The Conversi Way of Life: Constitutions
P. 1 The holy abbots Robert of Molesme, Alberic and Stephen Harding gave the Benedictine tradition a particular form when in 1098 they built the New Monastery of Cîteaux, the Mother of us all, and founded the Cistercian Order. About 1125, Saint Stephen established the nuns’ monastery of “Tart”, as Cîteaux’s own daughter-house, entrusted to the pastoral care of the abbot of this monastery. The Exordium Parvum and The Charter of Charity express the vocation and mission that the founders received from God which the Church has authoritatively approved both in their times and in ours. Under the influence of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and others the ideal of this reform spread and monasteries of monks and nuns following the Cistercian way of life multiplied even beyond western Europe. From the very beginning the Order received lay memers, called conversi. A substantial spiritual heritage was engendered through the lives and labours of innumerable brothers and sisters that found expression in writing, chant, architecture and crafts, and in the skilful management of their lands.
P. 2 In recent decades, more and more men and women who have been attracted to the Cistercian virtues, but unable, for one reason or another to commit to a cloistered life have responded to a call from the Holy Spirit to establish charismatic associations with monasteries, and through them to the wider Cistercian community.
Today, a lay Cistercian is a person who feels a calling from God to lead a contemplative and spiritual life in the world, a life modeled on the wisdom of Cistercian values and practices, and who seeks a community of like-minded people. The Conversi on-line community is a “daughter house” of the Associates of the Iowa Cistercians and as such is in association with the monasteries of New Melleray and Our Lady of the Mississippi.
Ch1: The Conversi Way of Life
C. 1 The Tradition of Conversi
The Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance has its origin in that monastic tradition of evangelical life that found expression in the Rule for Monasteries of Saint Benedict of Nursia. The founders of Cîteaux gave this tradition a particular form and the monasteries of the Strict Observance strongly defended certain of its principles. In 1995 a group of individuals who felt called to Cistercian values and practices, gathered at the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of New Melleray at the initiative of it’s abbot, to form the Associates of Iowa Cistercians (AIC). In 2005 AIC decided to establish a daughter community for people who, for various reasons, found it difficult or impossible to gather for the monthly meeting. At present membership in Conversi is limited to 50 people from various parts of the world.
C. 2 The Nature and Purpose of Conversi
Conversi is an on-line community comprised of individuals living in the world who order their lives towards contemplation. Gathered by the call of God, they dedicate themselves to the worship of God within the world. There they strive to lead a life of prayer by following the Rule of Saint Benedict in order to apply Christ’s message of love and service. Attentive to God’s Word and responsive to the Holy Spirit, they strive to practice self-denial in following Christ. The organization of the Conversi community is directed to bringing its members into a closer union with Christ since it is only through the experience of personal love for the Lord Jesus that the specific gifts of the Cistercian vocation can flower. Membership in Conversi is open to all Christian adults.
C. 3 The Spirit of Conversi
The monastery is a school of the Lord’s service where Christ is formed in the hearts of its members While members of Conversi are not cloistered, but live in the world, it is essential that they maintain a relationship with the sponsoring Abbeys through regular participation in formation forums and chat rooms. Members are also encouraged to visit one of the monasteries for personal retreats, as time is available.
The Cistercian way of life in the world is a consecration to God expressed in relationships, community, prayer, work and a disciplined life. Living in the world and following in the footsteps of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, members of the Conversi community aspire to that interior quiet in which wisdom is born. Through humility and obedience they struggle against pride and sin.
C. 4 Committed Lifestyle
By making a personal commitment, Conversi members unite with other members of Conversi, as well as with the monks and nuns of New Melleray and Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbeys, in seeking a sincere conversion of life.
C. 5 Stability of Community
Members of the Conversi community trust in the providence of God who has called them to this community and this group of people. Without regular and active participation in the Conversi community, it is impossible to be a member of the community. In this sense, faithful participation in the Conversi community is a type of stability not unlike the stability of the monks and nuns within the monastery.
C. 6 Conversion of Life
Through conversatio morum, members of the Conversi community make a commitment to live a lifestyle that is shaped by Cistercian values and practices. By following the Gospel and by adhering to the practice of Cistercian discipline, Conversi members endeavor to behave and act on a daily basis in ways that are consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
C. 7 Obedience
By adhering to obedience, members of the Conversi community attempt to live their lives under the Rule of Saint Benedict and in service to one another and the community as a whole. In this renouncing of will, they follow the example of Christ and commit themselves to the school of the Lord’s service.
