorate at the Institute 1963-68.

So far, so good. I suppose most of us would agree that efforts to bridge the gap between East and West are desirable. It is nice to know that someone attends to them. But how might we, within the framework of our monastic life, become bridge-builders? The charter of the Oriental Institute gives an indication of the procedure envisaged by the Church: dialogue presupposes knowledge; and knowledge must be based not merely on casual sympathies but on solid learning. In the present case, getting to know the ‘other’ is also a matter of getting to know ourselves. The vision of Benedict XV and Pius XI was endorsed by the Second Vatican Council:

The Catholic Church highly esteems the institutions, liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions and way of Christian life of the Eastern Churches. For in them, renowned as they are for their venerable antiquity, shines forth a tradition which exists through the Fathers from the Apostles and which constitutes part of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the whole Church (Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches, 1). 

Their tradition is our tradition. The Council Fathers remind us that ‘variety within the Church not only does no harm to its unity, but rather makes it manifest’ (2). The mystery of the Church, in so far as it continuously manifests the grace of the incarnation, transcends any particularism of culture. All Christians should therefore pray daily that East and West may be ever more perfectly united in charity and mutual respect (30). Even this cursory outline gives an idea of what the Church expects of us. I should like to turn, however, to a more emphatic statement, at times disconcerting in its recommendations. It claims our attention for being recent, for carrying unimpeachable authority, and for being addressed especially to monks and nuns. I refer to John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen, promulgated on 2 May 1995. It repays attention, since from it we can draw a plan of action for our monastic ecumenical endeavour.

The first point to note is that East-West dialogue, according to Orientale Lumen, is not an option for Catholics; it is an obligation. The Eastern Christian tradition is an integral part of our patrimony. It is ‘necessary for the Church’s children of the Latin rite to know this tradition in its fullness in order to feel, with the Pope, a passionate desire that the full manifestation of the Church’s catholicity should be restored to her’ (1). What is at stake is the integrity of Christ’s Church, compromised by division. It is incumbent on us all to repair the fracture. The Oriental Churches are the custodians of the cultural context in which the Gospel was first proclaimed. They embody a unique spiritual attitude, qualified as ‘adoration’ (5). From this, and from the theology that springs from it, Western Christians have much to learn. We are asked to drink deeply from the well of the Eastern Fathers (6). As we assimilate their writings, we shall appreciate the ‘continuity’ of our Christian patrimony (8), mindful that for a thousand years Rome and Constantinople were one. Their unity was sometimes fraught, sometimes bedevilled by misunderstanding. But it remained real, enabling mutual inspiration and assistance (18). Our by now established vocabulary of ‘East’ and ‘West’ should not make us forget that unity is the Church’s primary reality: ‘The Church of Christ is one. If there are divisions, they must be overcome. […] The Church of Christ from East to West cannot be but one, one in unity’ (20). 

Unity, then, defines the Church’s eternal essence. Its temporal reality, meanwhile, is endlessly multifaceted. This is the second point over which we must pause. The ideal of ecclesial life, says Pope John Paul, is authentic, pluriform harmony (2). The Church’s song is of its nature polyphonic. It permits great freedom while presupposing certain laws of development. Improvisation must happen within existing themes, existing tonalities, if it is not to degenerate into mere noise. The Oriental Churches show this process at work. Thanks to an instinct for inculturation, they display a variety of cultural, ritual, and liturgical forms while remaining part of a whole (7). They teach us that ‘only a religious assimilation, based on the obedience of faith, of what the Church calls “Tradition” permits this Tradition to become incarnate in a variety of historical and cultural contexts’ (8). With this in mind, the Pope urges us to draw on the ‘beauty of remembrance’ (8). The more coherently we ‘remember’ the complementarity of East and West, the better we appreciate the enrichment of communion, a loving encounter that fuses two into one (9). The Church’s spiritual capital exceeds what any one cultural idiom can articulate and celebrate. As individuals, as rites, and as Churches, each of us fathoms only part of a truth that is always greater. Enlightened awareness of diversity makes us humble before the mystery of grace that is bestowed through the Church and so more receptive to its impact (cf. 12). It should neither enclose us fearfully in familiar spheres nor dissipate us in a yearning for the exotic (16). It should make us raise our eyes to him who weaves this complex fabric and praise him for his inexpressible bounty.

