ABECCA 15-20 July 2005 - Santa Lucia

Monastic Life and the
Latin American and Caribbean World:
Mutual Contributions and Challenges

Report of the Monasteries of the Caribbean (Part 1/2)

Dear Brothers and Sisters of ABECCA:

After the invitation made to the communities to reflect on the questionnaire agreed upon during the Assembly in Lima (2003), we, who were assigned to gather and analyze the answers of the Caribbean area, are happy to report that we received answers from the majority of the monasteries.

Those participating were the following:

Benedictine Sisters, Monasterio Santa Escolástica, Humacao, Puerto Rico (Hnas. P.R.),
Benedictine Sisters, Mount of Prayer, Coubaril, Santa Lucia (SL),
Benedictine Monks, Monastère Morne-Saint-Benoît, Haiti (H),
Cistercian Monks, Monasterio Santa María de Epifanía, Jarabacoa, República Dominicana (R.D.) and
Benedictine Monks, Abadía San Antonio Abad, Humacao, Puerto Rico (Hnos. P.R.).

Regretfully, the Benedictines of Trinidad-Tobago and of Mayagüez, P.R., did not participate.

As you will remember, two questions were submitted. The first one dealt with the contributions, challenges, questions and struggles of monastic life in relation to the Latin American-Caribbean world; and the second question in reverse, namely, what contributions, challenges, questions and struggles the Latin American-Caribbean world presents to monastic life. As you can see, this proposal moves in two directions, monastic life toward the world and the world toward monastic life. Upon examining all the answers, we found that the communities interpreted the challenges, questions and struggles in basically the same terms so that, to simplify our presentation, we have arranged the answers related to these classifications under only one heading, namely, challenges.

The other principal category will be that of contributions. In some instances it was difficult for us to classify the answers in this way because it was not clear whether they were intended to be classified under the category of contributions or challenges, and one could easily interpret the answer given under either one or the other, depending on the angle. We have tried to be faithful to the sense implied which we understood predominant in such answers in order to classify them correctly.

We have decided to present the answers received along four lines: challenges of monastic life to society and vice versa; and contributions of society to monastic life and vice versa. We tried not to leave out anything of importance in this report.

Before we begin to report our findings, we want to comment that this type of questionnaire has its strengths and its weaknesses. Strengths in that it allows the communities to project something of their own reality, that which they live and think. Weaknesses as far as nature is always blended in the answers, making it impossible at times to see to what degree what is said is true or whether something significant has been omitted for fear or carelessness. There is also the danger of rationalizing or treating with a certain indifference difficult situations or ones we do not want to face, etc. Nevertheless, it will be a fruitful exercise in the measure that it stirs up reflection both in our meeting now and later.

In respect to the first question, that in which are detailed the contributions and the challenges that monastic life is believed to make on Latin American and Caribbean society, we could observe that the communities agreed on some points -- as was to be expected -- while on others they reflected situations distinct to particular contexts. This question was the one most widely discussed, apparently, along with the question about the challenges that society makes to monastic life. The answers under the category of contributions of society to monastic life were very few. Only one monastery answered with various points. Another sent only one response.

One outstanding point, brought to attention by the community of Haiti, is that monastic life ought also to see itself in relation to the local or national church and not only in relation to society in general. The community of Haiti therefore focused its answer according to this point of view. Nevertheless, the remaining monastic communities ignored this point even when it is obvious that each one belongs to a specific Christian (or ecclesial) community that has its own richness, needs and demands, and that there exists -- or should exist -- a vital interchange between the two.

This point suggests a parallel exercise that could be interesting: modify or change the questions in such a way that they will inquire into what contributions and challenges monastic life in Latin America and the Caribbean makes on the local and/or universal Church and vice versa, what contributions and challenges the local and/or universal Church makes on monastic life in Latin America and the Caribbean. In this way we could also verify the dynamics between monasticism and the Church.

For this report we have decided to present enumerated all the answers received, along with a short commentary to determine their content with precision. We will place an asterisk * alongside the points in which there is agreement or coincidence between two or more monasteries as well as the abbreviations to identify the monastery in order to give evidence of the origin of said contribution. It is also necessary to note that, even when one could talk about "Caribbean society" or "the Caribbean," because there is a common geographical characteristic among our countries, certain contacts the people of the area and similar social situations, nevertheless, the idiomatic, historic, economic, social differences -- all products of colonization and development of the Islands and joined in their isolation -- are responsible for a certain fragmentation among us, a fragmentation that is really centuries old. The people of the Caribbean don't know each other very well and we live, to a certain degree, "with our back to the sea." For that reason we will on occasion talk about "the Caribbean societies" to express our social reality.

