Solemnity of the Founders of Citeaux

Scripture Readings: Sir 44:1, 10-15; Heb 11:1-2, 8-16; Mk 10:24b-30

 “Lord, we have left everything and followed you.”   Over nine hundred years ago, in 1098, the founders of our Cistercian way of life left their flourishing community of Molesme to start a new monastery at a place called Citeaux, or in Latin, “Cistercium.”   Fr. Louis Lekai tells us that Cistercium comes from a Latin phrase referring to the location of the new monastery, at the third milestone along the old Roman road, literally in Latin: cis tertium lapidem miliarium.  

Our Lady of Citeaux is Our Lady of the third milestone. She is Our Lady of those on the road, those seeking a better country, a heavenly homeland, a city prepared by God. Our very name, Cistercium, the third milestone, reminds us that we are sojourners, like Abraham, following the call of God. 

St. Robert, the first of our founders, was 70 years old when he led 21 monks from Molesme to Citeaux. Born of noble parents, he entered a monastery near Dijon in his early youth, not far from the future Citeaux.  Around the age of 40 he became abbot of Saint Michel de Toners, an abbey under Cluniac discipline.  This ended abruptly in less than two years, and he returned as a simple monk to the abbey of his youth.  There is a hint here that his ideals were not well received.  His return was equally brief, for he was made superior of a dependent priory.  But this place proved even less congenial to him, and once again in less than two years he left the place and joined a group of hermits. Under his influence they assisted him in founding the monastery of Molesme the following year, 1075.  Our second prominent founder, St. Alberic, was among them. 

Ten years later the Englishman, St. Stephen Harding, passed by the monastery of Molesme on his return journey from a pilgrimage to Rome, and joined Molesme. He was about 30 years old. Molesme prospered.  Within the first 25 years of its history it founded about 40 dependent houses and cells. 

However, new vocations soon outnumbered the original founding hermits of Molesme, and they lost control of its fundamental spirit. Molesme accumulated benefices, church revenues, village tithes and serfs; like Cluny, it acquired lay servants, children oblates, and people who offered their goods to the abbey in exchange for room and board for life.  Unhappy with the changes, Robert left to join another group of hermits.  Four other monks, among them Alberic and Stephen, also left Molesme to try an experiment in a more solitary way of life; but al these attempts failed. They returned to Molesme. Finally, in 1098, Robert, Alberic and Stephen supported by 18 other monks again left everything to found a new monastery at the “third milestone.  They learned from previous mistakes and false starts how to lay the foundations for a successful community that was inspired not only by the observance the Rule of St. Benedict but also by the spirit of the Desert Fathers. 

We are the happy inheritors of their success.   Not even the forced return of St. Robert to Molesme the following year under obedience, accompanied by twelve of the founding monks, was able to undo the beginnings of Citeaux.  Alberic, Stephen, and the remaining six monks stood firm as lovers of the Rule, of the brothers, and of the place, and God blessed them.  Fifteen years later St. Bernard and his companions entered Citeaux, and fifty years later Citeaux had expanded to over 300 communities.   In today’s Eucharist, let us thank God for the joy of being called to the Cistercian way of life, and during this celebration may we be renewed by the spirit of our founders. 

 

Solemnity of the Founders of Citeaux

Scripture Readings: Sir 441, 10-15; Heb 11:1-2, 8-16; Mk 10:24b-30

I suppose I am not the only monk who has gone in to see the abbot visitor with a list of complaints and wonderful solutions.  But being told You are very idealistic was not really meant as a compliment.  It was a subtle way of saying: Get your head out of the clouds and put your feet on the ground.  It is very easy to construct a near-perfect picture with no flaws, but another matter to work with the limitations of reality.  Getting obsessed with how things ought to be can amount to nothing but an intelligent waste of time.

