The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance — commonly known as the Trappists — are concluding their triennial General Chapter meeting today in Assisi. This gathering of over 200 abbots and abbesses from monasteries all over the world continues a tradition begun in the twelfth century, when the leaders of the Cistercian Order gathered regularly for prayer, counsel, and deliberation on matters of concern for the good of their community (both in a local and global sense).
As part of their time together, the Trappist leaders met with Pope Francis in the Vatican this past Saturday. The Holy See’s press office has released a transcript of the Pope’s remarks to the abbots and abbesses. As one might expect, it’s a statement filled with insight, wisdom and love.
“I go with my heart and mind to your silent cloisters…”
“I go with my heart and mind to your silent cloisters, from which the prayer for the Church and the world continues ceaselessly,” said the Pope. “To be contemplative requires a faithful and persevering journey, to become men and women of prayer, ever more pervaded by love for the Lord and transformed into his friends.”
He added, “Your monasteries continue to be privileged places where you can find true peace and genuine happiness that only God, our safe refuge, can give.” The Pope went on to praise the monks’ “sobriety of life,” noting that “this element of spiritual and existential simplicity preserves all its worth as testimony in today’s cultural context, which too often leads to the desire for ephemeral goods and illusory artificial paradises.”
“God manifest Himself in your personal solitude, as well as in the solidarity that joins the members of the community. You are alone and separated from the world to advance on the path of divine intimacy; at the same time, you are called to make known and to share this spiritual experience with other brothers and sisters in a constant balance between personal contemplation, union with the liturgy of the Church, and welcome to those who seek moments of silence so as to be introduced into the experience of living with God.”
A Jesuit who love Trappists
Given Pope Francis’s identity as a Jesuit, as well as his commitment to the active life — an expression of faith grounded in the works of mercy and love for those who are poor or in need — one might suspect that he would have little interest in the deeply introverted, withdrawn and secluded nature of the cloistered contemplative life. But his brief comments on Saturday reveal both a keen understanding of the theology of the contemplative life as well as an appreciation of the unique gifts that cloistered spirituality offers to the Church at large.
Anyone who thinks that the life of a monk is “escapist” probably has never spent much time in a monastery! Monks withdraw not to run away, but to offer themselves more fully to God, which then leads to the beautiful paradox of a cloistered (enclosed) life which is simultaneously a life of prayer for others and hospitality to all. As Pope Francis’s comments so clearly affirm, the silence, simplicity, prayer, happiness, and solitude-in-community that characterizes Trappist life is a sign, a witness even to those of us who do not live in a cloister, of what the essential elements of a truly contemplative life consist of.
So what’s the takeaway here, for us non-monastics? You don’t have to be a monk to learn from the monks, and I think we can all begin simply by paying attention to those very qualities that Pope Francis himself affirmed. Are we taking time every day to be silent? Are we striving to live more simply? Do we pray, and are we ensuring both times of communal interaction and personal solitude in our lives? Hopefully, if we are doing all of the above we are also tasting a bit of the felicity that comes to us from the Holy Spirit — but that is not a happiness for its own sake, but rather the joy that is a fruit of the Spirit, a joy that impels us to love and serve others, arising out of the beauty of our contemplative grounding.
Thank you, Pope Francis, for such words of affirmation offered to the Trappists. Maybe all of us can take some time to cultivate the “Trappist within.”
To learn more about Trappist spirituality, here’s a book I recommend: In the School of Contemplation by André Louf, OCSO. For more insight into the spirituality of Pope Francis, check out Embracing the Way of Jesus: Reflections from Pope Francis on Living Our Faith.
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