Bernard Besret: the utopia of Boquen

In the hot afternoons of the first week of last August, in the shade of a lime tree in Champigny-sur-Veude, a peaceful French village surrounded by wide sunflower and corn fields, I read with both enthusiasm and uneasiness Béatrice Lebel-Goascoz’s doctoral dissertation Boquen entre utopie et révolution1965-1976 (Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2015). It is a fascinating story of Bernard Besret.

He ceased being in the news long time ago, but he is still a refreshing and inspiring figure. A prophetic, visionary and courageous man. A man with a mystic soul, open eyes, a captivating word. Free and loyal to the fire that lived within him, and still does. During a decisive decade of the history of the world that we had to live through, he lead a vigorous movement of spiritual, cultural and political reform. It happened during the years 1965-1976, so close in time and yet so distant from today.

It was a time of promise. From the end of World War II (1945) until 1980, rainbows of hope appeared over the Earth. More than 50 countries in Africa, Asia and America which had been colonized by European states obtained their independence. A just, brotherly and free world seemed possible. Several Mays like that of ’68 in France waved their flags of utopia, shaking the foundations of the established order. A refounding of politics and economics, a social, cultural, spiritual revolution was germinating. In the Roman Catholic Church, a conservative and very old Italianpope unexpectedly called Vatican Council II (1062-1965) under the slogan of aggiornamento or updating. Let windows and doors open, he proclaimed. Old locks gave way. Multitudes of young people, who still filled the churches in Europe and America, could dream. In the oppressed Latin America, grassroots Christian communities proliferated, inspired by the liberation theology. It appeared that another Church was being born: a Church that was a communion of diverse and free communities, without hierarchy; a Church that was a sister rather than a mother, companion rather than ruler, dialogue rather than teaching, charisma rather than normative, leavening rather than creed, steward of life and the earth rather than worshipper of the god in heaven. Inspiration and encouragement rather than a power structure.

On the day of his first communion, Bernard Besret, a precocious Breton child, abandoned the old institutional Church and soon started on the inner path that will open him to horizons and widths with no inside or outside. After the death of his mother when he was 13, he felt more intensely the nameless and shapeless Flame of living love burning inside the depths of his being. He became a seeker. He read Aristotle, Leibnitz, Aldous Huxley, Laozi… A desire to pursue a retired life in some ashram or monastery was growing within him. One day of 1952, when he was 17, a high school classmate told him about his recent visit to the monastery of Saint Mary of Boquen (Brittany) –which in Breton means “white hawthorn” and in Basque “Arantzazu”, a coincidence that fills me with emotion. There, a charismatic Cistercian monk, Alexis Presse, a Breton, too, had just finished restoring the old monastery that was in ruins and started an innovative project of monastic life linked to the Breton culture. Bernard went to visit him immediately and was fascinated. A year later, Dom Alexis received him as novice and a profound harmony of inspiration and project sprang between them.

In spite of the young monk’s resistance to all clerical orders, Abbot Alexis ordained him as priest and sent him to Rome to study philosophy and theology. Because of his seductive personality, his spiritual depth, his impressive intellectual capacity, his captivating word, many wanted to be close to him. The Abbot General of the Cistercian Order made him his personal assistant, a Breton bishop called him to accompany him in Vatican Council II (1962-1965) as his private theologian. A brilliant future was opening up for him in the all-powerful Vatican Curia in Rome where he could climb up to the top of the ladder. But Bernard did not aspire to any of that. He returned to Boquen. There, during 10 years, the hawthorn blossomed and the thorns were painful.

In 1964, due to Dom Alexis’ serious illness (he died the following year), and to his request, the Cistercian Order named Bernard Abbot. At 29 he took over from his spiritual mentor. Crowds of young and grownups, students and professors from Brittany and Paris, leaders of ’68, social activists, farmers and city dwellers from anywhere came to the monastery. All kinds of dreamers and activists. Critical Catholics, protestants, atheists, homosexuals, divorced and remarried people… every one was equally accepted. Y. Congar, M.D. Chenu, M. Légaut, J. Moingt went there, too. The beauty of the place, the innovative liturgy, the silence and the profound prayer, the sublimity of the polyphonic chant composed (or improvised in a jazz manner) by Bernard and sung by himself and two of his companions, the elegance of the young Abbot and his fiery words, drew them in.

