CISTERCIAN GRACE TODAY: CONFORMITY TO CHRIST
(IMAGES OF CHRIST IN CISTERCIAN TRADITION)
Blanca López Llorena
We present this Working Paper as a possible help towards the drawing up of the Community House Report. Our contribution is a synthesis of what was done by the Spanish Region. The numerical divisions indicate the different sources of material, taken from the works presented by some members of the Spanish Region. We have been forced to omit many texts, especially from biblical and patristic sources, limiting ourselves to the more outstanding ones from the Cistercian tradition, in order not to exceed the length which was assigned to the present paper.
Jesus of Nazareth, Man among men, the Word Incarnate, descending to our human brokenness has incorporated it into the process of ascension towards divinity. For the Cistercian, this process has a double thrust. It is personal and, at the same time, communitarian. On the one hand, there is the indispensable involvement of each one of us in a serious, coherent commitment to the Person of Christ. On the other hand, there is the contextual framework within which this commitment develops: the Cistercian community of our times. It is a challenge to both the individual “I” and the collective “we”, to both the person and the community in a mutual and interactive complementarity. Here we have the base on which will be constructed our human-divine personality, our conformity to Christ, who will bring us all together to eternal life.
To draw an image is to bring out the more outstanding and evocative features of a person, whether this be in a concrete situation or throughout his or her lifetime. These more or less true features of the person, which are selected by the artist because they characterize this same person, are not of themselves mutually exclusive but rather complementary. It is important to bear in mind the complementarity of the images of Christ. Each person and each community possesses the capacity to reflect in itself one or another image. For example, we have often observed how this or that community is characterized by its hospitality, or by its austerity and poverty, by its unity and charity or by its relationship to the local environment.
For a Christian, Christ is the model and prototype of the human form of which we are all an image and towards which our deepest aspirations lead us. We are made and called to be the most perfect image possible of the model, Christ: not with regard to his external features, but above all, in relation to his inner nature. This Model will be all the more completely assumed by us, and we by It, to the degree that it is contemplated, discerned, touched and obeyed. It will be necessary to remain so much in his presence that the Power that flows from his Person can keep doing his work in us. That is how his influence as Model can transfer into us his own form, as if by osmosis. At the same time we, on our part, need to offer him our active passivity, our welcoming silence, full of hope in his transforming action.
The subject of “Cistercian Grace Today: Conformity to Christ,” which has been offered for the reflection of our communities, is closely related to these principles. The Spanish Region sought to point out for our communities some images of Christ developed in the Rule, the primitive documents, the writings of our Fathers, and the various levels of authority in the Order during the Order’s history. The purpose was to shed light on our present situation, with its positive and negative features, its values and countervalues, and thus help us in this process of identification and conformation to Christ. What follows is a resumé of these images.
I. - Christ the Man
1.1. - Cîteaux. - We can agree that Cistercian monasticism makes the humanity of Christ a primary instrument of the call to spiritual ascent. Our tradition stresses the biographical features of Jesus’ life: his infancy, the apostolic journeys, his sufferings, his expressions of compassion for the poor and for sinners, his death. William of St.Thierry understands their salutary effects. That is why he dedicates his tenth Meditation to the humanity of Christ and his Cross. St. Aelred follows the same principles in his tract, On Jesus at the Age of Twelve.
The inner poverty of the Cistercian fits easily into the poverty assumed by Christ. They becomes inseparable. But the monk not only operates on the level of spiritual considerations; he must somehow put them into practice through his commitment to humility, and through humiliations. Humility ennobles the monk and disposes him to receive God’s saving grace more fully.
The earthly life of Christ is a result of an infinite condescension to human fragility. That is why contact with the humanity of Jesus constitutes the best guide for contemplation of his divinity. Contemplation of the mysteries of his life, particularly of his infancy and his Passion, facilitate a close human relationship with the Saviour. Piety becomes tender and affectionate. However, it would be an error to think that a pietistic Christology like this will fall into sentimentalism and a desire for sensible feelings. On the contrary, this Christological piety is nurtured by the Bible and the Liturgy. It knows how to blend doctrine and devotion.
