What it means for me to be a Cistercian today?’

By Father Daniel, Abbot of Caldey

What it means for me to be a Cistercian today?’

To be a Cistercian on Caldey Island is from the outsider’s point of view a leap backwards into the medieval period. The location is quite evocative with some ancient sacred places, the one ‘The Old Priory’ (14th Century) and the other the parish church St David that dates from the Viking period. The monastery where I am living dates from early 20th Century and is founded by monks from Belgium in 1929. Cistercian life today is living a life within a community that is centred on prayer, study, manual work and ofcourse the celebration of the Liturgy. To be a Cistercian is to get familiar with the Rule of St Benedict (6th Century) whose words are very much in tune with life today. His Rule covers in fact all areas of Christian/Monastic life. He speaks about the blessings of living within a community, but also about its trials. Community life is a school that helps me to grow in authenticity. It helps me to get in touch with myself, the strong and the weak aspects of my personality. This road I do not travel on my own, but together with brothers. This journey of self-discovery has to be nourished with a frequency of prayer, reading (Scripture, Church Fathers, Monastic writings, but also perhaps psychology and good novels can be a great help) celebrating the Eucharist, and the work within and around the monastery. Because it happens that being in touch with oneself and with these different occupations throughout the day, that I discover a link, a bond that tells me that I belong to that greater family. St Paul calls this ‘the Body of Christ’, St Benedict calls it ‘The Household of God’. This discovery breaks through eventually, through periods of pain and disillusion. Community life can be quite difficult at times, because you meet yourself and the brothers not always in an ideal picture! Personally I am very much convinced that this ‘dark’ experience opens the door to meet ‘the Crucified Christ’ whose presence inevitably brings me in touch with the promise of ‘new life’, with the unshakeable hope in something as ‘future’, a foretaste of a life that has no end. Again, the words of St Paul: ‘God’s strength manifests itself when I am weak’, is the common experience that runs through the Cistercian life of the past and today. To be a Cistercian for me is to open myself for God, which has to be in truth, in my truth, in the reality of today. For me God is the utmost REALITY, the utmost PRESENCE. This presence is where I feel drawn to. This presence is not something spectacular, not something extraordinary, not something like having phenomenal visions. No, it is the day-to-day experience of life. Getting up at 3h00 am, praying Vigils at 3h30, breakfast at 5h00, Eucharist and Lauds at 6h30, working in the Bakery till 11h30, then Prayer, Dinner, a short siesta, working in my office where I do my correspondence, receive and send e-mails and listen to the brothers who want to see me about business or more personal matters. Vespers (prayer) at 17h30, Supper, silent Prayer, Compline at 19h35, and then to bed, because the day starts early. To be a Cistercian is just to get on with life as it presents itself from moment to moment, to try to be ‘here’. That can be quite a job. So often I think about yesterday and plan for tomorrow. In fact, what it comes to is the ‘here and now’, to be receptive and available. That is for me to open my heart for the presence of life, to the brother, to my own self, to be open for the presence of God, whose presence is active in ALL situations. All the practices throughout the day helps me to open the door of my heart.

Prayer, silence, reading, studying, etc. are not ends in themselves, they are ‘tools’ that provide me to become attuned with ‘the real life’, that means for the Cistercian: Jesus Christ.

He is the heart of the Cistercian life of all ages. Christ means to live your life in the ultimate truth, which means to respond fully and freely to my TRUE self: being an image of God. There lies the heart of the Cistercian. This conviction you meet in the writings of our saints such as Bernard and Aelred, but this conviction as well is the heartbeat of the Cistercian life today. Observances do change a bit over the centuries, but our human nature does not do so very much...that is why a St Bernard and St Aelred give us still so much the ‘food for insight and discovery’, so does the reading of Holy Scripture, and the Celebration of the Liturgy. You see, what I try to get at is that the connection of all these sources enables me to ‘read’ life on the broader scale, my own ofcourse, that of my brothers, of the Order, the Church, but also from people far away and nearby, people from all different walks of life (we receive about 600 guests a year, plus we have some tourist-industry that at its peak draws about 1000 visitors a day to the Island in summer). This ability to ‘read’ and so to come to a deeper ‘understanding’ of life as such, draws me to prayer which has mostly the character of thanksgiving. To be part of God’s world, and not just ‘the world’ gives our life hope and meaning. I believe that the Cistercian life helps me to shed light on what was obscure before. For me, it is essentially Christ-centred; Christ is the Logos who enlightens the a-logoi (the life that hasn’t got the full meaning yet, but is essentially meant for it).

I hope that I do not come across as too theoretical, but in all fairness: this what I tried to write down above is very much my experience, and I know that this experience is very frequently in tune with that of the brothers of our house and of the whole Order.

We are represented all over the world, on all continents, and it strikes me over and over again that no matter how much the cultures differ: the language of Cistercian life is clearly to be recognised: God became man, so that humanity (you and I) can become brothers and sisters, and form the household of God, the Body of Christ.

Today we are very much in touch with other houses of the Order. This happens through Regional Meetings, and General Chapters (mostly in Rome) where all Abbesses and Abbots meet. The communities themselves are also more involved in this global sharing…the internet has done great service in this particular area. I hope that this scribbling makes sense, and give you some insight what my/our life is all about.

Fr Daniel, Abbot of Caldey


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