Cistercian Development in the 12th and 13th Centuries

The Nuns

Unit prepared by Fr. Francisco Rafael de Pascual, Viaceli


We have much more information on Cistercian nuns in the 12th and 13th centuries than we had a few years ago. This is due to the fact that we know medieval women better as a result of numerous modern publications and also because a number of specialists have studied the subject of Cistercian nuns. In addition, monastic studies on this theme have been of a better quality, based as they have been on documentary sources and the published writings of nuns of the period.

1. Historical background :

The first point to realise is that we should not try to impose on the medieval world our modern ideas about words such as order, religious life, incorporation and even nuns and monasteries. Still less should we project present-day monastic structures on the Middle Ages – for instance, by speaking of a nuns’ monastery being ‘dependent on’ or having been ‘founded by’… Again, the structure and organisation of a monastery of women at that time was not necessarily the same as that of the men nor of a nuns’ monastery today.

In monastic history nuns have always existed alongside monks and the 12th century is no exception. In fact, the spiritual flowering at the end of the 11th and beginning of the 12th century was greater among the women than among the men. This may have been due to the fact that nuns needed more assistance, that their structures were simpler than those of the monks and, finally, also because the echoes, the urgency and necessity of the Gregorian Reform were reaching the nuns. To counter abuses and scandals, the Gregorian Reformers in the 11th and 12th centuries tightened up the legislation dealing with nuns. After the second Lateran Council (1139) feminine monastic life became impossible if it did not take on a community form under one of the three great rules – those of Basil, Augustine or Benedict.

This is a good place to consider the situation of nuns at the beginning of the 12th century in order to help to us to see what was behind their extraordinary development.

Hence, we must take account both of the situation of women in society at the end of the 11th and beginning of the 12th centuries and also the diverse community structures they evolved in order to progress in their spiritual life. Sometimes their very survival was at stake. Sometimes they reached the heights of mysticism, at others the depths of perversity. Anything could happen. This explains the well-known opposition of the Cistercians to the incorporation of nuns’ monasteries. It was based on prudence and a discernment of the consequences arising from incorporating into the Order communities with a very different type of life .The nuns would often in all good faith use this incorporation to ensure their survival and to profit from the same exemption as the monks.

It should be remembered that from the middle of the 11th century until the appearance of the Mendicant Orders a solution had to be found to a specific economic and social problem. For many years the Crusades and other regional conflicts had deprived women of their husbands, their sons, their fiancés and even of the possibility of marrying – in other words, of their natural supports and breadwinners. One means used to remedy this situation was to multiply monasteries for women. Since the founders, whether nobles or bishops, priors or canons regular did not wish to increase difficulties, they saw to the smooth running of these communities according to ecclesiastical norms and generally put capable persons in charge.

There were, then, different types of communities (not monasteries as we would call them today) living very different forms of life.

-                     Monasteries next to those of men, between which relations varied, dictated by local custom and the judgement of the abbots involved.

-                     Double monasteries in which in various forms, monks and nuns and lay associates shared the church and regular life under an abbot or abbess who was generally an outstanding person endowed with a gift for organisation.

-                     Multiple monasteries, monks, nuns, widows, pious men (conversi) and women (mulieres religiosae) who were all seeking a spiritual life and mutual support.  Each group had its own quarters and way of life. The best known case is that of Fontevrault.

-                     Women’s monasteries specially created as such by an important family and governed by someone from that family. These monasteries had servants of both sexes and pious men who helped in different ways.

-                     Finally, exclusively female monasteries which normally followed a Rule and were under an abbot or prior in regard to jurisdiction and discipline. Sometimes they helped with the work of a masculine community and thus their own livelihood was assured.

