This text is the author's copy and may vary slightly from the publisher's copy.
Please note: Due to a faulty listing on Google, I've been contacted by numerous people seeking information about the Community of the Beatitudes. So for the record, I will say: this article was written in 1997. I am NOT afflilated with the Community of the Beatitudes and do not have any current contact information for any of the houses or members (my last contact with them was in 1997, before they even had a website!). Also, since this article was written, the Archdiocese of Denver has invited the community to his diocese, and they have a community there. For more information, please go to www.beatitudes.us and make your inquiries there. Thanks!
We arrived at the four-story convent in Quebec around ten at night, and were unsure of which door to try, the side door or the front door beneath the new white sign, "Communite de Beatitudes": "The Community of the Beatitudes." Both doors were unlocked.
Finally we found a bell to ring, and a woman in her thirties came to the door, her hair escaping from a knot in the back. She wore a white shirt and a brown skirt, and her English was good.
"Welcome!" she said, ushering us to our room, explaining that our bedroom was one recently vacated by a couple who had left the convent in order to move to France. The suite of room she showed us was fresh in its white paint, tastefully trimmed with natural wood beams, simple, sparse, and inviting.
"I will bring up food for your breakfast tomorrow, or you may join us downstairs for breakfast," the woman said, smiling. "Sometimes the families eat alone, sometimes with the rest of the community."
In the morning, we joined her and another woman from the community, also dressed in brown and white, in the chapel for the rosary. We sat in the pews along with a few other women in ordinary dress, whom we later learned were relatives on a visit, while the two community women knelt on an oriental carpet spread before the tabernacle. The Rosary was prayed in French and English.
The chapel was a fine balance of ornate simplicity. In a recess draped in red velvet at the center of the far wall stood a glittering tabernacle with a crucifix above it. Before the white-covered altar were two lecterns hung with gold cloth, holding icons: the Virgin and Child and the the face of Christ. Votive candles in silver hanging lamps flickered before them. On the altar itself was a golden menorah, all seven candles lit.
After the Rosary, other community members trickled into the chapel for Lauds, the community's morning prayer. The men were dressed in white shirts with brown pants, and the women wore long white woolen robes. I later learned that in the colder months, all community members wear these capes, which resemble the prayer robes worn by Carmelite nuns. One of the last members to enter was a mild-faced nun in a white habit, who took her place at the center.
Prayer began with a vigorous Jewish rendition of Psalm 95, "Come before the Lord with singing," sung in four-part harmony to the accompaniment of hand-clapping and a bongo drum. After the song, the community broke into spontaneous singing and praise, the sort typical of charismatic prayer meetings, while a man chanted a psalm from the Liturgy of the Hours. Then the nun advanced to the center lectern to read from the Bible and lead the intercessions.
After prayer ended, two young men set up the altar for Eucharistic adoration. The nun reverently removed the Host from the tabernacle and placed it in the monstrance. The day-long adoration began with the entire community prostrating themselves on the carpet, except for the nun, who stood gazing steadily at the Host.
A Monastic Life for Families
The nun, I later learned, was Sister Faustina, the "shepherd," or house leader, of this particular convent in the Community of the Beautitudes. In this convent, a nun, a novice monk, three families and a handful of single men and women share a life of silence, contemplative prayer, and work. They share their way of life with hundreds of other people in over forty convents throughout Europe and the Third World.
Brother Ephraim, a deacon and convert to Catholicism, started the Community of the Beatitudes in the 1970's in France with just two couples who wanted to form a monastic way of life for families. They drew strength from many movements and groups: Vatican II, the charismatic renewal, the Marian movement, the Jewish religion, the Eastern Catholic Churches.
The Community terms itself "three-quarters monastic," because they do engage in outside apostolates, although they attempt to spend at least three to five hours a day in prayer, and to live in silence as much as possible. The Community was recognized as a Private Association of the Faithful in 1985 under the New Code of Canon Law by Bishop Coffy of Albi, France. There is a strong probability that the continued growth of the community will require a whole new legal definition to be created for them by Rome.
A Mission to the Jewish People
I ask Diane Belangers, a single woman in the Canadian house, about the menorah placed on the altar during prayer. She told us that Brother Ephraim spent a year in Jerusalem when the Community was forming. There he realized "that the first Christians did what the Jews did. The first Christians kept the Sabbath and the Jewish feasts. So he decided that we would have all the Catholic feasts and the Jewish feasts in our community, and that we would pray for the Jewish people, that they would come to know Jesus as the Messiah. We do not go out and try to tell them this, because then they would just hate us. But when you pray for someone, you also try to show them that you love the things they love."