Having considered the Church in its essence and in its historical manifestation, we turn, in the third place, to its mission. On this point, Pope John Paul is inexorable. To modern, secular man the Church’s division is a scandal. A single cry rises heavenward from Rome, Moscow and Constantinople, from Africa, Asia and the Americas: the bewildered cry of man seeking truth. The Churches have an obligation to answer with a single voice, pointing unequivocally to Christ. For that reason, there can be no turning back from the path towards unity (3). Our apparently faithless age longs to find the way to the Father (4). Will we make him known together or will we perpetuate motives of strife that impugn our credibility? We have, says the Pope, a grave responsibility (19). Words are insufficient. The present moment calls for concrete gestures (23). For too long, Christians have deprived the world of unified testimony to their faith. Who knows what fratricidal bloodshed might have been avoided if communion had not been broken? Christ is calling the men and women of our times to be healed, reconciled and unified. Will we, his representatives, live so as to make his voice heard (28)?

The agenda set before us in Orientale Lumen is as daunting as it is compelling. How can we respond? The Pope’s answer is simple. We can dispose ourselves to become men and women of communion. It is an invitation that especially concerns monks. The monk is ‘essentially a man of communion’ (14). The monastery is the laboratory in which, by grace’s alchemy, the alloy of sin is broken down, freeing us from desires that imprison us in ourselves. If we consent to God’s work in us, even our celibate renunciation is transformed into a grace of paternity (13). By thus generating life, the monastery fulfils its call to be a ‘prophetic place in which creation becomes praise of God, in which the law of charity, lived out in practice, becomes an ideal of human fellowship’ (9). A community of monks has the potential to be ‘a wonderful bridge of fraternity’ (9). Pope John Paul therefore charges monks with a special mission in East-West relations. In the monastery, more than anywhere else, it should be possible for the other to be welcomed with respect as a cherished brother (17). The form such encounters might take is indicated by pregnant metaphors. East and West must learn each other’s language in order to coin the new words for which our times long (28). They must recognise in one another a familiar friend who is at the same time utterly other, listening deeply to each other (cf. 5). Out of such experience, they may expect something entirely new to arise, even at the level of institutions. Restored unity between the Churches, we are told, may take a form unlike anything the world has known (20). As the Body of Christ recovers its integrity, it will learn to breathe differently. Already fifteen years before Orientale Lumen, Pope John Paul had made his point in a celebrated discourse: ‘As Christians, and I would add, as Catholics, we cannot breathe with only one lung. We need two lungs, that of the West and that of the East’ (AAS LXXII (1980), 704). With a double intake of breath, how could the body fail to flourish?

2.2 Words incarnate

We have pursued an ecclesiological vision that defines the Church’s essence as unity and its historical manifestation as pluriformity. We have seen how the two must be conjoined for the purpose of credible mission. This has led us to the necessity of pursuing communion, envisaged variously as learning a new language, as encountering another, and as learning to breathe differently. These are lovely words. But what do they mean? As professional religious we live daily in an ambiance of exalted notions. We speak readily of ‘love’, ‘joy’, ‘peace’, ‘forgiveness’—words which to many of our contemporaries appear simply too enormous. Is there a risk that frequent recourse to such vocabulary can blunt us to its demands? If there isn’t for you, there is for me. That is why I shall attempt what we might call an existential reading of the terms we have identified: of learning a language, of encountering someone at once familiar and other, of re-learning to breathe. By identifying the efforts and risks, joys and rewards these involve on an individual level, we may be better placed to see how they affect us globally, together. In what follows I draw examples from my own life. This is not because I consider it particularly interesting. It is simply the only experience on which I can comment with authority. Each of us has his own stories to draw on, many of them, I am sure, more telling than mine. 

