The Solemnity of the Founders of Citeaux
[Scripture Readings: Sir 44:1, 10-15; Heb 11:1-2, 8-19; Mk 10:24-30]
In 1098 twenty-one monks left the monastery of Molesme to go to Citeaux. This was the beginning of the Cistercian Order. The first three abbots were named Robert, Alberic and Stephen. They are considered our founders. The other eighteen are lost to history but their humble lives live on in us. They have a lesson to teach us too, about the hidden life. So I think on this feast day of all our founders, it is appropriate to ask the question. What does their monastic life teach us? To answer this question we must ask another, what are we willing to learn? How much are we willing to invest? How open are we to what might be called the hard sayings in the Rule?
St. Benedict tells us we can judge the seriousness of an aspirant by his eagerness for obedience and humiliations — opprobria is the Latin term, not a pretty word, watered down in modern translation to “trials.” For moderns humiliation is too close to shame. They should not be equated—but still why would anyone be eager for humiliations?
To answer this question let us look at the life of our founders as presented to us in today’s Scripture readings. In the second reading they are compared to the Patriarchs who lived by faith—setting out on a journey not knowing where they were going. All these, we are told, “died before receiving any of the things that had been promised,” (Heb. 11:13). In the Gospel reading they are identified with those who leave all things to follow Christ.
Setting out on a journey without a good goal—dying before you gain anything—leaving all without knowing what you will receive in return—this is, at the very least, a risky way to live if not down right humiliating. Isn’t it a humiliation for us to live a demanding way of life, giving ourselves to it totally, without seeing the results, without being able to point to something we have acquired, something we have achieved?
To live in the dark this way is an insult to our natural drive to succeed. Our society instills in us a strong competitive sense. We are taught to make things happen by our ingenuity and will power. To bind these, to put them on the shelf is a humiliation. The monastery directs us in another way. The common life dictates that we not stand out—that we blend in with the community, that we get our sense of worth from another not from some personal achievement.
Add to this the challenge to leave all things to follow Christ. We must admit this is a path strewn with humiliations. Leaving all things is not a once and for all decision—it is not even reserved to material wealth. It also means to leave behind all our defenses and opens us to being vulnerable. Pride and vanity die slowly and painfully. Isn’t it a personal humiliation to let others see our failings—to witness an uncontrollable jealousy or envy at another’s success? Isn’t it an insult to our ego not to be able to contain our anger or our stress or irritability? In the common life of the monastery many things we would like to keep hidden are all too public. It is humiliating!
If we follow the path of the Patriarchs—if we leave all and follow Christ, our life will be marked with certain unsteadiness—certain insecurity. We will be between leaving and finding. We will die with out receiving any of the things that had been promised. We will die like Jesus, in the dark. Life “in between” is a humbling experience. The goal is always just ahead; we have a little more to leave behind always just a little more. We have our eyes fixed on the goal in the distance.
As for right now we know “that our life is hidden with Christ in God. But when Christ is revealed, and he is (our) life, we too will be revealed with him in glory,” (Col. 3:3-4).