But these Christological considerations are not an end in themselves. They direct the monk towards an authentic journey of transformation. Through the humiliations of his human condition the monk is launched towards a new, spiritual, divine dimension: the condition of the Word. This is the authentic journey of the heart, the exodus, the departure from Egypt. It is the brokenness felt both by the monk and by Christ in his Incarnation. It is the journey towards the promised land, the heavenly Jerusalem, the divine condition, which is accessible to humanity through mercy.
1.2. - 16th Century. - Our Cistercian spirituality, with its strong Christocentrism, has kept very much in mind this human dimension of Christ whenever it has returned to its sources throughout its long history. The humanity of Christ is complementary to the fallen nature of man and is the only way to access the Trinity.
Froilán of Urosa, monk and abbot of Huerta, has left us a living testimony in his “Instructions to Cistercian Novices of the Congregation of St. Bernard”, (that is, the Congregation of Castille). This work, with its six editions, served as a manual to forge the Cistercian charism in the hearts of the novices. It enjoyed a well-deserved reputation. As a faithful disciple of St. Bernard, he presents the mysteries of Christ for the consideration of the novices: the Word Incarnate at the Annunciation, his birth in Bethlehem, the Passion, and so forth.
1.3.1. - In the XX Century. - Closer to our own day, Dom Ambrose Southey, in his first Letter to the Order, in 1975, emphasized how the first Cistercians centered their spirituality on the humanity of Christ and how this was marked by a strong affective character, rather than by intellectual reflection: “The novice must be led to a deeply personal belonging to Christ, true God and true man”. He also points out in this letter how true renewal comes from a profound and sincere bonding of persons to Christ, in the life and on the road which we have chosen.
1.3.2. - Dom Bernardo Olivera. - Perhaps the first thing that strikes the eye in his Letters is the more affective, even passionate character, at least of the verbal revelation of his personal experience of meeting Christ. These Letters have a more Latin character. He experienced this encounter with Christ as the starting point for all the human and vocational processes through which he lived. The following of Christ is an object of special interest for him. He points, above all, to its practical spiritual consequences, its realism and radicality: “More than to the teaching of Christ, turn towards his Person. If we draw close to his Person we will understand his teaching. If we are satisfied only with his teaching, without drawing close to his Person, I doubt if we are really following his teaching.”
II. - The Poor Christ
2.1. - In the Rule, St. Benedict is most severe about the vice of private ownership. It, more than anything else, must be uprooted and removed (RB 33,1). It is a detestable vice that not only must not be visible, but should never be given the chance to appear. Everything is to be held in common. The monk is to have nothing of his own, absolutely nothing. It is not licit for him to have anything superfluous in his possession, nor is he permitted to give or receive gifts without permission. He does not even have dominion over his own body, or his will. The monk who needs less is to thank God.
This severity, however, can be tempered according to concrete circumstances. The Abbot will take care that there are no infractions of poverty and shall punish this deadly vice. He is the one most responsible for it and is to remain attentive to both abuses and needs. Yet a wide field is offered to the Abbot’s discretion according to the circumstances. This balances the strict demands: he is to give to each one what the person needs and is to take the smallest details into account, such as the seasons, the climate, age, health, height, local customs. He is not to make exception of persons and should never forget that God will be the judge of all his actions. For the monk, it is a framework of absolute dependence. He is to expect everything from the father of the monastery as a perfect image of the dependence we are all to have on our Father in heaven.
2.2. - In Cîteaux. - The following of the poor Christ is one of the most particular notes of the original Cistercian reform. The first Cistercians identified themselves as poor: the poor of Christ (E.P. XII,8; E.C. II.8), who have opted for a life of following Christ. This is, perhaps, the image that most forcibly appears in the primitive documents. When the Exordium Cistercii narrates the vocational crisis undergone by the New Monastery in the first years of its foundation, it sums up the Cistercian project as best it can by the word “poverty,” paupertas:
“This alone did they fear, and fear it, I say, well nigh to desperation: that Christ’s poor might leave after them no heirs to their poverty” (II,8).
Nevertheless, the naked and poor Christ of Cîteaux is not a Mendicant Christ, as could have been the case in a Robert of Arbrisel, or as later will occur with the Franciscans. The Poor Christ of Cîteaux is more moderate and more evangelical. Jesus was not a mendicant, he was truly poor in spirit, lived in entire dependence on the Father and came not to do his own will but that of him who sent him. In this same way, Cistercian poverty is achieved in self-dispossession and interior detachment, according to the principle of the Rule: “no one presumes to call anything his own” (33:6).
