Towards a more contemplative way of living
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Following in the footsteps of Father Henri J. M. Nouwen and Brother Roger of Taize
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‘'When the imitation of Christ does not mean to live a life like Christ, but to live your life as authentically as Christ lived his, there are many ways and forms in which a [person] can be a Christian' (Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer).
LIFE & SOUL 6: BROTHER VICTOR-ANTOINE D’AVILA LATOURRETTE
Picture by Francesco Mastalia
I read the Gospels in my youth - I was convinced that Jesus was the truth, and that it was worth giving one's life to follow Him.
My spiritual father and mentor, Dom Pierre Minard, had started a small monastery in North Carolina that sought to go back to living out the Benedictine Rule without any additions, returning to the original conception of St. Benedict, the Desert Fathers and the inspiration of the Gospels. Dom Minard contracted cancer and came back to France where I was living. He told me to go to America and take his place because I could speak several languages. The Lord guided me through different events and divine providence to upstate New York. Our monastery has always been under the protection of the Most Holy Theotokos.
There have been up to four or five brothers at certain points. I am currently the only monk in residence. We have priest friends in the vicinity who come to say Mass. Some priests will stay for a while. When I am well, I attend the local parish. The monastery is largely self-sufficient. At present we have chickens, sheep, and a turkey. We currently produce several varieties of artisanal vinegars. We try to be self-sufficient. We live in harmony with the land which brings us closer to creation and the Creator. This closeness finds daily expression in the singing of the psalms and praying the scriptures.
St Benedict says we have to support ourselves with the work of our hands. By producing cookbooks, the Lord gave us the means of providing for ourselves. It happened after a woman came to the monastery to make retreat. Elise Boulding was a vegetarian who admired the simple, nourishing style of cooking at our monastery and said we needed to put our recipes into a book. From a Monastery Kitchen, published in 1975, became a bestseller in many languages. Its success brought further demands for the other books that followed. I write when the Lord tells me to write, and when He gives me a particular subject to develop.
Victor-Antoine is my monastic name. Victor comes from the fact that the first desert monks who arrived in France—John Cassian among them—founded the monastery of St Victor. It can still be seen and visited in Marseille. Anthony comes from St Anthony of the Desert, the first monk. The last name is an old name from the ancient nobility of the Pyrenees region in France.
According to the monastic tradition and the express wish and example of St Benedict (as well as the example of St Anthony), monks are not usually ordained, although in some communities a number are. Ordination implies a promotion; St. Benedict saw this as a direct opposition to the Gospel precept of taking the lowest place. Promotion has led to abuses of power and often the whole meaning of the vocation of the monk has been lost. St Benedict was well versed in what happened in the desert with monks who were ordained and he tried to avoid it in his monastery. He believed it should be difficult for an abbot to accept priests; they should be ‘doubly tested.’
The Body of Christ is made of the two traditions that spring from the East and the West. This was designed by the Holy Spirit for the enrichment of the Body of Christ. I feel close to all the Fathers, both Eastern and Western. Other Christians can best unite East and West in their lives and in their hearts by studying slowly and in detail both the scriptures and the writings of the Fathers in a certain chronology. God placed them in a specific order, with a certain logic, and one explains the other. It is important to study them in the right historical context. Study must always be under the guidance of the Holy Spirit who always enlightens everything. Nothing can be done without the Holy Spirit.
God can be heard only in silence. St John of the Cross says that God spoke in eternal silence only one Word: his eternal Word, who became flesh. People can seek the quiet in their own hearts and from time to time retire to places where they can be inspired by the monastic example of the quiet life. They can cultivate both interior and exterior silence; both are much needed in our noisy world.
In a monastery one learns that solitude is a gift from God which helps us enter ever more deeply into God’s own silence—the eternal silence. Solitude is a way of identifying oneself with the solitude Jesus suffered on the cross during his passion and death. From the time of the prophets, solitude has been a way of searching for God: ‘I will lead you into solitude and speak there to your heart.’
Jesus experienced loneliness, but we should not dwell on that. It is a negative experience, while solitude is a positive experience. Loneliness indicates the absence of love, while solitude can lead ultimately to the communion of love. The love of solitude leads to the silence of love, a deep communion with the Triune God and with others.
Contemplation is both a gift from God and nurtured by faith, but it is intermingled with daily human experience. It is always based on the honest human experience of real life .When I reflect on the ‘Eternal Now’, it means to me being mindful of the presence of the Divine Trinity at all times. ‘Holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal’: seeing oneself moving and breathing in the bosom of the Trinity. I like especially the dictum of St Anthony: ‘Breathe Christ always.’ This is a counterpart to St Benedict’s precept of putting the love of Christ above all things.
Brother Victor-Antoine most recent books are Christ the Merciful (Paraclete Press, 2016; http://www.paracletepress.com/Products/7725/christ-the-merciful.aspx) and Walk in His Ways and published in 2014 by Liguori Publications.