Founders of Citeaux
[Scripture Readings: Gen 12:1-4a; 1 Cor 1:26-31; Mt 19:27-29]
Today we are celebrating the feast of our three founders, Robert, Alberic and
Stephen. Actually there were 21 founders, but we mention only the first three
abbots of the new foundation. The Rule of St. Benedict gives a lot of power
to the abbot and one of the reasons the twenty-one monks left the Benedictine
monastery of Molesme to settle in a place called Citeaux in Burgundy, was
because they wanted a stricter interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict.
But it takes more than an abbot to make a monastery. In fact I can think of
nothing worse than a monastery full of abbots bossing each other around!
Daily life in a monastery is a complex interchange between authority and
obedience and often times it is difficult to know who has which-no matter
what the official documents say. Take for instance the job of cantor. Who has
more power than the cantor? Who could put a note on the board on a Saturday
stating, “The Mass readings for Sunday have been changed from the ones given
in our Mass reading booklet!” So, what if the abbot had a homily prepared
based on the old readings! So the homily you are about to hear is based on
six scripture readings! It will be twice as long too!
Really, all the Mass readings are concerned with one theme, the call of God.
Our founders, all twenty-one of them, left one monastery to found another
based on certain ideals they had about how the monastic life should be lived.
It was not a smooth transition. The first abbot, Robert, was ordered back to
his original monastery. No one joined the new group for years. They were on
the verge of giving up when St. Bernard arrived with a large group and
joined. After a lot of trouble they were eventually able to live out their
Now almost a thousand years later, we are celebrating their memory. It is a
good occasion to look at our own calling, our own dream. The scripture
reading chosen for this celebration gives us a way of evaluating how we are
The first reading is the call of Abraham. The call to leave his country, his
relationship with his father’s house. Each of us is free to interpret what
that means for us. The early desert monks called it the three great
renunciations or detachments. Country meant all the wealth and riches of the
world, to leave your kindred and relationships meant the life of sin and vice
that cling to us and become like kindred to us. To leave our father’s house
means the whole visible world as opposed to the invisible world of the Spirit.
These are radical renunciations just as are the ones in today’s Gospel and
even more so the ones Paul speaks of: leave our own wisdom and justice, even
our own holiness.
What does all this mean? All this renunciation and detachment? I think it
means that each of us is called to go out of ourselves, to go beyond
ourselves. Take the journey to a new place, an unknown place. In the letter
to the Hebrews we read that our ancestors set out on the journey not knowing
where they were going. They were living on a promise and they died before the
promise was fulfilled.
We too live on a promise. We can demand nothing. Monks have been accused of
being Pelagians, making things happen by our own effort. If we fast or get up
at 3:00 am, we will become spiritual men. Life is not like that. Life is a
great teacher of detachment. We don’t set our program and then watch it being
fulfilled. We live our life and then come to understand it in the light of
scripture. Life is a call to move out of ourselves. As youth gives way to
middle age we are challenged to detach from perceived ideals. As middle age
gives way to old age we are forced to give up false ambition and pretenses.
As old age progresses, we are made to detach from physical health itself, our
body. The world we wanted to create is slowly taken from us and something
unfamiliar and new replaces it. It slowly dawns on us God is calling us and
leading us on-no matter how dark it seems or how unfamiliar the road. The new
self made in this image of Christ is replacing the old self. We leave
ourselves to find ourselves again. Are we good monks? Are we following our
Founder? Are we good Christians? Who are we to judge? Life is teaching us.
Let us put ourselves in the hands of the Lord of Life.