Fr. Gerard D’Souza, OCSO
2nd Tuesday of Easter
The community of believers was of one heart and mind and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own. This classic text is always quoted whenever religious life is discussed.
Our own Constitution 3 begins by saying that the Cistercian way of life is cenobitic. The Latin word used is conversatio – translated as way of life. But way of life does not quite convey what conversatio means. In the tradition of the Desert Fathers, a disciple would approach an abba seeking to be a disciple. And he would not ask the abba ‘how would you understand the Trinitarian mystery of the indwelling of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? Instead he would ask ‘Abba, what is your conversatio?’ What is your way of life? The disciple believed that the conversatio would transform him, mold his soul, his emotions and even his body and bring everything into conformity to Christ.
So when our Constitutions say that the Cistercian conversatio is cenobitic, it is saying that life in community is not incidental to our spiritual life. It is THE way to God for us. And in that same section of Constitution 3, it uses the classic text saying since all the brothers are of one heart and mind – all things to them are common. When we hear this we usually and quite naturally think of material possessions in common – cars, books, the common table, common property. And this is true. However if you were to read closely Vita Consecrata by Saint John Paul, you would realize that holding material possessions in common is not a stopping place, it is a manifestation of the one heart and one mind among the brothers. It is because we experience our brothers not as competitors for scarce resources but as our very own selves, that we do not accumulate personal property to secure ourselves against their depredations.
The encyclical says that we, monks become one heart and through the love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. This is the engine of the common life. And if we are faithful to this grace and as we mature, we experience an interior call ( says Vita Consecrata) to share everything in common. Saint John Paul lists what we hold in common – he does not stop with material goods but lists spiritual experiences, talents, inspirations, apostolic ideals and charitable service. So it is a sharing of life at the deepest level.
He says ‘in community life, the power of the Holy Spirit at work in one individual passes at the same time to all. Here not only does each enjoy his own gift but makes it abound by sharing it with others; and each enjoys the fruits of the other’s gift as if they were his own’ We can see how hoarding time and talents and energy is antithetical to the movement of the Spirit in the community or how we can actually wither spiritually by saving our life instead of losing it. We can also see how jealousy and envy is contrary to the spirit of communion because everyone’s gifts is our own – we should revel and be proud of the gifted brothers instead of feeling depressed or trying to pull them, or gloating because they are humiliated.
Even if the Spirit is poured out and is at the heart of the community, still He does not force His way. We can still live at the natural level in individualized existences under the same roof. This is an ever present danger in religious life – it can easily end up in this blind alley. It needs us to convert each day, to go against the grain of our powerful instinct for self-preservation, our tendency to hold on to grudges as a hedge against trusting the Spirit. Saint John Paul reminds us that if we do step out into the deep then we experience the deepest reality of the fraternal life. He calls it a ‘God enlightened space in which to experience the hidden presence of the Risen Lord’ and it is only this that enables us to persevere in a life that is ordinary, hidden and laborious.