By sheer accident, most of my life has been lived in polyglot environments. Never, however, have I felt the challenge of confronting a new language more keenly than when, at sixteen, I began Russian. For those of us of an Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, or Nordic background, the study of another Western European language can to some extent proceed by way of association. Without formal training in, say, Dutch or Spanish or even Rumanian, we can pick up a paper in one of those languages and figure out the headlines. With Russian, this is not the case. Not only does the Cyrillic alphabet represent a barrier with its square, thick-set characters: the lexical resources bear, for the most part, no resemblance to roots we know. There are, of course, contemporary cross-cultural notions that have been transliterated: ‘фильм’, ‘студент’, ‘инженер’. But when we touch the Slavonic core, we are out at sea. I remember being intrigued by the fundamental word-pair ‘мужчина’/’женщина’, ‘man’/’woman’. No linguistic category known to me distinguished one as grammatically masculine-gender, the other as feminine. It seemed they could equally well have been assigned the other way round. In order to make progress, I had to shed all presuppositions: the languages I knew were, at that point, of no use to me. I must abandon myself in trust to conventions that, to my uninformed judgement, seemed arbitrary. Only gradually did a novel logic appear. Conjugations and declensions that had been memorised as literal non-sense revealed patterns of coherence. Isolated sound-units flowed together in an idiom of great subtlety. It was exhilarating to see how an original heap of tangled wool was, little by little, carded and spun into raw material for the luxuriant tapestries of Pushkin, for Chekhov’s close-knit shades of grey, for the dew-besprinkled gossamer of Akhmatova. The process became to me a parable of order and beauty arising out of chaos, revealing on every side something exquisitely new. Only perseverance through darkness enabled me to discover words, notions and distinctions that had before been inconceivable because I had not the linguistic resources to think them. Only by becoming richer did I realise I had been unknowingly poor.

My proto-experience of encounter happened at more or less the same time. I was attending an international sixth-form school with some 350 students from 75 countries. We were all four to a room, and I had a German, a Bangladeshi and an Iraqi room-mate, of whom the latter two were Muslims. The Iraqi had grown up partly in the Middle East, partly in Europe. To all intents and purposes we seemed to belong to the same cultural sphere. We communicated easily. Yet it was he who taught me most about difference. The political backdrop against which we met was the Gulf War. Given the uniform outlook of the British press, it impressed me to be living with one for whom strategic targets in Saddam’s Iraq were peopled with names and faces. As our conversations deepened, I realised that key issues were less clear-cut than I had imagined. Where the West portrayed a hated despot, my friend saw something more complex. He was not blind to Saddam’s cruelty. Yet he harboured admiration for a man who stood up to the honey-tongued hypocrisy of powers whose ambivalent motives had been made plain through half a century’s policy in the region. The perspective was new to me. The further I pursued it, the more I needed to readjust. This friend, I discovered, who at first, thanks to certain shared references, had seemed so like me, saw many things quite, quite differently: the primacy of honour, for instance, and the necessity of defending it at any cost; or the nature of the relationship between the sexes; or the status of Israel. In some cases, I could not understand him. I saw that his reasoning depended on terms I did not share. And so I was forced to begin thinking in my turn, to defend, and to question, my own assumptions. I shall always remain grateful for those moments of perplexity. Unsettling though they were, I never found them threatening, for they arose within a relationship of trust. They taught me that I must sometimes put all preconceived ideas to one side, getting to know the other as other, beyond the reach of analogies and comparisons. I resolved to build my life on that insight. While I have often failed in practice, I hope I have not slackened in commitment. 

My third and final example, about breath, is more mundane. A singing teacher had told me I was under-breathing. For all I thought I took deep breaths from below, I was only puffing in the upper chest. I resolved, therefore, to teach myself abdominal breathing with the help of a Yoga manual. It instructed me as follows: 

Sit well back like an Egyptian statute. Empty your lungs by drawing in the stomach in a series of contractions. Let the abdomen return to its normal shape, the air entering by the nostrils. Press down the diaphragm towards the abdomen. The sternum should not lift. The lungs should fill from below. Breathe out, compressing the abdomen and raising the diaphragm as high as you can.

