The Brother poet who inspires his sheltered community
Saint Bernard de Clairvaux once said 'you will find more in the forests than in books' - now his namesake is living the dream.
As you leave the Beatitudes community in southern France, you drive through vast woods where you encounter brothers and sisters on bicycles in long white robes - their monastic habit – and you get the feeling that you have stayed much longer, probably because there is such immediate conviviality and fraternity here.
The liturgy is marked by the strong expressiveness of the Charismatic Renewal: the songs are joyful, people clap their hands. Prayers of intercession, where everyone can join a small group to entrust a prayer intention to it, visits to the "Bread of the Word," a small box next to the altar where a sentence from the Gospel is drawn, are all opportunities for movement and meetings.
The dances of Israel, performed at a frantic pace Saturday evening during the "Vespers of the Resurrection," of Byzantine inspiration, are another moment of "praise to the Lord."
The refectory, which can accommodate up to 300 people and brings together consecrated brothers, consecrated sisters, lay people and the public, creates an arena for conversations that continue even while washing dishes. There is no enclosure in this community, no vow of silence but, within the branches, a "climate of silence" that invites a moderate conversation.
Today, the average age of the brothers is 45 years. When Xavier arrived, they were between 20 and 30 years old and the cheerful atmosphere was multiplied tenfold by their youth.
It is understandable that the wounded young man was attracted to this community ideal. "The call" came a few days later.
"I had lost everything, so I was ready to try this life. I asked Mary inside if she loved me and I had the feeling of a positive response, through my brothers," he says.
Having entered the Beatitudes in 1988, Xavier Perroy took his vows in 1994 and became Brother Bernard, a name chosen by the community. He likes his new identity, and this nature lover likes to quote a motto of Saint Bernard de Clairvaux: "You will find more in the forests than in books, the trees will teach you what no master will tell you."
From his tormented past, he has emerged with much humility and depth, even anguish and injury. His poetry testifies to this, composed of modest words and inviting the reader to look at the light, despite its "darker" side, to use a term he likes: "The veil of our infirmities is lifted / Letting a spring appear / For new touches."
He considers himself to be "a craftsman of words, at the service of the Word." And he pays tribute to the words: he waits for them, hopes for them, watches for them "like those shiny fish / that twist and twist / in the net of your poem / even just out of the water."
Between two offices, he keeps the library, the secretariat, helps with the kitchen, crockery and food donations. This weekend, the community is welcoming about 50 retreatants, divided into two spiritual sessions, one for engaged couples or newlyweds wishing to take stock, the other for singles. A young woman whose fiancé left her to become a priest asks: "Why did God do this to me?"
Another asks the same question because she and her partner are struggling.
Some would say that God had nothing to do with it. The conversation begins; the animator, gently and delicately, invites us to be discerning, in an Ignatian approach.
Brother Bernard, too, listens a lot to the sufferings, which is not so easy. He consoles, supports, with sentences like: "Why be disappointed when you can't? We're here to learn."
Community life also has its rough edges, however.
"There are three topics that are annoying in community life: politics, liturgy and cooking, so we avoid talking about them," he says firmly.
This denial also implies "a chosen but difficult, costly solitude."
He writes open and generous poetry. It invites the listener to the Epiphany and reconciliation with oneself.
Nevertheless, the brother poet feels that he is living as close as possible to the essential, happily declaring: "When we die, what will remain is the gesture of love that we will have put into writing a poem or washing the dishes."