Fourth letter of the Father Master of Sept-Fons to Father Lev, Father Master of Nový Dvůr


To answer your question: «What are the rules that govern the relationship between a Father Abbot and a Father Master of Novices?» is not easy. It is attempting the impossible. Still, I am going to try/.../: I write this letter to you on this 30th anniversary of Father Jérôme’s death – he was an exceptional master; and my only example.

Father Louis, who was Father Master at Sept-Fons in the 70’s, used to say: «The Father Masters never get any consideration!» This was not his only maxim; I can’t quote them all! /.../

Why such disenchantment in such a humble and upright man? Usually, one would answer this, with good reason, by saying that the Abbot, all Abbots, all superiors can hardly tolerate an influence that is parallel to theirs.

This is not incorrect. I have verified it in many confidences from Father Masters and Mother Mistresses: jealousies, pettiness, struggles for influence, for power, for authority, etc. … among nuns as well as monks. It is human and understandable. There cannot be two captains of the same ship.

Yet, the holy Rule illuminates us: «The Abbot will share his burden in complete safety...» And one of the statutes of the document concerning formation in our Order specifies that: «Between the Abbot and the Master of Novices there must be a deep unity of mind, of heart and direction...»

The Abbot should thus choose officers who share his ideas, his way of seeing things. Which should limit the risks.

The Abbot must not be afraid of placing at his side a good assistant who shares his opinions, who is a man of judgment and firmness. But this is not enough!

Our Constitutions add some enlightenment. When they were edited in the 90’s, I had already been Father Master for a long time. I was wondering what they were going to say, and was waiting for the axe to fall…quite erroneously. /.../

So what do they say about this? «The Master of Novices is selected according to his ability to win souls; /.../ he must be prudent, well imbued with monastic discipline, knowing how to pass on the Fathers’ wisdom and capable of acting as their guide.»

The portrait is accurate, balanced, and reasonable.

But these conditions are still not sufficient (even though they do scratch the surface of the problem), for the Father Master needs something that cannot be invented: charisma. /.../

The word no longer has much meaning because it has been overused. Let’s stick to its original meaning: a specific gift from Grace for a common good; a quality that enables one to exercise a healthy authority over others.

Several times, I happened to have been consulted on the selection of somebody or other for this office. Abbots and abbesses do what they can with what they have, and nowadays, their choice is often limited. Confronted with somebody who «might do», they think that a few good training courses, a few sessions – most of the time in an Ignatian context, which is for us monks the wrong track – will be sufficient and that «it will do», theory bridging limitations and deficiencies. This is a misconception.

Well, then? What is this charisma?

It is not that obvious. For a start, it is indeed the accumulation of all that we have just enumerated:

– that the Father Master knows his place.

– that the Father Master unconditionally and intelligently goes in the same direction as the Father Abbot.

– that he has the qualities identified in our Constitutions.

– that he has an affinity with the young brothers, that is to say...that he has this charisma.

None of your qualities is redundant in this situation; the tandem that you will form will be complex and demanding.

However well-oiled the car, and however competent the drivers, nobody can predict the state of the road that represents the young brothers to be trained: this is the unknown.

This being said, all of these accumulated and listed qualities still don’t answer your question:

How to make a success of this team of the Abbot and the Father Master? /.../

Its success depends on such an alchemy! Though it does exist; it is in your hands: Dom Samuel’s and yours.

It will advance from everything that I just wrote to you and from an infinite amount of tact between you.

This diplomacy is not based on affinity, sensitivity, sympathy, or friendship, etc...but, without excluding them, on a cemented sharing and esteem of our common monastic vocation; which is the very thing that attracts most of the postulants to the monastery:

– solemn worship

– making up for and interceding for the world

– Divine intimacy – this one is the basis of all our monastic life, within a community of brothers who share a common life, including a scriptorium and dormitory, manual labor, silence, and a true separation from the world.

This being so, you will be in a position to welcome and train young people together... if they happen to come to you; for the origination of vocations remains a great mystery. The great mystery of God and of the Most Holy Virgin, who are their providers. /.../