The Mentors Being Mentored
Mentoring Among Monastics Today
Vincent Bataille, O.S.B.
I do not speak to you today to enumerate a litany of successes I have experienced as a mentor. Nor can I describe for you techniques that might be of help to you in guiding others to grow in their relationship with God. I prefer to speak to you rather as one who has seen the hand of God in his life on many occasions. And through this action of God in my life as one who has been shaped as a monk, as an abbot, but more importantly as a Christian by God's persistent care of me.
There are failures in this story as well as successes. Not all has been smooth sailing. In my experience, monastic life has a unique way of challenging us just exactly where we need to confront issues. The failures in my story may be even more important than the successes.
And so, without exception, the events of our lives mentor us all, that is, teach us. Needless to say I have been taught like all of you. It is from this position, namely, as one who has been helped, that I even dare to share my experiences with you that you in turn might be drawn to a greater appreciation of how the good Lord works in all of our lives. So somewhat like Isaiah I find myself saying: Lord I do not have the words. Teach me what to say.
In the 44 years that I have been a monk I have been blessed with many different opportunities to be formed by God and to hear his word. For 17 years I was a dorm prefect in charge of 40-48 junior and seniors in a residential program on the high school level. I was fortunate enough to live for a very short time in Guatemala at Marmion's dependent priory there. During that time I was the prior. And for the past 10+ years I have been the abbot of Marmion Abbey.
Running through all of these experiences has been the constant thread of being a teacher for over 35 years: a teacher of everything from Theology to French to Algebra. Each of these responsibilities, as well as many other opportunities, has daily taught me about God's constant prodding. I have learned about myself, about my brothers in the abbey and somewhat about human nature. So it appears to me that I am being taught more than mentoring. Yet those latter opportunities daily present themselves as well.
To be a mentor means that one listens. But to become a better mentor one must listen to the voice of God coming to him in his own heart, his own life, coming to him from so many directions. Cyprian said: "The one who learns what is better day by day is the one who will teach in the best way."1 And so it is important that we have a clear sight of where we have been and what it has taught us.
It seems to me that like the Holy Rule mentoring begins with listening. Listen, my children, to the master's instructions . . . (Prol1). How often have we heard these words during our lives as monastics? We might be inclined to say that we have heard it so often that it has become trite. Yet, I find myself daily coming back to these words in so many ways. And I guess that is the eternal truth of these words with which Benedict begins his Rule for us. The monastic life, the Christian life itself and indeed growth in human wisdom, all begins with listening.
As we peruse the chapters of Benedict's Rule, there are many times when we can see Benedict writing from his own experiences for the benefit of those who would come after him. He speaks of those who waste their time in idle chatter instead of coming into common prayer even when they are late (RB 43.1-9). He tells us about the importance of short prayer when we pray together (RB 20.4-5). And there are so many other lessons he has to hand on to us.
But in many ways the most important lessons Benedict teaches us are those about human traits, which we encounter day in and day out in our own monastic lives. And, of course, he starts the Rule with what he must have thought was the most important attitude for anyone who truly seeks God and which I have already pointed to, namely: Listening.
To listen attentively is at the core of who we are as monastics and even as Christians. By listening we begin to understand our relationship with God and with others. To listen in the manner Benedict wants of his monks is to listen sensitively, to be responsive to God's word in our life correcting and supporting us and, yes, even challenging us.
This word of God comes to us in many different ways and from many different sources. And we must be careful to be open to hearing his word even from unlikely sources. His voice can be heard in our lives daily if we approach life with that attitude of ever being attentive to what is unfolding around us. Thus we should always be listeners.
In the past I have thought of a mentor as one who is educated in the area of counseling and guidance, one who knows the intricacies of prayer and the solutions to personal and spiritual problems, and certainly one who would know something about the psyche of human nature. In all of these areas I am but a beginner, a learner, certainly far from proficient. But I guess that through the positions that I have held over the years there has been some mentoring going on, certainly a lot of listening, yet without the formal education. So there is a foundation of faith experiences from which I can speak.
Above all others, God is my primary mentor. I trust that he will make his wishes known and that more often than not I will be able to see his hand in the guiding events of my life. In the important decisions of community life as well as in those of our personal lives God's guiding hand can be felt if we but patiently let him work in us.
