Though Fr. Augustine Roberts, author of the highly regarded book Centered on Christ: A Guide to Monastic Profession (3rd ed., 2005), has been one of the most significant and influential Cistercian monastic figures over the past half century, he is little known outside his own order. The publication of this engaging memoir of his unusual life should do a good deal to change that. As the subtitle indicates, the book is structured as a series of letters – nine in all, addressed to “Eddie” (Fr. Edward Steriti), Fr. Augustine’s slightly older confrere and close friend from St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, who had encouraged him “to write something about [his] life, perhaps because it is not the typical history of a Trappist monk” (1). The structure is a transparently obvious convention, since the author relates many events, and on occasion even provides brief descriptions of monastic terms, that would certainly be known already to his fellow Cistercian. But rather than being distracting or seeming artificial, the “life in letters” format has given the book an attractive informality and warmth of tone that makes it particularly accessible, and must have made it easier for Fr. Augustine to write about himself.
There is no doubt that Fr. Augustine is correct in stating this his is hardly a “typical history of a Trappist monk” – perhaps no Trappist’s life is ultimately “typical,” but his has surely been more uncommon than most, as is evident from the very beginning. As the first letter relates, Bruce Roberts was born in 1932 in Nanjing, China, the fifth child and third son of Episcopalian missionaries; four years later his father became bishop of a diocese that included both Nanjing and Shanghai. Young Bruce could speak Mandarin before he could speak English. While he and his mother, as well as his older siblings, spent World War II in America, his father was interned in a detention camp for most of the war. Bruce returned to China after the Allied victory, attending the Shanghai American School for three years, then left for the Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts shortly before the Communist takeover of China.
The second letter describes his growing interest in religious questions while at Mount Hermon and his conversion to Catholicism during his freshman year at Yale, the third member of his family to go over to Rome. His brother Bill, ten years his senior, who had spent much of the war in prison as a conscientious objector, had become not only a Catholic but a Cistercian lay brother after wandering into the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of the Valley in Rhode Island in 1947. His mother joined the Church while still in China two years later, a rigorous testing of both her faith and her marriage in those less ecumenical days, weathered by herself and by her bishop husband with both grace and graciousness (her own quite beautiful testimony, written a year after her conversion but discovered only after her death in 1984, is included in the book as an appendix). The relatively short third letter presents Bruce’s own growing attraction to monastic life during his sophomore year at Yale, his visit to the abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, where the Cistercians had relocated after a disastrous fire at Our Lady of the Valley, his conversations with the vocation director, Fr. Thomas Keating (later to become abbot and a well-known spiritual writer), and the year spent in Boston for an immersion course in Latin before being admitted to the monastery. Though he had initially intended to become a lay brother like his sibling Bill (Br. Luke), a process of prayerful discernment led him to follow the advice of Fr. Thomas and enter the choir novitiate.
The two years of novitiate and three years of simple profession (1953-1958) are covered in the fourth letter, a period of both struggle and growth, of both spiritual and intellectual formation. Bruce initially became Br. John, but upon the return to the monastery of another John he had to find another name, at which point he became Augustine. The switch of novice masters from Fr. Hilarion, to whom he had become quite attached, to Fr. Thomas, whom he found at first more reserved and less approachable, was eventually recognized as a “one of the most important events of my early monastic life” (72) because of the quality of the new master’s spiritual instruction. However, when he later informed the abbot that he had decided to make Fr. Thomas his confessor it provoked an outburst that revealed some of the tensions present among the leadership in the abbey and foreshadowed a crisis to come.
The fifth letter considers Fr. Augustine’s ordination, his studies in Rome during the early days of the Second Vatican Council, and his assignment to the recently founded Trappist monastery in Azul, Argentina. It also circumspectly describes the events surrounding the forced resignation of Dom Edmund, the Abbot of Spencer, and the election of Fr. Thomas to replace him, a crisis that led Augustine’s brother Bill, serving as the abbot’s secretary, not only out of the monastery but out of the Church, a challenge and “deep emotional purification” (122) for Augustine himself.
