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Feast of our Cistercian Founders, Sts. Robert, Alberic and Stephen

Feast of our Cistercian Founders, Sts. Robert, Alberic and Stephen

February 22, 2014

One of the major factors motivating Robert, Alberic & Stephen and their companions to leave their monastery of Molesme and begin New Monastery in the wilderness of Citeaux is recorded in the Exordium Parvum, an ancient text documenting the history of our Order’s beginnings.  The intention of the first monks is described in this document as desiring “to adhere henceforth more strictly and more perfectly to the Rule of the blessed Benedict” (quoted in The Mysticism of the Twelfth Century, p.150).  There was in the atmosphere of the Church and surrounding culture a felt need for ‘reform and renewal’ and certainly this overarching dynamic affected our founders in their own movement of renewal.  Reform and renewal are not only about changing external structures and thus Bernard of Clairvaux would insist on the principle that “all reform must serve the personal renewal that brings us closer to Christ” (p.150).  I do believe our three founders-Robert, Alberic and Stephen-would have realized that renewal, external and personal, go hand in hand as they began their new adventure in Citeaux.
I like to turn now to the last chapter in Michael Casey’s book An Unexciting Life.  It is the epilogue of this book and is titled “The Monk In the Modern World.”  The whole thrust of ‘consecrated life’ active and contemplative is to further the ‘kingdom of God’.  In this epilogue Michael Casey lists ways that monastics can contribute to the world today and help to bring forth the kingdom of God.  The ways he describes echo St. Benedict’s whole orientation in the Rule and I think characterize realities that guided our founders in their pursuit of salvation, of bringing forth the kingdom of love, peace and justice.  While Michael Casey mentions twelve ways I like to refer just to a few of them.  The first is ‘faith’.  This is an adult mature faith that has suffered and struggled with darkness and doubt, and in the midst of this has received grace and found the face of God’s love, Christ.  The personal and communal witness of faith is on-going and radical for faith as expressed in Guadium et Spes shows its fruitfulness “by penetrating the believer’s entire life…” (p.507).  Alone and together as a monastic community faith is to penetrate our entire life…this is our daily walk!  We can certainly imagine the faith that our founders lived and exhibited as they sought to bring to fruition their call to begin a ‘new monastery’ more faithful to the spirit of the Rule.  Next, Michael Casey speaks of “continuity”.  In our fast and changing world, in a world permeated with instability, chaos, war, climate change we stand rooted in a past, a tradition that is living and vital.  We will never know for sure all that motivated our founders to take such a leap into the unknown to begin a ‘new monastery’.  We do know that they desired a more simple monastic lifestyle, one more faithful and in continuity with the spiritual precepts of the Rule.  In terms of the word ‘continuity’ Michael Casey says: “The faith of the Church is embodied and transmitted not by logical equations but through images.  When Jesus spoke to the crowds he used parables and most of the Bible is written in poetic, symbolic, colorful language.  To understand revelation it is necessary to enter into the symbolic world of which it is a part” (p.509).  The whole live of a monk is to be revelatory in this sense of the mythic symbolic life of God’s Word, the Word, communicating the mystery and healing power of God’s life.  There is an inner dimension to God’s Word, it is poetic, symbolic, it mediates Divine realities, bringing God’s life into our ordinary lives. The next way that Casey speaks of is “authenticity”.  He writes: “Monks are vowed to living an evangelical life; it is possible for them to embody their response to God’s Word in a lifestyle….Monks are not proclaiming anything else except what they live; their life is their proclamation.  By what they are, monks attest to the faith of the Church” (p.510).  I don’t see how we arrive at any level of ‘authenticity’ without self-knowledge.  Along with this unfolding knowledge of ourselves is humility: humility and the truth of ourselves, these are the ingredients of authenticity.  If our lives are “characterized by integrity,” says Michael Casey, “then it is possible that something of the purity of Gospel truth may be manifested to others” (p.511).  Another way that Michael offers is “simplicity”.  Clearly our founders sought a simpler, purer monastic life than what they were living at Molesme.  In our times to live simply is a challenge…we always ‘want’ and always need ‘this or that’…if this pattern dominates our lives the spiritual values that we aspire to live recede.  Technology can help us simplify but it can also become an obstacle to keeping our lives simple, clear, poor, beautiful. Simplicity of heart helps create simplicity of life.  Another way is “discipline”.  Michael Casey says this of ‘discipline’: “The essence of discipline is the willingness and capacity to learn….There is more to discipline than self-control and willpower.  Certainly constancy and the capacity to endure what is not pleasurable are necessary components of any successful learning process…” (p.513).  How open are we to learn through difficult experiences that come our way…I do think that the capacity to learn has to do with how open our hearts are to receive wisdom from any source, any person, any event in our lives…disciples of Jesus are always ready to learn and to live what they have heard and received.  Next Michael Casey speaks of “non-instinctuality”.  I don’t think he means that we could ever be without instincts as they are part of our human lives.  He is referring to how our instincts if they are not ‘ordered’, faced, contained impact our lives and lead us “astray”.  This way is about “emotional enslavement” (p.515).  To quote him: “Unless a monk is free of the enslavement of his own biology and background, his behavior is not personal; it is the predictable result of a certain chemistry of events” (p.514). 
These “ways” give us a spiritual map outlining something of what it means to live our “call” as monastics: faith, continuity, simplicity, discipline, authenticity, right ordering of our emotions.  They are continuous with the lives of St. Benedict and our founders, Robert, Alberic & Stephen.  Essentially St. Benedict and our founders had ONE passion: that was to become like Christ, and to meet Christ in the utter simplicity of each day of prayer, manual work and community.  For our founders: one scriptural passage from the Song of Songs was really the framework of what they were building and what they strove to live each day: “He has ordered charity in me” (2:4).  With the “emblem of God’s love over us” we are called and motivated to be ‘lovers’ of the place and of one another and so to proclaim with our lives the face of God’s love, Christ.

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