That voice of God in our lives is never silent. He is always there teaching and encouraging and, yes, even correcting us. The discerning Christian knows this and seeks to bring the messages from life's daily lessons into the clear light of reality, learning from where one has been and how one is to proceed in the here and now.
"Christian life is a matter of direct experience. It is not enough for the spiritual teacher merely to repeat with accuracy things said by others, each must relive for himself what he has inherited from the past."2 This is true wisdom from the ages reflected through the words of Kallistos Ware in his introduction to a translation of the classic The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus.
I am quite aware that mentoring is the work of the abbot or superior in any religious community. My own monastic family has made this quite clear to me. Periodically during our canonical visitations they have insisted that they want the abbot to teach them. They want the abbot to explain to them his understanding of the Holy Rule as well as his vision for the community and how their ministry fits into it all. So I cannot escape the position of teacher and mentor to the community.
Throughout the years as abbot I have tried various methods in order to satisfy the expectations of my community. It has taken me some time to find a method with which I am personally comfortable. At the beginning of my time as abbot I tried longer formal conferences. But I was not comfortable with this. So after many trials and errors I found that providing the second reading at Vigils every two weeks was manageable and an effective means to teach the community without being a burden on anyone. This is certainly a formal means of mentoring.
But then if we live in community, all of us are mentors in the informal sense. As long as there are opportunities where others can observe us or hear us we are having an effect on others for better or worse and so we are encouraging them or scandalizing them. In either case we mentor to them, we show them a way of living out the Christian/monastic vocation.
A brother questioned Abba Matoes saying, "What am I to do? My tongue makes me suffer, and every time I go among men, I cannot control it, but I condemn them in all the good they are doing and reproach them with it. What am I to do?"
The old man replied, "If you cannot contain yourself, flee into solitude. For this is a sickness. He who dwells with brethren must not be square, but round, so as to turn himself towards all." He went on, "It is not through virtue that I live in solitude, but through weakness; those who live in the midst of men are the strong ones."3
I remember my novice master explaining to us at the tender age of nineteen that community life was similar to putting pebbles in a bag and shaking it up over a long period of time. Eventually the pebbles become smooth and polished. I guess this is what the venerable Abba Matoes had in mind by saying we had to be round not square. Community, when entered into with generosity and openness, can smooth us out and make us good community people, ready to listen and able to adapt.
As I look over my experiences throughout the years I see many occasions when God has done just that: namely, rounded me out, taught me; dare I say it, God has mentored me. And perhaps that is the most important process that goes on in mentoring; being taught as one teaches. An open heart and an ear alert to what is going on around one is perhaps the most important attitude that we as monastics and some of us as superiors must bring to our lives as Benedictines.
To make the transition from a high school disciplinarian to a monastic leader requires a great shift in emphasis. Though I must admit that sometimes I find myself feeling that I take more from my brother monks than I would have ever tolerated from the high school students I have taught and lived with. Do we ever completely grow up? And so the smoothing process continues whether we are monk or superior.
Of course, all of us have been through the Holy Rule many times. We have also taken many opportunities to meditate on its wisdom. But I must admit that I never looked so closely at it as I have since becoming abbot of my community. And as I study it there are several ideas that have remained close to me and have motivated me during this time of being abbot. The first saying I have already quoted: "Listen, to me my children." But the second saying that holds almost as much value for me and perhaps provides the most challenge comes from chapter 72 on the "Good Zeal of Monks." Towards the middle of that chapter we read: ". . . supporting with the greatest patience one another's weaknesses whether of body or behavior . . ." (RB 72.5). Almost daily these lines come to mind and often humble me when I am faced with those in the community whom I feel I have not been able to reach, that is, to successfully mentor. It is at these times when those words from the Rule of bearing with one another's weaknesses of body or character come to mind.
It does not take too long to realize that as a mentor one must be ready to face failure. Not everyone in our communities is seeking spiritual support from their superior. With this in mind, those disciplinary chapters in the Holy Rule give us a new insight into Benedict's community.
We know the story of the wayward monks of Vicovaro. Benedict's experience with the incorrigible in his own community must surely have been the impetus for the chapters on excommunications as well as the disciplinary chapters referring to children. We can so easily presume that life at Monte Cassino with Benedict as abbot must have been idyllic. Yet, if this were so, there would have been no need for those harsh chapters about excommunications, beatings and prostrations begging for forgiveness.
