Wednesday, 28 May 2008


Vocations to the Priesthood

In union with the other Christian Martyrs of Algeria
we commemorate the Seven Atlas Martyrs
on their anniversary 21 May 2008.

In our Post for the 21st May our prayer extended beyond our seven Cistercian Brothers. That extension was dramatically underlined for us by the account of the 40 Young Seminarians martyred in Burundi.

Abbot Hugh Gilbert OSB has drawn my attention to the moving article in

Pluscarden Benedictines

No. 145. Spring 2008

As the author points out, the story is scarcely known in English speaking countries.
I hope the following Links and References will make this example of young men aspiring to the priesthood an
inspiration, and may promote and strengthen the faith of those attracted to the priestly vocation.

Excerpts from article, “The Seminarians of Buta Martyrs of Christian Brotherhood, 30 April 1997”.
It is against the background of the early years of this Civil War of Burundi that the story of Buta belongs. . . . . . . . . . .

Providential Preparations
In 1965, in the southern province of Bururi, a junior seminary was
established. The students - more than a hundred of them, in their teens and early twenties - were ethnically both Hutu and Tutsi. It is worth mentioning that attendance at a junior seminary does not necessarily imply an intention for priesthood, and that in Africa students will often be older than they would in any European or North American equivalents. In 1986, a diocesan priest, P. Zacharie Bukuru, was made Rector.

Shortly after, the seminary was secularised by the government, and then in 1988 returned to the Church.

Looking back on the years prior to the tragedy of 1997 and on his own ministry, Fr. Zacharie was able to see the guiding, preparing hand of Providence. It is also clear to others that he was an inspired pedagogue and spiritual father for these youngsters. From the beginning of his service there the Rector was haunted by a premonition of death. Its immediate cause was the overloaded state of the dormitory. To reassure himself he would quietly visit it each night after the boys were asleep. Standing there in the dark listening to their peaceful breathing he felt the beginning of a deep friendship with them. More importantly, he knew it was part of his task to educate them to Christian brotherhood, beyond their ethnic identities. After the political events of 1993-1994 this became even more imperative. The racial tensions tended to affect schools very seriously, with often one or other group attacking the other, or deserting the school for fear of being massacred, or expelling the staff and taking the school over. P. Zacharie noticed how the youngsters were already tending to recreate more and more in ethnic groups. At one point a group of young Hutu students planned to desert the seminary, saying that they were in peril from their Tutsi companions. The staff managed to prevent this, though shortly after six such seminarians did leave. They were to join a rebel group and be the ones who later would guide it in the attack on their former confreres.

The Rector then began holding regular meetings with all the students. They would study together the news that was coming in, study and 're-read' the history of the conflict, especially the events of 1972 in which their parents had been involved. This allowed things hitherto kept under to surface. The boys began to express their fears, their sometimes one-sided or distorted understanding of events, and their ethnic prejudic:es. The only rule in these exchanges was that if one youngster insulted another, he was told that he was insulting everyone, bidden to leave the room for a time, and then return and apologise. Gradually the students discovered how worthwhile it was to search for the objective truth about their country's history. They learned to respect other perspectives and distance themselves from extremism. Gradually a culture of peace emerged. There grew a desire to disengage from the inherited conflicts and to move towards a better, reconciled future.

At the same time - another stroke of pedagogical genius - the Rector realised how worthwhile it would be to teach the boys the traditional Burundian dances. These were in any case in danger of being forgotten. He got the best dancers in the country to teach both students and professors. The effect was marked. Dancing bonds. This too, and sport (lots of it!), and the encouragement of societies began to create an extraordinary sense of brotherhood in the place. The students themselves founded an association to help local people cope with Aids, another to promote the environment. As the economic situation worsened, they began more manual work, which proved another bond, uniting staff and students as well as the students themselves. Various Youth and Catholic Movements also took root in the seminary: Scouts, Focolari, Schoenstatt etc., all of which helped. There was communal study of the Sermon on the Mount. And not least there was prayer, especially at the weekends, with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament all through the night. All this was happening when so much education in the country was in crisis. The seminary began to become well known as a happy exception. The Prime Minister himself came to affirm all this. But those in the country who preferred to foment division were not pleased.

So we come to 1997. Easter itself seemed to be special, with many of the students saying afterwards how moved they had been by the liturgy of Good Friday. Then two weeks after Easter they had their communal retreat, animated by members of a local Foyer de Charite. This too seems to have been a time of unusual grace. At the final Mass everyone rose as if at the bidding of an electric current and danced, and were transported by joy, including the Rector. Then afterwards, after their days of silence, the boys began to speak. "I'm going to be a priest," said one, and immediately others burst out laughing because that's what they had decided too .. And others said, "In this retreat I've really met God face to face." One said to the Rector, memorably in view of what was to come: "Father, why have you never talked to us about Paradise?" And they began to speak of peace, justice, love, the priesthood, the Church in a way the Rector had never heard them do before. He realised something unique had happened, and that some of them had been given a glimpse of paradise. "Never in my life had I experienced such a depth of brotherly communion, or so manifest a presence of the Holy Spirit." This was the 24th April. Six days later, forty of them would be dead.

It's also worth mentioning an experience of the Rector's, which he dates to 5 April. He was praying, and there came to him a strong sense that something very good and very wonderful was about to happen to him, and that all he had to do to prepare for it was pray. He did thereafter find himself praying with greater ease.

By a strange Providence, in 1997 the Church in Burundi as celebrating its centenary, and by another the late Cardinal Lustiger, whose own Jewish parents had been "ethnically cleansed" in Auschwitz, was the Pope's representative at the closing ceremonies later that year. In their course, he said this to the people ofBurundi:

"Remember what happened at dawn on 30th April, in the dormitory of the seminary at Buta: forty of your own children - of different ethnic origins - remained united as brothers and preferred to die together rather than betray each other. Some of them gave up their lives praying for their murderers with the words, 'Lord forgive them; they know not what they do.' This is the highest example of human greatness and of love of neighbour which it is possible to give on this earth as followers of Jesus. In France we have heard tell of many other no less admirable examples given by many Christians of your country. Together we thank God for this testimony which your children, parents and friends have given to the power of the love of Christ. Keep the memory of them as something precious ... They are martyrs of charity and offaith; they are an example for the Christians of the whole world and for the whole of humanity. With the Virgin Mary and all the saints, they too are praying for you. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the name of the whole Church, I say thank you to the Church of Burundi for having given birth to them."

The cause for the beatification of these young men has been opened.

Bukuru, Zacharie

A biographical account of the author's experiences of the violence between Hutu and Tutsi in Burundi during the 1990s, and the murder of 40 young seminarians who refused to acknowledge segregation based on ethnicity. The author reflects on the dialectic between history and memory and the necessity of remembrance and understanding. Text in French. BNS, 248pp, FRANCE. KARTHALA.

2004 2845865384 Paperback

Translations pending, “The Forty young Martyrs of Buta, Burundi: Brothers in Life and in Death”.


The Martyrs of the Christian Fraternity, BURUNDI


Dictionary of African Christian Biography

God is good and we have met Him. --The Martyrs of the Christian Fraternity d. 30 April 1997

The isolated, mountainous country of Burundi, often called "the Switzerland of Africa," has been the scene of some of Africa's bitterest ethnic violence, a spillover from the genocide in neighboring Rwanda. At about 5:30 in the morning of April 30, 1997, armed invaders allegedly from the Hutu rebel group CNDD (the National Council for the Defence of Democracy) attacked the Roman Catholic Seminary at Buta, killing forty young seminarians between the ages of fifteen and twenty. Since the beginning of the country's most recent civil war in October 1993, the seminary in the country's south had been a tranquil refuge for members of the two warring ethnic groups. The pastoral Hutu and more nomadic Tutsi have been locked in deadly genocidal war since 1972.

The seminarians themselves had made a special point of living in a Christian fraternity, where love of Christ was more important than ethnic origins. They had just completed an Easter season retreat before their massacre. Fr. Nicolas Niyungeko, rector of the Sanctuary of Buta in the Diocese of Bururi, wrote of the seminarians:

At the end of the retreat, this class was enlivened by a new kind of spirit, which seemed to be a preparation for the holy death of these innocents. Full of rejoicing and joy, the word in their mouths was "God is good and we have met Him." They spoke of heaven as if they had just come from it, and of the priesthood as if they had just been ordained .... One realized that something very strong had happened in their heart, without knowing exactly what it was. From that day on, they prayed, they sang, they danced to church, happy to discover, as it were, the treasure of Heaven.

The following day, when the murderers surprised them in bed, the seminarians were ordered to separate into two groups, the Hutus on one hand, the Tutsi on the other. They wanted to kill some of them, but the seminarians refused, preferring to die together. Their evil scheme having failed, the killers rushed on the children and slaughtered them with rifles and grenades. At that point some of the seminarians were heard singing psalms of praise and others were saying "Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do." Others, instead of fighting or trying to run away, preferred helping their distressed brothers, knowing exactly what was going to happen to them

Their death was like a soft and light path from their dormitory to another resting place, without pain, without noise, nor fear. They died like Martyrs of the Fraternity, thus honouring the Church of Burundi, where many sons and daughters were led astray by hatred and ethnic vengeance.[1]

Forty days after the massacre, the small seminary dedicated its church to Mary, Queen of Peace, and it has since, according to Fr. Niyungeko, "become a place of pilgrimage where Burundians come to pray for the reconciliation of their people, for peace, conversion, and hope for all. May their testimony of faith, unity, and fraternity send a message for humankind and their blood become a seed for peace in our country and the world."