Perhaps unwisely, I practised this technique assiduously. I say ‘unwisely’ not because the method is faulty but because respiration is a delicate business. We need guidance when setting out to alter it. After a few weeks, I began to feel uneasy. The manipulation of the diaphragm had altered my breathing pattern: with each inhalation, I felt my stomach muscles at work. But I had not yet learnt to mobilise the lower reaches of the lungs. As a result, my breathing was actually shallower than before, yet much more laborious. I felt panic coming on. I feared I had upset my natural respiration and would be unable to recapture it. The more I worried, the more artificial my breathing became. Then one day something happened. I suddenly took a deep, nourishing breath that produced instant joy. I decided to let my body follow its course. It knew what it was doing. My lungs had discovered their capacity, and from that moment my breathing changed for good. I still do not understand how. My stubborn conviction that I possessed hidden resources, the mobilisation of which would be life-enhancing, had sufficed to enable my body to find its own wisdom whose effect on my well-being has been profound. 

I have lingered over these examples only to return, from a different angle, to our text. If we are to take seriously the programme proposed by Pope John Paul, we are being led into deep waters. His models of communion entail darkness and risk. They require us to abandon ourselves to realities we cannot yet perceive. They also carry a promise of unexpected joy: ‘unexpected’ because, by definition, different. Communion is a transformative event. To follow this path, we must cultivate a readiness to be surprised, troubled, enchanted by the unknown. Only then can bridges be built that sustain passage and are not merely decorative. Of course there is a further, supernatural dimension. Lest we should be too dismissive of those Sons of the Covenant who failed to recognise Jesus, the Evangelists stress that the Lord’s closest companions, too, were unable to identify him after his Pasch. The wanderers to Emmaus, Mary Magdalene, even the Apostolic fishing crew, saw him, yet saw him not. God remains the unknown in our midst, eluding our expectations. You remember the ancient rune:

Oft, oft, oft goes the Christ in a stranger’s guise.

His will is that we should find him through faith, in love, often enough through the sacrament of hospitality. Scales drop from our eyes as we find ourselves at his table, or him at ours, offering us the bread of life and the wine of gladness. Our response to the radically other gives a good indication of our response to him whose eternal promise it is to make all things new. 

3.1 The Challenge of History: Then

Communion, we have seen, presupposes remembrance. Not only must I embrace the other in the fullness of his present truth; I must understand what has made him; and I must know what has made me. The quest for self-knowledge is deeply rooted in the legacy of Cîteaux. We know it as a theme in St Bernard’s treatise on the Steps of Humility and Pride. The imperative formulated by this text, however, had informed the Cistercian project since its inception. According to the Exordium Parvum, a key factor motivating Robert, Alberic, Stephen and the rest while still at Molesmes was a crisis of identity, a sense of being trapped in contradiction. Having pledged to observe the Benedictine Rule in all particulars, they were prisoners of circumstances that rendered such observance impossible. Not only did they desire a stricter way of life; they felt bound to it. The alternative, they thought, was to live as perjurers (III). At the same time, they recognised that other ways were legitimate for other men. The willingness of Robert to resume the abbacy at Molesmes is proof good enough. When Pope Urban II asked him to return, it was by way of request, not of command (his instruction to Hugh of Lyon reads: ‘ut si fieri posset, abbas ille ab heremo ad monasterium reducatur. Quod si implere nequiveris […]’, VI). Robert heeded the pontiff’s wish, but would hardly have done so had he really thought he forfeited his salvation. As for the brethren who followed him, they went along simply because they ‘did not like’ the new monastery (VII). From that moment, healthy discernment marked the spirit of Cîteaux. The founders’ aim was fidelity to an ancient code of practice. Would this oblige them to reject anything not explicitly warranted by it? What is it to be faithful? What is it to be authentic? By pursuing these questions (if only a short way), we shall learn something about the status of tradition at early Cîteaux.

