Erik Varden during the dialogue in New York (Photo: NY Encounter)

Bringing forth the fountain

A dialogue with Erik Varden, Cistercian monk and Bishop of Trondheim, a guest for the first time at the New York Encounter. From the March issue of Tracce.
Luca Fiore

“It is a warm environment. There is a healthy energy and a spirit of welcome and friendship. I notice that the content of the speeches and conversations have substance." Erik Varden wanders around the Metropolitan Pavillion in a black-and-white Cistercian habit, with gentle smile lighting up his face. Norwegian, 48 years-old, he was baptized Lutheran by non-practicing parents, then studied at Cambridge, followed by a conversion that is somewhat reminiscent of Paul Claudel's. In him, the "click" did not click as it did for the French writer within the medieval majesty of Notre Dame, but thanks to the late Romantic solemnity of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2. Since 2020 he has been bishop of the Diocese of Trondheim, on Norway's North Coast, just a few kilometers from where the novel Kristin Daughter of Lavrans, which won Sigrid Undset the Nobel Prize, is set. This is his first time at the New York Encounter, invited to dialogue with the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Christophe Pierre, on this year's theme, "Who am I that you care for me?"

This year's Encounter wants to reflect on the need – that has exploded because of the current difficult circumstances, from the pandemic to war – to come across a visible response, an encounterable fact, that responds with its presence to the questions and wounds we carry. What does this mean for you?

It is difficult to generalize. Encounter, by definition, is a personal reality. Christianity, from the very beginning, communicated itself infectiously. A blessed infection. What counts is to be bearers of the fire of Christ's presence. The typical image is the disciples of Emmaus, who ask themselves, "Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us on the way?" The fire is a function of His presence. That is the essential thing. I was very touched by what John Cavadini, Professor of Theology at Notre Dame, said during the presentation of The Religious Sense here at the Encounter. Quoting Franz Kafka's in the last paragraph of the book – "Even if salvation does not come, still I want to be worthy of it in every instant" – he spoke of his desire to remain worthy of the redemption that Christ worked in us. That is, living in this logic of expectation, of openness. And a life that is realized in this way has consequences for other lives. Seraphim of Sarov, monk and starets of the Russian Church, says, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” And it is not so because I am the one who brings something, but because I am entrusted with the task of being a sign, an indication. This is a provocation to everyone, so that we can be credible, consistent signs, able to direct other lives to the source of life.

What does it mean, in a post-Christian world, to be these "signs"?
There is a line attributed to St. Francis, addressed to his brothers: "Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” We live in a time that is tired of words, tired of promises, because we have experienced so many broken promises. But a consistent life is a holy life. I am very impressed by what Blessed Ildefonso Schuster, the great archbishop of Milan and a figure who should be re-discovered because he is an enormous witness, said: "It seems that people do not any longer let themselves be convinced by our preaching, but in the presence of holiness, they still believe.”

Is this still true today?
Yes, of course. I think of a brother of mine who died at the age of 99: he was a simple man, in the most sublime sense of the word. He entered the monastery in 1935 and died in 2013. He was simply a bright person, he didn't have too much to say, he didn't give much advice, but he was someone who knew how to welcome, listen and bring in prayer. He had a stroke and was struggling to speak. But in the last three months of his life, there was one word he insisted on saying, "Tha...tha...thank you." After one hundred years of life and eighty years in the monastery, the essential thing he wanted to communicate was his gratefulness. He is a man who touched many people.

At the February 15 General Audience, Pope Francis spoke about how Christ taught the apostles about missionary work. He said, "There is one aspect that seems contradictory: He called them to be with Him and to go and preach. One would say: either one or the other, either stay or go. But no: for Jesus there is no going without staying and there is no staying without going.”
They are inseparable. Being with Christ is the necessary imperative for any missionary effort. And being a missionary is not going to the fountain for a while and then talking to others about what I drank. It means bringing forth the fountain into me and making it accessible to others. It is about being, as the fathers liked to say, christophoros, one who brings Christ to others. I think there is a temptation to conceive of mission as instruction to others. Education has its necessary, unmistakable role, but it is first and foremost about being, in a sense, embodied tabernacles, bearers of the real presence. And it is this that will make an impression even in today's world.

The possibility of being present in a de-christianized context may come through censoring what we hold most dear....
"What does it profit man to gain the whole world, if he then loses his own soul?" But the criterion is our conscience: if it has remained a little awake, it will tell us whether we are about to translate or betray the essentials of what is precious to us. Surely we must be present, as a presence of faith. Christ did this: he went into all environments. He was someone who was comfortable in very different contexts, because he was an "all-in-one" man. In the Gospel it says that Jesus spoke with authority; the Greek word is exousía, and ousía means to be. It is not a strict etymology, but to have authority means to communicate myself in a way that corresponds to the essential truth of my being. Even without saying many things, even holding myself back from speaking, perhaps remaining silent, waiting.... This, too, can be a witness. In the sense of that forgotten virtue of
meekness: in our violent world, being a presence does not feel the need to defend itself.

The need to "defend" arises from the certainty of having received something very precious....
Yes, but it is not defending a territory. This is the ecclesial temptation in the post-Christian world: to want to reclaim lost territory in order to try to prove to ourselves and others that we still have influence, that we are a presence that matters. But that is not what is essential. We are called to remain faithful to the totality of the inheritance we have received. When Pius XII appointed Cardinal Montini as Archbishop of Milan, he greeted him after the audience and gave him a piece of advice: "Depositum custodi." That is: guard what has been entrusted to you. This is a quote from the First Letter to Timothy. This is important: to carry it with us to offer the totality of the treasure to others, but also accepting that this treasure is not always received. But carrying it anyway.

Read also - Someone with me

What then is for you the most important aspect of the missionary dimension to which we are called?
It is a bit fashionable today to want to summarize the Second Vatican Council in one line. There are different attempts, and I don't agree with all of them. But I often wonder what that strong call of the Council to the universal vocation to holiness is about. This is not talked about so much. We are called to be transformed by corresponding to God's original intention, which is a glorious intention.

Is it holiness that persuades?
Yes. True mission will be done only in this way. In the sayings of the desert fathers of Anthony the Great, friend of Athanasius and founder of the monastic institute in the West, it is recounted that people went to him simply to see him. It was enough to look at him. For he had become completely transparent to the presence of the Lord in him. A sacrament of presence. According to me, this will be the mission that will change the world.