Solemnity of Founders of Citeaux, at Gethsemani

[Scripture Readings: Gen 12:1-4a; 1 Cor 1:26-31; Mt 5:13-16]

Fr. StephenToday we celebrate the feast of our founders, Saints Robert, Alberic, and Stephen. But in the provocative final sentence of her book, titled The Cistercian Evolution, Constance Berman, professor of History at the University of Iowa, writes, “What can be said definitely here is that not only was the Cistercian Order not founded in 1098, it was not even founded before the death of Bernard of Clairvaux in 1153.”1 Those are fighting words, but in fairness to Dr. Berman, her challenge is directed at the date of the juridical foundations of our Order, not at its physical beginnings by the 21 monks who left the Abbey of Molesme to start a new monastery near the third milestone along the old Roman road. Did that little milestone, known in Latin as “cis tertium lapidem,” give us our name, Cistercian, and mark the beginnings of our Order, or not?

In the 15 volume New Catholic Encyclopedia, C.H. Talbot writes, “Until recent years [St. Stephen Harding] was thought to have written the Charter of Charity and the Little Exordium … but manuscript research has shown that these documents, in their present form, belong to a later date, and are the product of a gradual evolution in Cistercian legislation.” Are the real founders of Citeaux as an Order actually anonymous monks of a later generation?

Saint Alberic and St. RobertOur fellow Cistercian, Fr. Chyrsogonus Waddell, thinks that some readers will react to Dr. Berman's book with bewilderment, perhaps even anger. He writes, “… it is unpleasant to contemplate the possibility that much loved documents such as the Exordium Parvum and the Carta Caritatis are the result of fraud perpetrated by a less than scrupulous group of third … generation Cistercians bent on creating a past that never was … But if this is the conclusion that emerges from a careful examination of the evidence, so be it.”2 Then in a study over 60 pages long he skillfully examines the evidence and concludes, “…[Constance Berman's] book, in its major theses and in many of its details, is simply wrong.” There's no need to search for new founders, we don't have to stop our celebration.

Elizabeth Freeman, an historian at the University of Tasmania in Australia, asks “Is the book worth reading?”3 She answers in the affirmative, because it prompts us to reflect on the various ways our monastic Order exists: in our legislative documents, certainly, but also in our day-to-day practices and rituals, in our buildings and works, and in all the women and men who live a life of prayer and charity inspired by the example of our founders. The genius of Robert, Alberic and Stephen is evident not only in legislation that evolved from primitive documents begun in the earliest years of Citeaux's existence but even more in the handing on of their spirit for over nine hundred years. Elizabeth Freeman emphasizes that our founders' spirit of love is more important for the Order than their written documents. It is not only a charter but their charity that created our Cistercian Order.

How blest we are to follow in the footsteps of so many saints!