Words on the Word
Dom Ambrose Southey RIP
This address was given as a chapter talk to the community of Mount Saint Bernard on the day following Dom Ambrose’s death.
I had prepared a further conference on stability for this morning, but I prefer to leave it for next week. In the circumstances, it seems impossible not to say a few words about Dom Ambrose. Not that I feel I ever really got to know him. The discretion for which, in this house, he was famous seemed to surround him with an enclosure quite his own. From within this private, secret space he greeted others with courtesy and unfailing kindness, but also with the unequivocal instruction: ‘Do not enter.’ He had a genius for bringing conversations to an end with enigmatic monosyllables. Once I thought I would manage to pin him down. We had just received the death notice of Mother Hortense Berthet of La Fille Dieu, known in the monastic world as ‘the atomic abbess’ both on account of her irrepressible energy and because she had been a nuclear physicist before she entered the monastery. I knew Dom Ambrose had known her. I thought he must have stories to tell. So I sidled up to him in our coffee break after Mass with what I thought was an invitation he could not resist: ‘I have just seen that Mother Hortense has died. Now, she must have been quite something?’ He failed to bite. He just looked at me quizzically and said, ‘Well, she wasn’t a very good driver. Once she reversed straight into a police car.’ Then he promptly walked off to wash up his mug.
In recent years, this economy with words became more absolute. Even during the past week, when he was manifestly ill, he would not readily volunteer what he felt like. He thought it quite unnecessary to summon doctors and nurses, though we did. When, on the evening before he died, I popped in after Vespers to ask how he was, he simply said: ‘Well, when you get to ninety, you just don’t know what’s going to happen next. But I would like to go to sleep now.’ Of late, he has been surrounded by mystery. We all sensed, I think, that it was a mystery of pain. He embraced the frustration and solitude of it with the fortitude that had always been his, presenting it as an offering in blind faith. It is fitting that we should have found him, yesterday, sunk together in a kneeling position, leaning his arms on his bed and his head on his arms. He looked peaceful – even the paramedics remarked on that. Whatever the valley of darkness was that he had to cross, it was brought to a sudden end. We can have every confidence that he is now shrouded in the gentle light of God’s mercy.
For me who have known Dom Ambrose only in retirement, it was moving to discover, during my years in Rome, how many people looked up to him, cherished his friendship, and spoke of him with gratitude. At Vitorchiano in particular he is held in great affection. The affection was mutual. The years he spent there were happy ones. He gave his best, the mature fruit of a long monastic and priestly life. I cannot help feeling that the nuns know him better than we do; at least, that they have seen a side of him that, here, was revealed only in rare flashes. That opportunity for self-giving was clearly important to Dom Ambrose himself. He kept a photograph of the Vitorchiano community on his desk. It was about Vitorchiano he and I spoke just hours before he died. Mother Cristiana Piccardo, abbess from 1964 to 1988, gives him the following tribute in one of her books:
I shall never forget my first impression of Dom Ambrose Southey, elected Abbot General in 1974. I saw a man who assumed the responsibilities entrusted to him in the first person, positive, decided, and vigorously clear- sighted. One of Dom Ambrose’s qualities that soon became proverbial was his rare ability to put problems on the table resolutely and as a matter of fact, without subterfuge and without holding anything back. Having reached that point, he would make a sincere judgement that affirmed the strength of the positive while straightforwardly unmasking the negative. His paternal care to sustain and support our communities on their path of conversion was unfailing.
Such an attitude is marked on the one hand by fearlessness, on the other by a pragmatism that, on the Continent, was considered very British, an exotic accomplishment for which Dom Ambrose was ethnically predisposed. Its impact on the Order is evoked in Dom Marie-Gérard Dubois’s chapter on Dom Ambrose as Abbot General in the 2008 History of the OCSO.
That the English text of Dom Ambrose’s circular letters has not been brought out as a book is a pity. In fact, it is embarrassing, seeing that Spanish and French translations were published decades ago. At least we can find the letters on-line. They are worth referring to. Many of you heard them read out when they were first written. The rest of us may find in them a tone of voice and a message that take us aback a little by their purposefulness, enthusiasm, and confidence. In his last letter, from 1990, Dom Ambrose remarked that his general impression of the Order was ‘positive’, while stressing that there was room for improvement. The standard he set can be gauged from his first letter, from 1974, in which he outlined a perspective that should challenge and inspire us still: ‘What are our monastic values and how are they being expressed [after] twenty years of adaptation? If all of us look into this matter with sincerity and openness it may well result in a new Golden Age for the Order.’ The heyday of Cîteaux, Dom Ambrose reminds us, is not locked in the past. We have been entrusted with talents we must invest prudently, ‘with sincerity’, here and now. If we do, who knows what graces will come our way? Another significant letter indicates the frame of mind in which we should rise to the challenge:
We would be indulging in empty idealism if we expected our community to be a group of saints. But at least we have a right to expect it to be a group of people who, taken as a whole, are seriously seeking God according to the Cistercian ideal. If they are doing this then already they are offering support because they are providing living examples and they are passing on to us a living tradition. But notice that I say they are ‘offering’ support. In order that we can accept the offer, it has to be given in a climate of patience and tolerance and love, otherwise it will only tend to put us off. Support can take other form also, such as sympathy, encouragement, forgiveness, a sense of humour and above all loving concern and interest.
None of this is out of date. In these words we recognise the deepest aspirations of the brother we have just lost. It is true, perhaps, that Dom Ambrose did not find it easy to receive ‘loving concern and interest’. But I think he knew that we did love him and that he tried, in his own way, to love us, all in a very British, understated kind of way. That, too, is a language in which grace can communicate, a peculiarly English apophaticism! In 1985 Dom Ambrose told the Spanish abbesses assembled at El Escorial: ‘We must walk on in faith, putting all our trust in God.’ Let us do just that. And let us pray with gratitude for Dom Ambrose, whose example and teaching will continue to guide us.