The Cistercians

An Introductory History
by M. Basil Pennington, OCSO



On 21 March 1098, the saintly abbot of the thriving Benedictine Abbey of Molesme, Robert, led twenty-one of his monks into the inhospitable thickets of Citeaux to establish a new monastery where they hoped to follow Benedict of Nursia's Rule for Monasteries in all its fullness. The unhappy monks of Molesme, grieved at the loss of their holy leader, soon obtained a papal command for his return. The new struggling community continued until 1109 under the leadership of Alberic, who introduced the idea of lay brothers being accepted as full members of the monastic family, making it possible for the monks to be free to follow all the demands of the Benedictine Rule. Stephen Harding, who succeeded Alberic at the helm of the community, welcomed the dynamic Bernard of Fontaines, who came in 1112 with thirty relatives in tow. Thus began the saga of Citeaux.

The Charter of Charity

Before Bernard died in 1153 he had not only founded the great Abbey of Clairvaux which would become a focal point for all of Christendom but he personally sent forth men to start sixty-five other houses while his brother abbots started another 235. Stephen and the other founders were determined to keep alive the pristine observance of the Rule which they had come to Citeaux to establish. To this purpose they created a Charta caritatis, a constitution which bound all Cistercian abbots to come to Citeaux annually for a general chapter. It also bound all the houses to a common observance and set up a system of visitation which respected the autonomy of each house but assured its fidelity.

Expansion and Decline

The order continued to expand: by 1200 there were over 500 houses; on the eve of the Reformation, the records showed 742. In time geography began to defeat these model means of regularity which were eventfully adopted by all other religious orders. The decline in the number of recruits had its effect. But most destructive was the practice of the ecclesiastical and secular powers to give the abbatial office to clerics who had no interest in the well-being of the monastery, only in its revenues, leaving the monks without guidance and financial means. In some instances secular powers required the monks to take on active ministries, in others the monks did this on their own. There were repeated attempts at reform, most notably in the century after the Council of Trent.

The Trappist Reform

In 1664 Pope Alexander VII recognized within the Cistercian Order two observances, the Common and the Strict, sometimes called the "abstinents" for their fidelity to Benedict's prohibition of the use of flesh meat in the monastic diet. Among these latter arose Armand Jean de Rancé, a commendatory abbot who underwent a conversion and brought about in his Abbey of Notre Dame de la Grande Trappe a renewal in the practice of monastic enclosure, silence, and manual labor, expressing a spirit of apartness from all worldliness and a dedication to prayer and penance. By the disposition of Divine Providence his was the one community that escaped complete destruction and dispersion at the hands of the French Revolution.

Trappist Expansion

In the course of many and varied travels under the leadership of Augustine de Lestrange the community was able to establish foundations in Spain, Belgium, England, Italy and the United States. When the monks returned to re-establish La Trappe after the downfall of Napoleon, Vincent de Paul Merle remained in America to establish the first permanent Cistercian community in the New World which today flourishes in Spencer, Massachusetts: Saint Joseph's Abbey. Monasteries of the Common Observance continued in eastern Europe in many cases operating schools and pastoring parishes.

The Order of Citeaux

In 1892 Pope Leo sought to bring all the Cistercian houses back together into one order but pastoral responsibilities and national loyalties made it impossible for the Common Observance houses who were divided into many national congregations to unite with the Strict Observance who were at that time largely French and who had opted for the strict monastic heritage of the Cistercian founders. Thus the Pope recognized two Cistercian Orders, called today the Order of Citeaux and the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, popularly known as the Trappists. The Order of Citeaux suffered greatly under the communist onslaught, not only in eastern Europe but also in Vietnam, where it had a congregation of five houses. On the other hand, the Strict Observance began to flower on the eve of the Second World War and continued to grow until it had over a hundred houses located on all six continents. Only in Yugoslavia and China did its houses suffer at the hands of communism. With the renewal of the Second Vatican Council both orders have written new constitutions which retain the reforming features of Saint Stephen Harding, the general chapter (though no longer annual, usually every three years) and visitations by the superior of the founding abbey.

Cistercian Nuns

The Cistercian founders shied away from direct involvement with nuns. But ever since the Benedictine nunnery of Tart adopted the Cistercian usages in 1120, individual convents and whole congregations and federations of Cistercian nuns have sought ever closer alliance with the monks. Today the Strict Observance, besides many affiliated convents, has the rather unique situation in the Church of actually having sixty monasteries of nuns as fully part of the order and serving with monks on the general staff of the order in Rome.

Cistercian Mentors

The Cistercians have given to the Church many surpassing spiritual masters: the four "Evangelists" of Citeaux: Bernard of Clairvaux (I 15 3), William of Saint Thierry (1148), Aelred of Rievaulx (1167), and Guerric of Igny (1163), as well as Isaac of Stella (1169), Gilbert of Hoyland (1172), and Adam of Perseigne (1221) stand out among the early fathers. Their writings are available today in many languages. The Cistercian nunnery of Helfta in Saxony produced in the thirteenth century a rich vein of spirituality expressed especially in the writings of Saint Gertrude the Great and Saint Mechtild of Magdeburg. Through the centuries other Cistercians reached prominence and made their contribution right up to the twentieth-century spiritual masters: Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating. Simplicity, depth, and eminent practicality mark Cistercian spiritual doctrine as well as a very solid theological base drawn directly from the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church.

-- From The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia (A Michael Glazier Book), Liturgical Press (1995) 178-179.


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