St. Mary's AI, Glencairn

St. Mary's Abbey, Glencairn, Lismore, Co. Waterford, Ireland

Reflections

What were our Cistercian founders about?

26 January 2017

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THE CHURCHES AND CLOISTERS of abbeys like Fontenay and Thoronet, their mellow stones glowing in a setting of quiet woods, still speak eloquently of the graceful mysticism of twelfth century Citeaux. It was for the abbot of Fontenay that St Bernard wrote his tract, Degrees of Humility, with its wonderful twelfth chapter on mystical prayer. Fontenay itself represents the direct influence of St Bernard and is the precise application of his principles on architecture. In such settings as these, the purified liturgy of the Cistercians became a thing of tremendous effect. But their contemplative life implies penance as well as prayer, because in contemplation there are always two aspects: the positive one, by which we are united to God in love, and the negative one, by which we are detached and separated from everything that is not God. Without both these elements there is no real contemplation. The penance of the Cistercians is essentially the common penance of the whole human race: to ‘eat your bread by the sweat of your brow’ and to ‘bear one another’s burdens’. Underlying the Cistercian insisitence on manual labour was a powerful element of what some call ‘social conciousness’. The poverty and labour of the early Cistericans had explicit reference to teh social situation in which they lived. Besides being a return to St Benedict and the Gospel, their way of life was also a protest against the inordinate wealth of the great feudal abbeys.

One of the strongest criticisms levelled by Citeaux against the Cluniac regime was that it was rooted in social injustice. The Cistercians could not accept the notion of a life contemplation in which the interior peace and leisure of the contemplative were luxuries purchased by the exploitation of serfs and the taxation of the poor. St Benedict had prescribed that the monk was to be the poorest of the poor and live by his own labour. If the monk has abandoned the cares and distractions and burdens of life in the world, that does not mean he has renounced the society of other people or the responsibility of providing for himself by the labour of his own hands: far from it. In giving up his possessions, material ambitions, and independence, the monk dedicates his whole life, body and soul, to the service of God in his monastic community. From the moment he makes his vows he gives to God everything that he has and everything that he is or can be. But the gift is not accepted directly by God. God’s representative is the abbot of the monastery, and the monk understands, by the terms in which his vows are made, that his gift of himself to God will consist chiefly in a gift of himself to his abbot and his brothers.

To give up everything and devote yourself without compromise to the love of Christ in the common life is to glorify and offer him the worship that most pleases him; it most resembles his own infinite generosity and the gift of himself to us in the incarnate Word. And it enables us to love one another as he has loved us.

The Waters of Siloe, by Thomas Merton, New York, 1949 pp. 15-20

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