In Carolingian and Merovingian times many monasteries were founded according to one or other of the above forms. We do not have much information about their way of life. Generally, the recitation of the Divine Office and private prayer nourished their interior life; good organisation helped their community life; enclosure was not always strict, and was not uniformly applied.  Sometimes an important person was outstanding, while the majority tried honestly to lead a saintly and ascetic life. However, since the original motivation for the vocations were often quite different, the result was a way of life hard to control, individualistic and subject to all sorts of exaggerations. Yves of Chartres, St. Bernard and others showed themselves worried about discipline in these communities. That is why the 2nd. Lateran Council had to legislate, as was mentioned above. In the same way Alexander III was also forced to intervene. Idung of Saint-Emmeran had published Argumentum de quattuor questionibus. One of the questions was whether monks and nuns following the Rule of St. Benedict ought to have the same enclosure. The other questions treated of monks preaching, the possibility of a person being a monk and a cleric at the same time, and the status of laypersons.

The 12th century was the golden age for eremitical life and numerous authors wrote treatises and recommendations: Goscelin of Saint Bertin, Liber confortatorius; Aelred of Rievaulx, (Letter to a Recluse) etc.

It can be maintained in general that the most flourishing communities of women were those who had the protection of a reformed monastery of men or ones actually belonging to a reform movement.

For work, the nuns copied the monks. It is true that farm work was not very common, but we have evidence about the pluckiness of certain nuns in that regard. They did the typically feminine jobs of the period and many monasteries engaged in copying manuscripts and providing the choir books. Some of these were noted for their scriptorium. But the most common work of all for these 12th century nuns was the education of girls. This was a natural development. From the Middle Ages until the 13th century the young were not normally educated in their families and State schools had disappeared because of the invasions of the barbarians. The Church and its monasteries had a monopoly in education. Future novices were formed in these schools with or without a real vocation. It has to be admitted that this formation was first-rate and given by trained and capable nuns.

We do not need to say more. All the authors quoted do so adequately and show the diversity in these monasteries, and their desire to adopt a reformed life.

A Spanish writer, Fr. Garcia M. Colombas, expounds the example of Marcigny, and cites the praise of Peter the Venerable (De miraculis, 1, 22, p.874. The development of this monastery is much the same as many others. At the end of the 12thcentury the vitality, evident in the middle of the previous century, had disappeared. Vocations were less numerous. The influence of monks on women’s monasteries had lessened as the monks themselves began to feel the social effects of a new period. At the beginning of the 13th.century medieval monasticism had achieved the full extent of its expansion as well as its social influence and the emancipation of lay people. The views that had most influence on the new spiritual currents came from the Franciscans and Dominicans. Their message was novel, attractive and easy to understand. The theory of the three states was abandoned as well as the idea that a few heroic people could take on themselves the sin of the world. All people, not just religious, were called to pray and lead a life in harmony with the law of God and the Church. Everybody had to work out his or her own salvation. It could not be bought in monasteries or obtained through the use of relics or other spiritual practices. Thus monks began to lose their usefulness.  Whoever wanted to be a monk or nun could no longer count on the aids of the past and had to have the right motivation.

The first Cistercians were looking for simplicity and they simplified everything. They did not work to enrich themselves, but only to have the basic necessities of life. Their ideal was the purity of the Rule. But the wonderful enthusiasm of the first generations gradually weakened towards the end of the 13th.century, due to wealth and temporal administration. Their economy became increasingly based on profit and so they lost favour in the eyes of ordinary people. The gap between the few rich and the multitude of poor became increasingly evident.

The monasteries of nuns tended to follow the same path, but with notable exceptions. In many cases the nuns’ monasteries were simpler than those of the monks and thus they were able to hold on to their Cistercian spirituality and mysticism, as we will see.

2. The nuns in the wake of the monks’ monasteries :

All the authors mentioned in the bibliography, and others too, agree on one basic fact: the incorporation of nuns into the Cistercian Order is historically obscure. It did not take place in any uniform way within the Cistercian legislation. Moreover, it was on such a huge scale that in some cases the monasteries of men were overwhelmed; the General Chapter nonplussed; and abbots had to do the best they could under the circumstances.

