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The Cistercians - Part 1

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Above and below, Tintern de Voto, Co Wexford.



Good fortune. Bad fortune. Both of course were considered by medieval clergy to be gods will. The church was an all-powerful international governmental force to which Kings at the time deferred. This was God's will. It is therefore a logical extension to consider the manufacture of good fortune and the subsequent benefits to also be God's will. And so began the accumulation of vast wealth by the medieval Roman church. The mechanisms for the acquisition of this wealth were, to say the least impressive. The greatest concern of the devout medieval Christian was the concept of purgatory and exactly how long you might remain in this limbo before being beckoned to sit with the almighty in heaven. The church; thankfully, was in a position to help with this issue. One route to salvation was to simply donate a child to the institution. Everyone

was a winner, the celibate clergy would have replacement material for their ranks, and the child would be fed, clothed, and educated; necessities which were anything but usual in these times. Then there was the purchase of clerical office or, as its also known Simony. There would be a return on investment in tithes, donations, and indulgences from the purchase of office. The most common method of benefiting from God's good grace however was the aforementioned ‘indulgence’. Initially, this instrument seems like a good idea. As a sinner seeking repentance, you would be issued with an indulgence card, and as you performed good works the priest would tick off these righteous efforts until you had completed your penance and enjoyed absolution. A simple way of keeping track of a parishioner's efforts to reduce their time in purgatory. It quickly became apparent to the clergy, however, that rather than trouble themselves with all of this unnecessary effort they could simply sell the completed indulgence card to the poor sinner. This was a win/win, less work on the part of the priest, and the sinner still has his purgatorial duration minimised. An entirely sensible evolution of this idea was the sale of an indulgence prior to the sin being committed. If you were wealthy, you could pre-plan your crime and pay in advance. This is all of course in keeping with gods will. If the good lord wanted it to be different he would make it so. In light of this religious culture and dissatisfaction with his monastery, it’s not at all difficult to see the impetus behind Robert of Molesme deciding it was time to strike out on his own, to create a new self-sustaining religious order as far away from this now corrupted version of a beautiful theology as he possibly could.


The Abbey at Citeaux was established in 1098 by Robert, an English monk Stephen Harding, and the hermit Albert (Alberic sometimes known as Aubrey) together with a small group they acquired a plot of marshland just south of Dijon called Cîteaux (Latin: "Cistercium". Cisteaux means reeds in Old French), given to them expressly to found their Novum Monasterium. Although these three monks/abbots/saints had established the site according to a strict observation of St. Benedict's rule, they had not attracted a significant cadre of willing monks to their fledgling order. Asceticism was to the fore in this strict observance of the Benedictine rule, St. Stephen wrote in Exordium Parvum - “Next, lest there remain in the house of God, where they wished to serve God devotedly day and night, anything smacking of pride or superfluity, or anything that might at any time corrupt poverty guardian of the virtues which they had voluntarily chosen, they resolved to retain no crosses of gold or silver, but only painted wooden ones; no candelabra except a single one of iron; no thuribles except of copper or iron; no chasuble except of plain cloth or linen, and without silk, gold, and silver; no albs or amices except of linen, and likewise without silk, gold, and silver. As for all mantles and copes and dalmatics and tunics, these they rejected entirely. They did, however, retain chalices, not of gold, but of silver, and, if possible, gilded; and a ciborium of silver and only gilded, if that could be so; only stoles and maniples could be of silk, without gold or silver. As for altar cloths, they explicitly decreed that they be of linen, without pictorial ornamentation, and that the wine cruets be without gold or silver”.


Stephen was also responsible for writing the fledgling Orders rules and regulations in AD 1111, entitled ‘Carta Caritatis’ or the Charter of Charity, this work was, for the time, an unusually democratic manifesto that sought to deal with every eventuality within the immediate and extended community that might prove a challenge. A fine example of Stephen’s foresight and pragmatism is expressed in Chapter 12 of the Carta where he addresses the issue of a future abbot becoming corrupt and the action that should therefore be taken -“If it happen (which heaven forfend) that the abbots of our Order learn that the abbot of Citeaux becomes cold in the practice of his duties and departs from the observance of the holy rule and constitutions, the four abbots at Ferte, Potigny, Clairvaux and Morimond, shall, in the name of all other abbots, admonish him to the fourth time, that he may correct himself and others. But if he prove incorrigible, then they must diligently carry out the instructions which have been given concerning the deposition of abbots, with this proviso: if he does not abdicate of his own accord, they can neither depose him, nor pronounce against him anathema unless in the general chapter. But if it would be too long to wait for that, they must proceed with their censures in an assembly of abbots who have been taken from the filiation at Citeaux, with others summons for the occasion”. I think it fair to say Stephen covered pretty much every eventuality there. A modification that he made to the Order during his abbacy was the acceptance of land grants from patrons and benefactors, this significant uplift in resources required commensurate additional manpower. In response to this, Stephen created the role of lay brother, these men were not lettered but were an integral component within the Cistercian machine. As such they were treated by the brothers with the utmost respect and although they spent no time in the scriptorium, in every other respect they were considered equals. Here also, we can see an overlap between a Cistercian principal and its application within the knight’s Templar, in the form of the knight's hierarchy. In this regard, Stephen's innovation benefited both Orders.


