The former marine commando who's now a Trappist abbot
Abbot Godefroy of Acey talks about how he found his way from the military to monastic life.
Photo by ARNAUD FINISTRE
The Trappists at the Abbey of Notre-Dame d'Acey in eastern France can now rely on more than just divine protection after the community's recent abbatial election.The 28 monks last March elected Dom Godefroy Raguenet De Saint-Albin, a former marine commando, to be the spiritual father of their monastery, which is located about 35 miles east of Dijon heading towards the Swiss border.
Abbot Goderfrey, who was born in Versailles in 1970, joined the Trappists some twenty years ago. He made his solemn profession in 2007 and was ordained to the priesthood in 2011.
But as La Croix's Christophe Henning discovered, his path to monastic life was quite unique.
You were named superior of Acey in January 2020 and the monks elected you abbot on March 25. So you've found a new community.
Dom Godefroy: And I continue to do so! It is a beautiful community, with solid territorial roots and this strong Franche-Comté identity. Modest, both solid and fragile, it has never been very numerous or very brilliant. Neither cheese nor Trappist beer is made here: since the 1950s, the abbey has developed an industrial activity of electrolysis. It is a beautiful human adventure, an efficient tool that ensures our subsistence.
A state-of-the-art technique in a multi-century abbey...
D. G. : Monastic life implies a withdrawal from the world, but it is part of an era. At Acey, the post-conciliar turn has swept away many "Trappist" customs to make way for something quite authentic, a little rough. Simplicity is the fundamental color of our life. Without forgetting the fraternal dimension that we are in the process of rediscovering.
So one never finishes becoming a brother?
D. G.: This is the daily work: to knead this human dough is to accept that the encounter with the other is the place of our conversion, because there is no other. How can we say "I love God" if we do not begin by loving our brother who is next door? We are not juxtaposed brothers with enough oil in the wheels so that it does not rub too much. We have come together to live this encounter of grace, which planes, adjusts, and fertilizes our humanities day after day.
The monastic life has impacted you since your youth...
D. G.: When I was 15, I was at Lérins, a magnificent abbey on the island of Saint-Honorat and a major tourist attraction: in the summer, young people are hired to act as a buffer between monastic peace and the noise of tourists and visitors. It was my first contact with contemplative life: I discovered the psalms, and above all, visibly happy people. The experience took a long time to be recognized as a proposal for life: short stays in a Cistercian abbey maintained the patient incubation of this virus.
Is that why you first chose the army?
D. G. : I went to the Naval Academy and chose the specialty of marine commando, where a thirst for adventure and an ideal, service to my country, and peace took shape. The human experience was very rich. However, a thirst was growing: frogmen are not exactly churchy people! I also experienced the ambiguities of a service of peace carried out through arms, which so often lays the bed for future conflicts through Manichean, even cynical, communication about "collateral victims".
How did the monastic project come back?
D. G.: It was the witness of Tibhirine that gave me a glimpse of another answer to my search. Appointed as an exchange officer in the United States, I left with the address of the Spencer Trappist monastery in Massachusetts, where the Lord was waiting for me. A monk put into my hands the book of Abbot General Dom Bernardo Olivera, How Far to Follow?, which presented the martyred brothers of Tibhirine. I discovered the paradoxical fecundity of this community life, hidden away, which attracted me when I rubbed shoulders with it for 24 or 48 hours in an abbey.
How did you enter into monastic life?
D. G.: In the United States I learned that there was an attempt to return to Tibhirine: five brothers were living in Algiers with this hope. And I wanted to be part of it. The first step was the novitiate at the Abbey of Aiguebelle: I was carried away by a sense of urgency, but I believe that this is true of many vocations that take us away from our way of life. The rest of the journey was less simple: six months after I returned with the idea of going to Tibhirine, this project of refounding came to a halt, and I never set foot in Algeria...
How did you feel about this change of course?
D. G.: Failure upsets, confuses, and deepens the truth of desire. It is a painful time during which grace is always present. Through the face of my father master, Dom John of the Cross, who had been prior at Tibhirine: I was the son of his old age. I made several visits to Midelt, in Morocco, which is an extension of the Tibhirine community, and I was able to live with the two survivors: Brother Amédée, who has since died, was a paschal man who had already passed to the other side, and Brother Jean-Pierre, for whom the film Of Gods and Men revealed his ultimate vocation as the last witness, which he still embodies today.
Instead of Algeria, you went to Syria?
D. G.: In 2014, I met a former novice from the monastery of Mar Moussa, north of Damascus, refounded by Paolo Dall'Oglio, the Jesuit who has been missing since 2013. Twice I asked to join this ecumenical community in dialogue with Islam. Twice, my community refused. But at the end of 2014, I was asked to be chaplain to the Trappistines, in Azeir, on the border with Lebanon. I accepted.
How did you experience being a monk in this country at war?
D. G.: This country, where the conviviality between religions had been extraordinary, has been ruined by a war that was largely imported. When the sisters arrived in Aleppo in 2005, they settled in the Alawite zone, on a hill, with a Christian Maronite village on one side and a Sunni village on the other. A year later, they found themselves on the front line and spent hours at night with a rosary in their hands. I arrived after the battle, even though the war was still close and the insecurity palpable. The position of chaplain is at the service of a community, without being a part of it. In spite of the state of war, the cultural and linguistic isolation, for three and a half years I had the joy of experiencing what I desired: to be this small grain of prayer in this sea of suffering. On my return, after several months at the Abbey of Hauterive (Switzerland), I was asked to be superior at Acey.
This took you away from dialogue with Islam: is this obedience? To let yourself be led where the wind blows?
D. G.: The wind is someone! To have experienced listening to Islam came from the Lord, and this call, as concrete as it was unexpected, in the Jura region, also comes from the Lord. If it comes from Him, He will know how to articulate the two... in His time.
What is the meaning of monastic life in today's world?
D. G.: The fruitfulness of monastic life, of which our seven brothers of Tibhirine are a shining example, is less a matter of doing than of being. When we are sick in a boat, it is often at the bottom of the hold because we do not have a horizon. With the shocks of the global health, ecological, economic and political crisis, our society is sick of not having a horizon. Monastic life, by its simple presence, opens a breach towards an Other, who is a promise, opens possibilities towards a horizon of meaning. This is the experience of those who come to the monastery.