Incorporation for women’ communities involved accepting enclosure and a Father Immediate as well as being able to live from their own revenues. The Customary of Cîteaux was adapted for the nuns. As far as possible chaplains were provided to give instruction, celebrate the liturgy and give spiritual direction. This sometimes caused problems for the monasteries that had to give older monks and priests. A case in point is Villers, a monastery renowned for its observance and human resources.

One thing that caused confusion for the monks – and for historians in consequence – was that many monasteries of nuns spontaneously embraced the Cistercian observances without any formal consent from the Order and then started calling themselves Cistercians.

The monks could not get out of their obligations towards the feminine monasteries once these were established. The nuns insisted on this. There is another reason, a practical one, which has not been given much notice: only the bigger abbeys could allow themselves the luxury of looking after the material and spiritual needs of the nuns in a way which would ensure monastic discipline and the demands of the reform movement. A monastery of women was a costly business, involving large donations and the community concerned had to have a good spirit. At the start of the 12th century few Cistercian monasteries could afford all this.

The three best known foundations that have been studied by historians are Jully, Tart and Las Huelgas. What is interesting for us is that they represent three different approaches for nuns and three separate moments in the history of incorporation with an Order of monks.

- Jully was a foundation belonging to Molesme. A group of women lived near Molesme and in 1114 the abbot who had succeeded Robert brought them together in the chateau of Jully. In 1118 the Bishop of Langres gave his approval for the foundation and in 1145 the Cistercian pope, Eugene, confirmed this. St. Bernard and his family it seems, together with a few Cistercian abbots at a later date, helped Jully materially and spiritually.

As early as 1120 some of the nuns from this house wanted to go a stage further and embrace the Cistercian observance completely. Both Cîteaux and Clairvaux were on friendly terms with these nuns, but neither was very keen on the idea. St. Bernard’s sister and sister-in-law entered Jully and not Tart. The saint is not mentioned in any document from Tart. There were advantages and disadvantages in these houses and nuns transferred from one to the other. By 1170 Jully had founded nine priories and their organisation was similar to that of Cluny.

The abbot of Molesme had full jurisdiction over these nuns in spiritual and material affairs. He it was who gave postulants the habit and admitted novices to profession. A prior was delegated to each house in order to carry out these powers on the spot.  He acted as the superior of a little community of monks who administered the nuns’ goods and looked after their spiritual needs. These priors represented the nuns at the General Chapter held at Molesme. This form of relations and government was found almost everywhere.

-Tart was founded about 1125 under the immediate responsibility of the abbot of Cîteaux, Stephen Harding. Towards the end of the 12th century it was attached to the Order. Every year on the feast of St. Michael, the abbot of Cîteaux held a Chapter with the abbesses of Tart and its daughter houses.

But this was unofficial and the monks’ General Chapter did not interfere in the nuns’ life.

- Las Huelgas was a Cistercian foundation. It had a rather long and stormy journey towards incorporation into the Order, but this process changed the General Chapters’ attitude in such a way that it was prepared to incorporate not just one house but all the monasteries which depended on Las Huelgas.

Guy, the abbot of Cîteaux, was in Spain in 1199.  Alphonsus VII King of Castile and Léon and his wife Eleanor of England took advantage of his presence to obtain what they had long been fighting for, a new Cîteaux in Spain that would be feminine and Spanish. Their idea was to forestall the snare of Cîteaux being without authority over nuns outside its jurisdiction. What better way than to give Las Huelgas to Cîteaux. The poor abbot could not refuse the king’s wish.

It is helpful to consider carefully the different phases of this story so full of politics, the rank of monasteries and diplomacy towards the General Chapter of Cîteaux. A few years ago when the Cistercian Congregation of St. Bernard of Spain was incorporated into the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, one could see the same problems repeating themselves, those of jurisdiction, the spiritual assistance to be given to the nuns and the effect on the General Chapter of a massive influx of monasteries.  This was so despite the fact that some of these monasteries such as Las Huelgas, Canas or Gradefes had been following the Cistercian way of life uninterruptedly for eight centuries.