“The new soldiers of Christ, poor with the poor Christ, began discussing by what planning, by what device, by what management they would be able to support themselves in this life as well as the guests who came, both rich and poor, whom the Rule commands to welcome as Christ.” (E.P. XV.9)
Poverty will be evident in the work, the simplicity of life, the absence of superfluities in food, clothing, buildings, liturgy. Our Fathers will emphasize sharing with the poor, guests, and pilgrims. They will promote common life, having material and spiritual goods in common, sharing common needs. This will have the double advantage of individual poverty being enriched by gifts from others, and the hardship of scarcities also being shared and supported by the entire community.
2.3. - Through the centuries the innate tendency of human nature to possess, will endanger the primitive ideal. The General Chapter of 1191 recognizes: “that the Cistercian Order has the reputation of constantly buying and accumulating possessions. The love of property has become a plague”. There will be innumerable instances of warnings from the General Chapters of the 13th and 14th centuries regarding poverty. The history of the Order will be clouded by the splendors of material prosperity, the desire for power and consequently the abandonment of the primitive austerity. The pendulum will always be oscillating in the difficult balance between what is “superfluous” and what is “necessary.” There will always be pressure from one side more than from the other.
2.4.1. - 20th Century. - History teaches life. To examine the past is to see more clearly the path to be followed in the future. It will help us pinpoint the permanent values that will mirror back to us a face that is more and more that of the Gospel and of Cîteaux. With a penetrating intuition, our more recent Abbots General have continually affirmed these values and have reminded us of what is at the root of our charism.
“Jesus is the greatest of those who are poor in spirit.” We could say that we are at the central point of Dom Gabriel Sortais’s teaching. “The means chosen by Jesus to show his love is the most absolute of deprivations.... Jesus on the Cross is the great Poor Man.“ For Dom Gabriel the poverty of Christ is littleness, abandonment, a filial spirit. He insists that the following of Jesus consists above all in our conformity to his poverty. In his Advent Letter of 1958 he states: “The pinnacle of the unitive way is none other than the pinnacle of littleness,” because “it was Jesus who reserved to himself the proclamation of this surprising law, which is the law of Christian spirituality: ‘The smallest among you is the greatest’.” And in another place Dom Gabriel says: “Monastic privations not only leads us to the Kingdom but makes it present. Jesus will declare blessed those who are poor of heart because they possess - in the present tense - the Kingdom of heaven”.
The most outstanding feature of the Letters of Dom Ignace Gillet is obedience in Christ. All Christ’s earthly existence is simply a prolongation in his human nature of the eternal obedience to, and glorification of, the Father. Christ’s descent from the immeasurable height of divinity, to the poverty and brokenness of our nature has no other object than that of enriching us by divinizing us. “Christ is the Amen, the true and faithful witness”. From all eternity the Word is the unconditional “Yes” to the Father: a pure embrace, a total receptivity and welcome, perfect listening and obedience. If obedience has led Jesus to the Cross it is necessary to follow in his footsteps. Obedience, the Cross and renunciation are to form part of our lives. Here we touch the most central nucleus of poverty: the renunciation of one’s will and freedom is the most radical self-dispossession that a person can attain.
2.4.2. - Dom Ambrose Southey analyzes the meaning of the word “poverty” and comments on the different aspects of it in his Letter of 1983: “ If our poverty is to be truly evangelical it must spring from a real love of Christ”. “We must make every effort to enter into the mind and heart of Christ.” It must be an effective poverty and it has to be expressed in all the aspects of our life: the ways we work, our bank accounts, the buildings. He concludes by reminding us with characteristic humility, “that the most important element in ‘religious poverty’ is the interior attitude... It seems to me that Christ’s insistence on poverty was closely linked to his teaching on the recognition and acceptance of our original poverty, that is, on our total dependence on God.