Almighty God, you call your witnesses from every nation and reveal your glory in their lives. Make us thankful for the example of the Martyrs of the Christian Fraternity of Burundi, and strengthen us by their example, that we, like them, may be faithful in the service of your kingdom, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. --Celebrating Common Prayer, 489.
Frederick Quinn
Notes: 1. Nicholas Niyungeko, "What's New in Burundi!" e-mail from Servane Ronin-Vermauwt to Frederick Quinn, January 10, 2001.

See: African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa, copyright © 2002 by Frederick Quinn, Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, New York. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Abbey Retreats St. Augustine's

At the conclusion of the St. Augustine High School Spring Series of Day Retreats 29 May 2008 we added some pictures of the final bus party.


We have been happy to welcome groups of pupils for Day Retreats.
The following is a description of the experience which now features in the School Calendar.

In the course of the morning there is a quick fire Q&A session. Today being the feast of Saint Augustine (Canterbury), the Question arose as which Augustine is the named Patron of St. Augustine’s High School? It became that it was not Augustine the Apostle of the English. The Scots were Christian before the Anglo Saxons. The School takes its inspiration from St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the Church’s greatest theologians.

St Augustine has been given the title ‘Doctor’ in recognition of the great quality of his teaching. As the business of this school is teaching it is very apt that St Augustine has been chosen
as our patron”. (School Web)


The rule of St Benedict starts with a prologue which says: "Listen, my son to the precepts of the master and incline the ear of thy heart." It is at this time of the year that the third year pupils of St Augustine's, eagerly await the annual retreats to Nunraw Abbey. The retreats themselves are specifically designed to foster a spirit of recollection, where each pupil is encouraged to listen to the stirrings of their own heart. Nunraw Abbey is buried deep within the beautiful countryside of the Lammerrmuirs, just outside Garvald, the other side of Haddington, and about an hour away. The old baronial guesthouse with its pink coloured stone is a welcoming and impressive site as the eager retreatants pile out the bus and enter another world. It belongs to the order of Cistercians or Trappists, who are perhaps world famous for their silence and their beer making. The nick name Trappist comes from a reform movement that started in the 17th century at a French monastery, La Trappe, in Normandy. When a visitor writing in 1817 spoke of coming to La Trappe he was filled with awe about the mystery and austerity of the place. "Perhaps there never was anything in the whole universe better calculated to inspire religious awe than the first view of this monastery. It was imposing even to breathlessness,"

Part of the guesthouse at Nunraw, goes back to the 16th century and the walls are reputedly five feet thick in places. The house is perfect for a day's study, with workshops which help our pupils decide about what path God may be calling them on in their own life journey. We also walk up to the new monastery , through farm and woods, share a meal in the refectory, and, then there is a game of football in the grounds or a visit to the : shop where monastic chocolate abounds, and other religious gifts and mementoes. The day concludes with a celebration of Mass in the lovely historic chapel, the ceiling rich with frescoes painted in the 17th century of beasts and birds; one of which is the Pelican, the ancient Christian symbol for the Eucharist. At Mass one of the readings is taken from the story in Genesis (28: 12-17) where Jacob rests for the night and taking one of the stones uses it as a pillow where, "he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on earth, and the top reached to heaven, and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.» Jacob wakes up and realises that, unknown to himself, he had mistakenly been in a holy place without even realising it, and says: 'Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.' And he was afraid, and said, 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. '"

The retreats to Nunraw Abbey are designed to have a similar impact on our pupils, as it gradually dawns on them that they have visited a holy place; where they have dwelt awhile with angels without even knowing it. Thus, at the end of the day we can leave knowing in the words of St Benedict (at the end of his prologue) that "our hearts shall be enlarged, and we shall run with unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God's commandments and by patience in the sufferings of Christ may deserve to be partakers also of His Kingdom. Amen."

Monday, 26 May 2008

Hugh 80th Birthday

Fr. Hugh (Michael Randolph) is celebrating his 80th Birthday today.
An avid reader of the Citercian Fathers, and having St. Aelred as our monastery second Patron Saint, it seems opportune to Post the folowing article of Fr. Hugh.




The purpose of these pages is to try and convey the spirit and aims of those who have lived the monastic life throughout the ages.

They are men and women who saw a vision of things not seen, and who tried to respond to that vision with all sorts of human imperfections and inadequacies. In these pages we will try and follow the evolution of that ideal and recapture something of the ambitions, preoccupations and scale of values which the monks and nuns treasured and pursued.

Monasticism has been compared to an ancient forest oak tree with its roots going down deep into the earth, its trunk is thick and massive and its branches shoot out in all directions. Yet whether we look at the roots as they emerge through the soil or at the new branches at the top of the tree, the whole massive structure has the same life throughout. It has taken centuries for it to grow to its present size, the storms have beaten upon it and the centuries have taken their toll. Old branches have been snapped off and new ones, springing out from the main trunk have taken their place. The roots of this tree represent men like St. Antony the Great (250-356), St. Pachomius (286-346), St. Basil (330-379) and St. Benedict (480-547). These were the founders of the monastic way of life and are represented by the roots of the tree.

It is amongst the new branches that the Cistercian Order takes a modest place alongside a number of others founded during the 10th, 11th, and 12th, Centuries, such as the Cluniacs, the Carthusians, and the Camaldolese. Hap­pily today this monastic tree also includes monasteries belonging to the Anglican and Protestant Churches with houses both for men and women.

What is a Monk?

The word 'Monk' comes from the Greek word 'Monos' meaning alone and indicates one who lives somewhat apart from other men in order to live a life of asceticism and prayer. Such a type of life is older than Christianity itself, many religions both before and after Christ have had such people and today in Britain we find not only Christian Monks but also Buddhist ones. We find a certain indication of the monastic way of life in the conduct of Our

Lord who prepared for His public ministry by spending some time in the desert in prayer and fasting; He also spent the whole night in prayer on the mountainside before choosing His Apostles. From the very beginning the Church has had her Virgins and Ascetics as the Letters of St. Paul and the writings of the early Fathers relate. These were men and women who embraced not only the gospel precepts but also the counsel of consecrated virginity, taking their pledge at the hands of the Bishop. A certain spirit of isolation, of other-worldliness arose from the free acceptance of this special kind of life, directed consciously and deliberately towards the life which is to come. In the first place they continued to live with their families and later lived together under a Superior. In the 3rd Century the Ascetics began to live in. physical isolation, either alone or in groups.

Different forms of Christian living strive to reproduce different aspects of Christ's life; the Nursing Orders give expression to His care of the sick, the Preaching Orders continue His work of preaching, but it is especially Christ's life of prayer that the Monks try to continue. In this work, it sees as its example Christ, who withdrew into the mountain to pray and who continues to intercede before the Father as our Great High Priest. In striving to pursue this high ideal the monk always remembers that it is but one manner of Christian living and that there are many other ways of sharing in the life of Christ, in whose Body the members play different functions.

A Life of Prayer

The birth of the monastic life was a spontaneous movement springing from the Gospel itself. One of the greatest living authorities on monasticism Dom Jean Leclercq has written as follows:

“lt is difficult to say who initiated the monastic life, still more who was its founder and legislator. We are faced with a spontaneous expression of the Church's life and its very uni­versality leads us to look upon it as a necessary expression of the vitality of the faith; monasticism springs directly from the Gospel. Wherever the Gospel is lived ascetics or monks are found who wish to live out its message so fully and logically that they freely renounce certain kinds of human activity.

Far from forbidding these activities, the Gospel sanctifies them, yet they can still be obstacles to the uninterrupted pursuit of higher activities especially prayer. It is this last word that gives us the secret of the whole monastic movement: prayer which is orientated towards union with God is the reason for monasticism . . . . It is a prayer which consists in turning one's gaze tirelessly towards God."[1]


It is John Cassian who has worked out the meaning and the nature of the monastic prayer-life most fully. He lived from 380-435 and was probably born in what is now Roumania. He had experienced monastic life in many countries especially in Egypt where he had extensive conversations with the cenobites and hermits he met. His books are the most valuable description which we have of primitive monasticism and were written to try and translate the spirit of Eastern Monasticism to the West.

How does Cassian describe the monastic ideal, the target at which a monk should aim? We could put this question a little differently and ask what Cassian has to say about living a life of prayer which is permeated with the love and presence of God for it is just this which is at the heart of monasticism. St. Benedict wrote his Rule to help monks to achieve this end; he made no mention of any secondary purpose, such as teaching or nursing or pastoral work. Monks have done these things but they are quite independent of their essential function which is to live in God’s presence and to begin a life of adoration here on earth which will only be fully realized in Heaven. It cannot be too strongly emphasised that this habitual living in the love and presence of God is at the very root of a monk's life, all the rest, such things as wearing special clothes, having a special type of liturgy, perhaps in Latin, and other external features are quite accidental.