The history of these three monasteries (Jully, Tart and Las Huelgas) shows not only the particular situation of each but also how monasteries came into being, the sympathies or antipathies involved, the initiatives of some abbots, the enthusiasm of the nuns to live the Cistercian ideal and finally the efforts of the General Chapter to avoid being swamped by a phenomenon which threatened to harm the life and discipline of the monks’ communities – a phenomenon often found in monastic history.

In 1147 the General Chapter had to deal with the problem of incorporating the Congregations of Obazine and Savigny. The former was more or less a double monastery linked to the nuns of Coyroux, their neighbours. It also looked after the nuns of Fountmourlhes. The Congregation of Savigny included three monasteries of nuns, but that did not present any problem since these nuns would remain in the same juridical situation after becoming Cistercian, with the same abbots and monks looking after them as before.

Those who have recently carried out careful research in local archives have pointed out that contacts between Cistercian abbots and monks’ houses with those of nuns and mulieres religiosae were much more frequent than had been previously supposed.

Such would be a summary of the situation. It might seem exaggerated to some, but this present document cannot spend more time on it.

Until quite recently what was known about the origins of these monasteries came from A. Manrique and C.Henriquez. However, while it is true that these authors had studied Cistercian nuns extensively, they had done so from a hagiographic angle and without reference to correct historical documents. In many cases, far from shedding light on the matter in an objective fashion, they had contributed to certain prejudices and incorrect information on the origins of nuns in the Order.

As has been pointed out already, the spread and development of women’s communities in the whole of Europe at that time was considerable.  It would be too long to quote a list of the monasteries here, even of the most important ones.  Suffice it to say that by and large the same phenomenon appeared throughout Europe and the same issues were raised. 

3. The spiritual life of the nuns :

Although we are always meeting the problem of the lack of documents, we can deduce from the sources and writings that have come down to us that in general the nuns were fervent right from the beginning. In the first place the ground had already been prepared by the communities of beguines and mulieres religiosae.  The measures taken by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to watch over and organise these groups ensured the establishment of a salutary form of life and, despite a few inevitable exceptions, these women gave themselves sincerely to God and to a continual growth in holiness.

The nuns’ observances were not the same in all regions although they maintained a considerable uniformity in liturgy, manual work, spiritual reading, Eucharistic devotion and asceticism. In Northern Europe the spiritual life was cultivated with greater intensity. Monasteries that had girls’ schools and scriptoria or were close to one of monks, with its preachers and confessors, enjoyed a more cultured life and it was not difficult to find women of outstanding human and spiritual qualities there. Although doubtless there were some forced vocations, Jacques de Vitry states clearly that many nuns, even those who had entered by parental decision, found a true call from God and followed Christ joyfully and wholeheartedly.

Certain monasteries were not well planned and therefore not very suitable, while others were truly solitary. We are forced to admit that there was a good religious spirit and Cistercian climate in these monasteries. However, in Germany and particularly in Belgium, countries where Cistercian mysticism for women was born and flourished, it was mixed, more or less consciously, with a taste for the extraordinary and miraculous and an admiration for supernatural gifts hardly compatible with their Benedictine and Bernardine heritage. Such tastes could give a false impression of true Cistercian holiness. The monks found all this somewhat distasteful and a source of worry as well as giving them a sort of inferiority complex.

4. Their observances :

It is impossible to speak of uniformity in observances among the nuns. In this they differed from the monks who found in the Charter of Charity an important aid to uniformity of observances. True, the nuns regarded the Rule of St. Benedict as the basis of their monastic life. But we find countless variants in their form of life, due perhaps to their origins, to a particular Superior or to climatic conditions and poverty. We will mention here some customary elements of the community life, essential points of the Rule: prayer, work and lectio divina.

