Solemnity of Founders of Citeaux

[Scripture Readings: Gen. 12: 1-4a; 1Cor. 1: 26-31; Mt. 19: 27-29 ]

Every reflection on our communal beginnings calls us to ask what it means to live in a tradition. We live in a society that is suspicious of traditions. Many people are afraid that traditions inhibit growth and development. For my part I don’t think healthy growth and development are possible without a sense of tradition. If we do not understand where we are now, moving into the future will be a series of chance decisions; and to properly understand where we are now, we need to know and be in contact with where we have come from. There are others who understand living from a tradition as simply repeating past behaviors and attitudes. If we could simply repeat the past, which I think is impossible, we would not go anywhere. My favorite working definition of tradition is the living faith of the dead. Our tradition has been handed down to us by those who are no longer with us in this life. Nevertheless we live in communion with them and the faith that inspired them lives on in us.

Whatever our attitudes toward tradition may be it is not unreasonable to wonder what the decision of twenty-one, perhaps twenty-two monks in 11th century France to go out to a deserted region to start a new monastery has to do with us in 21st century America; especially what it might mean to those among us who are not monks. The question does not have a complete answer, because we are not the end of the Cistercian tradition. Nevertheless, this morning’s readings point us in the direction of an answer for our time and situation. Like Abraham, the first Cistercians were called to leave their familiar and to some extent secure surroundings to go out into God’s unknown future. They had a vision of a life that they wanted to live, but no guarantee that they would succeed. Similar experiments at the time did not survive beyond their own time and culture. The first Cistercians had to trust that if they were truly following God’s call, God would support them. St. Paul’s description of the Corinthians that not many of them were exceptionally gifted applies to the first Cistercians also. St. Robert was the abbot of Molesme and Sts. Alberic and Stephen proved to have leadership ability, but for the most part they seem to have been an ordinary group of men. With time some of them became discouraged and they returned to Molesme. I find it easy to imagine that at times all of them asked themselves, “What am I getting out of this?” They had to trust in Christ’s promise that those who follow him will share in his glory at his final coming.

What does this say to you and me? Perseverance in following Christ will call all of us at times to leave behind what is familiar and secure and venture into God’s unknown future. In my experience this experience has become more interior and repeats itself throughout life. We have to trust that God who calls us will also lead and support us. We need to discern if it is truly God’s call that we are following, but we cannot allow a misguided humility to hold us back from responding. God is not limited by our personal limitations. We cooperate in doing God’s work and we make a real contribution, but the initiative is God’s and it is God who accomplishes his will through us and with us. What will be our reward? God’s generosity cannot be reduced to anything that we can describe. Christ has promised that we will share in his own life, and that is more than we can imagine.

While many of our contemporaries are suspicious of tradition, we can be truly grateful that we are heirs of the living faith of the dead.

Solemnity of Founders of Citeaux

[Scripture Readings: Gen 12:1-4a; 1 Cor 1:26-31; Mt 19:27-29]

Our founders Robert, Alberic and Stephen, are said to have been lovers of the Rule and of the place. “Lovers of the place” is not a common designation for someone. It is great to love the place where you live but now a days it is not high on the list of moral values. Can we even call it a Cistercian value? I think we can because I have been to many monasteries and it does seem to me the monks do love the environment, or as it has been called, the surround, of their property. For example, the monks of Snowmass love mountains, in fact when their abbot travels he likes to look at other mountains!

Our monastery here in Iowa is surrounded by some of the tallest pine trees in the State, planted by the first monks over 150 years ago. And the fields of Iowa, I read recently that Iowa has 10% of the world’s most fertile land, some even say 25%. Either way our fields feed and nourish millions of people all over the world. Centuries ago the first great poet of the English language Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, “Out of old fields comes all the new corn.1 Our fields are perhaps millions of years old and have been cultivated for some centuries and they still produce new corn every year.

I thought of Chaucer’s line when reflecting on our founders. They are the old fields and we are the new corn. There is an intimate connection between the old field and new crop. They need each other. Without the field there is no corn, without the corn the field is fallow, barren. Life in the soil and life in the seed come together and the seed sprouts. How this is done is still a mystery science cannot reproduce. In fact Jesus used this mystery to tell us something about the kingdom of heaven. A man scatters seed on the land and day and night while the farmer sleeps the seed sprouts and grows. How, he does not know, (Mk.4:26) . Our Lord is using a metaphor here. A metaphor is a combination of similarities and differences. The differences here are Heaven and the corn plant; the similarities are the way life is engendered. Our life and God’s life, the seed and the field come together in a mysterious way.

Speaking of our founders, I think we could say our vocation is transmitted to us through them in a mysterious manner also. The seed of Citeaux was planted in our hearts and how it grows we do not know. We may think we do, we may read and re-read our history, and St. Bernard and our other authors, but really any growth is beyond our control. We cannot make it happen by an act of our will, thank God for that. What would we be like if we could become holy by just willing it or become a monk by will power alone? St. Paul told the Corinthians, “I planted, Appolos watered but God caused the growth. This means that neither he who plants nor he who waters is of any special account, only God, who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:6-7) . When we enter the Order we are introduced to our founders by reading the history of Citeaux, and we are encouraged to read our fathers. These are not just school exercises; we are tapping into the roots of our vocation, digging in the field that nourishes us and improving the soil of our own hearts. This is good but it is only watering the plant. God gives the growth.

Our founders were the new corn from the old fields of Monte Cassino. Now it is our turn. The spirit of our founders is being transmitted to us in a mysterious way as we do our Lectio, our Liturgy and our Work. We do not understand how this happens because our vocation is a mystery. God gives it to us as a gift, a grace, what is called a charism. I think this is why it was so hard to follow the Vatican Council mandate for each religious institute to look back to their original charism. It is a gift from God, as mysterious as God himself. Cistercians are living all over the world, night and day they work and sleep and how the seed of their vocation grows they know not, but it does grow out of the old familiar fields.