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The Founders of the Cistercian Order: Mastering Holiness and Detachment

Three holy monks abandoned the Benedictine monastery where they lived because their religious brothers were leading a relaxed life and did not want to correct themselves. These holy monks went on to found the Cistercian Abbey, which brought great glory to the Church.

Newsroom (24/03/2023 10:00 AM, Gaudium Press ) On the Gold Coast – in Burgundy, in north-eastern France – at the end of the 11th century, there was the monastery of Our Lady of Molesme, whose abbot was St. Robert, who, assisted by the monks St. Alberic and St. Stephen Harding, made enormous efforts so that the religious people would seriously observe the rule. But the majority of these religious persons preferred to live in relaxation.

In 1098, these three Saints, accompanied by twenty valiant monks, left Molesme and settled in an inhospitable, marshy area full of reeds, called Cistercian, which had been donated by the Duke of Burgundy, and they built an abbey there.

St. Robert, who came from a noble and wealthy family, had been Abbot of Molesme by appointment of Pope Saint Gregory VII. Having held the position of Abbot of the Cistercians for a year, by his superior’s order he returned to Molesme, where he remained as abbot and died there in 1111 at the age of 82.

His disciples asked God for a sign that he had been saved. That same day, at the beginning of the setting of the sun, two rainbows appeared in the firmament, crossing the hemisphere and resting on the four cardinal points; above the monastery appeared a disc shining like the sun, which projected rays over the spot where St. Robert’s body lay.

White habit brought by Our Lady

St. Alberic became abbot of the Cistercians soon after St. Robert moved to Molesme. In place of the black habit, worn by all Benedictines, he introduced the white one, after an extraordinary mystical phenomenon.

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“One evening, while St. Alberic and the other monks were praying the Office of Matins, Our Lady, surrounded by a phalanx of Angels and enveloped in a halo of light, appeared to him. She held in her hands a white mantle, resplendent with brightness and purity, and placed it over the Saint. When the vision vanished, not only St. Alberic, but all the monks, were clothed in white habits.”

Following the example of St. Robert, the Abbot St. Alberic made sure that in the Cistercian Abbey the Benedictine rule was practiced to perfection. After having been Abbot for ten years, he died in 1109 and was succeeded by St. Stephen Harding.

Even in extreme poverty, the monks made progress in virtue

The new abbot, St. Stephen Harding, was born in England of noble and fortunate parents. After being educated in a monastery in that country, he went to France and entered the University of Paris, where he studied philosophy and theology.

Having brilliantly completed his course, he went on pilgrimage to Rome. On his return journey, upon entering France, he learned of the existence of the Monastery of Our Lady of Molesme. He wished to visit it, and it was there he became a monk.

As Abbot of the Cistercians, St. Stephen encouraged the monks to practice exactly the Benedictine motto “Ora et labora” – Pray and work. Besides the intense life of prayer, they worked in agriculture and made copies of books, especially the Bible, as well as musical compositions.

He regulated the question of visits to the abbey, allowing only the Duke of Burgundy, the great benefactor, to stay overnight when he went there to pray, but the Duke’s courtiers were required to withdraw. Resentful of this prohibition, the Duke cancelled his aid to the abbey; the monks had to live in poverty and destitution. St. Stephen himself went begging from door to door, but he refused a large donation offered to him by a priest who engaged in buying and selling of ecclesiastical privileges..

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A young nobleman named Bernard knocked on the door

The relaxed Benedictines and many members of the Congregation of Cluny – whose abbot at that time was the dreadful Pons de Melgueil, who was later excommunicated – reproached the Cistercian monks, saying that they had committed a sin akin to apostasy. To this wave of maledictions were added the married and ecclesiastical privilege selling clerics who were then numerous.

Led by St. Stephen, the Cistercians remained steadfast, but their numbers were diminishing, as some of them had died and no new ones had entered.

To a dying but completely lucid monk, the St. commanded, by the vow of obedience, that after his private judgment he should come and tell him whether God was pleased with the manner of living in the Cistercian Abbey; then the monk delivered up his soul to the Creator. After a few days, he appeared to St. Stephen and told him that Our Lord, full of joy and goodness, had said that He would soon send legions of disciples to the Saint, and that it was necessary to build other monasteries.

Shortly afterwards, in 1112, there knocked at the door of the abbey a young nobleman named Bernard, accompanied by an uncle, four brothers, and 25 friends belonging to the nobility. From then on, the Cistercian Order flourished prodigiously. And that young man became the great St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

Stained-glass windows with beautiful opalescent colours

St. Stephen encouraged the Cistercian Order in all of the virtues, among which was poverty. On this subject, we summarize below some comments made by Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira.

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In the Benedictine abbeys there was a lavish ceremonial, a rich liturgy with the most precious objects, and in the churches magnificent stained glass windows. For the private life of their monks, the abbeys were very austere: there were long corridors with stone benches and poor cells.

But as regards divine worship and the pomp with which the abbot was surrounded, there was the greatest splendour.

However, this degenerated into abuse. And whenever an abuse is accentuated in one direction, grace emphasizes the note in the opposite direction. Then the Cistercian Order appeared, practicing poverty much more fully in another sense. The Cistercian abbot enjoyed honours analogous to the Benedictine abbot, but surrounded by much less pomp. The whole Cistercian life was much poorer.

The reaction against wealth was so strong that the Cistercians no longer used the stained glass windows that the Benedictines used, thinking that those windows were a factor of wealth against which it was necessary to react.

So they started using only whitish stained-glass windows to protect against the light. But the Catholic Church, even involuntarily, always produces beauty. Using this type of stained-glass windows, the Cistercian monks found a way to make stained-glass windows with beautiful opalescent colours. It is such a discrete form of beauty that these white stained-glass windows, with opalescent tones, compete in beauty with the polychromic stained-glass windows of the Benedictines of the old observance.

What has been the result? Gradually, a revival of the various Benedictine congregations. Almost all were given new breath, except Cluny which went steadily downhill until the French Revolution.

By Paulo Francisco Martos

Compiled by Sandra Chisholm

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