As Cistercians, we are the grateful heirs of a rich spiritual tradition, which is rooted in the gospel and has produced fruits in the lives of women and men throughout the centuries. Here are some highlights.
Beginning in Egypt in the third century AD, men and women sought a more intense way of living the Christian life by withdrawing from mainstream society into uninhabited regions in order to devote themselves to prayer, solitude, silence, struggle against vice and sin, and a disciplined life. Their goal was to grow in purity of heart or likeness to God, who is love. Some lived as solitaries, rarely encountering others, but most lived in simple dwellings or cells for one or a few occupants, coming together with others on Saturdays and Sundays to worship and celebrate the Eucharist in common. Yet others lived together in larger communities with a more developed structure of common worship, common meals and common work. These early monks supported themselves by simple manual work such as basket weaving, rope-making, gardening, baking or farming.
Like these desert monks, we, choosing to withdraw from the world of vice and sin, seek out the freedom of discipline and an authentic separation from all that does not lead to Christ, in order to live wholly in the world of God.
Prayer and Work in Community
Monastic life spread throughout the East in Palestine, Syria, Ethiopia and Greece, and also to the West, where St Benedict of Nursia wrote his Rule for Monasteries to guide the life of some communities in sixth-century Italy. Drawing from the best of earlier traditions, St Benedict provided for a daily rhythm of prayer (communal recitation of the Psalms, reading and meditation, personal prayer) and work (tasks undertaken for the material support and service of the community, as well as of guests and the poor), all in the context of a communal life oriented toward living the gospel deeply. This approach softened some of the rough edges of the desert, avoided extremes, and emphasized care of persons, so that souls may be saved in a community of mutual love.
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As followers of St Benedict, we are committed to building up the kingdom of God on earth by living, working and praying in a community of love.
Poor with the Poor Christ
Over time, St Benedict's Rule became the dominant model for monasteries
throughout the West. Changes in the cultural and economic situation naturally led to adaptations in how the Rule was lived concretely. This resulted in certain monasteries becoming huge, politically powerful institutions and wealthy landowners. Monks were employed mostly in lengthy liturgical services, while the work was done by serfs. In 1098, twenty-one monks from the monastery of Molesmes decided to go out to a deserted place (Citeaux, or Cistercium, from which comes the name Cistercian) and begin a New Monastery in which they could live a life more closely patterned on St Benedict's vision. These monks, under their early leaders, Sts Robert, Alberic and Stephen, sought to be poor with the poor Christ by setting aside excessive wealth and property as well as luxurious furnishings, garments and foods. They sought true solitude and quiet by removing themselves from political manipulation and rejoicing in obscurity. They sought an uncomplicated relationship with the God of simplicity by restoring the balance of liturgical prayer with manual and self-sustaining work.
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As Cistercians, we desire to live together quietly in simplicity and obscurity, so as to come to know the God of simplicity.
In the School of Love
Cistercian monasteries for men and women multiplied in the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and produced spiritual fruit both in the lives of monks and nuns and in their writings and practical and artistic achievements, which are our patrimony. Theirs was an anthropology of hope in which the human person, created in the image and likeness of God, though fallen and mired in unlikeness, yet retains the divine image and the possibility of return. The return of the Prodigal stands for the process of conversion, of growth in truthfulness - self-knowledge, compassion and contemplation, and growth in love - of self, of one's neighbor and of God. According to these Cistercian writers, love is the source, the way and the goal of the monastic life. True to their characteristic emphasis on experience and essentially concrete, intuitive and synthetic approach, Cistercians of this time were drawn to Christ's humanity, his wounds and most especially his heart, as an all-embracing symbol of the path of love, sacrifice and transformation that they trod.
In the footsteps of our Cistercian Mothers and Fathers, we follow the path of love, sacrifice and transformation so as to be formed into the likeness of the heart of Christ.
Fidelity in Times of Decadence and Terror
Seventeenth-century France saw a diminishment in the quality of monastic life due largely to the practice of giving monasteries as inheritances to secular "abbots" whose interest rarely went beyond the collection of income. Amidst the vacuum of spiritual leadership that resulted, a “Strict Observance” movement arose, with some reforming abbots strongly defending certain aspects of the Cistercian patrimony. Among these, Abbot de Rancé reformed the abbey of La Trappe into a thriving community living a life of great austerity. A century later, the French Revolution wrought havoc on religious life by subjecting religious men and women to imprisonment, execution and exile. Dom Augustine de Lestrange was sent into exile with monks of La Trappe, and formed a community at La Valsainte in Switzerland, in which religious from many orders found refuge. This group of monks, nuns and a number of children was subjected to great hardship as they fled across Europe to Russia and back on a five-year "Monastic Odyssey" in search of a safe place to settle. Finally they were able to return, and in the dispersion that followed, the single monastery of La Trappe was multiplied into dozens and then hundred of monasteries of monks and nuns throughout the world.
As Trappistines, we seek to emulate the fidelity of our forebears, perhaps not with their degree of heroic austerity, but with a spirit of discretion and humility.
Reform and Renewal
The Second Vatican Council called all religious to examine and adapt their way of life in accordance with the original spirit of their founders and the needs of the present day. This process, though often halting, disorienting and painful, has enabled the stripping away of practices and attitudes that obscured the true spirit of Cistercian monastic life with its rootedness in the gospel, the desert, the Rule of St Benedict and the particular Cistercian charism. It has made way for the discovery of new modes of expressing ancient monastic values.
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We continually strive for creative fidelity to a tradition which is still alive and still growing, so that its treasures may be laid open to a new generation.