In the gospel, Jesus seems to be indulging in idealism and utopian thinking.  You will receive a hundred-fold, a hundred times more in this present age houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and lands. The condition is giving up everything.  The disciples are astonished that a rich person, with the resources and time to fulfill all the obligations of the law, will find entry into the Kingdom to be impossible.  Wealth becomes an obstacle by enabling the sense of independence, management, and willfulness which prove to be toxic in the Kingdom.  But it seems to be a no-win situation.  Jesus says that it is impossible for the human person, although possible for God.  Effort seems doomed to frustration and God is slow to shower the rewards of the Kingdom.  We are left hanging somewhere in the middle.  Utopia, the Kingdom, is by definition beyond human reach.

Monastic life itself is regularly understood as a utopia, as an ideal situation where peace and harmony reign.  To each according to their need, from each according to their ability.  No one should be distressed in the house of God.  Brothers vying to show love and preference to each other.  It’s all in the Rule.  At the time of the 900th anniversary of the founding of Citeaux, Pope John Paul II issued a letter to the Cistercian family which articulated in a compressed form the spirituality of communion, harmony, authenticity and renewal that is (should be) found within its communities. 

The founders of Citeaux were themselves idealists and utopians.  They believed they could create a more perfect situation and society.  But some of their contemporaries called them “extreme” and “hypocritical.”  They exaggerated the short-comings of others to propagate and promote their own lifestyle.  While they made fidelity to the Rule the hallmark of their legislation, Louis Lekai has pointed out that they ignored and contradicted it when they thought they had better ideas. 

Is Cistercian idealism the projection and creation of an unrealizable goal and utopia?  A carrot on a stick always out of reach?  Or is it the response in faith to a God who keeps moving ahead to lead us into our true homeland?  There is a difference between an idealism born of disappointment and even despair and an idealism born of a hope which comes from God and seeks to transform reality.  The former seeks a utopia free from suffering and optimizing human control. The latter is a utopian vision that draws its energy from the light and life awakened by the call of God. It is an acceptance of human poverty and impotence that lets one stand naked before God. The image of God is uncovered in the human heart and begins its work of restoring the likeness to which it has been called.  By faith, he went out not knowing where he was to go.  It is not a vision of a utopia or city created by man, but a utopia whose architect and maker is God. …  By faith, he received the power to generateSo it was that there came forth from one man, himself good as dead.  The co-presence of what is impossible for man and possible for God punctuate the history of our return to God and the utopia He has prepared.  Trust forms that nexus which binds the two.  He thought that the one who made the promise was trustworthy.  Living in hope opens the world to the possibility of God.

 

Most of us are familiar with that painful tension between who we are and who we are called to be.  To lessen that gap is the work of asceticism and prayer. In his Apologia, St. Bernard asks What are the spiritual needs which account for the practical choices you make?  To live from an awareness of one’s spiritual needs is to constantly be alive to our utter dependence on the goodness and grace of God, to know our poverty as the opening to His movement in our lives.  It is to be poor with the poor Christ who receives the Spirit from the Father.  We remain poor, but grow in trust.  We are like those who did not receive what they had been promised, but saw it from afar

 

 

Solemnity of the Founders of Citeaux

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

“We have given up everything and followed you.”  This sounds like a bit of an overstatement, an exaggeration of chutzpah…  Maybe it is phrased for dramatic effect, but it needs some qualifications to insert it into the level of reality.  Of course, Peter was known for these unqualified and exuberant declarations:  “You are the Son of God.” “God forbid that this should happen to you.”  “I will never forsake you.”  Subsequent history often gave the lie to these statements.  He did leave Jesus at a crucial time.  He was not free of all self-concern and fear.  It is particularly interesting that this assertion of Peter comes at the end of Chapter 19 of Matthew’s gospel, a chapter devoted to exposing the difficulties following Christ:  If that is so, it is better not to marry.  The story of the rich young man unwilling to set aside his wealth.  If that is so, then who can be saved? For human beings, it is impossible, but all things are possible to God.

