What future for monasteries?  The view of Jean-Marc Chené, abbot of Notre-Dame de Bellefontaine

What future for monasteries? The view of Jean-Marc Chené, abbot of Notre-Dame de Bellefontaine

They have been present, sometimes for several centuries, in the French landscape. But their numbers are now melting like snow in the sun. What paths can we outline for the future? Jean-Marc Chené, abbot of Notre-Dame de Bellefontaine (Maine-et Loire), responds to our journalist Dominique Lang.

What is your view on the evolution of monastic life in France during the 21st century? Is it a time of refocusing, of simplification, of mourning, of hope?

Jean-Marc Chené: To take a look at the evolution of monastic life is to take a look at a changing society and at the Church which is also in the process of changing. Each monastic family evolves at its own pace and in its own way. As a Cistercian monk, it is from what we experience at the level of the community and our Order that I see myself.

The development that we are experiencing, and which is difficult to put into words, is happy and desirable. It scares some, it inspires others. Concerning our Cistercian monastic Order, a real evolution has been felt since the election of the new Abbot General who breathes dynamism in terms of governance, with synodality to be sought even more. In France, the situation of increasing fragility of several communities faced with a reduction in their members and a lack of renewal, raises awareness that the time is no longer for expansion but for acceptance of a reality which is 'imposed. The more traditional model seems to have a better future, but history teaches us to remain modest in our assertions. Sociologists say that a civilizational matrix is ​​disappearing. At Bellefontaine Abbey, in March 1789, two months before the French Revolution, there were only 4 monks left… and the abbey is still there!

The year 2025 will mark the tenth anniversary of the publication of a text by Pope Francis which has enjoyed and continues to enjoy great success, including among non-believers: the encyclical Laudato Si'. The Pope places great emphasis on an integral approach to reality, to living things, whether human, environmental, technical or economic reality. He says it again and again, “everything is linked” (L.S. 16) and, he adds, “current problems require a look that takes into account all aspects of the global crisis” (L.S. 137).

This view can make it possible to refocus on the essential, a simplification encouraged by Laudato Si': “Sobriety, which is lived with freedom and consciously, is liberating. It is not less life, it is not a low intensity of life but quite the opposite” (L.S. 223). Many communities are convinced of this and there is a sort of general movement which encourages people to take a step in this direction. This requires giving ourselves the means: to reflect, to exchange, to travel a journey together, to discern the path to follow in the light of the Word of God. This is what Pope Francis is asking of the Church in the process of synodal approach. Many communities in France have initiated this type of process to leave what is no longer tenable and choose life.

On a human level, there is reason to despair about the current situation. So it is up to us to hold evolution and hope together, as Brother Christian de Chergé, prior of the monastery of Tibhirine (Algeria), understood well, who wrote:

“The first urgency would therefore be to (re)give us common reasons to hope (against and despite everything). Because this hope surpasses us, each and all together, it can use us even in our aging and our aptitudes bounded.

A necessity: believe in it together… and (re)say it to each other. (…) It is at the heart of this shared common hopethat solutions for evolution will emerge and that the means will be given to us to carry out this evolution.” (1)

What monastic projects around you seem interesting to you for the future? Or what should we try today so that monastic life keeps its place and its specificity?

It is very difficult to know which projects can be promising for monastic life and in what forms. Monastic life has always been in the plural. The inspiration of life in the desert has taken very different forms depending on the era, and this is perhaps what has allowed monastic life to stand the test of time. Today, in our Order, what is there in common between a community of 7 brothers and a community of 50, between a community that has no employees and a community that has more employees? what brothers?

A project can only be conceived and carried out in concert with others, knowing that monastic life does not depend on a project, whether social, agricultural or even liturgical. For monastic life to continue and retain its specificity, it is important that the monks be above all “prayers”, “prayers among other prayers” as our brothers from Tibhirine in Algeria defined themselves. It is this base, this rock of faith and prayer, which gives substance to a fraternity and can give rise to a solid project, in phase with the context in which the community is established. Hence the importance of being attentive to the signs of the times in order to best situate oneself in the cultural, ecclesial and social landscape of the region where the monastery is located.

A community that is attentive and committed to ecological, environmental and renewable energy issues generally arouses real interest, all generations combined. In this sense, the experience of woofing, green days or weeks, has enjoyed certain success. Communities, through this concrete way of welcoming, offer a space for meeting and working which combines the dimension of transmission, cooperation, discovery, respect for beliefs, rhythms, provision of skills and shared joy. There is an avenue to explore here.