On the face of it, the Cistercian project was conservative in scope, retrospective in motivation. Yet its protagonists made ground-breaking innovations. We may recognise two main trends within this process. The first trend consisted in a systematic appeal to established authorities. Of these, the most obvious was the Rule of St Benedict. The Exordium Parvum provides a succinct account of the manner in which the community approached it. It gives the impression of seamen setting sail on a crisp, clear day, joyfully throwing overboard any ballast threatening to hamper speedy progress. The emphasis is not on grim-faced ‘strict observance’ but on the shedding of encumbrances. Furs, fine frocks and feather beds: let the current take them! Benefices and privileges went the same way (XV). Robert and his companions had passed through the stage of forming a resolve. They knew they did not need staff, purse or two tunics, and so were happy to do without. We may be best placed to appreciate the ‘puritas regulae’ to which they aspired if we understand ‘pure’ not in cultic, but in ecological terms. Our founders did not so much undertake to ‘purify’ what had been ‘profaned’—that point of view came in later. They sought to taste the sweetness of an alpine wellspring whose waters, further down, had lost its savour through the presence in the watercourse of dead wood and picnic remains—things neutral in themselves but corrupting when left to decay. These men breathed the air of the summit. Their requirements were unlike those of the dwellers on the plain. It has been well said that the original project of Cîteaux was not of reform but of innovation. We sense as much in the founders’ fondness for calling their house ‘the New Monastery’. They were not, at this stage, primarily reacting against anything or anyone. Poor followers of the poor Christ, they followed their master towards heights hitherto unseen.

This thirst for the savour of origins likewise characterised the two great research projects which, under Abbot Stephen, the monks of Cîteaux initiated in the interest of ‘puritas’: the revision of the Latin Scriptures and the first Cistercian chant reform. Both undertakings were remarkable. That this small, provincial community should harbour a wish to possess better editions of the Bible and liturgical books seems audacious enough. That they took matters into their own hands is staggering. Without even having finished the monastery, Abbot Stephen invested precious resources in a complicated, time-consuming mission that involved lengthy absences for several brethren as they travelled to Milan, Metz, and elsewhere searching for manuscripts. His decision tells us much about the community’s priorities. They deemed it indispensable to lay their foundations on the auctoritas of tradition. Stephen’s method was thorough and scholarly. He collated the best manuscripts he could find, then compared and contrasted them to establish ‘authorised’ versions for public use. Sometimes findings were perplexing. Reliable sources contained readings at odds with contemporary expectations of coherence. In such cases, Stephen and his collaborators trusted authority rather than their judgement. They did not, however, stand back from fresh thinking. On the contrary, the safeguarding of tradition required innovation. To ensure material self-sufficiency without detriment to regular observance, the first Cistercians adopted and developed the institution of ‘bearded laybrothers’, unthought-of by St Benedict. They thereby helped change the shape of Western monasticism. Another relative novelty embraced by Cîteaux and her daughters was the idea of a General Chapter with structures of responsibility and answerability. We may extend our simile: once our founders had cleared the debris that muddied the water from the spring, they freely re-directed its flow for maximum benefit. Their attitude to tradition was at once responsible and free. They engaged with it in dialogue.

The attitude I have outlined (the ‘ecological’ reading of ‘puritas regulae’) is closely linked to the figure of St Stephen Harding. He was a man of rich experience who had lived as a monk in several houses; he possessed solid, varied learning; he had known what it was to grow lukewarm and to rekindle the flame of commitment. He stands before us as well-rounded and whole: ‘sermone comis, facie jocundus, animo semper in Domino laetus’: ‘courteous in speech, of joyful countenance, his heart ever rejoicing in the Lord’ (William of Malmesbury, Gesta IV, 337). With the second generation of Cistercians, something changes. A new trend makes its presence felt, an understanding of monastic ‘puritas’ that increasingly demands segregation of the pure from the impure, of wheat from chaff, sheep from goats. Its chief proponent was St Bernard, who, unlike Stephen, seems never to have known wavering. He appeared as a kind of saviour from the moment he entered Cîteaux, and spent only some twenty months in the habit without being an abbot. For all his dislike of scholastic methods, Bernard had much in common with the tendency of the Schools. His confidence in principles affected his understanding of monastic and ecclesial life. Of necessity, it also informed his response to tradition. 