(NOTE: Obedience, conversatio morum and stability constitute the vows that Cistercian monks and nuns make during solemn profession. While members of the Conversi community do not make vows, their profession of commitment reflects these three basic building blocks of Cistercian life, but within a life lived in the world.)
C. 8 Humility
Humility is the quality by which a person considering his/her own defects has a lowly opinion of self and willingly submits to God and to others for God’s sake. St. Bernard defines it as “A virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself.” Following in the footsteps of Christ (“Learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to our souls”), the members of the Conversi community pursue an honest view and appraisal of themselves, and seek to live humbly within the community.
C. 9 Prayer and Meditation
Like every act that makes for salvation, grace is required not only to dispose us to pray, but also to aid us in meditative prayer. Through meditation, members of the Conversi community seek to become one with God through attentiveness of heart and solitary prayer. Like silence, it assures solitude, fosters mindfulness of God and community, opens the mind to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. The members of the Conversi community are encouraged to spend some time every day in meditative prayer.
C. 10 Praying the Psalms
The Church has always considered the Psalms her most perfect book of prayer. A great part of the Divine Office is taken from the psalms. As Merton said: “In the Psalms, we drink divine praise at its pure and stainless source.” Members of the Conversi community are encouraged to pray the psalms daily.
C. 11 Enclosure
Enclosure does not refer solely to remaining within the confines of the monastery. It refers more specifically to guarding one`s heart and protecting it against the inroads of the world. In their daily lifestyles, members of the Conversi community put into practice the guard of the heart.
C. 12 The Imitation of Christ
Following on the book of the same title, the Imitation of Christ is to instruct the soul in Christian perfection with Christ as the Divine Model. It is the core of the Cistercian life and towards which the School of Charity is oriented. Members of the Conversi community are encouraged to model their lifestyles on Christ using the examples and insights of the Cistercian charism.
C. 13 Life of the Community
Members of the Conversi community seek unity of spirit in the love of God through contributing to the up-building of the Conversi community. The preservation of unity among Conversi members depends on a sincere and mutual effort to respond to one another’s needs on a regular basis.
The members of the Conversi community have the right and duty to participate fully in the community, although this participation can be exercised in different ways. All are called to mutual care, mutual cooperation and mutual obedience. All are to be concerned for the spiritual state of the community, which includes a willingness to respectfully share perspectives, ideas and concerns through active participation in the on-line site. Members of the Conversi community bear one another’s short-comings with patience, serve one another humbly, and support one another by prayer and by other appropriate means.
C. 14 Liturgical Life
The spiritual character of the Conversi community is especially evident in the celebration of liturgy. The church’s liturgy, as well as the liturgical aspects of monastic practices, strengthen and increase both the inner sense of one’s Cistercian vocation and communion among members. Members of the Conversi community are urged to incorporate one or more hours of the Divine Office in their daily schedule as well as other opportunities to participate in the Church’s liturgy.
C. 15 Celebration of the Eucharist
Eucharist is the source of the whole Christian life and of Lay Cistercians’ communion in Christ. For this reason, members of the Conversi community are encouraged to participate in the Eucharist whenever possible. It is by the sharing of the paschal mystery of the Lord that members of the community are united more closely with one another and with the whole Church.
C. 16 Work of God
For Cistercian monks and nuns, nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God. While the daily schedules of most members of the Conversi community precludes participation in the entire Liturgy of the Hours, they are urged to incorporate one or more of the hours into their daily life so that each may participate in the Church’s official prayer of praise and intercession.
C. 17 Lectio Divina
Careful lectio divina greatly strengthens Conversi members’ faith in God. This excellent monastic practice, by which God’s Word is heard and pondered, is a source of prayer and contemplation where the person speaks heart to heart with God. For this reason, members of the Conversi community are urged to spend some time everyday in lectio divina.
