Nine hundred years ago, in 1098, “four leagues distant” (as the old Catholic Encyclopedia measures it), from the French city of Dijon, St. Robert of Molesme founded the Abbey of Citeaux, the chief abbey of the Cistercian Order. I have, alas, never been there. One should not construct his life on what he has not seen, I know. But this abbey is a place whose very existence makes us wonder about ultimate things.
A wonderful 17th century engraving of the abbey compound is found in the New Catholic Encyclopedia. It shows the high tower of the great abbey church, with some twelve surrounding buildings, with their own towers and turrets. Together they enclose at least six inner cloisters. Back in the distance are orderly fields, tree-lined roads, orchards, ponds. A high wall surrounds the entire complex. We see here a combination of order and peace in the midst of an otherwise barren world now transformed by the work and imagination of the monks.
The Cistercians sought destitute and unproductive lands wherein to lead the Gospel life St. Benedict had intended. The third abbot of this Order was St. Stephen Harding; and in 1112, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, with thirty companions, entered this order. The Benedictine tradition follows the old Greek colony system in its mode of expansion. By the year 1500, some 742 abbeys existed in Europe. And of course, this and other abbeys exist today. John Paul II, writing to the Cistercian family on this occasion (L’Osservatore Romano, English, 1 April 1998), mentions that he would beatify, in Nigeria, Fr. Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi of this order.
To know of Citeaux is to know much of the history of Church and society during the Middle Ages and even into modern times. The abbey experienced the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, pillage and burning in the Wars of Religion. During the French Revolution, the abbey was sold. Surviving 12th century buildings were destroyed. The famous Arthur Young purchased the place in 1841 to set up a secular communal life on the model of ideas of Fourier. In 1898, the reformed Cistercians managed to repurchase the abbey.
“The Cistercian organization was one of the masterpieces of medieval planning,” R.W. Southern writes in his Western Society and Church in the Middle Ages:
In a world ruled by a complicated network of authorities often at variance with each other, the Cistercian plan presented a single strong chain of authority from top to bottom. There was a single superior legislative body in the triennial General Chapter of the Cistercian abbots; a simple system of affiliation and visitation which embraced every house in the order; a uniformity of practice, a wide freedom from every local authority, whether secular or ecclesiastical. The Cistercians achieved at one stroke the kind of organization every ruler would wish to have…. The franchise and corporate system was not an invention exclusively of modern times.
“Our age,” the Holy Father observes, “is experiencing a new fascination with the Cistercian cultural and spiritual heritage expressed in your monasteries….” The pope notes the “welcome” that is found in these abbeys, where they are a schola caritatis. “Here can be seen a deeper understanding of man in his ability to love and respond freely to love while letting himself be guided by reason. This humanism was based on the divine economy and on grace, particularly on the Incarnation in its most human dimension.” Powerful words.
Christopher Dawson, in his Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, adds that the Cistercian Order was the “first genuine religious order in the later sense of the word. This first established the principle of corporate control…. Thus the abbey was no longer an end in itself; it was part of a larger whole, which in turn was an organ of the universal society of Christendom.”
As I look at the 17th century engraving again, I notice there are no human figures in it. The abbey church tower stands in the center. But behind it and the walls, the fields and hills and ponds stretch into the distance. “Cistercian art … developed with harmonious beauty in buildings that proclaim,” the pope emphasizes, “the divine splendor and glory. By its elegance, stripped of everything that might hinder the encounter with the Creator, it leads man towards God, giving him a taste of his nobility and goodness.”
The Cistercian abbey I remember most was that of Fossanova, in Italy, where St. Thomas Aquinas died. It had a soft, almost stark elegance and simplicity that did direct one’s gaze to the Creator. Gazing at this engraving of Citeaux, 900 years after its founding, I sense this presence of the divine splendor and glory.