January 26, 2018
Three Cistercian Founders, Sts. Robert, Alberic and Stephen
Faith is the realization of what is hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. “Faith” is divine life within us, God’s testimony to himself. The fact that we find ourselves believing, convinced, even willing to die perhaps for our belief in invisible mysteries like the Trinity, the incarnation, is evidence of divine life within us.
It was for faith that our ancestors were commended. Not faith in the abstract, but faith that was powerfully expressed in a particular way of being in the world. It was by faith that Robert obeyed the call and set out for a country that was the inheritance given to him and his descendants, and that he set out without knowing where he was going. By faith he arrived as a foreigner at Citeaux and lived there as if in a strange country, with Alberic and Stephen, who were heirs with him of the same promise. They lived there in tents, provisionally, without “riches” or attachments, looking forward to a city not of their own creation, not made by human hands, but founded, designed and built by God.
It was equally by faith that Citeaux, on the verge of extinction after 15 years of toil in the wilderness was made able to conceive, because she believed that he who had made the promise would be faithful to it. Because of this, there came from one monastery, already as good as closed, more descendants than could be counted. There is a Zen saying: Do not follow in the footsteps of the wise—seek what they sought. Robert, Alberic and Stephen, the first Cistercians, were “strangers and nomads on earth…longing for a better homeland.”
So as monks and people inspired by monastic life today we need less to imitate this or that observance than to seek what they sought, to seek the things that are above. Monastic life is totally oriented to kindling desire for God—if we seek him first the shape of the culture that best supports this search will emerge of itself, in distinctive ways with each generation.
That said we can sketch briefly something of the particular ways faith found expression in the characters of Robert, Alberic, and Stephen:
As Conrad of Eberbach reports in the Exordium Magnum, Robert, abbot of Molesmes, did not initiate the reform that led to Citeaux—some of the brothers approached him, “burning with the desire for a renewed kind of observance.” The initial impulse of the first Cistercians was “to serve the Lord more wholesomely and in greater quiet.”
Robert was “pierced” when he learned of this desire for reform in his monks and supported the move to Citeaux; later he returned to Molesmes in response to the outcry of the brothers there who were losing prestige in his absence. Robert was criticized from both sides for his “fickleness”—but at a distance it’s easier to see he was a leader who was open to guidance; he didn’t need to do it his way just to save face; if the common good indicated one or another path he would take it, even if it made him look bad—what he cared about was the outcome.
Alberic is described as “a true athlete of God” who “worked long and hard” to facilitate the move from Molesmes to Citeaux. Conrad describes him as a “much respected man…learned, assiduous in divine and human affairs, a lover of the Rule and of the brothers.” He endured great suffering for his support of the reform, and underwent beatings and even imprisonment. Although he put up “considerable resistance” to becoming abbot, in the end he relented. With great foresight he solicited support in the Roman Curia to set the new order on a solid footing …to defend against future interference from “false brothers” (like those who had thrown him in jail!).
Stephen was “a lover of the wilderness, “first among the instigators” of the reform movement. He drew up the Charter of Charity, helped establish the system of filiation between Cistercian houses and was instrumental in early decisions around the austere degree of poverty observed—none of the nobility were allowed to hold court within the monastery walls, and gold crosses and other luxuries were banned from the liturgy. So “faith”, the testimony of divine life within, was expressed in these ways in the lives and characters of Robert, Alberic and Stephen.
The Exordium Magnum describes how almost “at the brink of despair” the brothers cried out in prayer to God interceding through the Virgin and the prayers of St Benedict whose Rule they were struggling to keep more strictly. As we know it was then that St Bernard appeared on the scene with many friends and followers and the Order began to grow at an astounding rate; “Not by words but by deeds they [Bernard and his companions] persuaded other men that the rigor of the Order to which they had fled was nothing other than the light yoke and easy burden of the Lord”.
So on this feast of our founders we too pray in faith …through the Holy Virgin, through St Benedict…and through Sts Robert Alberic and Stephen…that the Lord would refresh and renew Cistercian life in our time…that we may proclaim with our Cistercian fathers, “O, how wonderful is God in his works, how swiftly runs his word, how easy he shows things to be when he wills them, even those which are impossible to human beings.”