Cassian deals with the ideal of the monastic life in a number of places but it is in his first Conference on "The Monk’s Goal" and in the ninth and tenth on Prayer that we find it most fully expressed. The Fathers have a happy characteristic of putting fundamentals in a few succinct phrases and Cassian is the equal of any of them when he says in his first Conference that the ultimate end of the monastic life is the Kingdom of Heaven and the im­mediate end is purity of heart. In his ninth Conference he expresses this ideal rather differently and in so doing throws light on his previous state­ment. "Every monk", he says, "who looks for the perfect way aims at uninterrupted prayerfulness. As far as possible to a frail man, he struggles for imperturbable peace and purity of mind. [2] Further light is thrown on this target by turning to Cassian's first Conference in which he says: "A frail mortal cannot contemplate God in such a way that his mind is never to be drawn aside. What is important is to know where we ought to direct our mental attention and turn the eyes of our soul. [3]

To attempt to be actually occupied in saying prayers without interruption would drive a man mad, this is not what Cassian seeks at all. On the contrary, what he commends is an habitual orientation of the soul to God. As a Cistercian Monk of Bellefontaine has written: “. . . it doesn't mean prayer understood as a particular observance, nor the Divine Office or mental prayer. It concerns itself rather with an habitual attitude of the soul, a profound orientation of heart to God raised up in us by the Holy Spirit which comes to impregnate our whole existence”.[4]

The Presence of God

The important thing about this type of remembrance of God is that it is not a question of straining the imagination or making great efforts at con­centration. It is primarily the fruit of love and the way to cultivate it is to direct the will towards the object of contemplation rather than strain the attention of the mind. It means eliminating egoism, selfishness in all its forms. This mindfulness of God has been compared by modern spiritual writers to having toothache; it is always with you whichever way you turn and whatever you do. When you go to bed you feel the aching tooth, during the night it may keep you awake and when you get up in the morning it is still with you.

A slightly more sophisticated way of expressing it, is to say that the Presence of God is like being plagued by a nagging and perpetual worry. It is always present at the back of your mind whatever occupies your attention and at moments when you are disengaged the anxious thought surfaces more ex­plicitly and fills the mind. In somewhat the same way the awareness of God should be a monk's habitual preoccupation, his heart's deepest longing.

The function of Monastic Rules

These aspirations were embodied in various rules written in the fourth and following centuries. They were not rules in the modern sense of the term, legislating for the detailed ordering of the life but general principles and spiritual maxims which expressed the aims and purpose of monasticism. Sometimes a Bishop or Abbot would draw up a code of what seemed to him to be the most important principles of the monastic life. Frequently these would be extracts taken from the Gospels. The two Rules of St. Basil are full of these and are in fact a series of answers to questions about Sacred Scripture. Basil gives few details about monastic observances but is mainly concerned with giving his readers certain basic principles. For him, the monk's true rule is the Bible.

These rules were never rigid or inflexible and reflect something of the spirit of Eastern Monasticism today. If you were to ask an Orthodox Monk what rule he followed, he would reply: "l have no rule in the sense which you understand it in the West. My rule is the totality of monastic tradition and over and above that I have the typicon or customary of my monastery.”

Primitive Monastic Spirituality

The monastic ideal was also contained in the Sayings of the Fathers which were maxims communicated in the first place orally and subsequently written down. Their authors lived for the most part in Egypt and were frequently simple, unlettered men. A more intellectual approach was taken by Evagrius (345-399), a monk from Pontus in Asia Minor who wrote several books which contain valuable teaching on Prayer. A few extracts from his writings will convey some idea of this early non-systematic type of monastic spirituality.

"What greater thing is there than to converse with God and to be preoccupied with His company.” [5]

"Whatever difficulty you patiently endure through love of wisdom will reap fruits at the time of prayer.” [6]

“If you desire to pray as you ought do not sadden anyone. Otherwise you run in vain.” [7]

"Prayer is the fruit of joy and thanksgiving" [8]

“Prayer is the exclusion of sadness and despondency." [9]

"At times just as soon as you rise to pray, you pray well. At other times work as you may, you achieve nothing. But this happens so that by seeking more intently, and then finally reaching the mark, you may possess your prize without fear of loss." [10]

"A monk is a man who is separated from all and united with all.” [11]

“The state of prayer can be aptly described as an habitual state of imperturbable calm.” [12]

St. Benedict

In the year 480 a man was born whose life and teaching were to have a most profound influence on all subsequent Western Monasticism. Benedict was born of a noble family and sent to Rome to study rhetoric. Horrified by the vices of the students in that city he left Rome in company with his nurse and ended up at Subiaco. There he received the monastic habit from another monk called Romanus. He lived there first as a hermit and subsequently gathered disciples round him. Twelve monasteries were founded, but subversive acti­vities by the priest Florentius forced Benedict to leave for Monte Cassino where he built a monastery which was destroyed by the Lombards in 577.

St. Benedict is remembered above all as a legislator who wrote a rule adapting Egyptian Monasticism to European conditions. The document he produced eventually supplanted every other monastic rule in Western Christen­dom and for this reason it is worthwhile trying to identify its major charac­teristics and the reason for its success. St. Benedict's work comprises both a juridical statute for the organization of a monastery and a body of spiritual teaching. Unlike St. Basil's Rule we can trace the pattern of the daily life of the monastery in its pages, the day being divided between the celebration of the liturgy, with Mass only on Sundays and Feastdays, holy reading and manual work. It legislates for an autonomous self-contained community but makes no provision for any kind of network linking different monasteries together. It offers advice to the Abbot and other officials, legislates for the Abbatial election, for the reception and training of novices, for the office and duty of Prior, for the performance of the Divine Office, for food, sleep and clothing.

The Rule was written not for drop-outs from society but for ambitious men who are avid to find God, to pierce the veil of created things and become familiar with the Divine Presence within and around them. This ideal is well expressed by Evagrius in words already quoted: "What greater thing is there than to converse with God and to be preoccupied with His company." Benedict endeavours to provide an environment in which this is facilitated, where it may be a little easier to pierce the veil and "open one's eyes to the deifying light.” [13] It is of the nature of light to give something of its own lustre to the objects on which it shines and to open our personalities to the radiance of God's loving self-communication is to share in His own glory and happiness.


One of the characteristics of the aspirants to the Religious Life today is that they are not interested in repression for its own sake, they want to be provided with a life which is uplifting and positive. Clearly for St. Benedict humility means this, it is an ambitious virtue which opens the door to new horizons and is something virile. A distinguished Cistercian Abbot once defined humility as: "The truth of our relationship with God, recognised by the intellect, embraced by the will, and realized in our life.” [14] Viewed in this way it is not one virtue amongst others, but a life-style and that is how St. Benedict viewed it. For him it meant to live increasingly in the realization of God's presence and infinite goodness. It meant to be habitually aware of the things which are not seen, which alone give meaning to the monastic life. The 7th Chapter of his Rule which he devotes to this topic, holds much the same place in Benedictine spirituality as the Ascent of Mount Carmel holds in Carmelite spirituality. It describes the progressive impact of God's holiness on a man's life moving him to renounce self-centredness and to find fulfilment in going out of himself because something much bigger than self has entered his life.

St. Bernard has described the fruition of this process: "Everything the spouse does or thinks will savour of Christ, so completely has he captured his mind and his heart.” 15 [15]

Perpetual Prayer

Monastic tradition has always regarded this ideal of perpetual prayer in a very sane and balanced way. Every Christian life is a sharing in God’s life of infinite love and is a tremendous mystery which has to be lived by human beings with their limitations both of grace and nature. A happy relaxed spirit is essential for a monk and tension must be avoided as far as possible. Cassian discusses this matter in his Conference on Mortification of all places! He says that a visit of another monk should be welcomed, it will be a help both to body and soul. "It often happens," he says, "I don't say just to novices or to the weaker brethren, but to those more advanced in experience and perfection that if change doesn't bring any relaxation and their mind is always wrapped up in serious things that they will get fed up with life, or their health will take a turn for the worst. Therefore prudent and mature solitaries shouldn't only tolerate even frequent visits of the brethren; they should welcome them with joy.”[16]16 He is talking explicitly about hermits but the principle is the same for those living in community.

St. Benedict in his Rule provides an equilibrium which gives a considerable variety to the daily timetable and is geared to meet a person's psychological needs. He divides up the day, as we have seen, into three types of activity, liturgical prayer, reading, and manual work. The amount of time given to these different activities will vary from place to place and from person to person. Some will be helped by more manual work and others by less; some will want more intellectual stimulus others less. The very diversity which exists in any monastery in this regard will be a help, where each monk makes his own unique contribution and where different types complete each other.


The monastic way of life is handed on through a living tradition. There are three stages in this process, in the first place, personal contact with one who embodies the monastic way of life in his own person, then the assimilation of this ideal by another individual, involving a certain change and re-expression in the context of another person's life and finally its transmission once again to someone else. Monasticism is not a theory but a lifestyle involving a special external manner of living, certain attitudes of mind and heart together with the ambitions, desires and expectations which go with such a profession. These are transmitted by living with someone who already possesses them. As an early Eastern Monk, Dorotheos of Gaza expresses it:

“A brother once said to one of the elders, 'What shall I do, Father, that I may learn to fear the Lord?' And he said, 'Go and become a disciple of a man possessed of the fear of the Lord and from his fearing the Lord you, yourself, will learn to fear the Lord.” [17]

There is a saying that 'religion is caught not taught.' You pick it up by seeing it embodied in living examples of holiness and truth. It is not merely a morality or a doctrine but something which is warm and personal. Because of this, the role of the 'Abba' or spiritual father has been of para­mount importance throughout monasticism, both in the eremitical and coenobitical tradition. Wherever you find a notable revival of the monastic way of life invariably there is a charismatic figure at the centre of it; a Bernard, an Aelred, or a Roger Schutz. At the present moment there is a remarkable monastic revival taking place in Orthodox monasticism especially on Mount Athos. In every case it is the charismatic leader who is at the heart of it. An example of this would be the monastery of Simonopetra. Some years ago the present Abbot went to live as a hermit in Thessaly; after three years men gathered round him to live the monastic life and in a period of ten years there were twenty professed monks and twenty novices. He has now moved with his community to an under-populated monastery on Mount Athos to avoid tourism which is the biggest contemporary threat to Orthodox monasticism.