We have to wonder, where did this we have left everything come from in Peter?  Why did he suddenly blurt this out after he heard all the difficulties, the impossibilities of discipleship?  Perhaps it was because he also heard that last word: all things are possible to God.  At times, we have known the experience of being suddenly freed from all the qualifications, hesitations, cautions that shackle our own spontaneity. We say something out of the depths of our being with an absolute passion.  “All “and “everything” and “never” or “always” are the only adequate words to express a knowing and intention that surges up from the foundations of our being.  Our foundations are laid bare.  It is absolute and we do not wish ever to be absolved from the vision we have been given.  Foundations are not just chronological beginnings, equipped with a road map, good consitutions and by-laws to meet all eventualities.  They are submersions into the depths where we cannot see clear divisions between the possibilities and limitations of the human and the possibilities and inventiveness of God.  When these meet, we sometimes have to confront what Edward Schillebeeckx once called the “existential inability to do otherwise.”  We know ourselves to be numbered among the foolish, the weak, the despised, as having been stripped of all pretense, stripped of the illusions that “I can really do this on my own.”

We cannot escape this congenital tension between what we know ourselves to be and who we have been called to become.  It is a source of discontent, dissatisfaction, un-ease, and suffering.  There is a gnawing distance between what we have promised and professed and our performance, the way we live out this call.  The experience of what is called “cognitive dissonance” most often leads us to modify our beliefs when we sense the incongruity of our beliefs with our behavior.  It is “more realistic” to understand those changed conditions which alter imperatives into “strong suggestions.”  What we are doing is really “good enough.”

The Cistercian Founders were those irritating people who could not be content with a good thing.  They seemed to feel a need to go to excess, to be confrontational, to disturb.  Good people called them extreme and hypocritical.  They exaggerated the short-comings of others to propagate their own way of living.  They claimed to be strict followers of the Rule of Benedict, when (as Louis Lekai has written) they ignored and contradicted it when they thought they had better ideas.  But the foundation of their foundation was their need to live an observance and external life which gave free expression to what the Spirit was saying in their hearts.  The question St. Bernard posed in his Apologia was: what spiritual needs account for the practical choices you make?  The Founders had felt that they were not living in obedience to the depths and imperatives of their call.  They were thus guilty of having perjured themselves (Exordium Parvum).  The spiritual need for authenticity demanded expression in forms that corresponded to their beliefs and passions.  What was possible for God could find a home only in hearts poor enough, weak enough, humble enough to yield to His vision—the New Age which would exalt the lowly to sit on thrones.  One author has called their abbeys “austere walls around the passionate intensity of faith.”

The Cistercian Founders reveal the enduring struggle and tension at the heart of Christian discipleship which cannot be satisfied with what “has been.”  Forgetting what lies behind, I press on to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3: 13).  It is from within the foundations that we are in communication with the Sprit who makes all things new, who transforms human nature into an instrument of his redemption, his righteousness, his sanctification.  Our foundation in Christ is the source of our constant re-founding and conversion. To be authentic, the forms of our life must manifest what the Spirit is saying and doing. Foundation is our way of life, our way of responding to what only God can make possible.

 

Solemnity of the Founders of Citeaux

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

Our Cistercian life is know for its balance. The three pillars of the life, prayer, sacred reading (lectio divina) and work are circumscribed by many rules and regulations to ensure the balance is not lost. But there many other items in our life that are not so protected, for instance each of us, at one time or another, performs a service for the community. It might be as reader in the refectory or church or intoning a psalm at the Office or cooking a meal or teaching a class or preaching a homily or being in charge of a department. Just naming these things makes me think the opportunities are endless!

Anytime you are doing something in public you are a bit vulnerable, exposed and self conscious. It is a known fact, and I think we have all experienced this, that if we are criticized at this moment it sticks with us no matter how many compliments we have received before the criticism. The negative remarks seem to outweigh a dozen positive ones. It is almost as if our mind is programmed to hold onto the negative. One negative remark can throw us off balance.

Now today we are celebrating the feast of our Founders. a day when we thank God for our vocation as Cistercian monks. We have inherited a tremendous patrimony, one that only gradually reveals its grace to us. Our vocation is not something we earned or deserve, it is a gift; one of the most beautiful vocations in the Church. So today we celebrate in quiet thanksgiving the gift God has given us. But there is a hook, a catch as it were. There is another stream flowing into our pristine waters.

