​From a Spirituality of Perfection to Humble Acceptance: Our Cistercian Founders

As we reflect today on our 11th century roots on this our ‘Founders Feast’, Sr Michelle Miller ocso gives this account of the charism of the Cistercian order in today’s chapter talk to the community:‘THE NEW VISION,THE NEW MONASTERY, as it was called, shifted the focus from perfection through individual efforts and multiple rituals, to humble acceptance of oneself, imperfections and all, as mirrored by community life. Rather than a mentality of aristocratic hierarchy, there was an emphasis on unity of spirit. Instead of a church embellished by high art and decoration, now it was simple, austere, understated and set apart.The founders were concerned with gospel living; poverty, simplicity, authenticity, and developing an interior sensitivity. The practice of charity led the monastery to becoming a school of love. From the seeds planted by the founders a new spirituality flourished. Previously, where God had been viewed as an emperor, mighty in strength, now through the Cistercians the love of Christ crucified emerged. The humanity of Christ discovered and developed and the personal relationship of the monk or nun became key. Through recognising one’s misery, imperfections and weaknesses, the heart can be broken open and deliver itself over to the gentle mercy of the saviour, wrote St Bernard.In the school of love, nothing is missing, according to St Benedict: neither unjust situations, nor the trying superior, nor the false brothers/sisters and more…‘trap’, ‘crucible’, slaughterhouse’ and death. There is no other escape but to abandon oneself to the love of the Lord.The great gift of the founders can be seen in the exchange when asking admittance – ‘what do you ask?’ ‘The mercy of God and of the order’.  In this Cistercian movement away from a spirituality of perfection to a humble acceptance, the community plays an important role. First because our brothers/sisters manifest our poverty. The storms of aggressivity, rivalry and jealousy which, without knowing it, our brothers/sisters release in us, are the test: surely it is good tactics to contain these, but this does not suffice. They have another fruit to bear: they merit interpretation.  For everything that irritates us in our brother/sister teaches us, first of all, something about ourselves. They are our own scars that begin to bleed again, our own weaknesses that feel threatened. Which does not mean that the irritation caused in us does not have an objective cause in whatever fault of a brother/sister, but also that every stormy intervention on our part in his/her regard would be useless as long as we are not reconciled with the wound in ourself.And in that reality, through the love and mercy of the crucified Christ, we, like the founders, find our peace.’Photo: by Valerie O’Sullivan