Not only has the monastic way of life to be learnt by personal con­tact, it has to be re-expressed in the context of another person1s life, in the context of another age group and generation and perhaps in the setting of a different culture. This process could be compared to someone buying dining room chairs. You can buy chairs which are reproductions of antique Chippendale chairs or modern ones, which are not only newly made, but constructed according to a contemporary design and style. Both the reproductions and the modern ones are functionally the same. The genuine antique is a lovely piece of furniture but there is something artificial about the chair which isn’t the real thing but merely a replica, and though new, lacks the life and vitality of the contemporary design. In the same way the timeless monastic ideal must be assimilated into new lives, new personalities and be in a real sense changed - whilst essentially remaining the same - if it is to be something vital and alive and not a mere replica or a museum piece.

Cistercian Origins

The history of monasticism is the tale of how men have tried to live an ideal in situations which are far from being perfect, in settings which contained all sorts of drawbacks. In spite of great efforts to overcome contemporary problems, one finds snags and something less than the ideal arrangement has to be accepted; no sooner are old problems solved than new ones arise. This is no cause for cynicism but a reason why we should accept the Christian Church for what it is, a very human institution which is buffeted this way and that by’ the fortunes of history, for better or for worse. It is in this situation, and not in spite of it, that men become saints.

The ninth and early tenth century saw the Church very much under the powerful hand of the laity or more precisely under the control of secular rulers. Charlemagne had set the pace when he had himself crowned in Rome as Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800 by Pope Leo Ill. As a ruler he left his mark by imposing the Rule of St. Benedict as the norm for monastic observance for every monastery in his Empire, and by enforcing uniformity and centralisation through his lieutenant, St. Benedict of Aniane. European monasteries had previously suffered from the Danish invasions and had been compelled to seek protection from the civil power in order to survive. This in turn, often brought lay interference into monastic affairs.

The foundation of Cluny in Burgundy in the year 909, not far from the present monastery of Taize, marked an attempt to shake off this lay control. This was the first religious institute to be immediately subject to the Holy See and exempt from local civil and ecclesiastical authority. Centralisation was regarded as the most suitable way of avoiding lay interference and the Abbots, belonging to the Cluniac Order, were appointed by the Abbot of Cluny instead of being elected, as St. Benedict directs, by the local community. Inevitably, the Abbot of Cluny became like a feudal tenant-in-chief giving protection to the smaller monasteries in their efforts to resist lay control. This was the only system which could have worked at this particular time.

Cluny's greatness was due in part to having had four outstanding Abbots following each other almost in succession: St. Odo (927-942), with a six year interlude with Aymard, who resigned because of blindness, St. Maiolus (948-944), St. Odilo (994-1049), and to complete the quartet, St. Hugh the Great (1049-1109), under whose rule Cluny reached its highest achievement. This remarkable succession of great Abbots and the corresponding fortunes of Cluny underlines what has been previously said concerning the essential role of the leader in any monastic reform.

Inevitably, there were drawbacks in the Cluniac system. The machinery became too vast and complicated and the simplicity of the monastic ideal was lost in the mechanism. The liturgy became top-heavy and the equilibrium of the monastic day, formed by a balanced amount of prayer, reading and work, was lost. Riches increased and the very system which was designed to ward off lay control ends up in making Abbots themselves like Feudal Lords instead of spiritual fathers to their communities. In the 11th and 12th centuries there were a number of new communities founded to try and improve on this situation, many of which had an ephemeral existence. One attempt was made at Molesme which ended up in being a reaction to Cluny which misfired. Due to endowments it became a rich and powerful community, a crisis developed in its ranks, resulting in a split in the community with a small number going to Citeaux.

Robert of Molesme had failed to achieve his ambitions and with twenty-one of his monks he left for Citeaux, near Dijon in 1098. The place they settled in was known in Latin as 'Cistercium', hence the name of the new Order became 'Cistercian'. After only a year at the new monastery, Robert returned to Molesme as the result of intervention by higher ecclesiastical authority and Alberic (1099-1109) succeeded him, under whose leadership the new foundation received Papal approbation in 1100.

Alberic was succeeded in turn by St. Stephen Harding, an Englishman, who was the new Order's legislator in its initial stage. The two basic documents giving a framework to the Order are traditionally considered to be the Little Exordium and the Chart of Charity, the authorship of both of them being attributed to St. Stephen. In recent decades the manuscript tradition of these documents has been re-examined and fresh facts brought to light. The document we now have, known as the Little Exordium, turns out to be a new edition of an earlier manuscript, the Exordium of Citeaux, written after St. Stephen’s death by a member of St. Bernard's generation. Similarly, recent research into the Chart of Charity has shown that it is a later edition of a text begun by St. Stephen rather than the original. The distinguished Cistercian historian, Fr. Louis Lekai, in referring to recent work on the early Cistercian documents concludes: "Since the presently available manuscripts do not suffice to clarify the many questions raised in the last decades, it is still impossible to replace the old traditional image of early Citeaux with a similarly neat and clear picture sketched with the assistance of modern scholarship.” [18]

The Quest of the Early Cistercians

What were the immediate concerns of the monks who peopled early Citeaux and what was the particular nuance of their monastic reform? Nowhere in the Little Exordium do we find any pretence at literalism in the following of the Rule of St. Benedict. It is sometimes stated that they endeavoured to follow the Rule to the letter; such a statement is neither verified by the primitive documents nor by the actual happenings. The Little Exordium speaks of maintaining the 'purity' of the Rule and the 'integrity· of the Rule which is something different from following the Rule to the letter. It means seeking to live according to the vital principles which St. Benedict gives in the Rule which may entail an adjustment of its secondary legislation. Thus the Cistercians suppressed child-oblates, who were brought into the monastery at a very early age before puberty. The reason for this measure was to increase the silence and solitude of the monastery. Similarly, they accepted lay-brothers to allow the choir monks more time to attend the Divine Office.

In the pursuit of the purity and integrity of the Rule they sought a liberation of body, mind and heart in order to live the contemplative life more fruitfully. This liberation was effected by separation from the world, austerity of life, voluntary poverty, and by silence in the heart and on the lips. They aimed at having a balanced programme of liturgical and private prayer, holy reading and manual work. Their motto was: “Una caritate, una regula, simulibusque vivamus moribus" (we live together in a like observance bound by a common charity and rule.) The concern of the early Cistercians for a quasi identical observance in every house of the Order seems puzzling to us today. It is to be partly explained by the fact that initially the Cistercian Order was confined to quite a small geographical area and the contemporary problem of adaptation to different climates and cultures did not exist. Furthermore, people in medieval times seem to have felt the need to express unity in an external manner which is no longer the case today.

For several centuries there was a tendency for monasteries to be grouped together in some sort of association. St. Benedict in his Rule had made no provision for this and legislated only for a single monastery which he envisaged as autonomous. Cluny, as we have seen, grouped its monasteries together in a very tight complex and Citeaux tried to retain the advantages of such a union whilst shedding its disadvantages. In the Chart of Charity there is provision for an annual General Chapter to be held at Citeaux at which attendance was obligatory for all the Abbots of the Order. On this occasion the observance of each house was discussed, faults corrected, new foundations approved and the resignation of abbots accepted, or at times requested. Whilst at Cluny the rights of the individual Abbot were severely curtailed through subjection to a central government, at Citeaux they are maintained in such matters as the acceptance of candidates for profession and the general ordering of the local monastery. Each house is however visited annually by the Abbot of the founding house; the Abbey of Citeaux itself, being visited in turn by the Abbots of its first four senior daughter houses.

The specific characteristic of the Cistercian Reform was basically twofold: namely, a greater separation from the world and a renewed emphasis on poverty. Dom Jean Leclercq has written: “Citeaux attached itself to the whole eremitical movement, not in the sense that one looked here for personal solitude, as at Chartreuse, but in the sense that they wanted to be separated from the world and live far from human habitations.” [19]19 They sought a simpler life than the Cluniacs rejecting tithes and churches, and desired a plainer type of liturgy which was unencumbered with elaborate ceremonies and accretions.

The Cistercian Liturgy

The Divine Office, as provided by St. Benedict, had become so over­loaded with later additions that the equilibrium of the monastic day had been lost. There might be as many as three offices of Vespers instead of one; the Little Office of Our Lady, the Canonical Office of Vespers and finally on ferial days, Vespers for the Dead. Endless psalms and processions combined to accentuate the problem of achieving a proper balance in the Cluniac Observance. Psalms were even recited whilst shaving! Whilst initially, the Cistercians dispensed with these accretions, inevitably some of them subsequently crept back. In the second half of the 12th century the Office of the Dead was revived and later the Little Office of Our Lady. It was only very much later in our own times that a return has been made to the primitive Cistercian practice of celebrating only the canonical office and suppressing the accretions.