The teaching of Dom Bernardo on this point is both constant and exacting. The following of the poor Jesus means giving up all personal property and personal plans in order to share one’s goods and arrive through renunciation at the “common will”. The first of the “inspirational guidelines” for the new stage of inculturated renewal puts it this way: “The following of Jesus, with Mary, according to the radical demands of the Gospel: leaving behind all that is not Christ, we live united among ourselves and poor with the poor Christ!” (G.C. 1996). The category of inspirational guidelines, the priority of poverty and the emphasis given to it, are all significant. We also remember Dom Bernardo’s homily at Cîteaux on March 21, 1998, where we are invited to:
“- Renounce material goods in order to obtain the greatest and only good, Jesus.
- Banish individual private property as a terrible vice.
- Work to earn one’s daily bread and share with those who have none.
- Simplify our lives in order to enter the narrow way that leads to life.
- Share our goods with the dispossesed of the earth.
- Prefer those human beings who have been most broken by our inhumanity.”
2.4.3. - Our Constitutions treat poverty in these words: “The monk retains nothing at all for himself, not even authority over his own body. He renounces the capacity of acquiring and possessing goods for himself.” (C.10)
III - Christ the Master
3.1. - In the Rule. - The monastery as the school in which Jesus is the Teacher contains clear references to the Rule. St. Benedict’s formula, “school of the Lord’s service” (R.B. Prol.45), simply means that here one learns to serve Christ, that is, to learn Christ himself and to model oneself on him. It is never a question of a purely intellectual course of
studies, but rather of an integral, vital, spiritual apprenticeship, one taught by Christ himself (Prol.50). It is he who teaches the path of the commandments on which the brothers run with overflowing hearts.
This “service,” which is the Christian life itself lived in the monastery, is expressed by two Latin words: servitium and militia, service and recruitment. Service as recruitment is referred to in Sacred Scripture in 2 Tim 2:4: “To satisfy the one who recruited him, a soldier does not become entangled in the business affairs of life.” Similarly, the monk who becomes a soldier of Christ must “make himself a foreigner to the ways of the world” (RB 4,20). It should be noticed that the terms “army” and “military” in the Rule and in the Roman Empire designate both military and civil service. Therefore he who fights in the service of the Lord is at one and the same time soldier and servant.
3.2.1. - Cîteaux. - The Exordium Parvum (XVII,2) offers its own formulation of this theme: “The man of the Lord, Alberic, happily and well exercised by the discipline of the Rule in the school of Christ for nine and a half years, went forth to the Lord in faith and virtues”.
In another place (XVI,5) it calls the New Monastery and the Cistercian observance a “spiritual warfare”, and the Exordium Cistercii (I,9) describes its founders as “soldiers of Christ.”. In this way the “poor of Christ” are also the “soldiers of Christ”, and the Poor Christ is at the same time King, Lord and Master, as is affirmed by the Charter of Charity (I,3).
3.2.2. - The school of Christ is certainly the first and most basic symbolic framework for the Cistercian monk. His cloister is a school of Christ. Christ is the teacher who mixes a thousand elements together to achieve his work: the abbot, the brethren, the discipline, the environment.
The school educates by means of the word. That is why the school of Christ is also the school of the Word: the school of the Word of God. It expands and pierces the ear of the heart in order to make the monk an authentic disciple of the Word. In this school, Christ educates efficaciously, as a true doctor, curing and healing, and like a true teacher, modifying and forming our mental structures. The whole life of the monk is taken up into this educational process, which is the personal assimilation of the plan of salvation. The education and formation of the Cistercian community revolves around the liturgical mysteries of Christ and all the rest of the day will be linked to these vital events.
There are also some dynamic principles that mark the process of personal assimilation. These are the so-called lower dimensions of the Word, the more rudimentary disciplines which constitute Cistercian poverty. The poor of Christ must adapt themselves to the despised Christ. When the Word of God becomes man, he assumes the condition of weak humanity, the shadow full of brokenness, in order to adapt himself to our fragile, weak condition. The Word Incarnate becomes an abbreviated Word, a condensed Word. We are invited to follow the way taken by “the Great Paradox revealed to us: darkened light, stifled word, thirsty water, hungry bread, sad joy, anguished trust, suffering salvation, life in agony, strengthening weakness” (St.Bernard, VM 2.9). This is Guerric of Igny’s chief concern: the formation of Christ in us, whether as a communal group or as individuals. Christ is the divine-human form that is in-formed into us.
