Br. David VryhofThe Spirituality of the Cistercians
On the Feast of St Robert de Molesme (Cistercian monk, 1029-1111)

Genesis 12:1-4 and Matthew 19:27-29

It’s not easy for us to imagine a group of 22 men, in the latter half of the 11thcentury, heading into a remote and thickly forested region of France to establish a new monastery.  With whatever tools they had brought with them, they began to clear the trees and bushes, and to build small individual huts out of branches.  They had little to eat, few possessions, and none of the comforts that we so routinely take for granted.  In addition to this, they set for themselves a rigorous daily schedule, based on the Rule of St Benedict: four hours of sleep in the night, followed by four hours of prayer, both private and communal.  A meager diet of roots and herbs.  Hard manual work during the day, off-set by more worship and periods of reading or study.

Like Abram and like the apostles in our readings tonight, they left everything– homes, families, possessions, livelihoods, friends, one could say even civilization itself – to give their lives (as completely as they knew how) to God.  Their leader was a 69 year-old man, Robert de Molesme, who had become a Benedictine monk at the tender age of 15.  Not long after having entering the monastery, he began to be recognized for his piety and sanctity, and at a comparably young age, was elected as its prior.

Not all of the brothers, however, were inspired by his example and youthful zeal.  Some had become quite comfortable in the Benedictine life and resented his attempts to inspire them to greater austerity; others were quarrelsome and disobedient.  When another group of monks approached Pope Gregory VII to ask him to give them Robert as their superior, the pope granted their request.  Robert joined the small community and moved it to Molesme, and it quickly grew, both in numbers and in reputation.  Robert was becoming widely known as a saintly man and soon became the shining star of the monastery at Molesme.

Although the monastery at Molesme prospered under Robert’s leadership, not all was for the good.  By 1098, there were thirty-five priories connected to Molesme, as well as other annexes and some priories of nuns.  Donors vied with one another in helping the monks and before long they had more than they needed.  As a result, they gradually slackened their way of life, enjoyed their ease, and became tepid.  Vast land holdings required hired employees, and non-monastic activities began to dominate daily life.  As the community grew increasingly wealthy, it began to attract men whose ambitions were not pure.  Divisions grew among the brothers, in spite of Robert’s continued pleas for austerity and discipline.

In 1098, when he was 69 years old, Robert and 21 of his monks left Molesme with the intention of never returning.  They made their way to a heavily-forested tract of land they had been given by a benefactor and there established Cîteaux Abbey (or in Latin, Cistercium Abbey).  Their dream was to return to the ideals of the Rule of St Benedict, and to keep them rigorously.  They became known as “Cistercians,” and eventually they traded their black Benedictine habits for white ones.  The way they lived their faith – their ‘spirituality’ – was thoroughly Benedictine and they were still bound by the Rule of Benedict, but their practice was more rigorous and austere than that of most Benedictines.  They were cloistered from the world and kept a strict regiment of silence, prayer, study, and manual work.

The fervor and inspiration of the first monks at Cîteaux was soon put to the test.  From the sources that are available, it seems some tension arose on account of the somewhat ambiguous relationship between the new monastery and the Benedictine house the monks had left.  In order to preserve the peace, Robert was required to leave Cîteaux and return to Molesme in order to resume his duties there as abbot.  Some of the monks decided to return with Robert, while others remained at Cîteaux to continue to support the new reforms.  At Cîteaux, Robert was succeeded as abbot first by Alberic, and then by Stephen Harding.  Together these three men are celebrated as the Founders of the Cistercian Order.

Though the Cistercian lifestyle is probably too rigorous for most of us, we can learn something from the spirituality of the Cistercians. “Spirituality” is a word that describes how an individual or a group expresses their faith, how they live out their beliefs in daily life.  Each of us has a unique “spirituality,” as do the spiritual communities of which we are a part.

Cistercian Spirituality strives to be authentic and unglamorous.  Cistercians separate themselves from the world and live within monastic enclosures. Their lives are given to prayer, (both communal and private), to study, and to manual labor.  According to their Constitution, their way of life is “ordinary, obscure and laborious.”

Their lives, their monasteries and their churches are marked by simplicity.  They seek to remain uncluttered by excessive or luxurious clothing, food or possessions; they do not pursue such things or value them. They prefer silence and solitude, and limit their words and their contact with others.  They support themselves not by donations, but by their own manual labor; each Cistercian house is meant to have an industry or industries, that provide the income needed for their support.

Cistercian spirituality is marked by humility, by hiddenness, and by hard labor.  The monks are taught to be hospitable to visitors, whom, as followers of Benedict’s Rule, they recognize as bearers of Christ’s image.  They learn to welcome them as they would welcome Christ.  They give themselves to a life-long process of conversion.

Why embrace such a humble and unexciting path in life?  Cistercians would answer that their greatest joy, their heart’s desire, their fulfillment in life, comes not from acquiring possessions or enjoying rich food and clothing, or from pursuing accomplishments or adventure, but from God.  They do not focus on all that they have given up, or seek the praise of others.  They want only to put aside anything and everything that stands in the way of a life given generously to God.  Cistercians are first and foremost lovers of God.

So what might we learn from them?

We might learn to live more simply.  Many of us are overwhelmed and inundated with too much of everything: too many possessions, too much food, too much stimulation, too many activities, too much work, too much information, too many words, too many choices.  The result is that we live hectic and scattered lives, racing from one task to another, juggling too many commitments, always living on the surface and never really taking the time to know ourselves and others deeply.  Nor do we have the space or time to truly know and love God.

Cistercian spirituality teaches us that we need surprisingly little to be content, fulfilled and free.  Cistercians reject that which is extravagant or superfluous.  They keep what is necessary and do not indulge in what is not.  Their lives are given, first of all, to seeking God.

We might also learn to value silence and solitude.  Cistercians encourage us to let go of the drive to achieve and succeed, the hunger for power and wealth and status that fuels and distorts our lives, and to be still, so that we might go deep within, to better understand ourselves and others, and to open ourselves to deep relationship with God.  Cistercians use few words and practice keeping silence, so that they can listen, as the Rule of Benedict instructs them to do.

We might learn to value hard labor, to treasure the sweat of our brow and to feel content when our muscles are aching.  Cistercian spirituality has always emphasized the importance of work, and particularly work that engages our bodies as well as our minds.  Maintaining a healthy balance between study, prayer and physical work is a Cistercian ideal.

Finally, we might learn from them something about ongoing, life-long conversion.  Cistercians recognize that conversion of life goes beyond the years of formation in the novitiate or in initial vows.  The process of conversion never ends.  Even the oldest and wisest among them must be constantly alert to the invitation to grow and to change, the process of inner transformation.

For their authenticity, for their singlemindedness, for their commitment to monastic ideals, for their simple lives, we honor our brothers and sisters who follow the Cistercian way.  We give thanks for them today, and especially for their founders: Robert de Molesme, Alberic, and Stephen Harding. We join all the saints of God in giving thanks for their witness.

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  1. Annette Foisie OSL on May 30, 2020 at 13:20


  2. Jeanne DeFazio on May 30, 2020 at 10:14

    Incredible teaching

  3. Gardner Yenawine on May 30, 2020 at 08:47

    AMEN. Thank you, Brother Vryhof for this clear summary of learnings and guidance.

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