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The difference affirmed by living together

· The experience of the Monastery of Bose recounted by those who live there ·

“May the Lord bless you on your arrival and on your return”. Men and women, women and men in the same Church and in the same community is the daily reality of the monastic community of Bose. Here monks and nuns pray, work and offer hospitality together. So what is this community’s origin? How was it born? What are the riches and also the difficulties of this “living together”? Two brothers and two sisters answered our questions and opened the doors of this prophetic experience to us. The first to speak was Enzo Bianchi, the community’s founder.

Photographs kindly provided by the Photographic Archive of Bose

“At the outset there was no real plan for men and women to be living together. I had come here alone to start a project of monastic life, but I was far from thinking of an organization for men and women. Yet the second person who presented herself, after a brother, was a woman, deeply convinced of this choice of life, and I therefore had to face this problem. I went to Turin to see Cardinal Pellegrino, who was involved with our community at that time, and he said to me: ‘You were not seeking her, if the Lord has sent her to you, you must accept her’. We did accept her and, in order for her not to be by herself, with three brothers I visited the Protestant community of Grandchamp in Switzerland to ask if they could send us one of their sisters. And it was a real miracle because I arrived in the evening and Sr Minke told me she would pray and think about it. The following day they sent Sr Christiane who was with us for a year, in a certain sense ‘borrowed’ from the sisters so that there would be a nucleus of men and women right from the start, and not only one woman on her own. From that moment the community had to think of itself as a community consisting of both women and men”.

“I understood one truth straight away”, Bianchi continued, “that for men and women to live together it was important that the difference between them be affirmed. For this reason, in order to avoid a division between the women’s branch and the men’s branch, a distinction must exist. Thus from the start I wanted a sister to be in charge of the sisters so that I should not be the one who was directly responsible, and so it was. The two communities have been able to believe and to develop together for there is one rule, one liturgy, meals for the most part eaten together (at the beginning we always shared all the meals) and hence the same lifestyle for all. We gradually began putting all this into practice and we saw that it could work. We very soon perceived and accepted the graces of brothers and sisters “living together”. A first grace was that the brothers were required to behave no longer as “bears” but rather to be more sensitive, which does not mean more feminine but more caring and, especially, they were required to live the dimension of ‘taking care of their brethren’, that is, no longer to live as solitaries who happened to find themselves together. As for the sisters, we noticed that they had acquired a ‘discipline’, a form of mastery of words different from that of the classical community of women religious: that is to say they talked less and were less tempted to gossip or whisper among themselves. These two things made us see that we were helping each other. Little by little, however, we realized that it was necessary every now and then that the sisters should eat their meals separately, but only occasionally, so that they would have room and a meal during which they could talk among themselves in their own female language and this also applied for us brothers (but without making a habit of it because meals are usually eaten together, the brothers on one side of the refectory and the sisters on the other). All this was very useful to us because it changed the language used at mealtimes; for example, the sisters have a far more ‘ecclesial’ language, whereas we brothers tend to speak of things which are concerned rather with concrete life, both monastic and ecclesial. Thus the refectory, a place of exchanges, is also a place of formation, even if one may only speak during one meal, since the other is eaten in silence”.

“As regards affectivity”, Bianchi added, “we noticed with the due discernment and as mature adults that the brothers and sisters did not fall in love (as everyone thinks); this is not the problem, in 40 years it has never happened. The true problem is the wound that exists between men and women. In fact we have two different psychologies. For example, during Chapters, when we have to take decisions, we realize we have two different psychologies with very different reflections. It is therefore necessary to harmonize them, without deleting or denying them. This is a task we do day after day. At times it is difficult because of this wound between men and women, which all humanity knows and which we too bear and experience, and which must be constantly reconciled and surmounted, not as a form of compromise but as a greater good. On this point we have had no major problems. The important thing is that when a person comes here through a monastic vocation if she is a woman she should know how to live with men and if he is a man, how to live with women. Discernment is practised on the fact that if a man belittles a woman and does not take her presence into account it means that Bose is not the right place for him”.