3.3. - The Golden Age of Cîteaux passed and the figure of Christ as Teacher of Cistercians became obscured. The ignorance of the monks came to be the mockery of the new Mendicant Orders, the Dominicans and Franciscans, who are fully instructed for fighting and preaching against the heresies of the day. From this crying need for Cistercian formation is born the College of St. Bernard in Paris and it efficiently meets the need.
3.4.1. - 20th Century. - Omitting the historical details we can say that during the last decades there has developed a clear awareness that a solid formation is an absolute requisite for a more consistent following of Christ. It is the only way to follow him with full awareness and sufficient motivation.
The Letter of Dom Ambrose of 1977 is interesting in this respect. He touches upon various aspects of initial formation, insisting on the importance of its different levels: the intellectual, human and spiritual dimensions. He also treats of its major characteristics and of how different persons and the whole community are involved. Without overlooking these aspects, however, it is necessary to emphasize, above all, “forming for the contemplative life”: “monastic life is not a purely abstract ideal. It is a particular way of following Christ and of living his teaching ... . That is why it seems to me that our whole spiritual formation should begin with this. It demands a commitment of self and a commitment to a Person.” He indicates that it is within this framework that one has a personal experience of lectio-meditatio-oratio, the sacraments and fraternal love.
Christ the Teacher seems to be the title most frequently applied to Jesus by our present Abbot General. It can signify either the Rabbi whose irresistible attractiveness draws us after him, or the Person whose mission it is to impart a teaching. Jesus the Teacher, or Master, awakens us from our daily stupor. Many will try in vain to follow him to Jerusalem. After the resurrection of the Master, conversion to the Kingdom is conversion to Jesus Christ. From the final conference at the General Chapters of 1993 we have these words: “The Kingdom is our ‘schola caritatis’. In this School, Christ is the Teacher and all of us are his disciples. He himself, as Master, teaches us the discipline of mutual love that distinguishes his disciples. He who loves his neighbor communes with the will of the Master and loves him: he who does not love his neighbor offends the Master and excommunicates himself from mutual fellowship with Him and in Him.” And in his Homily to open the following General Chapters Dom Bernardo said: “The Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel give us a portrait of the true disciple, they present a picture of the Master himself, in whose footsteps we are to follow and whose inner attitude we also are meant to have. Our ‘School of Charity’ finds its unity in the one Teacher of that school”.
3.4.2. - Our Constitutions and the Statue on Formation are adamant in expressing the aim of the School of Charity: “Formation to Cistercian life has for its purpose the restoration of the divine likeness in the brothers through the working of the Holy Spirit... [They] so advance in the monastic way of life that they progressively attain the full measure of the stature of Christ” (C.45,1).
IV. - Christ, Image of God who is Love
4.1. - Cîteaux. - Love, in all its human and divine manifestations, shines in beauty on all the pages of the abundant literature left to us by the first Cistercians. They witness to it by a spontaneity, keenness of analysis and amplitude of description that can only be explained by the fact that they speak from a deep knowledge based on personal experience. The degrees of love, its nuances and characteristics, what is opposed to it and what helps it are explained in complete treatises on the subject: “De diligendo Deo”; “Speculum caritatis”; “De natura et dignitatis amoris”, as well as in sermons and on many other occasions. The skill of our Fathers in expressing their experience and their efforts to transmit it show once again that love is “expansive”. Here is the whole secret of the School of Charity. Love is an applied science. It is taught by loving and is, at one and the same time, a gift and a reward: “Its practice is its fruit”. “Love restores the divine image that has been deformed by sin because God is love”. The love of Christ has brought us together and in corresponding to his love our hearts converge towards each other to the degree that our correspondence to his love is real. Aelred expresses this beautifully in his work on friendship. All together we create unity through a love that bonds the weakness of the members of Christ into the reality that is his Body.
4.2. - 20th Century. - Through the ups and downs in the history of the Order over these nine centuries, the process of adjustment to the signs of the times has been variably successful in its efforts to express the Cistercian charism. What is clear is that the vitality of the Order, and the strength of its witness, will always be closely dependent on the lived experience of love for Christ and the brethren on the part of each of its members.We all know this. Fortunately, our Abbots General of these last decades have insistently reminded us of what is fundamental. The Letters of Dom Ambrose often deal with this theme. His Letter of 1987 gives the key for evaluating the many post-conciliar adjustments that have taken place in the Order. “The answer is love”. The ultimate criterion for discerning the quality of our own life, and that of our communities, is love. If something helps us to grow in love, we are on the right road. We all accept the fact that God is Love, but we must arrive at a profound conviction that will totally change our internal way of thinking, feeling and acting. Arriving at such a conviction is a gift. It means experiencing, not theorizing about, the love of God.