The Cistercian Monks adopted the Mass Rite of the diocese of Lyons where Citeaux was situated, but their desire for uniformity led them to impose it on every house of the Order, regardless of its geographical position. There were two types of Mass. On Sundays and Feastdays there was a deacon and sub-deacon but on weekdays, only a deacon. The liturgical celebration was characterised by simplicity, incense only being used on Sundays and Feastdays and then only at the Offertory. Only one candle was lit during the Mass and there were no acolytes. Later centuries saw an embellishment of the liturgy and even the introduction in the 14th century of the Pontifical Mass Rite, with the Abbot wearing mitre and ring. Holy Communion was distributed under both kinds and the profound bow, made towards the Blessed Sacrament, had not yet been replaced by a genuflection. Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle was unknown before the 12th century and is nowhere mentioned in the writings of the Cistercian Fathers. [20]

Although the Cistercian liturgy was austere, it must not be thought that they underestimated the part traditionally played by the body in worship. In the greater part of Christendom and more particularly in the East, the place of external signs and gestures in the liturgy has always been recognised. Such a practice follows conventional social behaviour where it is natural to give a friend a wave or a handshake as a gesture of goodwill. Since the whole man plays a part in our social relationships should not the human person in its entirety be involved in the worship of Almighty God? In view of this principle, all the usual liturgical gestures were retained at Citeaux, the profound bow, the sign of the cross, standing for certain sung portions of the Office as well as the monastic prostration.

Looking back at this distance of time one tends to acknowledge that both the Cluniac and the Cistercian style of liturgy were valid options. Both the more magnificent Cluniac liturgy and the simpler Cistercian ritual are authentic, - merely different ways of worship. There is a sound tradition in Christianity, that the exterior setting of the liturgical celebration should in some way mirror the interior and hidden realities which are present with us, as we gather together to pray. Again it is amongst the Orthodox that we see this keen awareness of the unseen worship of heaven present amongst us, and that when we participate in the liturgical celebrations of the Church it is the Angels and the Saints who are our fellow-worshippers. According to this line of thought, the material setting should reflect the unseen glory of God, together with the presence of the heavenly host who share our praise and intercession. This is the reason for having the church adorned with statues, icons and stained glass windows, depicting the unseen heavenly worshippers. When it comes to the quality of the furnishings, nothing but the best is good enough for God and the external splendour and beauty of the Church should reflect in some measure the unseen beauty of the Godhead.

Abbot Cuthbert Butler has expressed this tradition in his book, “Benedictine Monachism.” He writes:

“This spirit is the expression of the religious sense that desires to give to God the very best it can, and profusely the richest material joined to the most perfect art and the most exquisite workmanship. This is the universally normal tendency of the religious sense of mankind, manifested throughout all ages, and among all peoples, and in all religions.” [21]

Another approach which is quite different was the one taken by St. Bernard and the early Cistercians. Bernard wrote in his Apologia against Cluny: “The walls of the church are aglow, but the poor of the Church go hungry. The stones of the church are covered with gold, whilst its children are left naked.” [22] Monks, says St. Bernard, have no need of material objects to arouse their devotion like laymen: “All that is beautiful in sight and sound and scent we have left behind.” [23]

Dom Butler has epitomised this line of thought as follows:

“But there is another spirit, another idea in regard to the divine worship; the spirit which insists that God is a Spirit, and that He should be worshipped in spirit, and that external richness and pomp and ceremonial are a misconception, or at any rate a concession to human weakness, and that spiritually minded men should be able to do without such helps.” [24]

In reading these medieval authors of the 12th century, it is worthwhile remembering that exaggeration was an accepted literary form. Cluniacs would quite freely describe the Cistercians as whited sepulchres, and as disciples of the Pharisees, and Cistercians would reply in a similar vein. [25] Language like this ould easily be used between people who were personal friends and it does not imply vehement antagonism or aggression.

The contribution made by the Cistercian Monks to architecture is worthy of note. In line with their spirit of simplicity and poverty, they patronised the Gothic style which came to replace the rather more elaborate Romanesque. In the ruins of Rievaulx, one sees the elegance and beauty of the Early English pointed arch and the lightness of the Gothic style. Clearly the men who built such buildings could not really be insensible to material beauty, as a first glance at Bernard's Apologia might suggest.

The Priesthood and Monasticism

In the early years of monasticism it was exceptional for monks to be ordained to the priesthood. Some like St. Antony the Great exercised considerable pastoral activity, without being themselves priests, in helping those who came to them for guidance. This tradition still remains in the East where it is commonplace for a Staretz or Senior Monk, who is not a priest to give spiritual help.

Cassian has some delightful comments to make on the subject of monks being ordained to the priesthood. They show his sense of humour and keen perception. He writes:

"There is an old maxim of the Fathers that is still current - though I cannot produce it without shame on my part, since I could not avoid my own sister, nor escape the hands of the Bishop - namely, that a monk ought by all means to fly from women and bishops. For neither of them will allow him, who has one been joined in close intercourse, any longer to care for the quiet of his cell, or to continue with pure eyes in divine ,contemplation through his insight into holy things." [26]

St. Benedict, himself probably not a priest, simply states that if the Abbot wants a monk ordained for the priestly service of the community, he is to go ahead and make arrangements for his ordination. Those who are already priests may enter the community and use their priesthood with the Abbot's permission but they will be allowed no special privileges on account of their being in Holy Orders. [27]

Nevertheless, in the succeeding centuries the number of monks ordained steadily increased until in the period immediately preceding Vatican II it was the normal practice for every choir monk, with very few exceptions, to be ordained to the priesthood. In most Benedictine Congregations no one could be accepted into the choir novitiate who was not destined to proceed to Holy Orders. The Cistercian Order retained the right to accept choir monks who would not become priests but in practice this was most unusual. What had happened since the days of Antony and Cassian?

A probable estimate of the rate of increase in the number of those ordained is, that whilst in the 8th century only 20% of the choir monks were made priests or deacons, in the 9th century this had trebled with 60% being ordained of whom 25% were made priests. In the 10th century 75% were ordained of whom 40-50% were ordained to the priesthood. [28]

The reasons for this steady increase are complex. Towards the end of the 8th century the Clergy became distinct from the Laity, not only by reason of their sacred functions but on account of their different culture, their manner of life and juridical privileges. Clerics formed the educated, literate class; from whose ranks the chief government administrators were drawn who would be frequently rewarded for their services with bishoprics by their royal employers. Monks, being educated cultured men, naturally became identified with the clerical state and in course of time were ordained to the priesthood with increased frequency.

Another reason for the increase in the number of priest-monks was that as the splendour of the liturgy grew, and the ritual became more complicated, a larger number of priests were needed for its execution. Furthermore, as the number of private masses increased so the number of those destined to offer them increased also. In sharp contrast to the practice of the private mass, during the first thousand years of the Christian era, it was taken for granted that when a number of priests were assembled they did not celebrate individually, but received Holy Communion together at a community mass. In monasteries, especially on Feastdays , the whole community, priest and non-priest, gathered together for a common mass and all received Holy Communion. [29]

The only legislation passed by the Cistercian General Chapter concerning the monastic priesthood, was to discourage those who pressed for it inordinately from being ordained. The Chapter of 1189 decreed that if a monk acted in this manner his ordination should be postponed for two years. At Bernard's Clairvaux only a quarter of the choir monks were priests, and in the monastic church thirty-two altars were placed, each priest having his own. [30] Throughout the centuries, there is evidence that a recurring tension has existed between the monastic vocation and the priesthood which still shows itself today and about which there is some concern.

The Laybrothers

The Cistercians were one of the first religious orders to introduce laybrothers, these were religious who were not bound to the choir office but were employed at manual labour in order to allow the choir monks sufficient time to attend choir. Previously at Cluny and elsewhere monks had employed serfs but the monks of Citeaux were reluctant to accept this solution to their labour problem.

As the author of the Little Exordium expressed it:

“Since they realized that without their help they would be unable to fulfil perfectly the precepts of the Rule day and night, they decided to admit, with the permission of their bishops, bearded laymen as 'conversi' and to treat them in life and death as their own, except for the rights reserved for the choir monks." [31]

The monks continued to do manual work and the lay-brothers, in their turn, were not used as a cheap labour force but were full members of the community, without having voting rights for such matters as the election of an Abbot and monastic profession. This institution enabled the monastic life to be placed within the range of a much larger number of the population who lacked the education to become choir monks. Their duties were determined by the General Chapter and they were required to go through a novitiate like the choir brethren. Instead of the white tunic and black scapular worn by the latter, the laybrothers usually wore a brown or grey habit.

Many of the brothers lived on granges, farming lands at some distance from the monastery. They formed in fact, a little fraternity together with their chaplain, only returning to the monastery on Sundays and Feastdays. They went out to the markets and conducted much of the business side of com­munity life, leaving the choir monks free to observe a stricter enclosure. Instead of the psalter, they recited a fixed number of Our Fathers and Hail Marys. They fasted less and slept more than the choir brethren - as indeed the arduous nature of their life demanded.

