Fr. Isaac Slater, OCSO
3rd Tuesday In Ordinary Time
Solemnity of our Cistercians Founders, Sts. Robert, Alberic and Stephen
There is a saying: “Do not follow in the footsteps of the wise—seek what they sought.”
Only those who have deeply assimilated a tradition and made it their own, can move it forward. To be faithful to a tradition does not mean the mindless repetition of rites, rubrics and doctrine but their development.
After Vatican II some monasteries tossed a great deal overboard, without perhaps grasping what the first monks sought. In these houses today the element of “monasticism” amounts to little more than a gesture, like academics who occasionally don their robes for a university event. The inevitable reaction today finds houses that make a fetish of past customs and risk turning themselves into museums, a kind of “Pioneer Village” that recreates a bygone era for bemused spiritual tourists.
The idea of reform by going back to the sources did not originate at Vatican II—through history it has been the nature of all true reform. The founders of Citeaux had drunk deeply at the well of Cassian, Benedict and the monastic fathers—they were moved to seek what they sought: not a lasting city in this life but a heavenly homeland. They lived “in tents,” they founded a provisional city, whose entire meaning was to be a springboard “to a [lasting] city founded, designed and built by God.”
The way of life they developed was firmly anchored in the material world—they lived in one place well and supported themselves by the work of their own hands— so that they could better “search for their real homeland,” so that they could sharpen their “longing for a better homeland, their heavenly homeland.”
Like Sarah they bore abundant fruit because they took the risk of really believing in the Lord’s fidelity to them and to their undertaking. They trusted he would water the seeds of reform and renewal they planted. And they built for the future.
Robert was the abbot, Alberic Prior, and Stephen abbatial secretary of the relatively new community of hermits at Molesmes. It must have been quite a shake-up when the main administrators and some of the monks departed en masse. Robert, Alberic and Stephen were not extraordinary figures—certainly not fiery miracle working prodigies like Bernard—they were good monks with a gift for administration and a vision of how the Rule of Benedict could be lived more richly.
They cared deeply about the Rule and their reform began with structure. They looked to Benedict and shared something of his organizational genius.
Benedict however designed his Rule in a time of social collapse. There wasn’t much of a talent pool. The late 11th century by contrast was a period of great ferment. Spiritual reform movements were breaking out all over Europe. Fervent groups of hermits and ascetics founded all kinds of new experimental communities, many of which attracted well-educated and devout nobles. Many of these veered into excesses or fizzled out with the death of their founders.
The reform initiated by Robert, Alberic and Stephen was characterized by their desire to follow the Rule “more strictly.” Because they also sought what Benedict sought—to see the face of God—they were able to create a firm, but pliable new form of monastic life that responded to the best and deepest aspirations of the age. A form of life supple enough to sustain tremendous and rapid growth; open enough let the Bernards, Williams and Guerrics guide the Order beyond what they themselves had imagined.
The Cistercians would before long be on the cutting edge of irrigation technology, among other things, and build monasteries with more ingenious and sophisticated plumbing than many castles. In the same way their monastic reform harnessed and channeled the unruly spiritual waters flowing through the world around them. That they were harnessing existing energies rather than creating from scratch is seen in the nature of their astonishingly rapid growth: the new Cistercian houses were very often incorporations of existing, less organized ascetical communities that Cistercian structure and balance allowed to flourish.
Unlike the hermits at Molesmes, they led a cenobitic life. They supported themselves by manual work and stressed poverty, silence, solitude, and absorption in the scriptures as a way to keep alive their longing for a better homeland.
Monasteries founded by Cluny sent their earnings back to the mother-house where the abbot kept control over finances. He oversaw the spiritual lives of the monks in the daughter-houses, visiting them frequently and adjusting their observances as he saw fit.
The first Cistercians developed the system of filiation: each house had financial autonomy. And where the Cluny line stressed the discretionary authority of the arch-abbot to modify customs as he saw fit, the first Cistercians had the abbot very much with his brothers ‘under the Rule.’ He slept in the common dorm and could be penalized with the rest if, for instance, he was late for choir. The observance of the Rule was virtually identical from house to house and the system of visitation ensured that each house was keeping to the norm.
What does it mean for us today not merely to follow in the footsteps of our founders, but to seek what they sought? The face of God, our heavenly homeland. As monks, are we steeped deeply enough in the monastic fathers to own the tradition and re-imagine it for today? Instead of endlessly wagging a finger at the rising tide of depravity in the world, how might a renewed monasticism transform and channel the flood waters… to irrigate the surrounding fields with the water of life?