We find a salient example of this in the second Cistercian chant reform, instigated in the early 1140s. Although not a trained musician, the abbot of Clairvaux was asked to oversee the work, whose rationale he explained in a letter: the musical scores that resulted from St Stephen’s work appeared corrupt since many melodies diverged from the laws of modality. Their mixed modal character made them into monstrous hybrids, unfit for cultic service. Thus new versions were called for. Significant remarks! Bernard and his committee had an a priori idea of what constituted correct chant. When the manuscripts did not correspond to these ideas, they rejected the auctoritas rather than their principles. They sought a single ‘authentic’ source. When research revealed, rather, considerable variety, they thought the whole corpus corrupt and reconstituted it from scratch. The procedure is evidently problematic. The plainchant then in liturgical use largely antedated the mid-ninth century, when musical scholars began to elaborate the ideas on which Bernard relied and which twentieth-century scholarship has shown to be flawed. Yet on this basis the reformers assembled the Regule de arte musica by which the repertoire was ‘amended’, sometimes disastrously. I am not trying to idealise the first reform. It was executed in a hurry, largely by non-specialists. The sources on which it was based were not the best. My point does not concern the relative outcome of the two reforms but the principles on which they were based. In the first, critical judgement bowed to auctoritas; in the second, auctoritas was subject to critical judgement. 

This priority of principle accounts for much in Bernard’s achievement that is puzzling, not least what Peter Dinzelbacher, whose Germanic scholarship is not given to frivolity, calls his ‘intense urge to interfere’. Here is a man who fervently upheld the need for monks to submit to their local ordinary, yet spent much of his career arranging episcopal appointments to suit himself; who was jealous of abbatial authority, yet spontaneously usurped that of his own father immediate, the abbot of Cîteaux, as in the famous incident of 1124 when Abbot Arnold of Morimond left his abbey for the Holy Land; who, when the monk Drogo left his Benedictine house of profession at Reims for Pontigny, wrote to the affected abbot deploring such behaviour (Ep. 32.1) while at the same time congratulating Drogo on his ‘perfection’ (Ep. 34.1). ‘Nothing’, said Bernard, ‘that concerns God lies beyond the scope of my attention’ (Ep. 20). His trust in his own judgement could make him very flexible in the observance of conventional procedures he otherwise professed to uphold. His understanding of the Church’s needs drove him increasingly to adopt inflexible positions that involved acrimonious controversy. His sense of ‘purity’ led him readily to condemn his opponents, be they monks, ecclesiastics or secular rulers, as ‘impure’. It led him to absolutise the Cistercian ideal as he saw it. What had started out as one path among many seemed to him increasingly the only path.

3.2 The Challenge of History: Now

Our brief examination of these two perspectives on tradition—the enquiring and the polemic, that of Stephen and that of Bernard—does not imply a judgement. The two complement one another, sometimes in creative tension, sometimes in conflict: the relationship between Stephen and Bernard was, after all, highly ambivalent. We see both tendencies recurring at key moments in the Order’s history. Rancé was of the first school, L’Estrange of the second. In the first half of the last century, the two were at loggerheads: the first approach incarnate in the noble figure of Anselme Le Bail; the second in his detractors, who were many. The question imposes itself: What about us? We stand, I believe, at a crossroads, with a choice to make. I shall sketch the contours of that choice by indicating three aspects of Cistercian life in the contemporary Church as I experience it. The qualifier is important. I am not presenting an objective analysis, merely my contribution to a conversation in which we all take part. As such it will take us back to our first theme, on the gift and challenge of communion.  