To do this, the community commemorates all of the Jewish feasts in Hebrew fashion: with prayer, fasting, chanting, and more often, singing, dancing, and feasts. Every Friday night, they begin their celebration of the Jewish Sabbath with lighting candles and a special Sabbath meal.
"Jesus was a good Jew. He kept the Sabbath always. Even in death. He 'rested' in His tomb on the day of rest," Diane pointed out.
Saturday is spent preparing for the fulfillment of the Sabbath, Sunday: the day of the Resurrection of the Lord. That night, the dining hall is decorated with flowers and the special icon of the Resurrection is displayed. Guests are welcomed to join them for special vespers, with a celebration afterwards including coffee and cake and Jewish dancing in the dining hall.
Catholic feasts are also commemorated with celebrations. The second day of our visit was the Catholic feast of the Queenship of Mary. A picture of Mary crowned queen was set up in the chapel, flowers were put on the altar, and the community took a break from their daily work to go to the country for a hike and a picnic.
In the community, the charismatic renewal has come to the next natural stage: ritualization. Members pray charismatic-style, hands upraised, but they all do so together. During the songs, they bow or kneel at the same time. Handclapping had a precise pattern. But instead of seeming mechanical, the ritualized "charismatic" prayer appears even more heartfelt and beautiful. And unlike some charismatic prayer, the ritualized prayer made us outsiders feel comfortable, and encouraged us to participate.
The community has developed their own version of the Liturgy of the Hours. Morning prayer borrows much from Jewish prayer, while Evening prayer uses the chant and the prayers of the Eastern Catholic churches. Night prayer is sung in Latin. In addition to this, the Rosary is prayed three times a day, and each person has a private hour of adoration. There are teachings given by Sister Faustina and usually a daily Mass.
The rest of the time is taken up with work: cooking, chores, repairs on their old convent, song practice, and artwork.
On our second day with the community, a man named Steven was appointed to give us a tour of the convent. We got a chance to see a family's apartment -- a family with two teenagers. It was small, but furnished nicely in a country style. There were books, a stereo, plants on the tables. The walls were painted different colors -- yellow, beige. We were very impressed when Steven told us that all the work, including the electrical and plumbing, was done by the community.
On the top floor of the convent were rooms set aside for different artists in the community to use. "If a community member has a gift, an artistic gift, we try to help them develop it. All these gifts come from God," Steven said.
One woman paints icons and creates hand puppets. Another man does pottery and repairs statues, while other members compose music and grow plants. One couple, Michelin and Gaston, used to travel across France doing puppet shows on the lives of the saints, but as they grew older, this ministry became more and more difficult for them. But then, another ministry became possible through the generousity of a friend of the community.
Stephan ushered us into a small television studio on the top floor. Two studio video cameras faced a black-hung screen. Around the room stood elaborate sets and dozens of puppets -- apostles, Phairisees, sheep, nuns, wolves, priests, Indians, peasants, queens, with realistic faces and elaborate costumes.
Our guide told us that the community has been videotaping the puppet shows with the help of the donated television equipment. Students from the University of Steubenville helped to dub the shows into English so that they can be shown on EWTN, the Catholic cable network. All the sets and puppets are made by the community members.
In each studio was a small altar with an icon and a vigil lamp. "The artist lights the candle before he or she begins to work," Stephan said. "In this way, the work is a prayer."
The structure of the community is similar to that of a religious order, with adjustments for married people. Like a religious order, the individual houses depend primarily on donations for their survival. Members of the community have no property or savings. Families are allowed to have their own furniture, dishes, and essentials for raising the children, but they try to live as simply as possible.
The shepherds, who are usually nuns (although some shepherds are priests, deacons, monks, or married men) serve for terms of four years. They are the spiritual directors and house leaders of the particular convent they are assigned to.
Entrance to the Community requires a one-year inquiry stage, a one-year postulancy, and a three to six year novitiate. Upon entering the Community, single and married people make formal promises, while those called to be nuns or monks take vows before a bishop and don religious habits. All other members wear white shirts with brown skirts or pants, with olive-wood crosses around their necks. After formal entrance to the Community, a lamb is carved on the cross.
A writer in Fire and Light in the Living Tradition, a magazine put out by the Community, states that the blend of married, single, and celibate people within the community is "a great source of balance" which enables each person to give of his best. "Both ways of life are a stimulant for those who might have a slight tendency towards apathy."