The old negative chip in the brain has been turned on by the words of our Founders, “They had promised by solemn profession to obey this Rule, yet by no means kept it…” This naturally leads us to ask, are we as serious about the Rule as our Fathers; have we drifted from our ideals; do we think our Founders would be proud of us? So along with the pure joy of the day, the pure bliss of being called a Cistercian monk we have to make room for an examination of conscience. And if we are not careful this can throw us off balance.

How can we honestly say we are as serious about living the Rule as our Founders? I would like to try to answer this question in the context of today's Gospel. When Jesus suggested to the rich young man that he leave everything and follow him, he walks away. That was asking too much. This prompted Peter to say, “We have put everything aside to follow you, what can we expect from it” (Mt. 19:27-29). The key phrase for us here is, “put everything aside.” This is the foundation of the monastic life. The Rule was written for beginners and we are all beginners when it comes to putting everything aside to follow Christ in the monastic way. Each stage of the journey demands a more radical putting aside of things dear to us, even our ideals, our desires, our hopes and aspirations, even to what we think a Cistercian community should be. The steps of humility help us to be serious about living the Rule because we all know we can become proud of our observance. The sixth degree of humility is the antidote to this poison. Basing himself on Luke 17, Benedict says after we have done our duty, even followed the Rule perfectly, we are to say we are only “poor and worthless workmen.” This is leaving aside everything even our sense of accomplishment and exchanging our puffed up attitude with the profound knowledge that without Him I can do nothing.

Living the inner reality of the Rule has to be the foundation for our external observances. There is a balance here that might be different than the one achieved by our Fathers but we will truly be their sons if we put aside everything and live a life of humility.

Solemnity of the Founders of Citeaux

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

Lord, we have left everything and followed you.” Nine hundred years ago, in 1098, the founders of our Cistercian way of life left their flourishing community of Molesme to start a new monastery at a place called Citeaux, or in Latin, “Cistercium.” Fr. Louis Lekai tells us that Cistercium comes from a Latin phrase referring to the location of the new monastery, this side of the third milestone along the old Roman road, “cis tertium lapidem miliarium”.

Our Lady of Citeaux is Our Lady of the third milestone. She is Our Lady of those along the road, those seeking a better country, a heavenly homeland, a city prepared by God. Our very name, Cistercium, the third milestone, reminds us that we are sojourners, who have left our father’s house like Abraham following the call of God. We are strangers and exiles on earth.

St. Robert, the first of our founders, was 70 years old when he led twenty-one monks from Molesme to Citeaux. Born of noble parents, he entered a monastery near Dijon in his early youth, not far from the future Citeaux. Around the age of 40 he became abbot of Saint Michel de Tonerre, an abbey under Cluniac discipline. This ended abruptly in less than two years, and he returned as a simple monk to the abbey of his youth. There is a hint here that his ideals were not well received. His return was equally brief, for he was made superior of a dependent priory. But this place proved even less congenial to him, and once again in less than two years he left the place and joined a group of hermits in the forest of Collan. Under his influence they assisted him in founding the monastery of Molesme the following year, 1075. Our second prominent founder, St. Alberic, was among them.

Ten years later the Englishman, St. Stephen Harding, along with his companion Peter, passed by the monastery of Molesme on his return journey from a pilgrimage to Rome, and joined Molesme. Stephen had entered monastic life as a youth in Sherbourne, England. But the Norman conquests forced his community to disperse. He fled to Scotland and then went to Paris where he continued his studies until he made a pilgrimage to Rome and discovered Molesme on his return journey. He was about 30 years old.

Robert, Alberic, and Stephen left everything several times to follow Christ along their journey to God. Molesme prospered. Within the first 25 years of its history it founded about 40 dependent houses and cells. The eremitical origins and spirit of this cenobitic community attracted St. Bruno and his companions who lived there for a time before they founded the Carthusians.

