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LE SILENCE DES MOINES. Les trappistes au XIXème siècle

LE SILENCE DES MOINES. Les trappistes au XIXème siècle

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Date d'ajout : mercredi 19 août 2015

par Joseph F. BYRNES

REVUE : THE CATHOLIC HISTORICAL REVIEW

Bernard Delpal has assembled a vast amount of archival material about individual Trappist foundations, principally in France but with attention to North Africa and the Near East. The study began as a thesis of 1,035 pages directed by Claude Langlois and J.-M. Mayeur. It is now a source book of steps and statistics for the foundation and development of the monasteries, and an explanation of the spiritual and material accomplishments of the monks. Steps and statistics predominate-largely : Delpal had the doctoral candidate's obligation to amass all the data he could find. "It is, then, legitimate, in light of statistics and the great quantity of data furnished by them, to work up a type of 'monastic demography'" (p. 144); hence, a study of stages in monastic life (postulancy, profeSSion, death), structural elements (social condition, age, type of monk), and broad historical background.
The monastery of Aiguebelle was arguably the center of Trappist survival and revival in the nineteenth century. Delpal leads up to the Aiguebelle phenomenon with pages on the complications of the Cistercian reform known specifically as Trappist, the name taken from the monastery of La Trappe as transformed by Jean-Armand Le Bouthillier de Rance (1626-1700). The historical problem of survival and revival never admits of an easy solution ; so the relation of La Trappe to the medieval monasteries of Cîteaux and Clairvaux and to the new nineteenth-century foundations is not always clear. Furthermore, the de Rance reform was itself redone at the beginning of the nineteenth century by Dom Augustin Lestrange, who added a powerful note of expiation-in view of the atrocities of the Revolution-to the already heavy asceticism of de Rance:
From the beginning of the revival of Aiguebelle-and the Trappistine monastery of Maubec- Trappists were to be a nucleus of dynamic Christianity, inaccessible to compromise, in the face of institutionalization and routine. Leaders dreamed of reconstituting the coenobitic communities of Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and the western Mediterranean. The French monasteries themselves could be compared to the experiments of Egypt. The Algerian foundation of Staoueli receives most attention as Africa's "window on the West." There is full documentation of an established foundation with charts of ages at profession and at death of choir monks and lay brothers, admissions, professions, five·year changes in monastic population. The motto of the French governor General Bougeaud, ense et aratro (by axe and plow), was extended in the monastic motto ense, cruce et aratro (by axe, cross, and plow). Celebrities, functionaries, politicians, researchers, journalists sought out the monastery : in the midst of the debates about Algeria at the beginning of the Second Empire Staoueli became a major symbol of French colonial goals. Maintenance of good health was a primary challenge in Africa, but elsewhere (e.g., Notre-Dame des Neiges, Notre-Dame du Desert) Trappists prioritized elimination of miasmas by clearing of land, especially swampland ; malaria was a major enemy.
Dealing with monastic formation, industries, and educational apostolates, Delpal gives data on personalities and moral and spiritual achievements, and education of aspirants, i.e., tables on rejection/departure of aspirants and the reasons for these rejections/departures. Chocolate factories were at once an industrial success and a spiritual dilemma. "Concern for the temporal" is juxtaposed to the spiritual reforms of the abbot who embraced this concern, Jean-Baptiste Chautard, one of the best-known Trappist authors of the century. Industry caused a "major rupture with observance and tradition, and overturned attitudes on economy, work, riches, gain, and money" (p. 342). Difficulties in running an orphanage do not get great attention (undoubtedly because of less in sources). We get data on rehabilitation and formation, rules and etiquette for orphans, but little analysis of this extremely complex spiritual! missionary effort.
The chapter "Asceticism, Compromise, and Spirituality" makes a vital comparison between the public image of the Trappists and their own image of themselves : two generic imaginaires. The monks had to set themselves to the task of promoting their real work. Juxtaposed here is the discussion of a maison de correction, in effect a reform school. This, too, must have been a complexly challenging ministry for the men. "Trappists and the State" looks at the expiatory function assigned to Trappists as opposed to the decadent state. "Trappists and the Holy See" is a look at the technicalities of vows, and Trappist submission to the Roman system of orders and congregations. Studies were assigned an ambiguous place in formation of and for the interior life-some abbots being wary of speculative theology.
In the last pages of the book, Delpal gives spirituality the emphasis it may well have deserved from the beginning. Passive contemplation and holy abandonment, a certain rediscovery of St. Bernard, and the guiding spiritual influence of Dom Vital Lehodey, Abbot of Bricquebec at the beginning of the twentieth century, are finally dealt with : "Dom Lehodey takes his place then as the source of a true spiritual movement that is closely associated with the search and experimentation rooted in Trappist life, and which has an important place in the modern teaching on [holy] abandonment" (p. 506). Trappist asceticism is reduced to three characteristics : continual penance, total abandonment of self-will, conversion driven by interpretation of the Divine Model ; in sum, predominance of the community over the individual. Delpal believes that this loss of self in the "otherness" of the community entails satisfaction In the quest for perfection that may have weakened the order's role as a permanent critic of society and as a lived utopia. But could not this loss of self have made the search for individual perfection less egotistical and clarified the striving for utopia as one of the conditions for its future attainment ?


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