The role of the lay brother did however evolve, as the Cistercian Order grew, a combination of circumstances, exterior pressures and fiscal progress changed irrevocably the relationship between the choir monk and his lay brethren. Perhaps the influence of the Roman Church crept behind the perimeter wall of the monastery? The relevance of purgatory and divine intercession seems to have grown in importance with the passage of time, this is reflected in the construction of intercessionary chapels within the Eastern end of many abbeys. Steadily, the lay brothers became divorced from the upper echelons of the monastery hierarchy, and became a form of employee within a business. They were often the trading interface with the secular world and some lived off-site in granges (farm complexes). There are many records of conflict between the two classes of monk which sometimes occasioned violence and apostasy. By the close of the 13th century, the lay brother had been displaced completely, and no longer existed within the environs of the monastic community. Anyway, enough of the vagaries of the human dynamic, lets move back to a more inspiring epoch.


In April 1112 a young man by the name of Bernard of Fontaine arrived at Citeaux abbey, he brought with him an entourage of individuals seeking acceptance into this new Order. These men included four of his familial brothers, his uncle, and several friends. They sought a simple, spiritual life devoted to the study of the divine and an opportunity to serve humanity and God. Historian Henri Daniel-Rops describes Bernard’s entrance - “[he] experienced that almost indescribable gladness which reaches to the very roots of a man’s being when he has discovered his true calling.” Bernard was the son of Tocellyn de Sorrell, he was born into a middle-ranking aristocratic family, which held sway over an important region of Burgundy, which also had close contacts with the region of Champagne. He appears to have received a good, standard education, at Chatillon-sur-Seine, which fitted him, most probably, for a life in the Church, which, of course, is exactly the direction he eventually took. What does seem evident is that Bernard was bright, inquisitive, and most certainly an accomplished organiser that possessed a charisma few could deny. The ascetic principals observed at this new abbey must have been music to the young Bernard's ears; only too aware of his potential weaknesses, this regime prevented exposure to any temptation, he later recalled his novice year at Citeaux - “For the sake of Christ . . . all that is beautiful in sight and sound and scent we monks have left behind.” and “I used in those days, to gather and set up in my heart a sheaf made of our Lord’s sufferings, His agony and all His bitterness of soul.” Bernard of Clairvaux; Bernard the mellifluous, through his presence and brilliance quickly became the driving force of this new monastic order and under his influence, the abbey at Citeaux was soon too small for this ever-growing community seeking ”the high road of supreme progress towards heaven”. In 1115 Bernard founded the first of many daughter houses across Europe, at Clairvaux, Ville-sous-la-Ferté, Champagne.


I’m going to take a moment here to reflect on the life of a monk, and the radical departure Bernard and his retinue made by seeking admission to the monastery. Being ‘born’ into the life of a monk isn’t as I'd previously considered a lifestyle choice, it’s actually an existential choice. The perception of time itself changes for the novice monk or nun. Holy days are celebrated but do any other days meaningfully exist other than as the continuation of the same divine practice? The duration of the days change as the year progresses but this is surely just a backdrop to the ephemeral pursuit of connecting consciously to God within. The very nature of life to those of us that live beyond cloisters is unimaginably different from that of the monk - “For it was precisely in the monastery that the vicissitudes of time and history were banished and replaced with a mimetic model of eternity. One of the implications of this way of life was the assumption that upon entering the monastery, the monk found himself in a world in which history had come to an end. To the extent that the monk has severed all ties with his former extramural existence, time and history vanished out of sight. As for the monk, he is concerned with more important business. Increasingly forgetting his former existence, he imitates in his brave new world eternity as shaped by the angels. And in so doing, he doesn't deny that after this life only eternity will follow, and neither does he claim that his monastic existence would be above the laws of space and time. The monastic existence is first and foremost a method of imagination, and no less real for all that”.