             Prayer, Office :

On this subject we have a firsthand document, The Herald of God’s Loving-Kindness of St. Gertrude, a nun of Helfta, which was a monastery in Saxony following the Cistercian usages without being officially incorporated into the Order. Gertrude like all nuns of her time lived the liturgy and, so to speak, lived to the letter, all that she had written.

              Work :

We should give particular attention to the richly endowed monasteries. They were foundations made by kings or nobles – like Las Huelgas in Spain or Notre Dame la Royale de Maubuisson and Le Lys in France. Blanche de Castile, mother of St. Louis, spared no expense in the founding of Maubuisson in order to make of it the most opulent and most noble of abbeys. Bouchet, an abbey founded by a Prince of Provence, was more modest but rich all the same. The sumptuous ladies’ dormitory measured forty metres by eleven. The abbey church, which actually served as a parish church, was thirty metres long. A convent of nuns in Velay had a church that was thirty-two by sixteen metres. All the nuns’ cells had a window overlooking adjacent buildings that were surrounded by walls.  Walls two feet thick separated the cells.  At the south end of the cloister garth there was a fine garden, twenty-two metres by seventeen, and the monastery was encircled by a high wall with a tower at each corner.

There was a great variety in the life-style of nuns’ monasteries but it is clear that in the majority of cases they had begun in real poverty. The nuns themselves had to till the ground to feed themselves. To give an example, the Benedictine nuns of Yerres in the diocese of Sens had their way of life codified about 1130 by the Bishop of Paris and the Cistercian abbot Hugh of Pontigny. The sisters went to work in small groups well outside their enclosure. The enclosure had been greatly relaxed from what it had been previously and this continued until the beginning of the 13th century. An order from the abbess was sufficient for the sisters to leave the enclosure to work in the fields or woods. In his Bull Prudentibus Virginibus of December 1184, Pope Lucius III forbade the professed nuns of Tart to leave the enclosure without the abbess’ permission. These few examples give us an idea of the material side of the nuns’ life. In the 12th century all monks and nuns had to live by their manual work. Surviving documents show that the type of work varied according to the place and strength of individuals as the Rule of St. Benedict stipulates and sometimes it involved leaving the enclosure.

From the Vita of Ida of Nivelles we learn that while the nuns of La Ramée in Brabant were resting in the fields after the harvest she had a vision. Another day she was with her abbess in a meeting with a number of mulieres religiosae. On another occasion at harvest time several sisters from La Ramée were with the Prioress of Kerkhom, the place from which La Ramée had originated, doing the harvesting. Ida was among them and spent eight days in this grange. In the Vita of Ida of Léau, a nun of the same monastery, we read that at harvest time she remained alone in the house while the community went out to the fields to collect the crops. Obviously the fields could be within the enclosure, but in the 12th century the word enclosure was still understood in the most liberal sense of the word. The estate of the nuns of the abbey of Vernaison, founded in 1167, was scattered along the two banks of the river Isère. To reach it they could either go by the main Provence to Lyons road (via magna) that crossed the river by a bridge or take a boat. After the floods of 1221 the nuns built a new monastery on higher ground.

The enclosure became much stricter in the 13th century and it was customary to find lay brothers attached to the women’s’ houses in order to do the physical work. These brothers entered directly into the service of the nuns and made their profession in the hands of the abbess. The history of Cistercian lay brothers belonging to nuns’ abbeys is well documented. With the help of paid workmen they looked after the fields at a distance from the abbey.

Certain abbeys of nuns undertook important work. The nuns of Mollèges drained the marshes and developed fishponds; those of Saint-Pons-de-Gemenos raised cattle. Most had sheep and oxen. A lay brother of Bouchet is mentioned as being in charge of reaping. All this was a source of income. We can add that the nuns of Mollèges had the right to take tolls on the alpine roads.

