The 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.
Feast of St. Hilda of Whitby
Today we remember St. Hilda, the abbess of a community of men and women at Whitby in England. She was a grandniece of the king and so had life-long access to powerful people, who often sought her out for advice. We also associate Hilda with the Synod of Whitby, when England pivoted away from the Celtic Christian tradition to a stronger alignment with the Roman. She died on this day in 680.
As did Hilda, we live very much in the particulars of our time and place—as did the disciples. In Matthew today we read of their concern for how they’re going to get by, now that they’ve left everything behind. Jesus has words of reassurance for them and promises of thrones. But I wonder if they noticed something Jesus says almost in passing: “at the renewal of all things”. At the renewal of all things.
Eph. 4:1-6/Psalm 113/Mat. 19:27-29
Today is St. Hilda’s day. What we know about Hilda of Whitby (c. 614-680) comes to us from St. Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, which he finished in about 731. St. Hilda was the founding abbess of Whitby Abbey, the site of a pivotal Synod of the English church. It was this Synod in 664 that strengthened the English church’s connection with the Roman church. Hilda was known for her devotion and grace and kindness; she was also recognized as an able administrator, sought out by kings and princes for her wise counsel.
I’m inclined to put St. Hilda in the category of “practical mystics”, along with St. Teresa of Avila, who founded many monasteries. And I would put St. Paul himself in this category. We might think of “practical mystics” as individuals who have a keen sense of the presence of God in and through all things and take on the practical work of building up the church. In building up the church we deal with real people in real time in real situations; with all the confusion and brokenness and incompleteness of real people.