Monday, September 5, 2016


St. Robert of Molesme, Abbey of Cîteaux
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend mass at the Abbey of Cîteaux, the “mother house” of the Cistercian Order.  Cistercians are a branch of the Benedictine family, founded in 1098 by St. Robert of Molesme.  The Cistercians were a reform movement that sought to return to a stricter observance of the Rule of St. Benedict, in reaction to the wealth and perceived laxity of Benedictine monasteries founded by the Abbey of Cluny. 

The Cistercian Order grew under the leadership of St. Robert and his two successor Abbots, St. Alberic and St. Stephen Harding.  It was Abbot Stephen who welcomed Bernard of Fontaine to Cîteaux in 1113.  He would become known as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a great theologian and preacher, who spread the Cistercian reform throughout Europe.  At the height of its influence, some 500 Cistercian monasteries and 900 convents flourished.

The Reformation and subsequent Wars of Religion took a toll on Cîteaux and the Order, as did inevitable institutional decline.  During the 17th Century, the Cistercian Order underwent another revival calling for stricter observance of the Rule.  Associated with the reforms initiated in la Trappe by the abbot de Rancé, those who kept the strict observance became known as “Trappists.”

The Enlightenment and French Revolution were hard on religious orders in Europe.  In 1789, Cîteaux was confiscated by the State and sold as stone quarry (as was the great Abbey of Cluny).  Monastic communities were disbanded, and the Trappists sought refuge in Switzerland and as far away as Russia.  One hundred years later, Trappist monks purchased and resettled the Abbey of Cîteaux. 

Abbey Church
The Abbey church today is a very plain, modern concrete structure.  Although the setting was simple, the liturgy was celebrated with great reverence and beauty.  Most of the buildings that remain are from the 17th and 18th Century.  Currently, 35 monks are resident in Cîteaux, though recently 4 of them left to create a new foundation in Norway. 

I’ve long admired the Trappists because of the writings of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  Visiting Cîteaux reminded me of the great commitment monastic life requires.  The daily schedule alone is daunting, including the daily office ( seven services with psalms, scripture readings, and prayers):
Abbey Church

3:45 a.m.         Rise
4:00 a.m.         Vigils
7:00 a.m.         Lauds & mass
9:30 a.m.         Terce
12:30 p.m.       Sext
2:30 p.m.         None
6:00 p.m.         Vespers
8:00 p.m.         Compline
8:30 p.m.         Bedtime
In between, the brothers have time for work (earning their living from a dairy operation), lectio divina (contemplative reading of sacred texts), a period of study/rest in the afternoon, and two common meals.  Imagine following this same schedule every day, in the same place, with largely the same group of people, until the day you die.  It is a profound witness to placing intimacy with God as the highest priority in one’s life.

While few are called to monastic life, we can all learn from the monks’ commitment to stability in community, simplicity, and balance.  Seven times each day, monks drop whatever they may be doing and turn to prayer, paying attention to God’s presence in their life with praise and thanksgiving.  What a gift it would be if each of us, if only for a moment, paused with such frequency throughout our day and turned our attention to God with gratitude. 
Abbey grounds

Tilden Edwards, a priest and teacher at the Shalem Institute, often reminds us that no matter where we are or what time it is, we can always “lean back into the Presence.”  

I’m grateful for the monks of Cîteaux, and all the people in my life, who witness to the importance of “learning to lean.” 

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