Numerically, they invariably exceeded the choir monks and it is largely through their labours that the Cistercian Order made its contribution to medieval agriculture through land reclamation, but most especially, and above every other consideration, many of them attained a high degree of sanctity.

Cistercian Spirituality

Such was the external framework within which the early Cistercians lived their monastic life, but what sort of people were the monks themselves? All the literary evidence points to people who were attractively human, and humanly imperfect. St. Bernard's biographer, Geoffrey of Auxerre keeps on repeating: "Quam Jucundus ", "What a jolly man he was” .[32] 32 The Latin word "Jucundus “ denotes someone who is not only full of joy but communicates that joy to those around him. There was clearly nothing of the austere forbidding ascetic about St. Bernard, whom his brethren and friends found so attractive and loveable.

At the same time the monks were tremendously human in their limitation and shortcomings. As the extant writings of both Bernard and Aelred make it quite clear, there were problems of many sorts in the Golden Age of the Cistercian Order. St. Bernard speaks of monks who having entered the monastery have become more impatient than they would have been if they had stayed outside Clearly the monastic regime was not an improver for everyone! [33] St. Aelred complained of detracting speech amongst his monks and told them that some of them were primarily concerned, in his opinion, with making material profits. [34]34

One of the most delightful stories about the seamier side of early Cistercian Life is that concerning a small monastery in the middle of Wales, called Abbey Cwm Hir. At that time, it was one of the most remote Cistercian Houses in Britain and is still relatively inaccessible, with few of its monastic buildings left standing. The laybrothers asked their Abbot to give them a regular supply of beer to drink - a most modest request in Medieval times! However, the good Abbot could not see his way to granting their request and refused to give it them. Whereupon the fiery Welsh laybrothers were exceedingly indignant, and in revenge, stole the Abbot's horses! [35]

There seems to be a tendency, deeply rooted in human nature, to look back with nostalgia to a Golden Age which supposedly existed sometime in the past, when everything was so much better than it is today. Even St. Benedict does this when he talks about the amount of wine monks are to be allowed to drink. “We do, indeed read that wine is no drink for monks; but since nowadays monks cannot be persuaded of this, let us at least agree upon this, to drink temperately and not to satiety ....” [36] He goes on to say that they can have about a pint a day, which is a pretty generous amount!

Nevertheless the founders of any Order have an important contribution to make to its proper understanding and it is from them that we learn its meaning and its spirit. With all their limitations and human imperfections, the early Cistercians were remarkable men. Their writings show people who were profoundly aware of the hidden realities which are not seen, men who were penetrated God's holiness, His truth and His joy.

The four greatest Cistercian writers of this period were Bernard, Aelred, Guerric of Igny, and William of St. Thierry. It is these four who express most adequately the spirit of early Citeaux. But here, there is room for an interjection. There seems little reason to think that there was a distinct Cistercian Spirituality which differentiated the Cistercian Monks from other monastic orders, since all the basic characteristics appear to be the same in all the monastic writers of this period, whether they are Benedictine, Carthusian or Cistercian. The feature which distinguished the monastic orders from each other was not their spirituality but their observances; whether they had community life or solitude, manual work, or a reduced quantity of work and a longer time spent in choir etc. [37]

St. Bernard

St. Bernard lived from 1090-1153 and entered Citeaux at the age of twenty-two. After only three years in the monastery, he was sent as the leader of a new community to make a foundation at Clairvaux. His life is a mixture of intense spirituality and involvement in ecclesiastical and political happenings. But beneath the ferment of activity, rather untypical of Cistercian life, we see a very remarkable character.

A great teacher doesn't merely teach a doctrine, he personifies it in his life and in his relationship with other people. The message itself gets through because it is embodied in real life, in a human personality where it is encountered. At one point in his life, Bernard had to be relieved of his duties as Abbot due to sickness and lived in a little hut in the grounds of the monastery. It was there that his friend William of St. Thierry, visited him. Of this visit, he wrote later in his Life of St. Bernard: “So powerfully did I feel attracted by the quality of his manner and so ardent was my desire to share his poverty and simplicity that, had I the choice, nothing would have pleased me better than to remain with him always as his servant.” [38]

All through his life he had this ability of firing others with a desire and love of the monastic life. It seems that this was an overspill of his own intense interior life of union with God. Monastic values must first be personally possessed if they are to be successfully communicated to others and it was precisely in this quality that St. Bernard excelled. Love was the over-riding preoccupation of his life, not considered merely as a virtue, but as the very stuff of which God is made. Along with the rest of the early Cistercians, he saw the monastery as a 'schola caritatis’ a 'school of divine charity'. For Bernard, God was never merely an object to be known but some­one who was infinite love, with whom he must at all costs be united in an intimate mystical union.

There is a saying that 'Only like can know like'. We come to know God by growing into His own likeness. We come close to God in the same way as we form a friendship with our fellow men, by men, by sharing His interests and by sharing His company.

“When the likeness to God is restored in the soul, He again looks upon it with complacency and He will also allow the soul to look upon Him. This likeness brings with it the vision of God. But I am speaking of the likeness and the vision which are one and the same with charity. For that likeness is charity and charity too is that vision.” [39]

Charity is the law by which God lives, the mode of His activity; every monastic observance is designed to promote this and finds all its mean­ing and purpose in the furtherance of this divine quality. It is this com­plete unselfishness which unites a man to God. Yet the very grace by which we seek God is the gift of God Himself. St. Bernard in his sermons on the Canticle of Canticles understands the spouse to be the soul who longs for God. Yet in reality, this very desire is but a response, a re-echoing, of God's longing for the spouse. “Let her who is so beloved by Him be careful to reciprocate His Love ... how is it possible that love itself should not be loved.” [40]

This is only a repetition of what he has said in an earlier book, ‘On the Love of God' . “The reason for loving God is God Himself and the measure with which to love Him is without measure.” [41] This loving preoccupation with God, which always implies seeing Him in our neighbour, brings with it a deep interior peace which creatures cannot give. “The Tranquil God, tranquillizes all things", says St. Bernard, "and to gaze on Him is to be at rest." [42]

His last sermon on the Canticle of Canticles is incomplete. It was preached in the Chapter Room at Clairvaux and it is thought that it may have been interrupted by one of those spasms of pain which occurred throughout his life and became increasingly frequent as the years went by. In what may well have been his last sermon to his monks, Bernard shows the singleness of purpose which characterized his whole life. "prayer", he says, "is nothing else but the seeking of the Word. Consequently I do not pray as I ought, if in my prayer I seek anything outside of the Word, which I do not seek for the sake of the Word, because in Him I have all." [43]

He showed clearly, that he had fully grasped the meaning of St. Benedict's injunction: "To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” [44] For St. Bernard his greatest happiness lay in selfless prayer which finds its reward in the glory it gives to God rather than in any personal consolation. "l love. because I love, and I love for the sake of loving.” [45]

In conclusion there is a passage in one of the sermons on the Canticle of Canticles which shows the warmth and Christlike devotion of Bernard towards his community at Clairvaux. He relates how he was working in his room at the monastery and was constantly bothered with monk’s coming to see him, he could not get a moments peace. Then after a little while, he overcame his impatience and resolved: "So long as I live, I will serve the Lord by serving my brethren in charity unfeigned. I will not seek the things what are my own; neither will I judge that to be profitable which advances my own interests, but rather what is of use to the brethren." [46]

St. Aelred

St. Aelred was the son of a priest of Hexham in Northumberland and as a young man lived in the Court of King David of Scotland. He himself joked about not having been brought up in the schools but in the kitchens of the King of Scotland. [47] However, he must have been a little more than a scullery hand because he was sent on official business to York on behalf of King David and it was on this journey that he first contacted the monks of Rievaulx who lived some miles to the North of that City. He entered the community in 1134 at the age of twenty-four and after having spent only nine years in the Order was elected Abbot of Rievaulx's daughter house, Revesby in Lincolnshire, having already been novice-master at Rievaulx. Four years later, in 1147, he was elected Abbot of Rievaulx and died there in 1167. He suffered from ill health for many years and it is thought that the nature of the ailment may have been gout, which seems a most unlikely complaint for an austere monk to suffer from! However, be that as it may, he had the same magnetic personality as his friend Bernard and drew people to embrace the monastic life in an extraordinary way. In St. Aelred's day there were 200 Choir monks and 400 Laybrothers at Rievaulx and no one who applied to enter was ever turned away - for better or for worse!

In St. Aelred's book 'The Pastoral Prayer' we see how he filled his role as Abbot. This little work was only discovered as recently as 1932 and represents his personal prayer for grace and guidance in his difficult task as Abbot of a very large community. The theme throughout is a sympathetic selfless service of others.