But when the enclosure became stricter the nuns concentrated more on inside work. The Cistercians did not have schools like the Benedictines, unless we consider as scholarly activity taking young girls into the monastery to give them an education. Gertrude was received at Helfta at the age of four and Mechtilde of Hackeborn at seven. These young girls learned in the monastery workshops to use wool, to ply the needle and other feminine tasks such as weaving, sewing, embroidery and the way to attach gold and pearls to silk stuffs. This constituted a valuable source of income for the community and was more in harmony with the gifts and physique of the nuns and less taxing than field-work, particularly for the old and infirm. Moreover it was prayerful work and could be a continuation of or preparation for the Divine Office. Once, Gertrude had to go off quickly and this caused her to drop several hanks of wool.  Although she had given herself fervently to God during the work, she saw the devil gathering up the wool as proof of her carelessness. She called upon the Lord and saw Him chasing the devil away while reproaching him for having dared to interfere in a work which was so explicitly and completely consecrated to God.

In the Cistercian Order there were real centres of mysticism. In her account of Cistercian saints from the diocese of Liège, Simone Roisin writes: “If the nuns outdid the monks in this matter also, it was more by the frequency than the sublimity of their raptures. They lived in almost uninterrupted ecstasy and derived from it an ever deeper knowledge of divine mysteries, especially of the Trinity.” Henriquez in his ‘Quinque Prudentes Virgines (Antwerp 1630) recounts the lives of Beatrice of Nazareth, Alice of Schaerbeek, Ida of Nivelles, Ida of Louvain and Ida of Léau. But there were many others. The same Henriquez published the Lilia Cistercii, the origins, lives and deeds of the holy virgins of Cîteaux (Douai 1633). However, it would be wrong to imagine that all Cistercian nuns were saints. As elsewhere there were foolish virgins together with the wise.

Although a list of Cistercian authors would contain more names of men than women, many nuns worked at the copying of manuscripts. Beatrice of Nazareth wrote an autobiography that was used by William of Afflighem in writing her life. He added long passages on her writings and visions. It is an extremely mystical collection of short treatises. The main treatise is called The Seven Forms of Love. John Doyère wrote of St. Gertrude: “The intellectual activity of St. Gertrude was abundant. She not only copied manuscripts but while reading she liked to make a note of the better passages, and to keep certain quotations and prayers to feed her devotion and that of others…She also wrote spiritual and theological treatises on Scripture in German and Latin. All has been lost except for her devotional work, the Spiritual Exercises.

All this could be applied to other nuns. So many monasteries were laid waste, burned or destroyed including all their archives. We will never know their contents. In the style of romantic novels so prolific in the 13th century, the lawyer Philip of Novare used to say: “Never teach a woman to read or write unless perchance she is a nun.” This advice was repeated later. Hence we can conclude that many nuns were literate. Pope John XXII at the request of the abbess of Saint-Pons-de-Gemenos, agreed that a certain Graciette Audoarde might be received into the monastery. He described her as a “walking encyclopaedia.” Later the distinction between literate and illiterate (the lay sisters) was more marked and the latter were considered and treated as servants.  This tended to divide the community into two groups and in certain abbeys two social classes were created: daughters of nobles who might become abbesses and the rest. But let it be added that Christian love solved possible conflicts and, apart from a few specific instances, it is difficult to find a community divided on this account – at least in the 13thcentury. The distinction between literate and illiterate seemed quite natural. The 12thcentury is the outstanding century for nuns’ monasteries – outstanding on account of the number of foundations, although some were short-lived; outstanding on account of the intense fervour reigning in these houses. At the end of the 12th century there were perhaps a hundred monasteries following the Rule of St. Benedict according to the Cistercian usages.   Although the nuns lived a life similar to that of their brothers of Cîteaux, in certain monasteries of women it was difficult to see a likeness to the monks’ abbeys. When we see certain ruins we would like to know the plan of the regular places. To be honest, there was no greater uniformity in the planning of buildings than there was in the observance of the Usages. Many monasteries started as a group of mulieres religiosae living around a chapel. The regular places were added piecemeal: chapter, refectory and, generally on the first floor, the dormitory. The chaplain’s house was clearly separated from the nuns’ buildings, but gave on to the chancel of the church. The nuns’ life was austere: they rose during the night to sing the Office, observed the fasts prescribed by the Rule of St. Benedict and did manual work.



