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Homily for January 26, 2021 – The Founders of the Cistercian Order

Fr. Stephen Muller, OCSO

The Solemnity of the Founders of the Cistercian Order

Sir 44:1,10-15, Heb 11:1-2,8-16, Mk 10:24b-30

Today we celebrate the feast day of the three founders of our Order: Robert, Alberic, and Stephen. What strikes me when I think about them leaving Molesme is their great faith. It was a daring move; a leap of faith; a leap into the void. If their attempt failed they would be looked on with scorn for many years.

Not making the move, and choosing rather to remain at Molesme represented the status quo, the familiar, the comfortable, the predictable. I’m sure there were some among their Benedictine brethren who thought about going with this breakaway group but then decided to stay instead. Molesme was a well-established monastery with a venerable reputation. Everything about it suggested security. There was plenty of money in the bank; they had a lot of land holdings and livestock and belongings; its members were looked up to by the people in the area. To choose to stay at Molesme meant that all your needs would be met. You wouldn’t have to do much manual labor if that didn’t suit you. There were plenty of servants to do the work.

It wasn’t that life at Molesme was decadent. Because of its good reputation St. Bruno had at first settled there with his little band of hermits before moving on to found the Carthusians at the Grande Chartreuse. It was just that along with the prosperity Molesme was enjoying, a certain amount of laxity had crept in. Things were no longer as rigorous and austere as its founders had established in 1075.

So, in 1098 Sts. Robert, Alberic, and Stephen and the little group of 17 other monks struck out into the great unknown. Where they were headed was described as a vast wilderness. Renaud, the viscount of Beaune, had given them a desolate valley in a deep forest. They experienced their fair share of hardships as they struggled to tame that wilderness and establish a settlement and new monastery. Their food supply would have been hit and miss. As the saying goes, “chicken today; feathers tomorrow.” Like the Israelites in the desert under Moses, I’m sure there were times when they longed for what they had left behind. And until St. Bernard arrived with his band of 30 recruits and vocations started flooding in, I’m sure there were times when our founders questioned whether God was blessing their endeavor or not. During those first lean years the thought of failure probably taunted them on more than one occasion.

Abraham, too, as we were reminded in our second reading, left the security of his homeland and ventured off into the unknown. He took that leap of faith convinced that it was what God wanted and he would look after him. Abraham is a model of faith because he trusted that God would be faithful to him. And that doesn’t mean that everything went smoothly after that. There were plenty of times when his faith was sorely tried. But through them all, Abraham, like Job, remained faithful.

Those monks who left Molesme and founded Citeaux had to make a tough decision. Do you abandon the “bird in the hand” for the “bird in the bush”? Molesme was safe, but if they stayed there would they grow? Would they end up stagnating instead? I think there’s always the temptation in our lives to settle into a comfortable groove. And then, without realizing it, we end up being stuck in a rut. We’re too lazy to do anything about it. Inertia sets in. Any attempts at change fall victim to procrastination. We have to be on our guard against this tendency and periodically take inventory of our situation. Sometimes, too, God has a way of turning our world upside down with illness or some other calamity.

I guess it boils down to “our plan” versus “God’s plan.” Our plan probably gravitates toward what is safe, what is comfortable, what is predictable. God loves us so much that he wants us to grow to our fullest potential. His plan probably entails uncomfortable stretching and growing pains. We give God honor when we relinquish our plan for his.