The first point is this: when I entered the monastery, I was keenly aware of entering a history of rupture. It was communicated to me anecdotally on a daily basis. Most aspects of observance and liturgical practice invited comparison with ‘the old days’, which for some, so I understood, represented a primitive stage in monastic evolution where the law had not yet been tempered by grace; others spoke of it as a lost Eden barred by fiery swords. Whatever the emotional charge of ‘now’ and ‘then’, the gap was palpably there. The decree of unification had altered the canonical structure of the community; the re-definition of silence alongside the abandonment of dormitories and scriptoria had affected the nature of fraternal relations; the liturgy had been invented from zero; evolving positions in theology had reformulated the very nature of Cistercian life. People had come and gone, and not only in the novitiate and juniorate. From 1950 to today, our community has seen 59 solemn professions and two transfers. In the same period, 29 brethren in solemn vows have left monastic life. Even the topography of the house was eloquent. Hardly a single room functions today as it did fifty years ago. For a novice, the sea change seemed bewildering. Amid such upheaval, which are the lines of continuity that really matter? 

The second point concerns the generation gap in our monasteries. It affects us as it affects communities throughout the Western Church. It is not a phenomenon unique to the present. We have known it before, both globally and in our own house. Yet the present gap is especially significant for the extraordinary events that occurred, as it were, in the middle of it. I think of a recent statement by Dom Simon McGurk:

In 1962 came the greatest event in the history of the world since the Council of Jerusalem, the Second Vatican Council. Now, 41 years after the end of the Council, no one who was not around then could understand the sheer power of the Spirit rushing through the churches. It was definitely good for us to be there. The speed with which the Spirit moved the hearts of those great bishops emerging from obscurity, the theologians, the liturgists and ecumenists, was like a cruise missile. It was indeed frightening to some but was new life to most. Now, instead of the Divine Office being prayed by rote, it came alive; the Mass became ‘ours’.

My response to this rhetoric is mixed. The dismissal of nineteen centuries of Christian experience is evidently absurd. It is untrue to imply that no progress was made in theology, liturgy and ecumenism before 1962. Yet what to me is most objectionable is the ‘hermetic’ reading of the Council itself. The spiritual impact of Vatican II is reified, made into a fundamentally unsharable possession. McGurk’s final sentence is revealing. ‘The Mass became ours’, he says, as if the mere fact of ‘being around’ in the 60s conferred proprietorship. The flimsiest awareness of Church history exposes all this as nonsense. And yet, on a superficial level, is there some truth in what is said? For those of us untimely born, the Council is experientially inaccessible as a watershed. We have no choice but to see it as one manifestation of the Spirit among many. It is interesting that this ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ is now championed by the highest authority.

My third point arises out of the other two and concerns post-conciliar inculturation. We considered the term in our perusal of Orientale Lumen. It has recently been much in vogue and is, rightly understood, an unqualified good. But has not the post-conciliar experience of the Western Church revealed a potential pitfall on the way? McGurk’s ‘cruise missile’ left an open hole waiting to be filled. The sheer magnitude of possibility, novelty and freedom must have been intoxicating. It has resulted, however, in established forms of Catholic life, prayer, song, and ritual that, more than in any previous age, are peculiarly locked in time, and an unusual time at that. The late 60s and early 70s brought transformation to Europe and America, a movement inspiring fast reaction and counter-reaction. Literary, aesthetic, spiritual and social ideals were ‘in’ one day, ‘out’ the next. How could this climate not affect the Church, which had opened all doors and windows to let air in? Many texts, tunes, fireworks-patterned carpets and community manifestos that must have seemed fresh and ‘relevant’ in the aftermath of 1965 today appear touchingly antiquated, monuments to the ephemeral. This fact reveals the fragility of in-sub-culturation. It teaches us that Christian engagement with culture must touch the still waters of the depths, not the froth washed up on beaches.