At the end of the sections of contributions and challenges, we will present a critical synthesis that may serve as key for dialogue or discussion in the Assembly for we understand that the work of examining and synthesizing of the various elements is a task that should not be limited only to those to whom the work of this presentation was assigned. This synthesis will be brief, avoiding quotations from other sources in order not to extend our presentation too much and also to serve as a general commentary, the contributions of the various monasteries serving as a base.
 

C O N T R I B U T I O N S

Let us first of all look at the contributions that monastic life makes to Caribbean society.

  1. Hospitality and charity toward the needy.*
    "Hospitality, welcoming the other (…) into our society has great value, but it is falling into oblivion" (Hnos. P.R.). This dimension of hospitality is a characteristic of our Benedictine spirituality that is treated in the Rule of St. Benedict and flows from the Gospel message. In a world preoccupied with security, with paranoia, suspicious, fearful , cold-hearted and hostile in the face of anyone unknown, monastic life converts itself into a "warm oasis" (SL) where one welcomes strangers.
  2. Education and Christian values.
    This point is extremely important when we think of those communities that conduct schools, true vehicles for the transmission of Christian values and teachings. Catechetical and evangelizing apostolates in our cities and towns are likewise instruments that transmit these riches.
  3. A sense of family.
    Fraternal community life, camaraderie and sharing of monastic life are great riches in the face of family break-up, divorce and the lack of stability in personal relations that our Caribbean society suffers from.
  4. Peace.
    In contrast with urban centers where there is so much contamination and noise, the monastic enclosure offers an environment of peace and harmony to the visitor. "What peace one breathes in this place!" is a frequent comment of visitors. They "share the Benedictine peace in a world of noises" (Hnas. P.R.). For many people today peace can be a sign of God's presence in the world.
  5. Tolerance, mutual respect, communication, dialogue -- all based on the Gospel message.*
    "Tolerance, mutual respect, respectful dialogue -- all constitute a value that monastic life offers to the Caribbean world where intolerance and violence reign in the urban centers" (Hnos. P.R.)
  6. Living the transcendent.
    Monastic life conveys a notion of something beyond the purely human and dedicates itself to a search for God. This search for the transcendent and the sense of being is a significant contribution to the spiritual life of the Caribbean nations.
  7. The search for happiness, not for pleasure or for possession.
    Monastic life brings the world the witness of freedom, since it does not bow down before the slavery of pleasure and of greed.
  8. Community work.
    In the Caribbean, community work, in collaboration, forms part of the cultural tradition. In Saint Lucia, for example, they tell us that traditional phenomena like the "koudmen/Coup-demain" or community help in the building of a home, the "Lend-hand" or give a hand in a work project, the "Gayap" or joint work on a project, the "Jan-jounen/Jounen pwété" or help for a day on the farm, or the "Béja," a traditional form of banking cooperative -- all these are being lost or have already "died," although society is rediscovering their value and their role in building a cohesive society. "The monastic "way of life and work" help to remind "society of the value of such traditions" (SL).
  9. The search for unity.
    Monastic life values "unity as a facilitator for unity" (RD). It is understood that our way of life is an example of how to be able to seek and find cohesion and coherence among peoples and in the person him or herself, a unifying mentality.
  10. Simplicity.*
    Simplicity and humility are like a shield against the showiness and the pride that separates human beings.
  11. An ordered, organized, regulated life.
    Our life-style is structured, organized, centered in such a way that it represents a contribution "against the cultural break-up of our country" (RD). This point is surely applicable to all Caribbean societies where, on not a few occasions, the lack of order, the lack of planning and organization are seen as obstacles to responding coherently to the everyday problems of life.
  12. A fitting vocation within the local Church.
    "Monastic life in itself is already a contribution for its simple life-style, its austerity -- in contrast to consumerism -- its ascetic quality and silence." Monastic life is "a vocation that does not exist in the local Church" (RD).
  13. The gratuitous and complete surrender to God.
    "God alone matters; therefore it is worth one's while to spend time in prayer. It is still necessary that prayer hold first place in our life" (H).
  14. A model of stable spirituality.
    We are in a place where the search for God does not follow passing models (for example, the Charismatic Renewal or the theology of liberation, despite the fact that they are in themselves good concepts). In a world ( ) that is attentive to man's religious dimensions, we have something to safely offer" (H).

Society's Contributions

As far as the contributions that the communities believe the Caribbean society makes to monastic life, we received only eight answers. Practically all of these except one are from the Cistercian community of the Dominican Republic.

