Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Dom Gabriel Sortais: An Amazing Abbot in Turbulent Times

By Guy Oury, OSB, Cistercian Publications, 333 pages.

This interesting book uses notebooks, letters, and other source materials to come close to the heart of the vocation of a French Cistercian monk who died in 1963.

“'If you want to know at what moment God first asked me to follow him, remember the fire we were watching the evening before our departure for Noirmoutier, where I saw the flames die down at the spot where the cross from my rosary was,' he wrote to one of his sisters on September 30, 1923. This was the first sign of his call.”

This was the calling of a very passionate, even reckless young man who didn't make time for his studies. Not well known, the story of this monk sheds light on the mysterious struggle of vocation and the equally riddlesome Cistercian order, whose strict monasticism and tradition of near-silence seem so odd to this busy world.

Sortais' spirituality, rather than arid and cold, was as passionate and loving towards God as that of any modern Pentecostal:

“It was then that the full light came, which touched off a great interior struggle, and the struggle became obvious because of his copious tears. God's call was no longer a hypothesis; it was there, pressing, demanding an answer. But, then, could he refuse God? Did God require such a sacrifice? 'I found myself suddenly changed interiorly,' he wrote in his notebook.'”

Dom Sortais loved France, and so the author carefully recounts the monk's life through the lens of French and European history, including World War II, when he had to leave the monastery and become a military chaplain. He experienced the terror of coming upon a crowd of frenzied French citizens who, at the time of the worst German-French fighting, turned on two French nuns, accusing them of spying for the Nazis and then killing them. They then wanted to turn on Dom Sortais, but his strong character and indignant reaction to the murders ended the riot.

As with this example, the author shows Dom Sortais to be a born leader of men.

This is a worthwhile read because most English Catholic books are presently coming out of lay Catholic or seminary and diocesan priest experiences in English North America and academia. Dom Gabriel Sortais, conversely, tells the story of a now unusual spiritual path, and one that has the full weight of the Christian and European spiritual tradition behind it.

Monastic spirituality had been integral to the life of the Church up until the Second Vatican Council, and aside from a few exceptions such as Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating, these church leaders, to the extent that they are still around, are not being listened to by the wider church. This is a heavy loss, as their heroic way of life and strong sense of duty have much to counter the nonsense of current pop culture.

Dom Sortais lived a tough, real monastic life: “Feeling poor meant nothing to him.... He preferred to come back to God as to the source of all power a hundred times a day, like a beggar who gives away as quickly as he receives anything.”

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