by SISTER MADELEINE, OSA
day I arrived at Boquen a (to me) symbolic battle was being fought
in the heavens--between a warm bright sun and short spells of dismal rain and grey
skies. It was only the first of contrasts and tensions connected with this controversial Cistercian monastery.
In appearance Boquen is all that we associate with a classical abbey -a small complex of buildings: farm, monastic house and an austerely beautiful Xif century church rebuilt in its remarkable Cistercian purity. It k isolated, almost hidden among the woods and slopes of Brittany's Crites du Nord. 14
kilometres of winding roadway from the nearest village. And if I add that the handful of brothers: "Are they still and study in this withdrawn place, the traditional picture seems complete.
Yet it has been asked of Bo quen : "Is it still a monastery?" and of the bothers : "Are they still monks?"' For beyond the first appearance, Boquen seems a far cry from a traditional monastery', particularly a Cistercian one.
Nobody dresses like a monk except at the Sunday Eucharist when the concelebrants. even the non-monks, wear long white habits. Everybody calls each other by their first name. "Everybody" means young and not so young. men and women. celibate and married, priests and laity.
All help, if they wish. with the work — 'in the house preparing meals. washing up. cleaning, painting, building. or in the vegetable garden and small farm. There are no special times and places of silence and no enclosure. Meals arc occasions for meeting and discussion.
The six or seven brothers share their table with all who come and as much sleeping accommodation as there is. There seemed to be about 60 people in the monastery at the time of my visit of whom some lived and worked there permanently, others, mainly students, for the duration of their holidays, others for a few days or weeks.
Only seven years ago life in the monastery was an extreme contrast. The monks were silent white-robed figures, rising at two a.m., chanting many offices in choir, disappearing from public gaze into the shadows and mystery of the cloister.
In August 1969, the then Prior of Boquen, 35-year-old Dom Bernard Berret, replied to the above questions as follows: "If monasteries are, as Vatican II desired, to be centres of formation for the Christian people, then i think that Boquen is still and more than ever a monastery. for it is the heart of a vast fellowship. If a monk is. according to the primary Christian use of the word, a man who seeks to be unified, •monos', then 1 think that the brothers of Boquen are truly monks.
"If, on the contrary, one understands by the monastic life a flight from the world and men, a withdrawal from the turbulent life of the People of God, a life expressing itself in structures of another age, then undoubtedly we should prefer not to be called monks for. for us, the essential thing not to be monks but to be men and, if possible, Christians." But there are different understandings of monastic life and. in spite of the sympathy shown towards the evolution of Boquen by the Bishops of Western France, there has been for the last two years some tension between the monastery and the higher superiors of the Cistercian Order.
Boquen began in 1137 as a Cistercian abbey and came to an end after the French Revolution in 1789. In 1936 a Cistercian Trappist, Dom Alexis Presse. went there alone not simply to rebuild it from its ruins but to reform Benedictinism by returning to the life style of its origins. He had been for 10 years abbot of the Trappist monastery of Tamie, when a life that seemed to him no longer transparent Of its primitive inspiration became tinbeari hie .
Boquen, then. was reborn as a quest for the meaning of monasticism. The work of Dom Alexis fulfilled the first of two demands made later on all religious by Vatican 11 — a return to sources.
The second -adaptation to contemporary life was initiated by his successor, Dom Bernard Berret. After 30 years, the monastery and primitive observance, even the 12-hour day had been restored. Yet Dorn Alexis could say to his nine brothers that his experiment was to some extent a failure. The original inspiration had not only to be rediscovered but re-expressed in new forms corresponding with the needs and culture of contemporary society.
In 1964 Dom Alexis appointed Bernard as his successor asking him to make his work evolve in fidelity to his basic instruction. Dom Bernard had entered Boquen shortly after being converted at 18 on encountering Dom Alexis. He went to study in Ronde, became a doctor of theology. professor of philosophy at St. Anselmo, assistant to the Cistercian General and expert on religious life during the Council. Bernard, like Alexis, is a man for whom thought must become action and ideas life.
The starting point for a new life-style was the liturgy. From 1965 it was celebrated at Boquen in French rather than Latin Ultra traditionalists fear liturgical reform with good reason, the very reason for which Vatican II was wise to begin its renewal of the Church with the liturgy.
For. as Dom Bernard has said: "These words we speak. these gestures we make, either they express our life, or they Ting false. To be honest we must either change the words or change our life and more often. both".
The Eucharist is a sign of and invitation to fellowship in Christ. It binds together those who participate in a unity deeper than all differences. In Christ there is neither man nor woman, Greek nor Jew, master nor slave. There are neither generation gaps, not status superioritics, nor role oppositions. It was the Eucharist that transformed Boquen into a communion of life that corresponded with the revolutionary implications of its sign.
As Dom Bernard explained publicly, it was "little by little, without any premeditated plan" that Boquen became a place of openness and sharing — "of sharing in daily life, in joys and sufferings, in work and leisure and above all in the passionate search 'for truth and a deepening of faith and hope and love".
Gradually a new kind of monastery came into being communion of men and women. some celibate, others married. some dedicating their whole time, others keeping an autonomous private. professional and domestic life and many thousands linked in an informal but close way to its life and worship.
Without question this particular way of lOing corn munion in Christ is not the only possible way. It may seem to many to be an exaggerated and over literal interpretation of Christ's message. And yet I am sure that monasteries and convents are meant precisely to he prophetically exaggerated and literal in their response to Christ's prayer, Christ's call that we all he one in Hint.
It seems obvious to tne that Boquen is one very striking instance of the good news that is the Gospel — for the news has travelled fast and wide without any attempt at ad vertisement and without an influence disproportionate to its apparent resources. If so many, married couples. young
people, travel so far to This remote monastery, it is. I think.
indicative that Christianity only has to he tried to he magnetic.
Obviously many arc still in search of truth, of God, of deepening their life in Christ.
But obviously, too, they are not being drawn to the tradi tional retreat or conference centre set up expressly for their needs.
The reason Boquen draws is. I think. that people want to engage in this search in con
ditions where authentic togetherness and authenth
liberty is possible, And, besides the positive will to adventure, there is a poverty about Boquen which enables one to he authentic.
There is a material poverty which might mean sharing a primitive dormitory. or as much responsibility as one is willing or able for the work,
the liturgy; for helping individuals or groups. There is a
spirit of poverty an absence of manipulating programmes. of direction and systems.
The brothers are questioning, searching people and so one is enabled in discussion (there is a reunion every evening) to express one's unbelief as
well as one's belief, to call anything into question, to suggest new forms of expression in faith and worship and mission.
Strangely but truly there is a deepening of faith in such an atmosphere just as we have deeper attachments to nondomineering rather than to possessive parents.
In October 1969 Dom Bernard was suddenly and without explanation deposed as Prior by his Abbot General and asked to leave Boquen. So widespread was the distress at his loss and the indignation at thiS authoritarian gesture that he was soon asked to return. At present the experiment is threatened with suppression. Yet another stupid battle between inspiration and fear.
I hope that the dismal grey rain of legalism will not overcome what is for so many a bright warm sun, a patch of blue sky in a Church that has so often spoken of its coming second spring.