We recently completed a pleasant five day visit from the Abbot-General of our Order, Dom Bernardus Peeters. He’s the former abbot of Tilburg abbey in Holland and he’s travelling with his secretary Fr. Raphael who is from Citeaux Abbey in France.
Dom Bernardus shared a few stories of how things have been going in Tilburg. They were once a large community of over 100 in the 1950’s which wasn’t uncommon, but the number of monks slowly declined over the decades until there were only 9 monks left and it looked like the writing was on the wall. Through adapting and innovating in various ways they have turned round the decline and started growing again. There are currently 21 monks in their community.
Their use of technology is one innovation that contributed to turning the corner. On the Tilburg website can be found an e-novitiate, which is a series of short talks on video by the abbot. Another innovation was to do with the more traditional value of community. Dom Bernardus spoke to us of the ongoing need to find ways to include those on the margins. For example to build community spirit at Tilburg they started a cheese factory. The nature of the work meant the whole community of monks could work there together twice a week. This had a very positive effect on the brothers and he mentioned one of the elderly monks, in particular, who wasn’t able to attend many community activities. The old monk, in his 80’s, was able to make it to the cheese factory with the others, who found some work that he was able to do. His work was as simple as folding towels but this small contribution was a tremendous boost to his spirits as well as the whole community.
Dom Bernardus was very enthusiastic and generous with his praise for us. One of the things that stood out for him, at Kopua, was the silence we experience in our remote, rural location. He commented that most monasteries these days are close to built up areas which have expanded up to the monasteries doors. In Tilburg, for example, you look out one side and see a pleasant view of the countryside, but in the other direction all you can see is basically the city, with some traffic and construction noise.
The Abbot-General came to us after visiting Kurisumala Abbey in India and his next port of call is Tarrawrra Abbey in Australia. It was a wonderful blessing to spend time with him and Fr. Raphael. Dom Bernardus was very encouraging and left us with a lot to think about, a clear picture of monasticism in our present time and a few simple steps to take to move forward.