Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Presentation At Gethsemani

Earlier this evening I gave a presentation to the monks of Gethsemani. Below is the basic content of my talk.

Lay Cistercian Presentation
Abbey of Gethsemani
March 18th, 2010

Good evening, Brothers!

Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you tonight. My name is Michael Brown and I am one of the founders of the Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani. Some of you remember me as a younger, thinner, clean shaven, very angelic novice named Br. Dominic. I entered the community under Fr. Flavian. Fr Timothy was my Novice Master. I received the novice habit with Fr. Francis Kline and spent some time in the novitiate with Br. Luke and Br. Christian. I did a variety of jobs around here but mostly I worked with Fr. Anastasius and Br. Gerlac in the Steel Building or doing construction, Br. Thomas in the kitchen, and with Br. Alban and Br. Ferdinand at the old cow barn in the afternoons. I also enjoyed summer afternoons picking up bales of hay out in the fields or putting pecans on fruitcakes under the watchful eye of Fr. Vianney. My memories of being part of the community are all very good and although my time here was relatively short, it had a great impact on the person I am today.

Tonight I want to give you an overview and history of the Lay Cistercians in general and what is happening here at Gethsemani in particular. Let me start by giving you what I believe was the intent of those who founded the Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani. When I think back to the founding of the group, I ask myself, "What were we looking for? To what did we think we were being called"? I think it's safe to say that those of us in the original group felt a desire for the contemplative life, a longing for the experience of God, and a need for the transformation of our own hearts. In a sense we were also looking for a home and we found it at Gethsemani. We felt the Holy Spirit called us together to support one another in this endeavor with the Rule of St Benedict and the Cistercian charisms as our guides. If you use the term "the spirit of the founders", I believe I have just described it.

Even though I entered Gethsemani after Vatican II, I grew up in an era when many people believed the spiritually minded entered the priesthood or religious life and everyone else got married. Since the time of Vatican II, the Church and lay people in particular have realized that everyone is called to holiness regardless of their state of life. After I left the monastery I desired to maintain something of the prayer life I learned and practiced here. As much as possible I tried to make the Liturgy of the Hours and other prayer practices part of my life. I still came to Gethsemani for yearly retreats and I still felt attracted to different aspects of the monastic life.

In the late 1980’s I became aware of others like myself who felt called to live a contemplative life in the world. Through the efforts of Fr. Michael, six of us came to Gethsemani, shared our stories, and began what is now the Lay Cistercians. In those early years we wrote a Plan of Life that has stood the test of time. It was written with lay people in mind, pulling from the Rule of St. Benedict and our understanding of the Cistercian charisms. Eventually Fr. Michael also contributed a document that offered specific and practical applications and suggestions for living out the Plan of Life using his monastic experience but applying it to lay people living busy lives in the world.

Here’s where I believe we need to be clear about one important thing. Lay Cistercians feel called to a contemplative life in the world. We do not feel called to the monastic life, nor do we try to replicate some kind of a lay version of the life you live together in community. My life has always been, and continues to be, a very middle class family life. I have been married for 35 years. I have two sons. One is married and the other is studying for the priesthood at St. Meinrad. I told you I used to be Br. Dominic. Now I am Pa Paw to a five year granddaughter. Trust me. My life is not monastic. I did think that once I left the monastery I would no longer have to get up for Vigils. Then my wife and I had a child. One night I was sitting on the end of my bed, holding my oldest son while giving him a bottle. I looked at my clock. It was 3:15 AM.

Early on the lay group at Gethsemani thought we were the only ones doing what we were doing. Eventually, however, we became aware of a similar group at Conyers. We invited them to Gethsemani and met with them. Over the years we became aware of other groups at other Cistercian monasteries. Some of the early members of our group eventually founded other lay groups at Berryville and Spencer. In the last 20 years or so I have attended and participated in regional meetings at Conyers, Genesee, and Gethsemani for representatives of all the lay groups in the United States. I have also attended two international meetings that included lay representatives from all over the world as well as your previous Abbot General, Dom Bernardo, and other monks and nuns. It was a personal highlight of my Lay Cistercian life to attend one of these gatherings in Clairvaux, France that also allowed me to visit the Abbey of Citeaux. Sitting in the Abbey church and walking on that holy ground, I did find myself thinking, “Wow! How did I get here”? In 2008 two of our members, Mike Johnson and Bob Johnson, attended another international gathering in Spain. During that meeting they helped finalize a document entitled “Lay Cistercian Identity”. This document was created from input submitted by Lay Cistercians around the world and was presented to your General Chapter for review and study.

So what is happening today at Gethsemani? We have two groups that meet here once a month. The reason we have two groups is to accommodate the needs and busy schedules of our members. One meets on the first Sunday of the month and the other meets on the 3rd Saturday of the month. Fr. Michael, Br. Frederic, and Br. Christian often join us but they have no official responsibilities within the group. Each month we meet to discuss some aspect of Cistercian spirituality. On Sundays we also join the monastic community for Mass. In addition to the groups that meet at Gethsemani, we have groups that meet in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Columbus, Chicago, Michigan, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. We have approximately 250 people who are part of these groups. Leaders and other representatives of the different local groups get together approximately twice a year as an advisory committee to discuss common needs and concerns. We will be meeting here at Gethsemani in April. We also have a website, a discussion listserv for email, and a newsletter. Our future plans are for greater exchange of spiritual resources such as talks, books, articles, videos, etc. Once a year we offer group retreats to all members. Last year we had to start having two retreats to accommodate those who could attend. It is no longer possible for everyone to be here at the same time. We are a very diverse group and we are not without challenges. Adequate and appropriate formation is an ongoing concern. Growing in our understanding of what it means to be a Lay Cistercian is an ongoing process. We sometimes struggle with commitment levels and community building. Because we are such a large and diverse group we have some challenges in terms of organizational structure. Despite these ongoing struggles, I believe we are following the lead of the Holy Spirit. I believe the times we live in demand a contemplative response. I don’t know where all this will go. We’ve come a long way in twenty years. The Order now invites us to your General Chapters so a dialog is taking place. My hope is that the Lay Cistercians and the monastic communities walk side by side, in mutual respect, as we each continue to discern our individual paths in the Cistercian way. In a sense the monks and nuns are our older brothers and sisters. As laypeople, we are still finding our way in our understanding of how the Cistercian charisms can be lived in the world and in marriage, family life, or the single life. We look to you for friendship and guidance. Seeking your support, we also offer ours to you, not only spiritually but practically. Many Lay Cistercians have skills and talents that could possibly meet a need within the monastery. I’m sure most of us could pack cheese and fruitcake during the busy Christmas season. We can pray for one another and have meaningful and supportive friendships. We should not be strangers to one another. All of this can be done without compromising any of the distinct characteristics of our individual vocations including your contemplative and cloistered community life. Let us continue our shared journey and individual responses to the call that we both hear. Together we can continue the discernment process and find out what God’s plan is for all of us.

Michael Brown
Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani
March 18, 2010

No comments: