Elements of Cistercian Formation,

a Chapter Talk given by Abbot Brendan Freeman on September 5, 2004,

at New Melleray Abbey at which participants of the

Vocation Discernment Weekend Retreat were present

Since we have so many guests with us this morning here for the Vocation Discernment Retreat, I think it is appropriate to explain some basic terms you will hear while you are with us.

The abbot gives what is known as a chapter talk to the community every Sunday. It is an ancient tradition. The word "chapter" has a few different meaning. We speak of the conventual chapter to refer to the gathering of all the solemnly professed members of the community. In this sense, a chapter is a group of people with an entitlement of belonging. In our case, only the solemnly professed have the right to vote in important community decision, such as the vote to admit someone to solemn vows or to elect an abbot. In New Melleray, we have been meeting every six years for the election of an abbot.

The more common meaning of the word chapter refers to the chapters of the Rule of St. Benedict. In previous times, the community would meet every morning in the chapter room and read a small passage of the Rule of St. Benedict, then the abbot would give a commentary on it; hence, the name "chapter talk." In our day, the abbot gives a talk every Sunday on a spiritual topic. It is a more general talk and not restricted to the Rule.

With the presence of our guests for the Vocation Retreat, it is timely for me to share some pointers on the elements of an authentic Cistercian formation. This is the fruit of our meeting at Assumption Abbey in Ava, Missouri, with the abbot's extended Council. By way of brainstorming, the group at Ava came up with twelve characteristics of authentic formation. The list below does not necessarily refer to the order of importance. Some items are self-evident, but we still noted them.

A novice director. This is evident, but for some of our smaller houses, it is not that easy to provide a capable monk to be novice master. Even in larger monasteries, at times the abbot had to function also as novice director for a few years until someone else can take over.

A group of monks capable of teaching those in formation.

Common work. This does not mean working together all the time, but some kind of work in which the newer members feel they are contributing to the monastery and not just being employed in meaningless work.

A good library. This is a good point which we take for granted. It takes years and years to build up a good library. Dom Eamon Fitzgerald, the abbot of Mt. Melleray in Ireland and our Father Immediate, mentioned to me that it was tempting for him to take his three months sabbatical at New Melleray because of our library. He was impressed with it.

A leader for the community, called an abbot. One of the roles of the abbot is to ensure that the community provides the best possible formation it can give. Good leadership is essential. Communities who have a new superior every three or four years have a hard time giving people in formation a sense of stability.

The next five items concern the community itself. We know that after the Holy Spirit, the community is the most important factor in forming new people into monks. So there are several things a community should have to be a formative community.

The community should be open to receive new members. This is not as easy as it sounds. To be open means to be a welcoming community. It is a place of hospitality. If you are open to new members, it means you are open to changes. Everyone going through the stages of formation and eventually becoming a solemnly professed monk changes the face of the community. St. Benedict reminds us that there are a variety of characters in any community. We do not restrict admittance to only those who think like us. We have liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats in the community. We have unity within diversity.

But there are boundaries, and this brings us to the seventh point — a strong community identity. Every community that opens its doors to new members and welcomes diversity has to have a strong sense of its own identity. We have to have unity of purpose and a common vision of the monastic life.

A healthy community will have good communication between its members. There will be a certain affectivity and warm personal relationships. Problems will be addressed and not just left to fester.

A community with healthy relationships fosters growth, both human and spiritual growth.

As we would expect, such community is capable of generativity, the passing on of life and the fostering of life. If the community is self-centered, there is no generativity. At one time or another, we may go through a self-centered stage. This is reflected in statements like, "I do not get anything out of the liturgy" or "What is in it for me?" Our liturgy is a participation in the prayer of Christ to the Father. The monastic liturgy especially appeals to the Spirit praying within us, not to a lot of externals to catch our attention.

A community that is centered on God instead of self is capable of leading a novice into a life of prayer. We are not here for ourselves. We are called together in the name of Jesus. We are a praying community whose practice and example leads the novice deeper into the prayer of his own heart. The monastery is a school where we learn how to pray and serve one another.

A community supports its abbot. An overly critical attitude in a community is a breeding ground for distrust and is divisive.

Because the monastery is a school of love in the Lord's service, formation of a novice or a prospective member is a significant factor in the Cistercian life. Actually, formation is an ongoing aspect of our monastic life.

More Teachings of Modern Cistercians...

Silence, St. Rafael Arnaz Baron

Sentences on Lectio Divina, Dom Bernardo Olivera, O.C.S.O. (Former Abbot General)

Trust in God, a Homily of Fr. Matthew Kelty

The Chosen, a Chapter Talk given by Sr. Martha Juskewycz at Mississippi Abbey.

Elements of Cistercian Formation, a Chapter Talk given by Abbot Brendan Freeman on September 5, 2004, at New Melleray Abbey at which participants of the Vocation Discernment Weekend Retreat were present.

Wild Geese, "Followship," the End of Time, a Homily of Fr. Matthew Kelty, for the 3rd Sunday of the Year (B) Nov. 17, 1985 (Mk 1:14-20)

The Place of Mary in Cistercian Life, Sr. Agnes Day of Mount Saint Mary's Abbey, Wrentham Massachusetts

Mary as Model of the Monk, Thomas Merton