“Another important point is that with regard to study, all receive the same training and we all have the same means and instruments without making differences. However there must be a novice mistress and a novice master, for in personal guidance only a woman can accompany another woman and only a man can accompany another man. Then there is another point that touches on one aspect of chastity: a woman more easily obeys a man than a man obeys a woman, and this is not chastity, it is in opposition to chastity. Well, women might have been tempted to obey me or to enter into competition with me, and this is why I have never wanted to be the sisters’ spiritual director. My role is to ensure the unity of the two branches, but I have nothing to do directly with the sisters in order to avoid projections and jealousies. The women must obey a woman and the men a man. It is a question of chastity. In the 1960s in two new foundations there were many affective problems, indeed even sexual ones, involving their founders. To this end Chapters must be organized in a very firm and balanced way to prevent those in charge from acting only among themselves or, on the contrary, in a solitary and isolated manner. All decisions must be taken together and not by the superiors. With us Chapters are held once a month and once a year we hold a Chapter that lasts for four days, during which decisions are taken. Everyone may speak and everyone is entitled to vote. In addition we are an ecumenical community and in this perspective giving the floor to women increases and helps ecumenism. Ecumenism too helps us to be better brothers and sisters: it is dialogue in diversity. We do not ask the Orthodox to become Catholic nor the opposite; differences are necessary and create communion. For if the differences were denied, it would be a mortifying communion”.

What is your greatest wish today? “It would be to see the Church learn more about the subject of authority from monastic life”, Bianchi answered. “I would like an authority exercised more in accordance with the monastic form, in other words an authority which listens, which enables situations to mature, which is more synodal and in which women play an active part. Otherwise the Church will live authority in a condition not only of poverty but also and above all of wretchedness”

Sr Maria dell’Orto, who has been a member of the community for more than 40 years, was in charge of the sisters until 2009. She told us about the early days and the community’s daily challenges. “The community was not born as the fruit of an ideology but from a reality (the arrival of a sister and of a Protestant brother) and from a question that Enzo Bianchi asked himself: ‘Does the Gospel perhaps contain a word that would prevent the first sister from living this monastic experience? No!’. However there was obedience to the reality of life and the Gospel was the criterion for deciding. It was a first, extraordinary grace which has protected and enlivened us to this day, even though it was not easy, but life in itself is not easy. We therefore tried to live in accordance with the great criteria of traditional monastic life; we drew monastic inspiration from its origins (Anthony, Pacomius, Basil, Benedict and so forth) and we sought the teachings that could be most useful to us in this context of modernity”.

“Monastic life among brothers and sisters”, continued Maria, “was not organized in early Christian times, since in this regard Jesus’ life bore little weight. For example, in order to be inspired by the Gospel reference was often made to the apostolic letters, which already contained many forms of lowliness. On the contrary, if reference had been made to the Gospel it would have been possible to note Jesus’ many relationships with women and the fact that he called both men and women as disciples. For example when a woman says to him: ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!’, Jesus replies ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it’ (Lk 11:27). Hence this invitation to live the Gospel is addressed to both men and women. Living a monastic life every day, with men and women together with the members of other Churches, when the burden of their sufferings and the trials borne by women in a predominantly male culture become known, is an immense happiness. Even though it is sometimes difficult, but life is difficult: the lives of married couples, of priests, of people on their own. Since living truly is accepting difference, the difference between men and women but also between women themselves and men themselves and between the guests as well; all this is an exercise of freedom. You learn how not to use others and not to believe that this is something acquired once and for all, you try to listen. The challenge is therefore that of living daily in freedom, in reciprocal service, because basically this is what the Gospel is. You try to be yourself for the good of all. You find that you see better thanks to the others. Jesus taught us the love of freedom and passed on to us authentic words for human life. For example, not to live for ourselves is the only way not to be anguished in this world and not to be afraid of the next day and night (in Bose, almost no door is locked. It is not heroism, it is the most intelligent thing in the world”.

“Learning to live otherness, not to live ideologically, not to blame one another, to free oneself from prejudices, to learn how to live God’s today in the encounter with the other: this is our opportunity. The brother and the sister are an opportunity to free ourselves from our past or from our own forms of determinism to observe that the weight of our past does not prevent us from living. What is difficult is to free ourselves from all our ideologies so that we will be neither victims nor oppressors in our relations with others. In monastic life there is great poverty because all our psychological sufferings and frailties are ‘open to the light of day’, everyone sees them. You therefore learn that you are not in the world to hide your shortcomings or to be judged or approved, or to oblige others to say to you ‘yes, yes’. You gradually learn to recognize the freedom of others to be here and that we live thanks to the fact that the brothers and sisters are here. Thus it is learning how to live affectivity in freedom. Basically Jesus taught us not to be afraid of our smallness, which means that loving the lives of others is the only salvation for all our frailties. When we are involved in their lives, when we are, as it were, seduced by what they are and do, when we look at them with interest, fear for ourselves dies and we immediately feel free”.

