When I was learning French, there was a phrase I picked up without paying much attention to it. The phrase was « Je n’ai pas de voix au chapitre » and it means “I have no say in the matter.” It was only when I entered religious life that the literal translation – “I have no voice in Chapter” – took on serious meaning. The Chapter in a religious institute is the highest form of government, and to have no voice in Chapter is to have no role in the government of the institute.
There are different levels in religious Chapters. There is the Chapter of an individual house, which is what we have in my monastery and the other monasteries of Discalced Carmelite Nuns. For those institutes that are organized geographically into Provinces, there is the Provincial Chapter, and the houses belonging to that Province elect delegates to take part in the Provincial Chapter. Finally, the Provincial Chapters elect delegates to take part in the General Chapter of the institute. This happened last summer with our Carmelite Friars, who sent delegates to the General Chapter in Rome, where they elected our new Father General.
What is the work of a Chapter? According to canon law,
Can. 631 §1. The general chapter, which holds supreme authority in the institute according to the norm of the constitutions, is to be composed in such a way that, representing the entire institute, it becomes a true sign of its unity in charity. It is for the general chapter principally: to protect the patrimony of the institute mentioned in can. 578, promote suitable renewal according to that patrimony, elect the supreme moderator, treat affairs of greater importance, and issue norms which all are bound to obey.
§2. The constitutions are to define the composition and extent of the power of a chapter; proper law is to determine further the order to be observed in the celebration of the chapter, especially in what pertains to elections and the manner of handling affairs.
§3. According to the norms determined in proper law, not only provinces and local communities, but also any member can freely send wishes and suggestions to a general chapter.
Can. 632 Proper law is to determine accurately what is to pertain to other chapters of the institute and to other similar assemblies, namely, what pertains to their nature, authority, composition, way of proceeding and time of celebration.
What does this mean? It means that, contrary to what many people think, religious life is surprisingly egalitarian. It is not a dictatorship or unlimited monarchy, in spite of stories that parade the power of “Mother Superior” or “the Father General”. Government in a religious house is according to the norms laid down in the constitutions, and the primary organ of government is the Chapter. In an individual religious house, like my monastery, the Chapter is made up of all the members in solemn vows or the equivalent. That is, it is made up of those members who have made a definitive commitment to the institute. Those still in formation do not belong to the Chapter. A religious who has taken solemn vows and thereby made that definitive commitment to the institute can only be excluded from taking part in the Chapter for very serious reasons, evaluated by the religious superior of the institute. That is why “to have no voice in Chapter” is such a serious matter.
The Chapter elects the superior of the institute, in our case, the Prioress, and the officers of the Council. The Chapter makes major decisions affecting the community according to what is laid down in the constitutions. This can range from admitting applicants to the community, and then allowing them to move through the various levels of formation, to deciding on important projects that will affect all the members. Normally, the superior can freely spend what is needed for the ordinary running of the house, but any extraordinary expense must be approved by the Chapter.
Where does the name come from? Among the early Benedictines, the monks would gather to read a chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict and to listen to a meditation given by the Abbot. This is the primary aim of the Chapter: to deepen the spiritual life of the monks. Practical decisions flow from these spiritual depths. As it says in our Carmelite Rule,
“On Sundays too, or other days if necessary, you should discuss matters of discipline and your spiritual welfare; and on this occasion the indiscretions and failings of the brothers, if any be found at fault, should be lovingly corrected.”
The Chapter is so important to the life of the community, that often there is a special room in the convent or monastery reserved for Chapter meetings. Recently, the Trappist monastery in Vina, California, acquired the stones of a medieval Chapter house. Like most medieval Chapter houses, it is rectangular, though in England there was a tendency to build circular Chapter houses. Whatever the shape of the House, the religious sat around the sides of the building, emphasizing the fact that this was an assembly of equals. Every member of the Chapter has a free vote and canon law forbids any interference with the freedom of the members in casting their vote.
An excellent illustration of the importance of the Chapter in the life of religious is shown in the movie “Of Gods and Men” about the Trappists monks of Mt. Atlas. The screenplay is based on John. W. Kiser’s book, “The Monks of Tibhirine” and much of the dialogue is taken from the monks’ own documents. In the movie, we see the monks facing the need to make a practical decision that will have very serious repercussions, both for themselves and for others: should they remain in their monastery, at the risk of being tortured and killed, or should they leave the country? They had already taken many precautions, including the establishment of a daughter house in Morocco. Through several difficult discussions and much prayer, they come to understand that they must see their decision as a way to live out their monastic vocation as a community. This cannot be a democratic decision in the sense that the majority rules. They are led to the realization that their decision has to be a unanimous one based on each one’s discernment of God’s will for them all. This discernment forces them, one by one, to go beyond their own preferences. Each one, through prayer, must let God bring him to that point of openness to grace where, like Jesus in Gethsemane, he can say “Father, not my will but yours be done.”
This is the challenge of synodality.
Main image: Trappist monks of Tibhirine at the Monastery of Notre Dame de l’Atlas near Medea, Algeria. Vatican News.
Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.