The situation I have described was recently presented to us visually when a visitor to Gethsemane showed us a series of slides from that great monastery. As the Order’s flagship in the US, Gethsemane, Merton’s ‘heart of America’, must be the most photographed abbey in the world. Books, cards and leaflets produced there in the 40s and 50s present beautiful icons of monasticism: careful compositions of mock-medieval interiors filled with cowled giants performing dramatic gestures. It is not difficult to see what exercised a romantic attraction on Merton and many others. There is not much romance in the appearance of Gethsemane today. Stark, square formations of steel, brick and concrete-embedded gravel have replaced the hommage to idealised monastic timelessness. Instead of ethereal hooded shades we see efficient-looking blokes in overalls making fruitcakes. Even the pigeon by the pond is of cast metal. This projection, too, is eloquent. It speaks of monks as ordinary, business-minded people who have a job to do and get on with it. But is Gethsemane II more ‘Cistercian’ than Gethsemane I? I think not. Both represent interpretations of our heritage based on the tastes, moods and expectations of their times. Gethsemane II owes, I submit, no more to the spirit of primitive Cîteaux than to the sensibility and functional ethos that produced Milton Keynes, the Barbican, and the Coalville Arcade. It presents, in the sense defined above, a polemic reading of Cistercian life. Further, it only really works as a statement when compared with the old. It is the memory of the former, Gothic interior that makes its replacement seem ‘purified’ or ‘reformed’. To one who enters it fresh, it appears simply as a rather forbidding empty space. 

The same could be said, mutatis mutandis, about much post-conciliar ‘deconstruction’. Every week the Catholic press writes (The Herald with glee, The Tablet with alarm) about current efforts to recapture ‘tradition’, especially on the part of Catholics born after 1965. What does this tell us? It tells us, I think, that some issues that were contentious forty years ago are not issues any more. They should be laid to rest. It tells us that each generation has the need to appropriate tradition on its own terms, based on its own needs. It tells us that the post-conciliar experience of radical change is being refined by an appeal to continuity. It tells us that many of the faithful want the Church not only to dialogue with society but to offer it direction, drawing on centuries of experience to give purpose, colour and beauty to our times. It tells us, above all, that the Church’s tradition is a living thing, exceeding the grasp of any group, any generation. The moment I think I possess tradition, that it depends on me, it dies. What joy that nine hundred years of Cistercian experience equip us to live the present challenge full of hope! From corporate experience, we know of the life-giving ebb and flow of innovation and tradition. After a period of Bernardine redefinition based on first principles, the example of Stephen’s intelligent assimilation of history may be prophetic to our times. By persevering in his school, our community may hope to tap into the radicalism, joy and energy of ‘the New Monastery’, singing a new song to Christ, the bright dawn of a new creation.

4. Conclusion

I said initially that my paper would be as much a testimony as an argument. That being the case, it cannot hope to finish with a tidy ‘conclusion’. Yet I do have a conviction to share: that the laws of communion equally apply to tradition. It is by embracing tradition thus that we are made capable of communion. Here, too, we must learn a new language, embrace the grace of a living encounter, acquire new ways of breathing. Any exercise that hones our skills in these areas is good. It is the principal benefit we may hope to gain from committed engagement with the Christian East. Further, I am convinced that the Oriental monastic tradition has much to teach us. Thirty years ago, it was widely predicted that Orthodox monasticism was dying. Today, there is vibrant renewal on Mount Athos, in Russia, and in the Coptic desert. Familiarity with this renewal and its sources will inspire us to conversion and new fervour. After all, the habit of looking for a ‘light from the East’ is deeply rooted in the Cistercian patrimony. In their zeal for the Rule, our founders attended not least to St Benedict’s last chapter, his list of ‘further reading’. They heeded it, and were pioneers in drawing Origen, Evagrius, Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Denys and Maximus the Confessor into the mainstream. The seventeenth-century revival in France also looked eastward. We know of Rancé’s love for Dorotheus of Gaza, John Climacus and Mary of Egypt. In the twentieth century, many of our Order’s most articulate representatives owe much to the Eastern Fathers—Thomas Merton, André Louf, and John Eudes Bamberger being but the most obvious. There is every reason to believe that we, too, shall find sustaining nourishment by becoming students of that rich tradition.

This paper originated as a conference given to my brethren at Mount Saint Bernard. It was published in French translation in the Collectanea Cisterciensia 73 (2011:3) under the title ‘Respirer autrement’.