Do you sometimes regret your decision? “I’ve always known that outside here I could never have truly lived, not because it is better here than in any other place outside, no, but rather because this place has permitted me to live and to take care of myself without the anguish of the poor woman that I am”.

Sr Antonella is currently in charge of the sisters; she has been a nun for more than 20 years. She explained to us how the work is organized between the brothers and sisters. “When a person arrives in the community, we begin by discerning the community’s needs and the capacities of that person; after this discernment the newcomer is inserted in a workshop where he or she will work. There are some workshops managed only by brothers and others only by sisters, and yet others directly by both, such as, for example, work in the garden and also in the guest house. We try to live this availability to needs and not to decide categorically who should look after one thing or another. There is undoubtedly a richness in this way of working together, thanks to the exchanges; a diversity too in the way of tackling the same problem or in the way of organizing oneself, and when one works in a group it is possible to find many elements that can be useful to the activity or make the work simpler”.

When someone is accepted by you brothers and sisters he or she perceives and intuits a great harmony among you: how can you explain this? “I wouldn’t be able to”, Sr Antonella answers. “We live daily life very simply. Each one of us must also be the custodian of a form of solitude for him-or herself, in order to develop within as a person. This makes possible a growth which in its turn enables the individual to meet others without the fear of losing something in this encounter. And the harmony and fluidity among us stem from a daily life lived very simply, without being on the defensive, but showing oneself as one is, with that understanding which comes of knowing that we are together in our difference”.

What effect does this daily listening together to the same word of God have during the important liturgical seasons? “In the course of the Lectio divina, the community meets to reflect on the light of the word of God on his or her life. Further, we have a Lectio divina all together once a week and indeed this sharing of the Word is a great help to the community’s development: it consolidates common life. Thus every one of us is called to question him- or herself again, in an impulse of conversion, to return to being in tune with the body of the community”.

What have been your joys in these past 20 years? “My joys”, Sr Antonella replied, “are above all in community life, namely in living a simple, healthy and profoundly merciful community life. I have felt deeply the mercy of my brothers and sisters and this has been of great help to me in continuously renewing my way of being and my behaviour to them, thanks to their very merciful fraternal correction. It is a way of starting afresh together and is my greatest joy which I always savour. As for the difficulties, these concern the personal transition, which is always very hard [she laughed], and also personal relations, when we don’t succeed in listening to each other or in understanding each other, because it isn’t the right moment or because such great patience is required. One of the most difficult things is communication. It means continually learning to listen to each other without believing that this is something acquired once and for all. All this demands of us a profound human development, which does not seek to imitate others but asks us to be happy with what we are, knowing too that men and women express themselves in a completely different language. This community life is in any case a true gift of God (not a human project) over which we must constantly watch and which asks of us a good memory, attention and gratitude”.

Br Goffredo, Bianchi’s assistant, has been a member of the community for 22 years. We asked him to give us his reflections on the community life among the brothers and sisters. “From the outset I was attracted by Prior Enzo Bianchi’s charism and by the community life which is lived here, men and women together, and also by the common ecumenical life. This richness of men and women must be learned, cultivated and assimilated. Thus we become more human. Normal life consists of men and women; therefore a real process of humanization is made when men and women travel together on a journey of diversity and otherness. Diversity must not be frightening because it is a help and a richness. It is not a matter of listing the differences between men and women; on the contrary, there are two ways of being in the world which have existed since the origins. It is a matter of living an essential and natural difference. What is hard to live in this community life is combining two different ways of facing reality. However it is also and above all a challenge, because to attain a global and unified vision one must start from two different viewpoints in order to see the reality together. Men have one way of seeing reality and women another but this is normal, since reality is as male as it is female. Seeing it together is difficult but it is a true richness, because together one sees better. I would find it very hard today to live in an exclusively male community”.

“Our way of community life”, Br Goffredo concluded, “is unheard of: celibate men and women who live together without being married. Thus it means finding an agreement of a different order, but which is rooted in the monastic life and in the Gospel”.

Catherine Aubin

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