  1. Vocations.
    The basic contribution are the men and women who are monks and nuns, that is, vocations of Latin America and the Caribbean. Only this will allow monasticism to be rooted here and to grow.
  2. The poverty of the people which teaches us to love fasting.
    This is particularly so in places where there is great poverty, a "poverty which questions, something that doesn't happen in Europe."
  3. A sense of Providence or faith in Divine Providence.
    This is something that one "feels in the people." The virtue of putting oneself in God's hands and expecting everything from Him. Here we can also include, in a general sense, the Dominican spirituality which is part of their idiosyncrasy, "above all, in a rural environment."
  4. Adaptation to precarious living.
    The need to adapt oneself to precarious situations, as for example, the instability of electricity service; all of which invites monks to conform themselves to the realities of the place where they live.
  5. Hygiene and personal care of the people, even in the midst of poverty.
    It is a treat for the Cistercian monks seeing the cleanliness of the Dominican people, "how they prepare themselves on Sundays and every day for school."
  6. Patience.
    The patience (of the people), "perhaps out of necessity," is a contribution that helps to develop this virtue in monastic life.
  7. Openness to other mentalities.
    One observes openness, for example, in the Dominican people, in a positive sense, being open to accept other kinds of mentalities. Nevertheless, in a negative sense (this can also be translated), in the loss of their own beliefs. ("As a symbol of this statement are the typical faceless dolls or puppets, a sign of a lack of Dominican identity.")
  8. The favorable reception and solidarity, especially on the level of religious life.
    This last contribution of the Latin American and Caribbean societies as regards monastic life comes from the Benedictine community of Haiti. We understand it to refer to the empathy and the joint binding (solidarity) among religious in the Haitian Church.

A CRITICAL SYNTHESIS OF THE CONTRIBUTIONS

In contrast to the contributions of monastic life to the Caribbean world, the contributions of the Caribbean world to monastic life have a predominantly humble profile as opposed to the high values of monasticism that were presented. They regard a world contributing very simple things, including some they don't have, its wants, while monasticism is presented as an ideal form of life that has many things which the world lacks or should re-discover. Monastic life brings to the world from "hospitality" to "a model of stable spirituality," passing through "a living of the transcendental," or "the search for happiness, not the search for pleasure or possessions," etc. Meanwhile, the world brings to monasticism from "vocations" (one has to mention this!) to "welcoming and the joint binding (solidarity), above all, on the level of religious life," passing then "through the poverty of the people which teaches love of fasting," a "sense of Providence," "cleanliness," "adaptation to precarious situations," "patience" ("perhaps out of obligation"), etc.

Evidently, the monasteries are very clear when it comes to expressing the contributions that monastic life makes to society. The communities amply show the riches that monasticism makes to the world. Yet, the scarcity or lack (in the majority of cases) of contributions of society to monastic life is very strange and invites a deep reflection. This may possibly mean a skimpy awareness (toma de conciencia) as to what the world has given and can give to monasticism and to our communities. Every religious community has to give something to the world and receive something of the world in return in order to be able to live. On this vital exchange history is built, its present and its future. Monasticism neither is nor should be something superimposed on the world, a kind of anachronism or a utopia.

Monasticism surely depends first of all on God to survive, but also on the world. If it disembodies itself from the world, it dies. The life of the religious community grows in the degree that it can face not only its necessities but also the necessities of the world, of the society where it wants to live. Its belonging and actual (existence) for this world will be summed up in this relation. Therefore it seems important for us that everyone is conscious of this vital exchange, as far as what we give to the world but also as far as what we receive from the world.

On the other hand, we should ask ourselves if the world is conscious of the riches that monasticism has to offer. True, we have a great deal to offer to the Caribbean , but does the Caribbean know this? Is it really aware of this? To what degree does Caribbean society, or even the Caribbean Church know the good things that monastic life offers it? To what degree do people of the Caribbean regard monastic life as a genuine contribution to religious life? How does monasticism project itself on the world of the Caribbean? How is it communicating its life and the riches it possesses? What do the people think of us? What does the Church?

If monasticism is an oasis in the midst of the desert, why do we not see more people drinking insistently at our source? It's worth nothing for us to be a jewel in the world if we are unable to show how beautiful this jewel is! This is of the utmost importance, both for the increase of more vocations as well as for the spiritual enrichment of the faithful and of society in general.

Conversely, we should ask ourselves how conscious our communities are of these riches as well as of the needs of our people. Do we really strive to know the world in which we are living or are we sometimes too concerned about maintaining our little monastic world?


(Continue with C H A L L E N G E S.)

 

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