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 2/2)

(Part 1)


Let us now look at the challenges that our communities understand that monastic life presents to the Caribbean world.

  1. A good, prudent and careful administration of the economic goods and resources that are available.
    In the Caribbean world, where corruption, wastefulness and bad administration give rise to any number of scandals, the management of all goods "as if they were sacred vessels of the altar," with honesty and prudence, is a prophetic challenge for our societies.
  2. Community life.
    "Perhaps the greatest challenge which monastic life poses to the contemporary world is the value of community. Many have come to recognize the wisdom of community (life), but in the case of monasticism, the gift resides in the manner in which community is lived. There, community is lived in a spirit of poverty, stability and service" (SL).
  3. The sense of order and rhythm of monastic life.
    "The rhythm and the monastic program, with its sense of order, presents a challenge to the world in which we live since it is quite often disorganized and scattered" (Hnos. P.R.)
  4. Simplicity.
    "The simplicity of the monks; there is no looking for standing out over others or having prestige but rather covering up titles" (Hnos. P.R.). Quite the contrary is the normal rule in our society.
  5. A detachment from material goods.
    "In a world where personal success is defined by one's material possessions, monks and nuns live with what they need. This is truly prophetic" (SL).
  6. A deliberate, meditative liturgy.
    "The liturgy, lived with a deliberate, planned rhythm, meditating the psalms and Scripture, is without a doubt a great challenge and need that our present world has" (Hnos. P.R.). Especially in urban areas, living in haste has become something common. It is worthwhile to observe here that this challenge, more than being directed to the world in general, is aimed at the Church itself, where many times the liturgy is celebrated at top speed in order to save time or only to celebrate for celebrating to fulfill an obligation, without living it in depth.
  7. Faithfulness to commitments made and a surrender of one's whole person.
    "Today there is an atmosphere of insecurity in personal relations and a fear of permanent commitments. The sharp rise in the number of divorces, broken relationships and even religious men and women choosing to live alone, illustrates this point. Living in community under the vow of stability, as monks and nuns do, is definitely prophetic" (SL).
  8. Living according to a set model of prayer.*
    "Monastic life is not only an example of persistent prayer but also a model of communal prayer. There is a yearning today for solidarity in prayer. This is evident from the rapid growth of prayer groups of all types. Yet one constant about such groups is the absence of stability (…). People navigate from one group to another. Monastic prayer shows the world the value of both community prayer and stability in prayer" (SL).
  9. Altruism.
    Altruism is a challenge to the world, because the person who gives freely is not on the lookout for his or her own good, nor awaits any reward, as happens often nowadays in our society where personal interests are more important than community advantages and one serves in order to later have the right to be served.
  10. Peace and respect for nature as found within the monastic enclosure*
    The peace lived within the monastery extends itself to the outside, the relation that the community establishes with its immediate environment. Silence, care in cleanliness and neatness, the absence of contamination-all indicate that monastic life "can be a model of ecological responsibility for our society" (SL).
  11. The dignity of work consecrated to God that enriches human life.
    The community of Saint Lucia says that in the Caribbean work has been a negative experience for the vast majority of its people of African and Indian descent. For those of African descent it was the inheritance of slavery and for those of Indian descent, that of servitude. The monastery as a community given to intense work, presents a challenge to the impoverished ethic of work here in the Caribbean and reaffirms the dignity of human work. "The monastic tradition of 'ora et labora' raises work to an even greater dignity, as human activity consecrated to God" (SL).
  12. Community work and a sense apart from success.
    "In the contemporary world success is measured by personal achievements, professional status, upward career-mobility, and the number of accolades received. Any community, as in the case of a monastery, where success is measured by the quality of selfless service rather than by the level of personal aggrandizement, is a prophetic challenge" (SL).

Society's Challenges

Mentioned as challenges that the Caribbean society makes toward monastic life are the following:

  1. That it develops itself as an agent of evangelization and education in the area of the liturgy and of prayer for the benefit of the laity.
    Obviously, this is not a challenge that society in general casts to monastic life; it is rather a challenge that the Church, as the People of God, hurls to the monastic communities. The laity await a contribution much greater on the part of monasticism to the Church, especially in those areas where one notes a greater need.
  2. That they are consistent with what they are or live, faithful to their charism.* That they re-discover the value of their inheritance.
    Society expects us to live a community life, but "individualism infiltrates itself into our communities, obedience is lived in another way and the material world encircles us" (Hnas. P.R.)
  3. That the community adapt itself to its cultural environment.
    Mentioned here are the situations of political, economic and social (emigration and immigration) instability in the Caribbean as a challenge to a sense of stability that monastic life seeks to live and transmit.
  4. Being austere.
    Caribbean society expects that monastic communities be conscious of the fact that "the people survive on very little and that not so many things are necessary to live" (RD). This applies especially to those communities founded by monasteries of developed countries. It is necessary to reflect whether the vow of poverty is being lived collectively and not only individually. Someone was once overheard commenting to one of the monks: "You are poor individually but collectively you are rich."
  5. Being up to date in terms of technology.
    For communities that conduct schools, being up to date as far as technology advances are concerned is a challenge because only this way are they able to be competitive. On the other hand, being private institutions they do not count on government assistance and are obliged to arrange everything themselves on their own. It is equally challenging to "realize that all the personnel of a colegio be truly competent in Christian education and other scholastic demands" (Hnas. P.R.).
    In a critical sense regarding society:
  6. The importance given to appearances, to style.
    Commercialism nowadays imposes tastes and modes of living that contrast with the monastic style of being and living. What is promoted is a superficial and vapid manner of being. Monasticism here is really challenged not to suffer contagion. Moreover, it ought to make the world see things that have real value and communicate through their being the importance of seeking God, a profound sense of life beyond all that is ephemeral.
  7. Separation of work that is considered as belonging to sex or to a social class.
    This social behavior is a problem, for example in Haitian society where, according to our Haitian confreres, certain work is reserved or limited to women (kitchen), to poor people (manual labor), to country people (tilling the soil), etc. This presents an obstacle as far as social mobility in general and in particular as a challenge for a sense of work reasonably monastic, that makes no distinction-nor should-of class when a task is assigned.
  8. The popular religious mentality.
    This mentality presents a challenge to monasticism when it likens the monk to the priest, who, according to popular thought "should live from the altar and not from manual labor that is unworthy of his priestly dignity" (H).
  9. Prejudices against monks.
    According to our confreres of Haiti, monks have a difficulty in being accepted from "a Catholic Haitian mentality," above all by priests since they think that monks do nothing for the evangelization and the development of the country.
  10. Excessive esteem of the priesthood within the Church.
    Our confreres of Haiti also say that in Haiti (and we dare to say in all of the Caribbean) there is the notion that monastic life is for such as are not able to be priests. There exists among the faithful (as well as certain indifference among the diocesan hierarchy) a lack of knowledge (ignorance) of the value of non-clerical religious life as well as a lack of promotion of this kind of life within the Church. The Church presents an overwhelming challenge to masculine monasticism to convince the faithful as well as the hierarchy concerning the proper value of non-clerical monastic life.
  11. Violence.
    The rampant violence in the Caribbean against men and women, against children and against nature is a challenge for monastic life, since it constitutes a threat to the security of the various communities and a challenge at the same time to tangle with a society where will power imposes itself by force, without dialogue or reason.
  12. Solidarity.
    Caribbean society challenges monastic life not to enclose itself, without tending the needs of the poor, people marginalized or the victims of injustice. Monastic life must be one with the people.
    The family also imposes certain challenges on monasticism. The monks of Haiti share some particular experiences in this matter.
  13. Family pressure on the monk because it is hoped that he will be a priest, who will then bring certain benefits and advantages to his family.
    In not a few poor countries, religious and/or priestly life is regarded as a means of social promotion, a way to escape poverty, to attain academic goals, to living comfortably, to enjoy certain things that otherwise, according to common belief, one would not be able to have. This can be the way a candidate for the monastic life, his family or both, would tend to think. Even when a vocation is genuine, it happens that a monk or a nun has to struggle with demands to satisfy various family needs.
  14. It is a challenge for the monk to help his family "in the hard blows of life."
    Christian charity imposes certain demands of its own on the monk or nun that he or she cannot escape. How is one to help one's family that is related by blood without affecting one's religious family? To what degree must one practice charity to our families without prejudice to our religious community?


As we have seen, the greatest challenge that monasticism presents Caribbean society is its own style of monastic life as well as all its component parts. And this challenge is directed to the Caribbean Church, for whom (although they do not say so openly) monasticism does not stand out as a really valid vocation, a useful and significant vocation in the face of the great problems that confront Catholic Christendom in today's world. On the other hand, perhaps the greater challenge that Caribbean society presents monastic life is to be faithful to its particular charism, giving true testimony to evangelical or gospel fidelity without making itself a fossil or alienating itself from the necessities of its ecclesiastical and social environment in general that jibe with the life of the monks and nuns.

Caribbean monasticism ought to be ready to change (adapt) itself frequently as a prophetic sign in the face of the social life-styles of the Caribbean. It must not fear to be prophetic, to go against the current in order to live and to defend the great monastic and Christian ideals. Individualism, hedonism and materialism are the chief and significant evils of our times that should be fought against from within each monastic community. It is necessary to be aware of the culture where one lives, its riches and its needs and to make an effort to incorporate this culture, nourishing the community with the positive aspects of its environment and distancing itself and even denouncing attempts contrary to the dignity of the sons and daughters of God. In this sense, a close binding or solidarity with the poor and the humble is a challenge for monasticism.