However, new vocations soon outnumbered the original founding hermits of Molesme, and they lost control of its fundamental spirit. Molesme accumulated benefices, church revenues, village tithes and serfs; like Cluny, it acquired lay servants, children oblates, and people who offered their goods to the abbey in exchange for room and board for life. Unhappy with the changes, Robert left to join a another group of hermits for a short period of time. Four other monks, among them Alberic and Stephen, also left Molesme to try an experiment in a more solitary way of life; but neither of these attempts succeeded. They all returned to Molesme. Finally, in 1098, Robert, Alberic and Stephen supported by eighteen other monks again left everything to found a new monastery this side of the “third milestone.” They learned from previous mistakes and false starts how to lay the foundations for a successful community that was inspired not only by the observance the Rule of St. Benedict but also by the spirit of the Desert Fathers.

We are the happy inheritors of their success. Not even the forced return of St. Robert to Molesme the following year under obedience, accompanied by twelve of the founding monks, was able to undo the beginnings of Citeaux. Alberic, Stephen, and the remaining six monks stood firm as lovers of the Rule, of the brothers, and of the place, and God blessed them. Fourteen years later, in 1112, a year before the entrance of St. Bernard and his companions, Citeaux made it first foundation. Fifty years after Citeaux began it had expanded to over three hundred communities. In today’s Eucharist, let us thank God for the joy of being called to the Cistercian way of life, and during this year of celebration may we be renewed by the spirit of our founders.

Solemnity of the Founders of Citeaux

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

Some words never grow old. Love for example has been around for thousands of years and is still used daily by million of people. It is the most powerful word in the vocabulary of any language. Other words, especially slang words are used up in a decade or less and are never or seldom heard from again. When I was in high school if someone was sort of out of it, which meant different than our crowd, he was called a square. This was replaced by nerd, which was replaced by geek and now I think the current word is dweeb or dork!

In the monastic life we have our own vocabulary that seldom changes. However there is one consecrated phrase that is changing. It is the phrase, “simple Lay-Brother“! We all knew what it meant. Years ago we would always preface the refectory book with a brief account of some holy monk or nun of our Order. The phrase simple lay-brother was used often to describe someone who reached the heights of sanctity simply by living out their monastic vocation to the full. Since the decree of unification in 1964 this term has lost a lot of its meaning. In fact there must have been 50 monasteries founded since then and the monks in these monasteries don’t even know what a lay brother is!

To us who have been around for a while it has a wealth of meaning. A good example of a simple lay brother would be Br. Conrad. He spent most of his monastic working hours cleaning the rooms in the guest house. He is remembered as one of the holiest monks we ever knew.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with the feast of our Founders? They were Abbot’s as were St. Bernard and St. Aelred and most of our Fathers. They were highly educated men, preachers and writers and scholars. Bernard is a Doctor of the Church. Why then, do we hold up the simple lay brother as the one who embodies the ideals of our Order?

In preparing this homily I began by reading the Scripture passage assigned for the feast. Then I began reading some pages on the early history of our Order. The more history I read of the further I got from the Scriptures. So, I went back to the Gospel and this passage jumped out at me, it is spoken by Peter, he says to Jesus, “we have put everything aside to follow you…Mt. 19:27. To follow Jesus. This is what our Cistercian life is all about. This simple fact under girds all we can say about the St. Benedict and his Rule, the founders of Citeaux, the writings of St. Bernard. The bottom line is that they and we are followers of Christ. If you are called to it, the Cistercian way is a wonderful way to follow Christ, but it is not the only way. We are fist of all Christians—the very name we bear defines who we are.

A simple lay brother is, to my mind, someone who takes the complexity of our Cistercian life and reduces it to one essential element—following Christ. He is able in all simplicity to use the monastic observances as an expression of his love for Christ. It is almost like taking the nitty gritty of our life, the rules and regulations, the carbon, if you will, and compressing them into a simple, beautiful diamond. The life is no longer a disjointed multiplicity of observances but a unified expression of an inner spiritual love of Jesus, a daily answer to the invitation to sell all and come follow me. Abraham heard the call, Peter and the Apostles heard it, St. Paul says the Corinthians heard it, all the great saints heard it and the simple lay brother heard it and teaches us how to hear it and live it. We are so fortunate to have that type of person among us. “What, dear brothers, is more delightful than the voice of the Lord calling to us?Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue 19.