1.      Gertrude of Helfta, The Herald, 2, 1, 2 :

At the hour already mentioned, then, I was standing in the middle of the dormitory. On meeting an elder sister, according to the custom of our Order I bowed my head. As I raised it I saw standing beside me a young man. He was lovely and refined, and looked about sixteen ; his appearance was such as my youth would find pleasing. With kindly face and gentle words he said to me, “Your salvation will come quickly; why are you consumed by sadness? Do you have no counsellor, that sorrow has overwhelmed you?

While he said this, although I knew I was physically in the place mentioned it seemed to me that I was in choir, in the corner where I used to make my lukewarm devotions, and it was there that I heard the following words: “I shall free you and I shall deliver you; do not fear.” At these words I saw a tender, finely wrought hand holding my right hand as if confirming what had been said with a promise. He added, “You have licked the dust with my enemies, and you have sucked honey among thorns; return to me at last, and I shall make you drunk with the rushing river of my divine pleasure!”

While he spoke, I looked and saw that between us (to his right and my left) there was a hedge of such endless length that I could not see where it ended in front or behind me. On its top the hedge seemed to bristle with such a great mass of thorns that I would never be able to cross it to join the young man. While I stood hesitating because of it, both burning with desire and almost fainting, he himself seized me swiftly and effortlessly, lifted me up and set me beside him.

2.   Alice of Schaerbeek, Vita, 4, 2-7,10-11:

Inwardly she united herself to God in her sufferings; outwardly she subdued her body with various practices. Interiorly she was continuously flooded with tears at the thought of her weakness and desire to see God’s glory; exteriorly she had to deal with the needs of her sisters. Despite her timidity she wanted to comfort everyone and be a source of new hope for them. She showed true compassion for the unfortunate, patience towards others’ weaknesses and did not bother about the insults she received. Inwardly she tried to conform herself to the image of God in her heart. Outwardly she tried to live always in God’s presence and show herself gracious, friendly, kind, charming and of service to all. Inwardly she submitted herself completely to God’s majesty and will, while burning with the fire of charity. Outwardly her good works brought light and joy to others. Since she knew that idleness is the enemy of the soul she accomplished her duties promptly and swiftly.  At no moment did she waste her time, since she was either meditating interiorly or engaged in edifying conversation. She had noted in the Gospel that the Lord had gone up a mountain with three disciples, so she wanted to reach the summit of God’s mountain. To this end she joined work and meditation with prayer. She grasped many things while at work and even more so when she pondered on them, but most of all this illumination happened while she was at prayer.

3.   Colman O’Dell, OCSO, “Ida of Léau : Woman of Desire”, in John A. Nichols, Lilian Thomas Shank, ed. Hidden Springs, Cistercian Monastic Women, Medieval Religious Women, Volume Three, Book One, Kalamazoo 1995 (Cistercian Studies Series 113A) pp. 439-440.

Ida shows us that we must desire the source of the joy, not the joy itself. She also illustrates for us the viability of the traditional ways of prayer found in western monasticism: lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio. We need not search outside our own living heritage for prayer techniques more efficacious for attaining union with God. In the long run, it is not this or that technique that accomplishes this goal. Prayer itself is a gift for which one can only dispose oneself to the best of one’s ability. The four-fold “ladder” for monks has proved itself adapted to our western pragmatic and intellectual turn of mind. Some spiritually minded people tend to have a slightly guilty feeling about their intellectual or pragmatic tendencies. Ida can reassure us in this regard. Like everything else, these tendencies can be a gift, and God always takes his creatures as they really are, not what they think they should be.