"Teach me your servant, therefore Lord, teach me, I pray you by Your Holy Spirit, how to devote myself to them and how to spend myself on their be­half. Give me, by your unutterable grace, the power to bear with their short comings patiently, to share their griefs in loving sympathy, and to afford the help according to their needs. Taught by your Spirit, may I learn to comfort the sorrowful, confirm the weak and raise the fallen; to be myself one with them in their weakness, and one with them when they burn at causes of offence.” [48]

It is fascinating to see the frequent reference to the Holy Spirit. It seems that Aelred recognised like the Apostles that he was never alone in the management of his pastoral problems, but that there was always present within him a Divine guide to sustain and direct him, and that what is required is increased sensitivity to this Divine indwelling. Our Lord said to His Apostles that when they stood before Kings and Governors they were not to plan their defence beforehand because on that occasion they would be given the necessary inspiration. One likes to think that the same sort of help is available when the role is reversed, and those in authority are confronted with difficult subjects! [49]

Aelred continues:

“Teach me to suit myself to everyone according to his nature, character and disposition, according to his power of understanding or his lack of it, as time and place require, in each case, as you woul d have me do.” [50]

“You know Lord, that I do not want to rule them harshly or self-assertively, but to help them in charity, rather than com­mand, and to be subject to them in humility, whilst being always one of them in sympathy.” [51]

Aelred's source of strength and refreshment lay in Sacred Scripture. It is here that he finds the personal contact with God to which he refers when he says: “Experience alone teaches,” [52] It is in Sacred Scripture that we have one of the venues for the Divine Visitation. "l tell you my brothers, that no calamity can befall us, nothing too bitter or sad come upon us which, so soon as we take up the sacred text, will not either disappear or at least be more easily born.”[53]

Guerric of Igny

Although the early Cistercians lived austere lives, they were not austere and forbidding in their personal relations. This seems to be due to two causes. Firstly their devotion to Our Lady, to whom every Cistercian Church was dedicated, and secondly to the Divine Infancy. Of this latter devotion Bl. Guerric is a particularly beautiful exponent. We know little about him, except that he probably entered Clairvaux in 1131 and later became Abbot of Igny. On his deathbed he ordered his sermons, which are the only writings of his we have left, to be burnt. Fortunately the obedient monks who carried out this request had another copy hidden away, so his sermons have been kept for posterity!

“What incomparable sweetness and loving kindness”, he writes, “that I should see the God who made me, become a child for my sake; that the God of all majesty and glory should become not only like me in true bodily form but show himself even wretched and, as it were, devoid of all strength in the weakness of his infancy.” [54]

Remembrance of Christ's birth, Guerric continues: " ... is a most effective remedy for curing and sweetening our rancor of soul, bitterness of speech and harshness of manners. For I cannot believe that where there is awareness and remembrance of his divine sweetness, room can be found for anger or sadness, but every trace of anger and bitterness and every other source of evil shall be taken away from us." [55]

William of St. Thierry

A personal friend of St. Bernard who was previously a Benedictine Abbot, William became a Cistercian against Bernard’s advice. He was born about the year 1085 at Liege and became a Cistercian monk at Signy when he was about fifty. Being too old to start doing manual work, he betook himself to writing books of which he had already written several notable ones as a Benedictine. His best known work is the Golden Epistle, written for a Carthusian monastery which movingly conveys the spirit of the monastic vocation.

Solitude is for him, a special way of being present to God: "For he with whom God is, is at no time less alone than when he is alone." [56] "To others it belongs to serve God, to you to cleave to Him, to enjoy Him. This is a great thing, this is an arduous thing." [57]

William, citing the traditional theme that the monastery is a special school of divine charity [58] where the art of arts is learnt the art of love, regards love, as a powerful force which if rightly ordered can lead to the vision of God. Charity is for William the eye by which see God". [59] In this he echoes the thought of St. John the Apostle when he writes: “ If anyone says that he knows God and hates his brother he is a liar". [60]

Subsequent History

At the death of St. Bernard the Order possessed more than 300 monasteries and towards the end of the same century there were more than 500 houses. The first convent of Cistercian Nuns had been founded at Tart, near Citeaux in 112 and many other foundations were made throughout Europe. One of the reasons for the proliferation of monasteries and convents was the social role they were believed to play. They did not exist solely or even mainly, for the sake of those who lived within their walls. Had this been the case they would never have received the large recruitment which came, nor would they have been helped so copiously by benefactors, who gave them land on which to make foundations and assisted them financially when established. The cowled champions of the monasteries were seen as the spiritual counterpart of the secular soldiers, who fought battles just as realistic as the King's Army. The enemies they engaged were not temporal ones, but mightier ones still, the powers of darkness which threatened the King's domain and the good of the realm. [61] "For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” [62]

As with every human institution, a decline set in with the course of time due to a number of causes. One of the most pernicious influences was the system of commendatory Abbots, whereby communities lost the right to elect their own Abbot and had to accept the nominee of a secular ruler. Those appointed were invariably laymen who did not reside at the monastery. Moreover, increasing wealth did not help monastic poverty, and something of the pristine fervour of the early Cistercians was lost.

The 16th and 17th century saw a number of attempts made at monastic reform, especially that of the Abbe de Rancé at La Grande Trappe. The end of the 18th century was a bleak period for monasticism; the Age of Enlightenment had left its mark and every Cistercian monastery in France was suppressed in 1791. Few could have foreseen that the following century would have been one of remarkable growth and development, both among Benedictines and Cistercians. This fact only underlines that the future of monasticism is utterly unpredictable and defies calculation. In 1898 the three Cistercian Congregations of La Grande Trappe, Sept Fons and Westmalle, united to form the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (or Order of Reformed Cistercians) and in the decades which followed there was a great increase, both in the number of monasteries and convents and in the number of personnel.

Post Vatican II Developments

If a society is going to retain its vitality, two processes are necessary. Firstly, a frequent examination of the spirit of its founders to en­sure an authentic observance and secondly, the expression of that spirit and ideal in the context of contemporary life and thought. It is precisely this that the Decree on the Renewal of the Religious Life of Vatican ll seeks to do

“The up-to-date renewal of the religious life comprises both a constant return to the sources of the whole of the -Christian life and to the primitive inspiration of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time." [63]

Thomas Merton, the American Cistercian author, has expressed this same thought, perhaps rather forcefully, as follows. "Most moderns are quite unable to live fruitful and meaningful lives in a milieu where everything is regulated according to the outlook and the habits of thought that once prevail in a now extinct culture.” [64] He continues: " ... it would be a very serious mistake to assume that the monastic order simply needs to be reshaped in a new contemporary mode without a painstaking study of what is really essential to monasticism and what is not." [65]

This twofold process had been set in motion sometime before Vatican II both in the Church as a whole, and in the Monastic Orders. For some decades there had been much serious study of the Cistercian Fathers, and in consequence a shifting away from the Abbe de Rancé's conception that monasteries are "places of penance and humiliation" [66] to the primitive Cistercian ideal that they are schools of divine charity. Viewed in this way, all the monastic observances are framed to promote a loving, prayerful, attention to God. It is the desire for a life of prayer which will lead naturally to love of the Rule and fidelity to monastic observance.

As regards the liturgy, the Little Office of Our Lady, which used to accompany each Canonical Office and the Office for the Dead, recited on ferial days, were both discontinued before the Vatican Council, during the 1950s. These were additions to the liturgy which were not provided for by St. Benedict in his Rule, but which the early Cistercians were eventually compelled to adopt due to the climate of thought at the time.

The changes which have been made since Vatican ll occur on three level The structure and spirit of the Order as a whole, the structure and spirit of the local community, and finally, the particular monastic observances. All these changes which have been made, existed in an inchoate form, before the Council and in some cases have yet to be worked out in terms of day-to-day monastic living.

Structure and Spirit of the Order as a whole

As previously stated, the initial idea was that the unity of the Order could be maintained by an identical observance in all the houses. This worked reasonably well when practically all the monasteries were situated in Europe but became most problematic when foundations were made in the Third World. Monks from Belgium found themselves confronted with difficulties when they made a foundation in the Congo in the 1950s. On reception of the monastic habit, the little Congolese novices found themselves presented with more clothes than they had ever had in their lives, and they were puzzled to know what to do with them! Today, unity, rather than uniformity is sought. A unity which comes about by sharing common values, rather than having an identical monastic observance. The General Chapter of 1969 produced a document known as “The Statute on Unity and Pluralism" which identifies these values and essential observances. It refers to such matters as the daily timetable, the hour of rising, the manner in which the Abbatial function should be exercised, silence, separation from the world, the diet, simplicity and poverty.

Another change affecting the Order as a whole, is that whilst previous­ly, all the Abbots met annually at Citeaux for the General Chapter, today this only takes place every three years and is usually held in Rome. A local conference is held for Abbots and delegates from each house of a particular region at more frequent intervals.

The Structure and Spirit of the local Community

The traditional distinction between Choir Monk and Laybrothers carried with it certain differentiations which are unacceptable in our contemporary democratic times. Today both choir monks and non-choir monks have voting rights in community matters, and priests no longer take precedence in choir or elsewhere. The full implications of this unifying policy have yet to be worked out and a non-Priest may not at the moment (1980) be elected as Abbot. In the past there has been a tendency for the priesthood to overshadow the monastic life and theological studies were orientated towards the exercise of a priestly ministry rather than to the living of the monastic life. Today far more attention is paid to monastic formation and choir novices are received who do not wish to go on to the Priesthood.

