2nd Saturday in Ordinary Time
Solemnity of Sts. Robert, Alberic & Stephen
Three Cistercian Founders
To observe the Rule more strictly, they (our Holy Founders) , says the Exordium Parvum, eagerly headed for the desert-place called Cîteaux. This place because of the thickness of grove and thornbush, was inhabited only by wild beasts. Understanding upon arrival that the more despicable and unapproachable the place was to seculars, the more suited it was for the monastic observance they had already conceived in mind, and for which sake they removing the dense grove and thorn bushes, began to construct a monastery there.
It is good to recall this on the feast of St Robert, St Alberic and St Stephen Harding. For knowing where we have come from, we may be faithful to this in our own days. We are living a time of momentous changes in the world and the Church. Our own Order has seen a time of disruption and change following Vatican II. After the dust has settled, it seems now, there is a renewed search for a clearer identity. For our Fathers knew very clearly that there had to be a break with the world. If you wished to follow the wisdom, not of this world but the world to come, the desert was the place. But the desert was not the end- to live as a monk was ultimately to follow the philosopher Himself, not Aristotle but Christ, the Incarnate Wisdom of God, the pearl of great price. But to follow Christ they had to enroll themselves in the school of Mary –the school of self-surrender, obedience, humility and caritas. The Latin phrase is very instructive – philosophari in Maria – to philosophize in Mary was the only way to follow the Philosopher, Christ. This much was clear to them as it was to the Patristic age – the monk was the true philosopher period.
In our times, what has happened is the democratization of the monastic charism. So one can live anywhere and be a monk. What is important is to cultivate the inner monk in the world. The question then, especially for us, living in the desert is – if all you need is the inner monk then what are we doing living in the desert with all the poverty this entails? Are we just following a style of life that worked for the Patristic and medieval era but is outmoded now? Are we dinosaurs? Is the purely contemplative life a fossil that is to be admired from afar? Our Fathers did not have one iota of doubt – for them the philosopher, the lover of wisdom par excellence was one who lived like a monk in the desert. We have to rediscover this conviction if we are not to gradually water down the patrimony handed down to us. In a bid to escape the poverty inherent in the desert, we can throw away our birthright like Esau for a mess of pottage.
In the synthesis of the General Chapter 2017, there was a very important section added on. It was titled Directions for the Future. The whole topic of revitalization of the Order came up and these directions for the future were meant to address the issue of revitalization.
The first direction is to emphasize the primacy of the contemplative life, enshrined in our Constitutions. The document says that this primacy of the contemplative life must mold our life, our work, our liturgy and lectio. We are contemplatives first and foremost. This and this only is our specialization. The second important direction is that the contemplative life must be embodied. It cannot be shapeless. It cannot be full of good intentions. It must be embodied in a very clear lifestyle that is contemplative.
In the past, a lot of artificial dichotomies were set up. One could not follow the spirit if one had to follow a rule. One could not be obedient in small things because it would compromise personal responsibility. Observances were to be cast aside because they jeopardized personal freedom. This document says that we must give up these artificial dichotomies. No doubt they arise from a hidden ideological bias that is not Christian but is of the world. There is an ascesis rooted in the power of Christ’ incarnation that can overcome these artificial dichotomies. The Holy Spirit who is the bond of love can keep these seeming dichotomies together in a creative tension. To be obedient is to be truly responsible. To follow the rule is to live according to the Spirit. To be an observant monk is precisely to be truly and personally free. To be governed by self-will and one’s whims is to be a slave.
These are good directions for us to take to heart. They enable us to embody and preserve the great gift of the contemplative life in the Cistercian form. The very shape of the life is a gift of our Holy Founders won by their sweat and blood. If they have tirelessly borne the burden of the day and the heat as the Exordium Parvum tells us, then they expect us their successors, again as the Exordium Parvum tells us, to sweat and toil even to the last gasp in the strait and narrow way which the Rule points out; till at last, we, having laid aside the burden of the flesh, happily repose in everlasting rest.