The Cistercian Order

Cistercian Monks

Cistercian Monks

The Order of Cistercians also known as Trappists, is a Roman Catholic religious order, which consists of monasteries of monks and nuns.  It is part of the larger Cistercian family which can trace its origin back to 1098.  Cistercians follow the rule of St.Benedict, and are part of the Benedictine family as well.  Cistercians dedicate their lives, to seek union with God, through Jesus Christ, within a community of brothers or sisters.

Saint Robert of Molesme-art

Saint Robert of Molesme – Artists Impression

On the 21st March 1098, St.Robert of Molesme, Abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Molesme, felt compelled to lead twenty-one of his monks to Citeaux, and establish a new monastery.  This new abbey was dedicated to the restoration of Benedictine Rule in its most primitive form.  A life devoted to prayer and poverty.

Tension rose amongst his followers, and the relationship between the new monastery at Citeaux, and the Benedictine Abbey of Molesme, they had left behind.  The monks of Molesme, grieved by the loss of their holy leader, and it wasn’t long before they obtained a papal decree, forcing St.Robert to return to Molesme, and take up his position once again as their Abbot.

Abbey of Citeaux

Abbey of Citeaux

The Abbey of Citeaux, continued after the loss of St.Robert’s return to Molesme, by a small number of monks who chose to remain and carry on the order.  The new Abbot was St.Alberic, who was later succeeded by St.Stephen Harding.

St.Robert, St.Alberic and St.Stephen Harding, each Abbots in their own right, are celebrated as founders of the Cistercian Order.

With the guidance of St.Alberic, the small community of monks, built their first church, and settled down to their new way of life.  St.Stephen Harding, an Englishman from Dorset, was one of the founding Abbots, of the Abbey of Citeaux.

St.Bernard was born in 1090, to parents Tescelin de Fontaine, Lord of Fontaine – les – Dijon and Alethe de Montbard of high French nobility in the Burgundy region.  In 1109, his mother died, and his life was to undertake a dramatic change.

For the next three years, Bernard a nobleman from Fontaine – les – Dijon, went on a spiritual journey.  Then in 1112, the twenty-two-year-old felt he had his calling from God, and knocked at the doors of the Abbey of Citeaux, fourteen miles to the south of Dijon, with thirty of his relatives.

Stephen quickly sensed Bernard’s talents, and so it was, after three years as a monk, St.Bernard was sent to Vallee d’Absinthe in the Diocese of Langres, where he founded the Abbey of Clairvaux.  St.Bernard was accompanied by four of Stephen’s own brothers, uncle and two cousins, alongside an architect and two other monks.

The land, upon which the Abbey of Clairvaux was to be built upon, was a gift from Hugh, Count of Champagne, who would eventually become a member of the Knights Templar.

Abbey of Clairvaux

Abbey of Clairvaux

The project they were faced with, was to build a new abbey from the ground upwards.  This new abbey would be built by their own hands, stone by stone, in the name of their God, and Bernard would become the Abbot of the Abbey of Clairvaux.

It didn’t take long, for the news to filter through, as disciples and monks flocked to St.Bernard, wishing to follow in the steps of the renowned Abbot; St.Bernard of Clairvaux.

During St.Stephen’s tenure, four daughter-houses were created; La Ferte, Pontigny, Clairvaux and Morimond, between 1113 and 1115.  This monastic life led by the Abbey of Citeaux, saw an ever-growing network of monasteries rise up through medieval Europe.  Which led to the Carta Caritatis (Charter of Charity) being drawn up, designed to harmonize a sense of unity in its monasteries.

Almost in unison with the Templars, the Cistercians grew in wealth.  Like the Knights Templar, the Cistercian order was exempt from taxes and tithes.  They were expert in farming, industry and commerce.  The lead used on their Abbey roofs, was sourced from their own mines and smelted in their own works.

The construction of their Abbey’s were well thought out, and water was a major concern in any build.  Abbey’s would be situated by a secluded river or stream.  Monks would create a dam, designed to carry water to all parts of the Abbey; flowing through kitchens, washing facilities and indoor plumbing.

The Cistercian Order opted for plain cloths on their altars, with a plain wooden cross, whilst their Benedictine rivals had altars, crosses and candle holders made of gold.

The very rule of the Templar order, held this monastic institution with the highest regard, and many a co-operative venture would be undertaken by the two.

It is said, if a knight was expelled from the Knights Templar, he was not free to join secular life.  The said knight would seek shelter in a Cistercian monastery, in the hope that he would be rehabilitated.

In 1128, St.Bernard and Pope Honorius II attended the Council of Troyes, to settle conflicts within the French Church.  He offended Cardinal’s by his words, and was denounced by these men, yet his words, led to a strong bond with the Pope.

saint-bernard-of-clairvaux

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St.Bernard, man of God became a renowned churchman in Christendom, known for correcting abuses within the faith.  He went out on a limb, defending church rights against the monarchy, who sought control of its resources, and chose their own bishops.

With news from the Holy Land, that the Crusader state of Edessa had fallen to Turkish forces.  Fear rang out, for Antioch and Jerusalem, which could see them fall into Islam control once again.

St.Bernard of Clairvaux was the man who called, who promoted the founding of the Knights Templar, and created the monastic rules of life they would follow.

St.Bernard called for a new crusade to the Holy Land, asking knights to arm themselves and wear the cross upon their chest, showing to all, they be God’s warriors.  He even used part of his own habit, fashioning crosses for many a warrior.

On the 21st August 1153, St.Bernard of Clairvaux died at the Abbey of Clairvaux in France.  At the time of his death, some 343 Cistercian monasteries had been established .  Sixty-five by him, and the remainder by fellow monks of the order.  In 1174 St.Bernard was canonized by Pope Alexander III.

The Cistercian Order continued to expand, and by the year 1200, there were in excess of 500 houses, and at the time of the reformation the number had risen to 742.

In 1664 Pope Alexander VII recognized within the Cistercian Order two observances; the Common and the Strict.  Among these arose Armand Jean de Rance, an Abbot who underwent conversion in his Abbey of Notre Dame de la Grande Trappe.  A renewal in the practice of monastic enclosure, silence and manual labour, expressing a spirit of apartness from all worldliness and a dedication to prayer and penance.  His was one community, lucky enough to have escaped destruction at the hands of the French Revolution.

During the French Revolution, Augustine de Lestrange travels led to the creation of Cistercian Orders in England, Belgium, Spain, Italy, and America.

In 1892 Pope Leo attempted to create a single Cistercian house under one order… but this proved impossible, for it now consisted of many national congregations.  This resulted with the Pope recognizing two Cistercian Orders: Order of Citeaux and Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, also known as the Trappists.

In 1120, the Benedictine nunnery of Tart, adopted Cistercian Order rules, and sought an ever closer alliance with the monks of the order.  In modern times, the Strict Observance order, has sixty monasteries of Nuns, serving with Monks of the order in Rome.

According to the Modern Catholic Encyclopedia, the Cistercian Order have given to the Church many spiritual masters:

Bernard of Clairvaux
William of Saint Thierry
Alfred of Rievaulx
Guerric of Igny
Isaac of Stella
Gilbert of Hoyland
Adam of Perseigne

Cistercian Nunnery of Helfta in Saxony
Saint Gertrude the Great
Saint Mechtild of Magdeburg

12th Century Spiritual Masters
Thomas Merton
Thomas Keating

(Images) Abbey of Clairvaux and Citeaux: Wikipedia
(Image) Cistercian Monks: Wikipedia
(Image) Saint Robert of Molesme: Pininterest

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