A contemplative community inserted into the social texture of the village, through prayer and work, gives testimony of the presence of the Kingdom of God.
At last, we reached Natitingou, in the heart of the Atakora Mountain Range, six hundred kilometres north-west of Cotonou, the economic capital of Benin. Just outside the city, which is also the seat of the Archdiocese of the same name, at Pèporiyakou in the open countryside, stands the latest of the monastic foundations in Benin – Notre-Dame de l’Ecoute.
Benedictine Nuns have lived there for the past ten years, though they first came to the diocese in 2005. It was Msgr. Pascal N’Koué, the then Archbishop of Natitingou, who asked the Benedictine Abbey of Jouques, in southern France, to open a contemplative community in his diocese in order to respond to one great need – to have a place of spiritual regeneration and support for the journey of evangelisation and faith of the people of God.
At the door of the monastery we were welcomed by Mother Nathalie, the French Superior of the community of eleven religious, including three Beninese. “To be honest, at first the idea of leaving our Mother House in France for good and making our home here did not appeal to me very much. However, I now realise how much we receive in this place”, she admitted. “Here, we found values that have been lost in Europe, especially the value of time. To know how to dedicate time to others, to those who approach us, is also fully part of Benedictine spirituality”.
“The guest, the pilgrim who knocks on our door, is Christ himself. We are re-learning this here. It is a great experience. I think we can be of help to each other in this field – our African sisters need to learn how to plan and look ahead while we need to spend more time in reflection so as to avoid living always in the future, with the danger of not finding God who is to be found in the present moment. This, too, is inculturation”, she affirms.
Though they are dedicated to prayer, community life and manual work, the Benedictine nuns are very attentive to developments in the life of the local population, most of whom do not yet know Jesus Christ. They have started a project of re-forestation, planting 10,000 trees in an area where, as the French religious nun tells us, “too many trees have been cut down without replacing them”, with grave social and economic consequences. The two hectares already planted will enable the nuns not only to sell the timber but also to teach the population how to avail of resources without permanently damaging the environment.
The nuns also plan to create associations of women to produce maize, millet, soya and rice, the basic material required to make enriched flour for undernourished or malnourished children. Mother Nathalie adds, “By doing so, mothers with children will be able to cultivate products to be sold to the monastery – something that will benefit the mothers considerably in the economic running of their families. We will also provide advice and assistance through ONGs that are experts in agriculture”.
As well as the hostel, there is also a refectory and a well-equipped conference hall for various meetings. The nuns make the communion hosts for the diocese and keep a large orchards and a farm that provides fresh meat for sale. All of this gains the admiration of their neighbours. Mother Nathalie comments “the people are surprised to see us religious, white women working and using the hoe just like them. They do not understand this. I believe that it is only by our concrete testimony and not so much by our words that the Kingdom of God can come in these lands”.
Of all the praiseworthy and beautiful works undertaken by the Benedictine women, the most outstanding is their adaptation of the Divine Office – Liturgy of the Hours – in Latin, to the African situation. When the nuns decided to come to Benin, their concern was whether to continue to pray the Divine Office as they did in Jouques in Latin or to adopt French, the local official language. The Bishop of Natitingou advised them to continue as before and to make that decision on the spot. After coming to Benin, they tried to accompany the liturgy in Latin using the ‘kora’, a stringed instrument that is widely used in other communities in Africa but only for the liturgy in French. A monk, an expert in music whom they asked for help was, at first, very reticent. Afterwards, since Mother Nathalie insisted, he completed the work. It turned out to be, as she herself states, “beautiful, extremely beautiful!”.
Later on, the nuns came to know a young member of the Gregorian Choir of Paris who was visiting Benin. “At first, she was horrified just to hear that we were accompanying the Gregorian Chant with an instrument but, when she came here, she listened to us and found the singing so beautiful that she stayed some months with us to perfect our singing. This is what made it possible to produce ‘Lumière Grégorienne’, a collection of canticles in Latin for Easter time accompanied by the kora”, Mother Nathalie concludes.