Two decades (1962-1982) of life at Azul are covered in the sixth letter, a period of cultural adjustment (humorously epitomized by Augustine’s initial unease with the mustachioed Argentine bricklayer he worked with in building the permanent monastery complex, whom he later realized had reminded him of various banditti from western movies of his youth) that eventually led him to become a naturalized Argentinean citizen. During this period Augustine served first as novice master and eventually as superior of the community. This stage of his life came to a gradual end, as related in the seventh letter, when Fr. Thomas decided to resign as Abbot of Spencer and Fr. Augustine was asked to serve as temporary superior of the mother abbey, an assignment he agreed to only when he was permitted to remain superior at Azul as well, since he did not want to desert the young community before one of the younger Argentine monks was ready to assume full leadership. Eventually Fr. Augustine was elected to two full terms as Abbot of Spencer, through 1996, during a particularly difficult time of transition at the monastery.
In the meanwhile, one of Fr. Augustine’s former novices at Azul, and his successor as superior there, Fr. Bernardo Olivera, became the Cistercian Order’s first non-European Abbot General. Upon completion of his second term as abbot of Spencer, Fr. Augustine was asked by Fr. Bernardo to come to Rome to serve as his secretary, which he did after a short stint as temporary superior of the Trappist community at Scourmont in Belgium. When the Cistercian Procurator General, Fr. Armand Veilleux, became Abbot of Scourmont, Fr. Augustine was asked to step into this position, the principal liaison between the Order and the various departments of the Curia at the Vatican, and did so from 1998 to 2002, the period covered in the eighth letter. Both as secretary and as procurator general, Fr. Augustine traveled throughout the world to visit monasteries in Africa, Asia and New Zealand as well as in Europe and America, confirming the role of “global monk” that had in a way been his from birth. The final letter describes his return to Azul after being elected abbot there, his service until his retirement at age 75, and shortly afterward a trip to Shanghai where “I received Holy Communion at a Mass in Chinese, just like the pilgrim I was. It was obvious that this return to Shanghai marked a real closure for me, the closing of an almost lifelong geographical and historical circle” (225).
While Fr. Augustine’s autobiography is filled with fascinating details about his paradoxically peripatetic life as a monk vowed to stability, its most powerful moments focus on his spiritual journey. Simply, humbly yet powerfully, he testifies to the presence of grace and divine love in the usual and the unusual moments of his life. He writes of significant spiritual encounters with and through the written word, such as reading the autobiography of the Trappist convert Raphael Simon in the months leading up to his conversion (38); of first coming to an understanding and appreciation of the meaning of the Mystical Body while at Yale when he discovered Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis (59); of the importance of Dom Columbia Marmion (87) and of Thomas Aquinas (94-99) for his intellectual and spiritual development in the early years of monastic life. He shares his difficulties with and growth in prayer, including the struggle with and eventual acceptance of “dry prayer” with its inculcation of humility and dependence on God (83), the disappearance of distractions and sense of the divine presence that would at times come over him “like a peaceful cloud . . . for a few minutes during silent prayer” (89), and much later, the importance of charismatic forms of prayer, introduced by a Protestant pastor on retreat, in bringing harmony to the Azul community at a time of tension in the community between older American and younger Argentine monks. He relates certain “simple interior experiences” (133) that contributed to his own interior renewal, above all a growing appreciation of the meaning of “the heart” for a Christian life of deep commitment to and relationship with Christ. Perhaps the most significant spiritual insight and experience of his monastic life from the beginning to the present is the awareness of the spousal love of Christ, the “captivating inner presence . . . of an eternal Love, an interior Lover who could only be divine” first realized as a novice (66); confirmed by recognizing the same reality in Marmion’s presentation of the Incarnation as an invitation to participate in “the eternal divine wedding feast” of Trinitarian union (87-88); reiterated in detail in the final pages of the book as “the fulfillment not only of marriage, but also of the celibate life, . . . embodied above all, by Christ on the Cross” (234); and exemplified for Fr. Augustine in his encounter with “a faithful, simple monk” from Holland, who after forty years had stayed on as the last European at a Kenyan monastery because of his love for Africa and for his African brothers (240).
The title of this book comes from the parable of the treasure hidden in the field (Matt. 13:44), quoted as an epigraph at the outset of the story (v) and recalled (in its companion parable) on its final page in this encounter: “Here in the middle of Africa I had found a treasure, the gospel’s pearl of great value, spousal love flowing from God himself into the heart of Christ and into the heart of his Spouse the Church” (240). After completing the book, the reader can say that Fr. Augustine’s sharing of his life’s journey, of his discovery of the kingdom of heaven buried in fields throughout the world, in China and New England and Argentina and Rome and Africa and Asia and the South Pacific, is itself a genuine treasure, a precious jewel of illuminated and illuminating memories and reflections that is well worth the finding.