THE FOUNDING FATHERS
26 January 2011
‘Seek the face of the Lord and yearn for him.’
Today we celebrate the feast day of Robert, Alberic and Stephen. These founders of Citeaux were three innovators who sought the face of the Lord.
“As you know Cîteaux was founded from Molesme which had begun as a reformed monastery but, according to Cistercian sources, had declined as its riches increased. Because many of its recruits were not zealous for an austere life, contact with the world and the acceptance of a lower standard of monastic discipline left the more conscientious brothers dissatisfied. Under the leadership of Abbot Robert (who subsequently returned to Molesme), his prior Alberic, who succeeded him as abbot of the New Monastery and Stephen (originally named Harding), who followed Alberic, 1109-33, a small number of monks set out for what was described as the “wilderness” of Cîteaux, although in fact they were only 20 km from Dijon and under the protection of the Duke of Burgundy. The new foundation was poor and isolated, without many of the material benefits of an established monastery; the monks attempted to live by the Rule quite literally, distancing themselves consciously from many (but not all) customs derived from Cluny and other traditional Benedictine centres”. Ml. Casey.
What was it like for these three founders to leave the place where they had begun to seek the face of the Lord in a Benedictine monastery and respond to a deeper monastic call based on the purity of the Rule of St. Benedict? On the one hand there must have been an inner struggle: Why had God called them to one place and was now asking them to go elsewhere? Was it really the face of the Lord they were seeking? And then the actual emotional pain on leaving the monks where relationships had been formed, maybe the lack of understanding from some of them, and certainly the uprooting of a secure way of life, despite knowing it was the right thing to do. On the other hand, there must have been a very deep faith and vision giving them the inner strength to launch out into the deep, despite not really knowing where and what the Lord was calling them to - in a sense a leap of faith in the dark, a fear of the unknown!
If we wish to follow the example of our founders we too must seek the face of the Lord in a monastic life based on the principle elements of the Rule of Benedict as this was so intrinsic to the founding vision. Fr. Edmund Mikkers defined seven elements from the Rule which were important at Citeaux these are:
REVERENCE for the LORD and REVERENCE for our sisters
The SPIRIT OF FAITH
The SPIRIT OF HUMILITY
LOVE for CHRIST
LISTENING to the SPIRIT, to the WORD of hope
THE SPIRIT of SIMPLICITY, POVERTY and DISCRETION
These elements constitute the fundamental values of Cistercian spirituality, but some of them were given more emphasis than others, for example, Citeaux placed great importance on poverty - they desired to be poor with the poor Christ, separation from the world was highly valued and there was also an emphasis on the solitary life in community. How do you encounter the face of the Lord through these values? One of the values which struck me forcibly during my live-ins was the simplicity and poverty of the place. In fact when I made my Final Profession the motto I took was: ‘Lord in the simplicity of my heart I offer you everything’ and the symbol was of open hands. Over the years I have tried to live this out in my monastic life but I must confess that over time I came to the realisation that my attitude has changed to one of more depth and so in keeping with this my motto changed also, to: ‘Lord in the simplicity and complexity of my heart I offer you everything’ This was more realistic as I continued to seek the face of the Lord and yearn for him. What would you say about your own efforts to live simply and be poor in spirit?
The R.B. has a lot to say about poverty in regard to:
1. The distribution of goods.
2. Interior dispositions.
4. Value of material goods.
5. Dignity of the human person.
The abandonment of material goods was an essential ingredient of the renunciation involved in the monastic vocation from the very beginning. It was the Gospel invitation to sell all his goods and give the proceeds to the poor which first attracted the young Anthony to a life of renunciation. Poverty is rooted in a fundamental gospel attitude which is the freedom and non-possessiveness of Christ, willing to receive everything from his Father and to return everything to him. It is an emptiness and simplicity before God and our fellow human beings in which the use of material goods is only one factor. Moreover this emptiness and simplicity are freely chosen for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom.
Benedict’s approach to monastic poverty involves both the personal dimension and the communal dimension. What matters for Benedict is not primarily the poverty of the monastery as a whole, but rather ascetical and personal poverty directed toward a sense of responsibility for material goods, the true peace of the brethren and a spiritual dependence on Christ as represented by the abbot.
The task of the abbot in this sphere is principally to measure the demands of the common life according to the capacities of each monk. From the brethren, Benedict expects a sense of personal responsibility and vigilance, with a complete dependence on the abbot as an efficacious sign of their dependence on Christ.
The communal aspect is also ascetical and directed toward a sense of responsibility and peace: the community as a whole is to use its possessions in such a way that “in all things God may be glorified”. It finds expression, first of all, in community:
Monastics share their time, their talents, their gifts of nature and grace, their prayer, and the fruits of their labour with the community and through their community with the Church.
How open are you to seeking the face of the Lord by living poverty in this profound way? Let us continue to seek the face of the Lord and yearn for him through all of our Cistercian values.
Chapter Talk given today by one of the Sisters in the Community
This is an “overflow” weekend that we are offering to those who are interested in
The recent RTE documentary, School of Love from the Would You Believe series is now