C. 18 Work as Prayer
Work, especially manual work, has always enjoyed special esteem in the Cistercian tradition since it gives monks and nuns the opportunity of sharing in the divine work of creation and restoration, and of following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. It expresses solidarity with all workers. Moreover work is an occasion for a fruitful asceticism that fosters personal development and maturity. Members of the Conversi community are encouraged to approach their work, whether paid or unpaid, with a spirit of mindfulness and prayer.
By cultivating mindfulness of God, members of the community extend the Work of God throughout the whole day. Furthermore, to the greatest extent possible, they should take care to develop an environment favorable for silence and quiet. They should devote themselves frequently to prayer, and seek daily a time for reading and prayerful reflection.
Silence is counted among the principal monastic values of the Cistercian Order. It assures solitude, fosters mindfulness of God and community, opens the mind to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, and encourages attentiveness of heart and solitary prayer to God. Although finding moments of silence in one’s daily life may be difficult, members of the Conversi community are urged to create some time each day for silent prayer and awareness of God.
C. 21 Asceticism and Simplicity
Following the example of the Fathers of CÎteaux who sought an uncomplicated relationship with God, members of the Conversi community are urged to foster a personal lifestyle of simplicity in a manner that is consistent with their personal and family responsibilities. When possible, Conversi members are urged to incorporate periods of manual labor into their daily lives. Manual labor, which has always enjoyed special esteem in the Cistercian tradition, can be an occasion for asceticism and can promote health of mind and body.
C. 22 Apostolate of Lay Cistercians
Although Cistercian monks and nuns cannot be called upon to meet the needs of the active apostolate, members of the Conversi community, given their life in the world, may consider their participation in the Cistercian charism in light of the needs of the Church as a whole and the needs of their local church. Nonetheless, the goal of participation in the Conversi community is not an active apostolate, but rather the development of the contemplative life as a way of participating in the mission of Christ and his Church. To this end, Conversi members are urged to develop a degree of separation from those cultural values and contemporary standards that are inconsistent with spiritual practice.
Ch2: The Service of Authority
C. 23 The Ministry of the Moderator
1. The moderator is a member of both AIC and Conversi, and is appointed by AIC to give guidance and pastoral care to Conversi. S/he is ex officio a member of the Conversi Council.
C. 24 The Council
- The council is selected from individuals who have been members of Conversi for at least eighteen months/two years and who have indicated a willingness to serve in this capacity.
- The council is responsible for
- the general oversight of Conversi,
- assuring the pastoral care of members,
- supervising the admission of new members,
- overseeing the formation of members,
- setting, and collecting the annual membership fees.
- providing a liaison with other Cistercian associate groups, the monasteries, and the OCSO.
C. 25 Pastoral Care of Members
The council may appoint members to assist in the administration and pastoral care of members, as needs warrant. (Statutes on guesthouse, formation people, etc?)
Ch3: The Process of Formation
C. 26 Members of the Conversi community participate in a structured formation process during which time they explore information about Cistercian values and practices, and are supported in their efforts to apply these to their lives.
C. 27 The role of the Conversi community in the process of formation is to help each member to assimilate the essential elements of the Cistercian way of life.
C. 28 Formation topics may include but not be limited to a Cistercian understanding of:
- Divine Office
- Imitation of Christ
- Meditative Prayer
- Praying the Psalms
- Silence and Solitude
- Work as prayer, and
C. 29 Although the physical resources of Conversi are limited, its goal is to provide access to as many persons interested in membership as possible. Nonetheless, the limitation of resources may make it necessary to restrict membership to those who are able to participate regularly in the life of the community. In addition, membership is limited to adult Christians.
C. 30 Each year, the Conversi community will be provided an opportunity to visit one or the other of the two monasteries and to participate in a retreat together. These retreats will be conducted by members and may include presentations by the monks and nuns of New Melleray and Mississippi Abbeys.
C. 31 Members of the Conversi community do not take vows or make binding commitment to the Conversi community or New Melleray or Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbeys. On the other hand, members may make personal promises regarding their Cistercian lifestyle, values and practices. These statements of personal commitment are made with the support of the membership of Conversi and the communities of New Melleray and Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbeys.
C. 32 In the Joy of the Holy Spirit
These are the Constitutions of Conversi, a community of Lay Cistercians. May God grant that through the Holy Spirit, they may observe them in fraternal charity and fidelity to the Church, and so joyfully make their way to the fullness of love with the help of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of Cîteaux.