Where to? To a new monastic life, to a communion open beyond all cloisters, beyond the canonical distinction between monks and lay people, the rigid separation between men and women, the liturgical norm. To a new charismatic and brotherly-sisterly Church, with no classes or hierarchy, with no clergy, religious and lay people, with no limits between orthodoxy and heresy, a Church of communion with no anathemas. To a free and brotherly world, with no inequality or submission, no hunger or exclusion or closed borders, a revolution with no violence. To a new spiritual and non-confessional Christianity, with no separation between sacred and profane, with no necessary adherence to any creed, with no literal reading of the Bible and the dogmas, with no pretension of exclusivity or superiority over other religions or over no religion, a Christianity with desacred sacraments, an eco-feminist, mystic and political Christianity, “a critical, lyric and political Christianity” in Bernard Besret’s words.

But, was it possible? It was, as long as he was there. With his personal charisma, he eased all disagreements and built balances. The decisive question is, I think: could the Cistercian Order and the Catholic institution tolerate the evolution of Boquen and the continuity of the young Abbot? Why could it not be so? But it was not. The final excuse or reason occurred on August 20th, 1969, feast of Saint Bernard, when Dom Bernard pronounced a high-profile conference about “Boquen, yesterday, today and tomorrow”. In that talk, he proposed, as a matter of fact, a sabbatical year for all clergy and men and women religious to discern and to abandon or maintain their celibacy vows. Scandal in the Catholic Church!

Two months later, on October 15th, the Abbot General of the Cistercian Order dismissed Dom Bernard as Abbot, ordering him to abandon the monastery before the end of the month. From that moment on everything was more difficult. Positions became dangerously radicalized. In the monastery, the ecclesial opposition threatened with suffocating the search for silence, the political revolution seemed to eclipse mystical aspirations. In church institutions, tolerance margins kept narrowing and multiplying reconventions. Cornered and trapped, in October 1974 Bernard left the monastery and clerical priesthood, without formalities or paperwork, started a new life and continued his search for silence and communion on his own. In Autumn 1976, the Order and the Catholic hierarchy expelled from the monastery both the monacal and the lay community that were still at “Saint Mary of the Hawthorn”, and imposed the arrival of a female contemplative congregation, far from the utopia of Alexis, Bernard and his companions of the “Communion of Boquen”. A great dream, one more, vanished. In October 1978, John Paul II was elected pope; in 1979, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of the United Kingdom; in 1981, Ronald Reagan became president of the United States of America. Dreams were dashed one after the other, but active hope without attachment to any achievement is never dashed.

In 1997, Bernard Besret travelled to Shangai to start a science museum. There he met taoist masters. Since his retirement, he splits his time between his home in Plougrescant (Brittany) and China, where he animates a taoist monastery with a Chinese monk friend. Bernard continues being a monk in search for other unattainable utopias, pushed by the Spirit, the Ruah, the Breath that blows wherever it wants, that creates and recreates ceaselessly and transcends borders, that flutters over the waters of Genesis. We feel it vibrating today, too, if we open our eyes and transcend borders.

At the end of the epilogue closing B. Lebel-Goascoz’s thesis, Bernard Besret writes (2014): “Throughout these years [1965-1975] I have lived what I would humorously called ‘the grace of de-conversion’.

All of this is now very far from me. Throughout the elapsed forty years, I have lived other different lives, but never losing the red thread that joins all of them, that is, my unshakable trust in the ultimate ground of what is real,which I do not doubt it exists, but of which obviously I do not know what it is.

Boquen may have been nothing but a cry. The cry of men and women thirsty for living water. It has not been heard for a long time, but every now and then I can hear its echo. At times, even in China”.

Aizarna, September 28th, 2022
Translated by Mertxe de Renobales Scheifler