- Dom Gabriel Sortais: An Amazing Abbot in Turbulent Times
The prolific Benedictine, Guy Oury, wrote a mostly chronological study of Dom Gabriel Sortais (1902-1963), the Cistercian abbot of Bellefontaine who became the head of his order in 1951. About fifty pages were devoted to Sortais' early life, 150 pages to his entrance into and life at Bellefontaine, and 100 pages to his twelve-year term as Abbot General. For the years as Abbot General, the chapters were organized by topic.
Dom Sortais lived through and participated in many important movements during the twentieth century. He was a militant in the controversial and conservative Action Française before he entered the abbey in 1924; he promoted the memory of the Vendéens who were heroes for their defense of their faith during the French Revolution (1793); he joined the French army as a chaplain (when twenty of his fifty monks were called up) in late 1939, was wounded and captured with the fall of France, and remained a prisoner of war for over six months until January, 1941; he had confidence in Pétain and the Vichy regime; he intervened to save fifty hostages from German reprisals in late 1941; he sponsored new monasteries in East Asia; he attended the Second Vatican Council. Above all, Oury painted Sortais as a "loving abbot and spiritual father" (p. 101) while recognizing his weaknesses, such as his anger.
There were many seeming contradictions in Sortais's life. Though an unhappy and mediocre student, he introduced the element of study (e.g., of the psalms) and created a library for the abbey of Bellefontaine. Anti-intellectual, he set up a house of studies for young monks in Rome. A proponent of nationalism and Vendée regionalism, he spread Cistercian monasteries for men and for women around the world, with special interest in East Asia. A man of [End Page 683] action, he cultivated contemplative life as the highest priority for himself, for his abbey, and for his Order. A traditionalist, he fostered reforms and a return to "authentic Cistercian tradition."
A constant in Sortais's life was suffering and illness. Fatigue and insomnia plagued this man of action but rarely slowed him down. He was authoritarian, though he "radiated life and joy" (p. 166). Above all, he insisted on the development of the interior life, walking with God. After reading the book, one knows what Sortais did but does not understand why he did them (e.g., volunteer as an army chaplain in 1939) nor why he was esteemed by young and old monks and by Cistercian nuns (e.g., those under his authority at the Les Gardes). He demanded obedience (authority was a big issue for him); he could be irascible and fierce as well as generous and fervent.
Oury or the translator has added content footnotes to help English-speaking readers with French geography and French personages. However, he uses Cistercian terms with no explanation (e.g., "Father immediate," "usages," and "Trappist"). A lacuna in the book is a section talking about the sources Oury used. Since Sortais left no autobiography, Oury relied on other archival information, a general list of which he provided in the bibliography but which are not discussed. How many letters, for example, were there in "Dossier VII, Dom Sortais' correspondence"? Were his letters mostly general "to a monk," "to a cousin," "to a nun"?
This book provides a source for understanding the life and views of a conservative, French Cistercian leader. It is of interest to those who want to understand the changes and reforms in the Cistercian way of life over the first sixty years of the twentieth century.