At a time when digital and virtual are part of everyday life anyway, a monastic project which gives its full place to the “present” through simple relationships, an activity which puts people in contact with nature, the earth, art, which values ​​an experience by including transcendence and spiritual practice, this project is likely to resonate with young people and even young retirees. Unless it wants to be a conservatory of practices, the monastery cannot lock itself into an obsolete model and only transmit practices.

In summary, a living (and not virtual) community which brings together brothers or sisters for prayer, which attests that “living together” is possible, that it is a source of joy, happiness and fraternity, this community opens a hope, a perspective, a future. A monastery with a small community will try an experiment with a couple who, while continuing their professional activity outside, will have their accommodation at the monastery. At Bellefontaine Abbey, we are also in the process of establishing a partnership with associations. Thus, it is according to new methods that an abbey can keep its place and its specificity. We will soon open a memorial to honor the testimony of the Martyrs of Algeria, including the monks of Tibhirine. It is not a museum but a place that offers a journey to have an experience. It seems to us that monasteries today are privileged places to make such proposals. The welcome, the meeting, the spiritual experience, perhaps occurs more and more through art, culture, heritage, discovery trails.

Do you believe that with the reduction of the Christian network, monasteries will play a new role as “parish” or “spiritual” center in a sector?

Even if religious practice is to be distinguished from belief, there is a real interaction between the two and it is undeniable that the reduction of the first has an effect on the second and vice versa. That said, whether the trend is towards the reduction or extinction of certain realities, monasteries are not intended to compensate by offering an alternative path. Our way of life cannot compensate for a lack of priests or assume territorial pastoral care by default.

The “crisis”, which is not recent, has a positive aspect to which we find it difficult to agree. It causes an essential mutation. The question is whether we are willing to look anywhere other than the model we know and to which we cling desperately. In other words, there is something new to find, which supposes leaving a model and freeing oneself from the logic of the extensive, sometimes the ostentatious, to invest at another level, that of the intensive. and presence.

We note that new expectations are emerging to which monasteries can respond in part without having to deploy logistics that are constantly being reviewed: a thirst for spirituality, silence, simplicity, prayer, a time apart; desire to join a place inhabited by a community which bears witness to brotherhood and which gathers for prayer; to be welcomed in a place where hospitality is part of its vocation, a place where it is possible to settle down without settling down…

Not only are the monasteries “going to play a new role” but they are already in this role which is not defined once and for all since it is a question of following life. We are not seeking to become a “parish center” but it is certain that links with the Christian communities in the area will evolve because the parish is looking for new paths and we, monks, are moving towards a new way of inhabiting the place. .

Without having the label “spiritual center”, the abbey is already perceived as such. Many groups and individuals appreciate the atmosphere to accomplish a spiritual approach, in the broad sense of the expression, in a climate of freedom and respect for everyone. If there is a change to be made, there is also vigilance to be had so as not to become logistical support for pastoral care, at the risk of distorting the specificity of the monastic vocation and losing its spirit.

The future is to be thought of not in terms of figures, numbers or activities, but of “witness”: as a community, are we witnesses of Christ in our time, through fraternal life, prayer, listening to the Word of God, the openness which gives rise to meeting, sharing, welcoming the other, different?

The monastery is a place where many experience a presence, the presence of God. We modestly offer what society cannot offer.

The monastery is a place where many experience a presence, the presence of God. Saint Benedict defines the monastery as “the house of God”. We modestly offer what society cannot offer. If monasteries have a key role to play, it is that of the presence which is part of the daily life, in a process of faith following Christ. As Pope Francis stated,

“the presence of communities, placed like the city on the mountain and the lamp on the lamppost (cf. MT 5, 14-15), even in the simplicity of their life, visibly represents the goal towards which the entire ecclesial community is traveling which “walks on the roads of this time with its gaze fixed on the future recapitulation of all things in Christ”, thus already announcing the celestial glory.” (2)

(1) Monks of Tibhirine, Happy are those who hopeSpiritual autobiographiesThe Writings of Tibhirine 1, Texts collected and presented by Marie-Dominique Minassian with the assistance of the Association for the Writings of the Seven of the Atlas, the families of monks, the communities of Notre-Dame de Bellefontaine, Tamié, Aiguebelle, and of Notre-Dame de l’Atlas (Morocco), Paris, Les Éditions du Cerf/Bellefontaine/Bayard, 2018, p. 432.

(2) Francis, Vultum Dei querere2016, 2.

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