Words on the Word

The Holy Founders of Cîteaux

Today we commemorate the holy founders of Cîteaux. What exactly was it they founded? What was new about their enterprise? What helped it to perdure? There are two main ways of answering such questions. We might consider the founders’ stated intentions, of which we are fortunate to have copious evidence. Alternatively, we can enquire what others saw when they considered the novelty of Cîteaux. What made the Cistercians stand out as specific? We have a vivid testimony from the pen of a careful observer, St Aelred’s biographer Walter Daniel, who knew the first generation of white monks to have arrived in Yorkshire, in 1132, from Bernard’s Clairvaux. ‘These remarkable men’, he wrote, ‘were known as white monks after the colour of their habit […], for they were clothed, angel-like in undyed sheep’s wool. Thus garbed, when clustered together they looked like flocks of gulls’ (this was intended affectionately, no doubt, by one born and brought up close to the North Sea coast). Let us listen more closely, however, to what Walter says about these monks’ monastic life:

They venerate poverty—not the penury that stems from negligence and sloth, but a poverty regulated by voluntary privation, sustained by perfect faith and rendered congenial by the love of God. So strong is the mutual love which binds them that their society is as terrible as an army with banners. Trampling the flowers of the world with the foot of forgetfulness, counting riches and honours as dung […], they renounce in food, drink, act, and affection the pleasures of the world and the flesh. […] They have nothing to call their own; they do not even talk together, and no one undertakes anything of his own volition. […] The strongest of mutual loves sweeps from their midst the bane of resentment, every growth of anger and the murky phantasms of pride, so that, in the words of the Acts of the Apostles, they are united in heart and soul by the grace and love of the Holy Spirit.

For us who have made profession as Cistercians, this description is full of loveliness. It puts before our eyes what, to this day, remains our profound aspiration. At the same time, Walter’s words make us thoughtful. We ask ourselves: are we faithful, today, to our Fathers’ example? Are we as careful as they were to cast away all that stands in the way of our integral living of the Rule? Do we desire, as they did, to be monks through and through, utterly given men whose lives are radiant with the light of Christ, whose past, present, and future are joyfully abandoned to God’s providence?

To be a Cistercian is to evaluate oneself constantly in the light of a great, exacting ideal. We are not to be scrupulous (for scruples are rarely life-giving), but we must aim to be truthful—and ready to recompose our lives on the basis of what we recognise as truth. Our Founders were known as great renouncers. That’s not to say they were world-hating: all three were remembered as men of warmth and welcome. They knew, however, what they were about, and would not let anything, or anyone, compromise their purpose. They were eager, above all, to pass on their ideals, to ensure these would be kept by future generations. The Exordium parvum tells us they had ‘a passionate desire to commit to successors their heaven-sent virtues for the salvation of many yet to come’. Well, we are those successors. We have been entrusted with a noble, beautiful heritage. Today, let us give thanks for the courage and faith from which sprang our Order. Let us also examine ourselves in the light of our Founders’ charism. A charism is a living thing: it needs to be nurtured, loved, watered, fertilised, pruned, and reaped, else it withers and dies. May we be prudent husbandmen. And may we have the joy of finding, in the hereafter, that our Fathers will not blush to recognise us as their true-born sons.

Share