Let me recount to you a relationship which daily teaches me about failure as a mentor. It is also a clear reminder each day of how often I must call myself to account for failing to bear with the weaknesses whether of body or character.
There is a monk in our community who has spent years being very sad. Before I was abbot I used to think that all that had to be done for this monk was to give him projects to do in the areas where he was talented. I used to criticize superiors for not being as perceptive as I was. So finally I got the opportunity one day to do just that, to offer to this sad monk the opportunity to use his talents. He did not improve nor did he become happier. And day-by-day our relationship suffered. To a great extent it suffered because I see him as a failure on my part to be able to find the right challenge. But then it also taught me that some people are content being unhappy, as contradictory as that might be.
And so I think that an important characteristic of a mentor is to be able to accept the reality that he will not be able to reach everyone. Some will continue to come for spiritual conversation and leave unfulfilled. Others will seek help elsewhere. To be a mentor one must be willing to be humbled. And nothing humbles one more than rejection and failure.
Archbishop Oscar Romero said something similar. His Sunday homilies were transmitted throughout the country. He saw his homilies as opportunities to address the problems that his country was experiencing at the time. On this subject, in his homily of July 16, 1978, he said, "The preacher not only teaches, but learns. You teach me. Your attention is also for me the Holy Spirit's inspiration. Your rejection would be for me God's rejection also." 4
A mentor cannot help but to be taught. But a mentor might also be rejected.
Whether we are mentors or students of life, it is all easier if we have a fire within us that drives us on. I tell the novices that I see it as my goal to help them develop a fire in their bellies, a fire that is so strong that they love their community with all of their being. If that happens, then obedience and stability are not hard.
Once there was a holy monk who lived in the wilds of Egypt. One day a young man came to visit him. The young man asked, "Oh, holy man, I want to know how to find God." The monk, who was muscular and burly said, "Do you really want to find God?" The young man answered, "Oh, but I do."
So the monk took the young man down to the river. Suddenly, the monk grabbed the young man by the neck and held his head under water. At first the young man thought the monk was giving him a special baptism. But when after two minutes the monk didn't let go, the young man began struggling. Still the monk wouldn't release him. Second by second, the young man fought harder and harder. After five and half minutes, the monk pulled the young man out of the water and said, "When you desire God as much as you desired air, you will find God."5
This story certainly points out the value of that burning desire. We might want to hold someone's head under water too. But the value of conviction as a motivating force can be seen very clearly. And that dedication can make the office of mentor as well as of learner all the more worthwhile.
For all of these experiences and all of the lessons I have learned I am most grateful. Each in its own way has made my world and my life that much more graced. The English poet and Anglican clergyman John Donne expresses his own gratitude for such life experiences in this way: "I thank him who prays for me when my bell tolls, but I thank him much more that catechizes me or preaches to me or instructs me how to live."6 What I have been giving to you these past few minutes are reflections on those who have taught me, catechized me or instructed me to live. To all of them and to you here this evening I am grateful for having mentored me. But I would like to recount to you one final experience that has touched me recently.
In the past five years I have become involved with the senior retreats at our academy. The retreat program we provide for them is called Kairos. This is a retreat which has been handed on from school to school for the past thirty years. I originally went to one of these retreats to see first hand what one of the elements of our faith life at our academy was. I was struck forcibly by the faith and honesty of our seniors. And I became interested to the point where I wanted to be a part of this program. It is as much a support for my own faith life as it is for our students.
Each retreat lasts for four days. And each retreat team is made up of an even number of representatives from the faculty as well as from the student body. I have never failed to be inspired by the faith with which our students face the challenges of life. Their evident sincerity in professing their faith life when given the opportunity and the time to express it is also an inspiration to me. And so it is clear to me that my own life as a Christian as well as a monk is deeply influenced, mentored, by our students.
I would like to wind this whole thing up with something I heard from one of the students during his talk at a recent Kairos retreat. I cannot say it any better than what I heard from him. The student looking over his life and wanting to leave something with his classmates at this Kairos retreat said, "In the final analysis what it is all about is the lives that you have touched."
That I guess is what this mentor being mentored is all about. We are asked to help and in the helping we learn about ourselves and about human nature. Hopefully we do indeed touch lives in as significant a way as we have been touched by them.