The Observances

In popular thought the most typical Cistercian observance is silence. They are sometimes spoken of as the 'Silent Monks' who do not speak but communicate by signs. There is no doubt about the importance of silence in the whole monastic tradition. St. Benedict is quite explicit about this: "Not to love much speaking." [67] "Monks should endeavour to keep silence at all times.” [68] But it is clear that St. Benedict distinguishes between the complete absence of speech at certain times, especially during the hours of the night, and the 'Taciturnitas' or spirit of reserve which should habitually characterize a monk's day. Dom Delatte, a French Benedictine Abbot, points out in his, Commentary on the Rule that this means a disposition to keep silence rather than a complete absence of speech. [69]

The early Cistercian Fathers do not appear to have emphasised silence in the same way that it has been stressed in the Order during the last three hundred years. Signs, movements made by the fingers and hand, existed in the Cistercian Order from the beginning and were imported from Cluny. The existing evidence does not clearly indicate whether or not there were periods of recreation or free-speech in the earliest years of the Order, but there are portions of St. Bernard's writings which suggest that this was so. [70]

One of the early writers who has written at length about silence in an inspiring way, is Adam of Perseigne, an Abbot of the Order who died in 1221.

“Silence" he writes, "doesn't mean a complete absence of speech but practising a certain reserve, that is, to speak in a fitting manner and at a suitable time. Suitable too, in its place, its length, its motive and its reason. For there is a time both for keeping silence and for speaking." [71]

He gives us the theological reason for silence. The fact that Christ is called 'The Word' means that he must be listened to, and this means keeping silence. "Before such unceasing communication the creature owes silence.” [72]

In contrast to this mellow and warm exposition of the practice of silence and its theological foundation the Regulations, published in 1926 prescribe:

“The religious shall have no communication with each other, either by word of mouth or by writing. When they have anything useful to communicate, they do so by signs. Noises with the mouth, although inarticulate, and useless signs are expressly forbidden. “ (Reg. 323)

However the reality was probably rather more attractive, in the judgement of those who lived through those days, than the letter of the law suggests. It seems that silence is always a problem in a monastery, whatever the manner of its observance. A monk is normally a sociable person with much in common with his brethren - these are qualities which are necessary for a happy community life. On the other hand, silence is essential for a life of prayer and one can experience a tension between these two attractions. The existing legislation states: "This search for a life of prayer should be lived in an atmosphere of recollection and silence for which all are responsible. In particular the great silence at night and the silence in the regular places (Community Rooms) will be maintained”. [73]

Today almost all the Cistercian Houses, both of men and women, have a vernacular liturgy, although some of the Latin Gregorian Chant may have been retained for the Mass. The reason for this is that an increasingly small number of those entering the Order know Latin, and a vernacular office seemed essential also if those who joined as laybrothers were to attend choir. In St. Benedict's day Latin was in fact a vernacular language and in the time of St. Bernard it was the lingua franca of the educated world, both in Church and State.

Another significant innovation is the introduction of cells or private rooms. In early monasticism the cell played an important part in a monk's life and formed a link with the eremitical life, and for this reason the physical solitude it offered was valued for spiritual reasons. At the beginning of the 6th century monasteries in France and Italy and elsewhere rejected the practice of having private cells, not because they wished to weaken the contemplative element, but for disciplinary reasons which made it desirable to have monks grouped together under the surveillance of a superior. [74]

In the Middle Ages there was very little domestic privacy, only very few people had private rooms and the common cloister and dormitory seemed quite appropriate. Today a need is felt for greater privacy and in addition there is the perennial problem of snorers and such things as flu epidemics which sweep through a common dormitory with surprising rapidity. Above all, the private room offers favourable conditions for private prayer and spiritual reading and this has brought a very definite element of personal physical solitude into the life.

Another change of great practical value is the substitution of overalls or some other form of working clothes for the monastic habit during manual labour. This change was made for reasons of safety when working with machine and also for hygiene and economy.

Gilbert of Hoyland, an early English Cistercian has said: "Our Fathers were men of their day, let us be men of ours". [75] 75 This was a very perceptive remark for someone living in an era when changes were made very much more slowly than they are today and the social world was fairly static. The changes in the Cistercian Order since Vatican ll are basically in line with the spirit of our founders, who themselves adapted the life to the needs and conditions of their time. With an ever-increasing number of houses being founded in the Third World, especially in Africa, changes and adaptations to local conditions are essential. Hitherto Christian Monasticism has been predominantly a European phenomenon; in the future it may well be Africa and South East Asia who will give the lead.

In Britain there are three Cistercian Houses for men, Mount St. Bernard's in Leicestershire, Caldey in South Wales and Nunraw in East Lothian, Scotland. There is also a convent of nuns at Whitland, Carmarthenshire, South Wales. Since Nunraw was founded in 1946 some 44 further monasteries for men have been founded, and 45 convents for nuns. Most of these are outside Europe and North America. This seems to indicate that it will be largely the monasteries in the Third World that will the field of future monastic development and that these houses will play a notable part in the future of the Cistercian Order.

12481 words

[1] Art. 'Monasticism and St. Benedict' in Monastic Studies 1963. p. 11.

[2] 2 P.L. 49. Col 771.

[3] P.L.49. Col 497.

[4] Art. 'Reflexions sur la Vie Monastique' by Placide Deseille in Collectanea 1961-1 p. 11.

[5] Book on Prayer, Cistercian Studies Series. No. 34.

[6] Ibid., No. 19.

[7] Ibid., No. 20.

[8] Ibid., No. 15.

[9] Ibid., No. 16.

[10] Ibid., No. 29.

[11] Ibid." No. 124.

[12] Ibid., No. 52

[13] Rule of St. Ben. Prologue.

[14] L'Humilite Benedictin by Dom Belorgey O.C.R. Editions du Cerf. Paris p. 33.

[15] In Cant. Cant. Ser. 40.

[16] Conf. 24. Ch. 20. P.L.49. Col. 1311/2.

[17] Cistercian Studies Series No. 33, p. 113.

[18] The Cistercians - Ideals and Realities by Louis J. Lekai, The Kent State University Press, p. 22.

[19] La Spiritualite du Moyen Age Aubier 1961, p. 235.

[20] Art. 'Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and Mass facing the people' by J. B. O'Connell in the Clergy Review, Dec. 1965.

[21] Benedictine Monachism Cambridge Speculum Historale, p. 156.

[22] Apologia Ch. 12: 28.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Benedictine Monachism, p. 156.

[25] Magnum Exordium Ch. XV bk. I.

[26] Institutes Bk. XI, Ch. 17, P.L.49, Col. 418. 27

[27] Rule of St. Ben. 60 and 62.

[28] Art. 'The Priesthood of Monks' by Dom Jean Leclercq in Bulletin du Comite des Etudes de Saint-Sulpice. Le Sacrament de l'Ordre 1962.

[29] C.f. Mass of the Roman Rite by J. A. Jungmann, S.J. Burns Oates 1959, p. 148.

[30] St. Bernard of Clairvaux by B. Scott-James, Hodder and Staughton 1957, p. 87.

[31] Lekai, ibid. p. 335/6.

[32] .f. Dom Jean Leclercq 'Etudes sur Saint Bernard et le texte de ses ecrits' Rome 1953.

[33] De Laudibus Mariae IV: 10. 34

[34] P.L. 195. Col. 384.

[35] Cistercian Studies 1976 - 11 'The White Monks in Powys I by D. H. Williams, p. 78.

[36] Rule of St. Ben. Ch. 40.

[37] La Spiritualite du Moyen Age by Dom J. Leclercq Aubier, 1961, p. 270.

[38] Vita S. Bernardi Guillelmo, Ch. 7: 33.

[39] In Cant. Cant. Ser. 82.

[40] In Cant. Cant. Ser. 83

[41] Book On the Love of God, Ch. 1.

[42] In Cant. Cant. Ser. 23.

[43] Cant. Ser. 86.

[44] In Cant. Rule of St. Ben. Ch. 72.

[45] In Cant. Cant. Ser. 83.

[46] In Cant. Cant. Ser. 52.

[47] Sermones Inediti B. Aelredi ed. C. H. Talbot Romae 1952 Introd. p. I and P.L.195 Col. 502-3.

[48] Pastoral Prayer Cistercian Fathers Series, Cistercian Publications. Spenser Mass. para 7.

[49] Luke 21, v. 14.

[50] Pastoral Prayer, para 7.

[51] Ibid. para 8.

[52] Sermones Inediti Talbot, p. 106.

[53] P.L.195, Col. 476.

[54] Cist. Frs. Series Ser. I for Christmas, para 8.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Golden Epistle, para 10.

[57] Ibid., para 6.

[58] De Natura et Dignitate Amoris, Ch. I.

[59] Ibid., Ch. 6.

[60] I John 4. v. 20.

[61] Cf. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, by R. W. Southern, Pelican 1970, p. 225.

[62] Ephesians 6, v. 12.

[63] Perfectae Charitatis, para 2.

[64] Redeeming the Time, by Thos. Merton. Burns Oates 1966, p. 108.

[65] Ibid., p. 109.

[66] La Regle de St. Benoit Nouvellement Traduite et Expliquee, Tome I, Paris MDCCIII, p. 177.

[67] Rule of St. Ben. Ch. 4.

[68] Ibid., Ch. 42.

[69] Commentary on R.B. Burns Oates 1921, p. 92

[70] De Gradibus Humilitatis, Ch. 13.

[71] P.L.211, Col. 690.

[72] Ibid., Col. 688.

[73] Statute on Unity and Pluralism 1969, No. 6.

[74] Art. R.S.B. and the Contemplative Life by A. de Vogue, Cist. Studies 1966 - I, p. 66.

[75] Tract. Asceticus 7 Pt. 11, No. 4.