If dialogue with the culture, as everyone knows, is one of the great challenges for the Church today, it is no less so for monastic life. Many have been aware of this division (split) between contemporary culture and the Gospel. It is as if the Church and culture spoke different languages, giving rise to misunderstandings, to a lack of mutual under-standing, to parallel yet excluding paths. It is here that one must test the tolerance and the ability of church dialogue as well as monastic dialogue, its empathy, its ability to arrive at solutions that will help to heal the wounds of a sick Caribbean world, far beyond the safety of its institutional base.

It is today more urgent than ever to ask if there is such a thing as a culture with Christian Caribbean roots and whether this culture is not reclaiming space for meetings, for dialogue, for growth in today's world from the standpoint of Christian values. We have to ask ourselves what have been the remnants of the rift between culture and the Gospel, for the Church itself as well as for monasticism and in the end for the world. The world of culture and the world of the Spirit cannot continue walking along separate routes without dialoguing and mutual understanding, for even though in our societies we invoke the separation of Church and state, there is no such thing as a separation between culture and religion, because religion forms part of culture. It is not enough for the Church to listen to "the signs of the times"; it is rather imperative to construct new signs for our times.

For quite some time now the "boom" of the eclectic and widespread religiosity of the so-called "New Age" has been a sign of a very revealing spiritual crisis. Perhaps, as in St. Benedict's time, monasticism has to embrace a new mission: namely, to be a place where Christian values will be cultivated, protected, expressed and deepened. It must serve as a workshop to overcome "with spiritual artistry" the pitfalls of a western culture in crisis. We're not talking about redeeming the world but of helping this world to be more capable of loving, of seeking peace, of understanding the basic importance of cultivating spiritual values in order to survive and to find meaning in life. This also is culture.

The poverty and the necessities in the Caribbean world are not limited to the economic sphere; there is also a poverty of the spirit, plus spiritual needs, great deficiencies in the area of faith, prayer, liturgy, catechetics, etc. The Caribbean world as well as the Caribbean Church challenge monasticism to share its knowledge, its religious practice, for there is a hunger and a thirst for the sacred. This is especially true as far as the Catholic laity is concerned since their calling is being re-evaluated in today's Church.

The fragmentation and the pluralism of visions of the world in the Caribbean and in western societies in general are a challenge to an integral and unifying vision of monastic life. Monasticism, therefore, should be ready to give a reason for the faith and the values that it fosters in a situation ruled by relativism and one that declares itself in many intellectual circles and common interest groups as rejecting Christian principles and teaching.

Religious non-clerical monastic life has a great challenge to make valid its reasons for being in a Catholic Caribbean world that is so marked by a clericalism often lacking understanding of and insensitive to religious life. It is very strange, rather curious, listening to the remarks made daily when talk is about the priesthood and religious life in the Church. They talk about "priests and religious women," leaving out "religious men," as if they didn't exist. Thus it is evident how the challenges that confront monasticism are found in the Church itself and not only outside it.

The value of fidelity and stability of life in an unstable, changing world, dynamic and even violent, is equally questioned and admired in today's world. Faithfulness to the commitment made and the commitment of the entire person to a form of life are seen almost as heroic conduct. Monastic celibacy is admired by some and rejected by others. Thus monasticism, as all religious life, always finds itself being scrutinized by Caribbean society that is inclined to signs of the sensual and of the corporal.

The sense of collaboration, help and solidarity have been values highly regarded in the Caribbean, where cultural identities have been shaped on the basis of community efforts in difficult moments, as for example the passing of hurricanes and storms and needs of every type. Monastic community life ought to invite the Caribbean to re-evaluate its own cultural experiences, its rich community spirit that is family-oriented and celebrates life, joy and hospitality.

We propose these reflections as a few interesting points among many that could arise from the answers sent from the monasteries of the Caribbean. We hope that this contribution has been beneficial in analyzing the reciprocal contributions and challenges between monasticism and the society of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Thank you.

Hno. Antonio Hernández Gierbolini, O.S.B.
Abadía de San Antonio Abad
Humacao, Puerto Rico

Hna. Angela Berríos, O.S.B.
Monasterio de Santa Escolástica
Humacao, Puerto Rico

Translation from Spanish:
R.P. Eric R. Buermann, O.S.B.
Abadía de San Antonio Abad
Humacao, Puerto Rico



Some questions to serve as guides in the group meetings.

  1. How can Benedictine and Cistercian monastic life help and heal the rupture between the Gospel and contemporary culture?

  2. What project would you present to ABECCA in order to make monastic life known in the Caribbean and Latin America?

  3. How will we confront the individualism and the secularism that hangs over our monastic communities?

  4. How will monasticism today be able help the Church to confront the great spiritual challenges and needs of our contemporary world?

  5. How can we reaffirm the value of monastic life in the Church in the face of the prejudices about its usefulness and value over and above the ministerial priesthood?


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Rev. 24 August 2005 | © 2005 by ABECCA | www.osb.org/abecca/2005/report02.html