Dom Bernardo, in his concise, clear, sharp, ardent language, “shouts” and proclaims his “ gospel of the School of Charity”. This occurs especially in his Letter of 1996, where he abounds in “sentences” that are incisive and demanding: “Nothing is more important than love. Loving is more important than living, because living without loving is to die. We live because we love and we live for the sake of loving. Love is the life of the dying and the death of the living”. “The exercise of fervent love, that looks only to the good of the other, conforms us to Christ... Only from OTHERS do we possess our own life”. All of his Letters, in one form or other, center on love.
V. - Christ, Prophet of the Kingdom
5.1. - One very important feature of the image of Christ presented by Dom Bernardo, and which seems to me to be original with him, at least in the emphasis that he gives it, is the dimension of Jesus as Prophet of the Kingdom.
We can extract from his Letters and conferences various proposals clearly launched as projects for the future. There are also numerous occasions on which he adopts an attitude of waiting with his eyes on the horizon trying to discern the outlines of a path to be followed. He asks questions that point us in a particular direction. He re-examines old presuppositions, offers his Good News to all cultures and broadens the sphere of dialogue and communion.
This is in behalf of the Cistercian family in the first place, but also for a sharper view of contemporary challenges, such as a greater role for women in general and particularly within the Order. It is sufficient to recall his utopias or dreams, his frequent promptings for the formulation of a new anthropology, his desire to “weave a network of friendship with the immense number of baptized who recognize the same [Cistercian] gift in their hearts as we do.“(Letter of 1998, end)
In this context, the meaningful rediscovery of Jesus as Prophet of the Kingdom can contribute enormously to the present intense renewal of monastic life in the world, by offering a new vision of where the thrust of the effort is going. This prophecy of the Kingdom should make our monasteries be like real parables for others. This demands - on the one hand - the personal awareness that our own relationship with Jesus of Nazareth also transforms others. That is why we have the responsibility of not getting stuck or entrenched in a stagnant spirituality that becomes deaf to the movements of the Spirit of Jesus, who speaks in the history of men and women, in their needs, lacks, concerns and achievements. On the other hand, this prophetic reality demands that our monasteries find a way to connect and communicate more intensely, and from within our own charism, with the Church and the society in which they live.
The Church herself invites monastic life in the future to be a privileged place of ecumenical and interreligious encounter - as is stated in our Constitutions.
VI. - Christ, Center of Cistercian life.
6.1. - In the Rule. - Cistercian monasticism is born of a radical option for the following of Christ. It is a choice clearly expressed in the Rule, which the Founders wanted to follow faithfully. Their desire was not so much a literal fidelity as it was a deep identification with Christ which they found expressed in the Rule. The Prologue is an admirable presentation of the meaning of the monk’s life. It begins and ends with an inclusion that governs everything else. Christ appears at the very start of the beginner’s life. It is he who speaks to him: “Listen my son...” (Prol.1), and Christ is at the end. He is the end. The monk is moving towards him, “Persevering in the monastery until death” (Prol.50). Even more, Christ is present all along the monk’s life: “Let us set out on his way with the Gospel for our guide” (Prol.21). “That is why the Lord says in the Gospel: Whoever hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man” (Prol.33).
The meaning, then, of the Prologue, which describes the monk’s spiritual journey, is eminently Christological. We can say the same of the whole of the Rule, which opens and closes with the figure of Christ as beginning and end. Chapter 73, its epilogue, concludes by saying, “With Christ’s help keep this little rule”. The Rule shows that Christ is present in the abbot, in the brethren, especially in the sick, the weak, the poor and the passers-by who call at the door of the monastery, in material things, which are to be treated “like sacred vessels”. The whole life of the monk takes place in continual dialogue with the Lord. The Lord “speaks”, “answers”, “calls”. His divine voice “cries out” and “shows us the way to life”. “Let them cherish Christ above all”. “The love of Christ must come before all else” (4,21). It is repeated at the end with greater emphasis: “Let them prefer absolutely nothing to Christ” (72,11).
