The Founders of Our Order, Sts. Robert, Alberic and Stephen

January 26, 2020
The Founders of Our Order, Sts. Robert, Alberic and Stephen

Chapter Talk – Solemnity of Sts. Robert, Alberic & Stephen

January 26, 2020

What was the larger horizon that guided our foundersdecision to leave their monastery of Molesme to the wilderness of Citeaux?  It seems to me that if we can tease out what were the motivating factors in the discernment of our founders to leave Molesme, it will help us, as well, to be sure that we are faithful to this larger vision of what Cistercian – Benedictine life is to be about in its essence.

“We monks put down deep roots and try to cultivate through communal monastic practices the grounded humanity that Greek philosophers and their Christian heirs characterized as ‘learning to dwell with the self’ (habitare secum)” (America, Columba Stewart, January 6, 2020, p.24).  This profound statement of Fr. Columba Stewart expresses a foundational element important in any discernment: ‘to dwell with the self’.  When we are at one’, interiorly, we are prepared to listen, open to hear the deeper promptings of the Spirit, present to the intentions of the heart.  Our founders surely lived at this level to make such a choice to leave the monastery of their profession, which included their abbot, at least at the beginning of their departure.

Why did our founders leave Molesme?  The Exordium Parvum (EP) states: “These men are from a certain place which is called the New Monastery; they left the church of Molesme with their abbot and went to live there for the sake of a stricter, more secluded life according to the Rule of the Blessed Benedict, which they had resolved to observe, having set aside the customs of certain monasteries…”  They desired a stricter, simpler life than what they were living, a life more faithful to the Rule of St. Benedict.  Was it just outer observances that had grown slack at Molesme that made them leave? Or, did the desire for a more observant life,combined with the inner monastic values (fundamental to  monastic life), together,prompt them to leave?  Another image from the EP: the founders desired to become “poor with the poor Christ”.  This ‘poverty’ was not just in externals, it was also ‘poverty of spirit’, which we could well ponder what this means for me and for us as a community today.  These founders rejected everything that smacked “of pride, or superfluity or anything that might corrupt the poverty—guardian of the virtues” (EP).  These pithy excerpts from the Exordium Parvum give us a senseof what drew these monks to begin New Monastery.

Over the past few days I read Bernard of Clairvaux’s Apologia.  I was struck how this satire of St. Bernard follows the tenor of the Exordium. You may recall that the Apologia was written around 1125 by Bernard at the request of his friend William of St. Thierry, who was abbot of St. Thierry at the time.  He is expressing concern about the observance of the Cluniacs and also in the early section is exhorting his own monks.  He writes: “The man who shifts his gaze from himself, and is more interested in others’ faults than in his own, will be wrenched back and made to take stock of himself; and it will serve him right” (Apologia, Bernard of Clairvaux, CP, p.46).  Keep in mind that our founders left Molesme to live a more strict and poor life, one more in line with St. Benedict’s vision.  Bernard warns his monks and us not to take the gaze away from our own heart.  Once we do that what happens?  Our hearts become hardened…we forget our own sin and mercy is no longer guiding our way….we become like the Pharisee in the story of the Pharisee and the Publican: the Pharisee’s gaze is toward the other person; the Publican’s gaze is first within in his own heart.

Further on in the Apologia, Bernard has a wonderful description to motivate one to review the quality of their monastic living: How can these monks be said to keep the Rule?  They wear furs and they eat meat and fat.  Every day they have three orfour different dishes, which the Rule forbids, and they leave out the work it enjoins.  Many points of their Rule they modify or extend or restrict as they like. This is so; no one could deny it.  But look at God’s rule, with which St. Benedict’s regulations agree.  It says that ‘the kingdom of God is within you,’ it does not consist in outward things like bodily clothing and food, but in man’s interior virtues…A good deal of attention is given to getting a robe and cowl for the body, since a man is not reckoned a monk without them.  Meanwhile there is no thought for his spiritual attire, the spirit of prayer and humility” (p.47-48).  Bernard will not forget the interior life for he knows this is pivotal for any authentic monastic life.

And then this humorous yet serious depiction of what monastics can fall into (forget Cluny…look at ourselves): “Abstemiousness is accounted miserliness, sobriety strictness, silence gloom.  On the other hand, laxity is labeled discretion, extravagance generosity, talkativeness sociability, and laughter joy.  Fine clothes and costly caparisons are regarded as mere respectability, and being fussy about bedding is hygiene.  When we lavish these things on one another, we call it love.  Such love undermines true love.  Such discretion disgraces real discretion.  This sort of kindness is full of cruelty, for it so looks after the body that the soul is strangled.  How can love pamper the flesh and neglect the spirit?  What sort of discretion is it to give everything to the body and nothing to the soul?” (p.52-53). The needs of the soul require attention and care; the observances are to foster care of the heart and the soul…they are not ends in themselves.  

Then, these final two texts of Bernard: “‘Religion is in the heart,’ you say, ‘not in the habit.’  I agree.  How is it then, that when you want to buy a cowl, you have to make the rounds of all the cities, going through every center of commerce, inspecting markets and scrutinizing shops” (p.61).

“Any vice that shows up on the surface must have its source in the heart.  A frivolous heart is known by frivolous conduct, external extravagance points to inward impoverishment, and soft clothes are a sign of a soul without firmness.  The fact is that there would not be so much concern for the body, if the fostering of spiritual values had not long since been neglected” (p.61-62).  

Bernard will not separate the inner life from the outer.  He knows that from the heart springs forth God’s life and love….he also knows that from the heart comes forth the vices that disconnect us from God and one another.  Our founders, it seems to me, wanted to return to a simpler, more austere life in the outer, as envisioned by St. Benedict, because that alone nourished, sustained the heart and soul in becoming like Christ.  Perhaps there is no better way to express theintention of our founders (and St. Bernard) than these words of Fr. Michael Casey: “Beneath this surface insistence on particular external forms, however, was a hidden pursuit of radical discipleship of Christ and fidelity to the Gospel” (Exordium Parvum, unit 10, p.1).  So dear sisters, knowing that our monastic observance is adapted from the more strict life of what our founders lived, it follows that we must be even more vigilant about the daily conversion of our lives. Our first and essential priority is to incarnate this radical discipleship, by offeringour lives daily in the pursuit of becoming more like Christ in mind and heart, andto be ever-more faithful to the gospel way.

Sr. Kathy DeVico, Abbess

January 26, 2020 Back to Chapter Talks
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