In order to maintain silence in the common areas, the families's quarters are usually placed on a separate wing or floor. Parents with children join the Community for prayer whenever possible. Other members baby-sit when the parents take their hour of adoration. Community children attend outside schools.
In order for a married couple to join the Community, both spouses and all the children in the family must agree on the decision. If one of the children doesn't feel comfortable living in community after a trial period, the family is discouraged from joining. "The life is already tough, so you don't want to make it tougher," Diane explained.
If a family enters when their children are young, and after growing older, the children dislike living in community, the parents are encouraged to leave for the sake of the family. But typically, children raised in a community enjoy community life. Some enter the Community as adults, some do not. Diane added that a few years ago, a group of teenagers and young adults who had been raised in the French communities made a joint statement applauding their parents for choosing this way of life.
When the parents join the community formally, they give up all their possessions, retaining only essentials such as dishes and furniture which they can use in their apartments and pass onto their children. Typically, they put all of their money into their children's accounts, so that the children can use it for schooling. Sometimes, Diane says, if the parents don't have enough money to send all of their children to college, God provides the money through some other way. "But He always provides the money until the end of high school," she adds.
The community's method of trusting to Providence to provide is through total committment. Each house tithes ten percent of the donations they receive to charity. "And when there's no money coming in, what we do is we give all of it to the poor. Say we have only twenty dollars -- we give it all to the poor. And then God gives back. That's how it works."
What happens, I asked, if a person or a family wants to leave the community after they make their formal committment? Diane laughed. "It's not like you're in a cult. If people need to leave, they are allowed to leave. But if they have made promises, they have given everything away. The Community usually gives them some money to start back in life. They give what they can give -- food, furniture. They can't give a million, you know, because we're not rich. But they can give enough so they can start out."
People who want to share in the Community life without entering a monastery can become Friends of the Lamb. They join the Community for prayer whenever they can, and if they live at a distance, they pray using cassette tapes of the Community services. The Canadian Community has a few affiliated members in the States, but most are from Canada.
I asked if they had any Americans interested in joining the Community. She said that a handful have visited the Community, but "for most people it is better to enter the Community in their own country. I know there will be a foundation in the U.S. God said so. But He didn't say when. So we have to wait."
What is needed, she said, if for a U.S. bishop to invite them into their diocese. Why would a bishop invite you, I asked. She replied, "Well, usually they want to have a contemplative community in their diocese. There are many of these, but sometimes they like that our community has vocations for couples as well as single people."
The Community gives retreats at the request of their bishop, traveling to different parishes to do days of reflection, parish missions, and confirmation retreats. They usually they attend daily Mass and Sunday Mass in the parish where they are located. "Because if we stayed in our convent all the time, it would look strange, and no one would get to know us. They wouldn't feel we were part of the parish. And we want to be. So even if we have a priest, we go to the parishes, usually three times a week."
Although they can't visit parishioners, they usually do become acquainted with them through retreats and other services. And people know that the Community's prayer time is open to the parish, especially the Saturday night vespers.
"We try not to do too much because otherwise we would be on the road to much. And our life here, we have to work. The convent that they give us is usually an old convent. So we have to repair, we have to make rooms, there is a lot of work to do. And we need time to do that."
Although the outreach of this Community is primarily spiritual, in other areas larger communities are able to do more. The Community has a book, tape, and video ministry. Communities in the Third World build houses for the poor. Many houses welcome handicapped and disabled people into their midst, inspired by the "L'Arche" communities founded by Jean Vanier. The French communities are quite involved in the pro-life movement, doing crisis pregnancy work.
"Here we can't do that -- we are only fifteen people. Usually we do mainly retreats." However, the Canadian Community was able to help out one unwed mother who came to them for help. She lived with them in the convent until she had her baby, and then they helped to set her up in an apartment. She remains a close friend.
Diane encouraged us to spend an entire week next time we came to visit. "Every day is different, and so you must come for an entire week, or else you won't get to know it. If you come Monday through Sunday, you get a good idea of what's going on." She said that the Community is always open to visitors, provided that the Community is not away on retreat.
As we drove home, my husband and I agreed that this Community offers something we have not really seen: an embrace of beauty within poverty, as a means to both glorify God and evangelize others. Perhaps some day soon, the Community of the Beautitudes will be able to share this charism with the Catholic Church in America.
For more information on the Community of the Beatitudes, go to beatitudes.us.
copyright Regina Doman, 1999. This document is available for republishing only after the author's permission has been obtained. Click the top button for an email link to the author.