Ida can also lead us to a deeper appreciation of the liturgy as a means of union with God. The public worship of the Church has undergone a cataclysmic upheaval in the post-Vatican II era, and the dust has scarcely begun to settle. Some liturgists seem determined to insure that this will never occur, confusing “stagnation” with the tranquillity of mind which is a basic necessity for contemplative prayer. Ida shows us the value and beauty of the Opus Dei, adoration of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and active participation in the sacramental life of the Church --- factors of the spiritual life too often neglected in our times.

Primarily, Ida can show us how to practice what Gilbert of Hoyland calls the “discipline of desire”, that is “most characteristic of cloistered brethren”, or of any person who truly seeks God and desires perfect union with him for whom his or her soul longs “as a doe longs for running streams”, and who is never content to say “It is enough.”

  1. Beatrice of Nazareth, CF 50 The Life of Beatrice of Nazareth, translation. R. de Ganck, Kalamazoo 1991 Book 3 The Seven Manners of Holy Love p. 313.

When the spouse of Our Lord has made progress and has reached a higher degree of virtue she experiences yet another way of loving; she feels a greater presence and a deeper understanding. She realises that love has overcome all her inner resistance, has corrected her imperfections and subdued her whole being. Love has completely overcome her so that there is no further resistance. Love possesses her heart in a restful security. She can rest in it joyfully and act with complete freedom.

When the soul finds itself in this state, whatever she has to do for love seems of little consequence. She can act or not act quite easily. She can suffer gladly. In this way she experiences the sweetness of giving herself to love.

She feels a divine force acting in her, a real purity, a spiritual sweetness, a desirable freedom, a deep wisdom, a happy conformity to God.

Now she is like a woman who has put her house in order, who has arranged it properly, governed it wisely, furnished it with taste, established it by her foresight and acts intelligently. She introduces things or removes them, does and undoes according to her own ideas. Such is the life of one who finds herself in this state. She is love; love rules in her strong and without a rival, active and peaceful, doing and undoing, outwardly and inwardly according to her wish.

As fish swim in deep water and rest in the depths, as birds fly swiftly in the length and breadth of space, so she feels that her spirit moves freely in the breadth and height and depth of love.

The sovereign power of love has drawn her soul to itself, has guided, upheld and protected it. Love has given understanding, wisdom, sweetness and power. However it has hidden from the soul its all-powerful force until she is sufficiently ready, until she has reached the point of freeing herself completely of herself. Then love rules in her with still greater force.

Finally, love becomes so strong and free that she fears neither men nor demons nor angels nor saints nor even God himself in whatever she does or does not do, in work or in repose. She is aware that love is alert and active in her inmost being, whether she is sleeping or working industriously. She knows and sees clearly that those in whom love is paramount are not vanquished by suffering or work.

But all those who want to reach such love must search for it with reverence, follow it faithfully and live it with great zeal. It cannot be had if they recoil from hard work, or intense suffering and ills, or humiliations. They must give full attention to the least detail until love gets to the point in them when it renders everything easy, work light, suffering sweet and faults wiped out.

Such love brings freedom of conscience, sweetness of heart, goodness and nobility of soul, spiritual uplift --- the basis of eternal life.

Even now such a life is angelic. Afterwards there is only eternal life which God in his goodness grants to all.

Questions for reflection :

1.  What does this paper teach us about the practice of enclosure ; the seriousness with which work and formation were undertaken and the skills that were to be learnt ?

2.  Medieval monasteries, as far as we can see, were helped by lay brothers and others well-known to them.  Can this type of monastery still be a source of inspiration for us as we respond to new needs and situations?  How, under what conditions?

3.  A split appeared between literate and illiterate nuns.  In what ways would/could this show itself today?  How do we address this?

4.  In our communities, do we have the same desire to live an intense spiritual life as these medieval nuns had?  Compared with the nuns we have read about here, how are we helped or hindered to live such a life?

5.  The texts given in this unit contain a certain number of references to the Rule of St. Benedict, to the liturgy and to Cistercian spirituality.  It would be a useful exercise to pick them out.

6.  What theological and spiritual message do these texts offer us?