6.2. - Cîteaux. - The “propositum”, the aim, of the first Cistercians was nothing else than Christ himself. Christ truly lives with them in the continual succession of the hours and the seasons. Only Christ is sought for, only Christ is read about. The Cistercian does not pray to Christ, but lives Christ, as model, mediator, saviour and guide through the continual exodus of monastic life. Christ and his mysteries constitute the all-pervading atmosphere of the first Cistercians. They speak of it, write about it and breathe it.
6.3. - Towards the end of the 12th century a real evolution of focus and content takes place among Cistercian writers. An individualistic slant to the spirituality appears, with symptoms of a deterioration of the committment to one’s community. The unifying balance of the life begins to crumble. The observances are made primary and a subjective devotionalism begins to encroach upon the Christological orientation, in a certain way impoverishing it.
6.4. - In the increasing decadence of the Order, something else was taking the place of Christ as the center of Cistercian life. All of it was lived according to the “Instituta”, the Customs. At the same time, even while the spiritual life was declining, the external observances, the wealth of the monasteries and the drive for power were becoming inordinately esteemed.
At the General Chapter of 1303 a certain Abbot Justus speaks out: Christ has ceased to be the center. According to him, the prescriptions of the Exordium Parvum were not being practised. Cistercians were no longer “poor with the poor Christ”.
The 14th and 15th centuries witness the ongoing erosion of the Order. The system of commendatory abbots, the Black Death, the 100 Years War, the Western schism and Protestantism all contributed to this collapse. Nevertheless, there is a longing for the primitive ideal and for a reform that will take long years to become a reality.
With the Council of Trent there is a groundswell of renewal in the Church and a growing desire within the Order to return to the sources. The movement for renewal is begun, but without the features of the “School of Charity”. The Strict Observance was officially confirmed by the General Chapter of 1618 and the so-called “War of the Observances” between the “abstainers” and the “non-abstainers” was far removed from Benedictine peace and the evident humility of the authors of the Charter of Charity. Nevertheless, in spite of these unfortunate shadows, pillars of light were not lacking in our monasteries. “The life lived in them edified those who were witnesses of it”, writes an anonymous monk of Timadeuc. In those times there arose a new spirituality, the Devotio moderna, or “Modern Devotion”. Its “Imitation of Christ” replaced the writings of our Fathers. It was not the original spirit, yet this “Devotion” would partly fill the existing spiritual vacuum.
With the reform of De Rancé, whose conception of monastic life was basically penitential, an exaggerated ascetism became dominant, just as it was in most of 17th Century France. Christ is seen as Judge, a God who is remote and majestic, with traces of Jansenism. Nevertheless, in spite of the obvious differences from the primitive spirit of Cîteaux, the Strict Observance and La Trappe produced abundant fruits of holiness in the Order and led it towards a promising future.
6.5.1. - 20th Century. - Our Order, which today is called the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, was created as autonomous in 1892. A series of great Abbots General gradually solidified the Order’s internal unity and its return to the original spirit of Cîteaux. If in its beginnings the uniformity of observance tended to be an excessive preoccupation, even becoming an obstacle to the union of the different Congregations, nonetheless a single set of Constitutions was finally achieved.
Dom Augustin Marre (1904-1922), a deeply human and spiritual person, had an especially long time as Abbot General. He promoted solid formation, charity, unity within the Order and simplicity, which, in his own words, “constitutes the very foundation of the Cistercian life”. His successor, Dom John Baptiste Ollitraut said of him: “It is to Monsignor Marre, above all, that we owe what we are”.
With Dom Gabriel Sortais (1951-1963) there begins an authentic evolution in the Order that culminates in the Decree of Unification of 1964 and the Statute on Unity and Pluralism of the General Chapter of 1969. We have passed from a community of observances to a community of communion. This becomes increasingly real and clear, along with the understanding that it does not mean a radical change, as if there had previously been no communion in the observance and now no observance in the communion. It is a question of emphasis.
6.5.2. - The General Chapter of 1969 is of capital importance in this process of renewal. With the Declaration on Cistercian Life and the Statute on Unity and Pluralism the foundation is laid for channelling the impetus of all the later evolution of the Order, which will reach its climax in the approval of the new Constitutions.
The General Chapter of 1974 speaks of passing from an ascetical attitude, expressed in fidelity to the observances, to another kind of asceticism expressed in the effort towards true fraternal charity. Dom Ambrose, in his Letter of 1975, refers to that period of change, saying, “I would even say that these changes seem to me to be of vital interest to the Order. We were in danger of being imprisoned by fetters of insignificant customs that frequently displaced true monastic values... It has also been a period of growing interest in our Cistercian Fathers.”
Fortunately, after the previous period of a certain confusion and experimentation, our General Chapters have exercised a prophetic role and have challenged the whole Order to examine its own identity. This identity has emerged clearly and strongly from within the hearts of the communities themselves. It is expressed in the new Constitutions. The ensuing reflection has centered on bringing out what is most basic in our charism: Christ, loved in himself and in the members of our community. The themes chosen for the successive General Chapters express this new orientation: “The Contemplative Dimension of the Order”; “The School of Charity”; “The Cistercian Charism Today: Conformity to Christ”.
VII. - Celebrating Christ
7.1. - In the Rule. - No one can fail to notice the prominence given to the Liturgy in the Rule. So we do not presume that a few lines here could do justice to the importance which St. Benedict gives to the Opus Dei. It is enough to mention it as a fundamental point of reference when it is a question of celebrating the mysteries of Christ.
7.2. - Cîteaux. - The image of the Celebrated Christ, though not explicitly described in the primitive documents, is nonetheless present everywhere in them as a background and, above all, as an atmosphere necessary for true life. At Cîteaux, as in our own time, such an image of Christ embraces the whole monastic day, providing it with a rhythmic liturgical environment. The book of usages of the 12th century monks, known as the Ecclesiastica officia, gives a detailed witness of this reality. Alongside the Poor Christ and Christ the King and Teacher, must go the Christ of the Mysteries.
The Ecclesiastica officia is not a choir book, as its name might lead one to believe. It is more a monastic customary that discusses minute details of the life, the offices in choir and the monastic day in general. The whole of existence revolves around a double axis: the cosmic rhythm of the seasons and the rhythm of the Liturgy. The latter consists of the daily rhythm of the Liturgy of the Hours and the yearly rhythm established by the calendar of feasts and solemnities of the Lord and the saints, all according to the schema of the time.
A cursory reading of these ancient texts lets us see a monastic life completely penetrated by liturgical spirituality, centered on the celebration of the mysteries of the life of Christ. One could say that the Ecclesiastica officia describes the daily expression of what the great spiritual authors will develop in their liturgical sermons. These two dimensions of our spirituality are mutually enriching, just as life and doctrine complement each another. In both daily life and written teaching, we can see the image of Christ the Saviour, the history of the Word among us, made present and interiorized by the monks in their annual celebrations. These celebrations rest upon two great pillars: Christmas and Easter, Incarnation and Resurrection, humility and glory, the birth of Christ on earth - continued in the soul of the monk - and the anticipation of resurrected life which the monastery, as an architectural image of the heavenly Jerusalem, aspires to be.
7.3. - This Century. - There is no need to develop this section, since it is familiar to all our Communities. After the so-called “Loi-cadre” of the General Chapter of 1971, our communities have had to adapt and organize most of the celebration of the Opus Dei. This has made us more conscious of the Christological importance of our celebrations. We are now totally aware that Christ becomes present in our celebrations. It is his voice that continually praises the Father in the Church and echoes in our own voices, as is said in No.2 of the General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours.
7.4. - Conclusion. - It is difficult, not to say impossible, to recapture all the original spirit of Cistercian Christology in its lived experience. This is because Christ was, for the Cistercians of the Golden Age, the all-encompassing ingredient of their life. When this ingredient becomes stale for them, their Christology is seriously weakened. Trying to recapture that lived experience is, in itself, utopian. It is important that we admit it, but it is also important to aspire after an ideal even when it may be difficult to achieve. The original Cistercian ideal, even though wrapped in a particular historical and cultural context, presents an experience of Christ. To approach that lived experience somehow requires another experience of Christ in tune with present cultural trends. Becoming a Cistercian is not fixed once for all. It is a continual adventure taking place under changing circumstances. It must be discerned at every step.
Sr. Blanca Lopez