As an aside, from what I suppose is already a pre-existing aside; the idea of a contemplative contemporaneous metaphysical existence and the influence this would have on a warrior is interesting. The permanent/temporary Templar knight also lived this temporal monastic life in ad-hoc, on-site monasteries and abbeys. Living, working, and fighting with his brothers, who were also his brothers in arms with little regard for the concept of a future; knowing that death in battle was an honour to the glory of God would have made these men a formidable fighting force. Whilst amid my digression, I would like to add that contrary to the statements of some academics and authors, I’m going to, with a sweeping generalisation, disagree that there was animosity between the Templars and the Knights Hospitaller. These men fought and died together many times, the bond this produces in those that survive is beyond the comprehension of those who lack this experience. This salacious idea was probably promulgated as a means of discredit in the final years of the Order when it became clear that they were unwilling to merge with the Knights of St. John, who were ultimately granted the assets of the Templars.

The monastery, abbey or ad-hoc cenobite enclosed environment is, unlike the outside world, free of the Augustinian duality of good and evil. There is only good. Whilst a brother breaking wind during devotions is annoying, it most certainly isn’t evil. The aroma might be, but the act definitely is not. With this redefinition of the passage of time within this microcosm, what does the future mean? There will be fulfillment for the brother or sister as they move forward in their work both physical and spiritual, but none of this has a structure contained within a time frame. You may achieve your goal quickly or not at all. There is no earthly judgment and no apparent conclusion. This is perhaps why physical work is of such importance within monastic Orders. The connection of the spiritual to the physical, and to some extent the material in the act of creation. Whether that creation be wine and beer (praise be!) carts, coffins, the smelting of ore, the tilling of the land for food production, or a beautiful cloister, a miniature garden of Eden - Soli Deo Gloria.


The Cistercian brothers had a strong affinity with their surroundings and considered the taming of a landscape as the symbol of the soul’s return to God. If land was donated to the Cistercians, the monks would often decide where precisely on the patron’s land the abbey would be built.

The monks based this decision on many factors both spiritual and practical. Solitude and isolation were necessary for the Cistercian lifestyle of prayer, study, and work. Productive land would provide sustenance for the brother monks and a solid foundation for monastic buildings. Water provided the monastery with a domestic supply for cooking, cleaning, and waste removal. These conditions created a hierarchy of needs, which influenced the value of a site. It was often said of the Cistercians that wherever they settled they made the desert bloom. The monks would more often than not chose a site to build upon that was away from the general populous and that would require substantial clearance, quite often woodland. Over a period of time they would transform these humble beginnings into a veritable garden of Eden. Their days consisted of hard labour, prayer, and the study of sacred scripture. Joining the Order would mean casting aside your old life and being renewed into this new divinity for the rest of your time on earth. Both Bernard and his good friend William St.Thierry believed the welfare of the soul was contingent on the poverty of the exterior conditions, and because poverty was a prerequisite for the highest form of spirituality it also became its outward visual sign. They argued that there was a link between exterior poverty and interior purity, and the success of the new Orders among the patrons suggests that the laity was, at least to some extent, convinced. As those who sought asceticism as a means of connecting, without distraction to their inner self would suggest, if monastic poverty was to be real, it had to apply to the institution as a whole, and particularly to its buildings.


The Cistercian Order was marked out by its strict discipline and utter obedience to its canonical hierarchy. This vow of obedience was carried over to the Templar knights and was one factor that endowed the knights with their legendary discipline, which in turn made them such fearsome adversaries. The founders of the Cistercian order and Bernard himself must have had a degree of gnostic/mystic understanding, the very idea of following such an ascetic lifestyle is in and of itself a mystical endeavor. This open-mindedness to spiritual enrichment perhaps goes against the commonly held belief that medieval monks trod a very narrow path of spiritual belief. Bernard described himself as a ‘spiritual chimera’. Much could be written about the ‘nature’ of Bernard. He was a staunch supporter of the Virgin Mary - the feminine face of God; a visionary and a man who embraced the concepts of early Hebrew, Culdean, and Druidic forms of Christianity as elements in his spiritual repertoire. This is exemplified by the words of St. Malachy, Bishop of Armagh, who formulated prophecies based on the Druidic astrological tables, and who entrusted the following words to his friend Bernard on his deathbed

“You will find more things in the woods than in books. The trees, the stones will teach you what the masters cannot teach you. Do you think that you cannot suck the honey from the stone, the oil from the hardest rock? Don’t the hills flow with milk and honey? Aren’t the valleys full of wheat?”.

L’Esoterisme Templier : Le Livre des Mysteres & des Revelations”

- Alain Desgris

I’m not sure whether Bernard was particularly fond of those sentences or if there has been a duplication somewhere along the line, but he also used the last portion of this text in a letter to Aelred of Rivaulx. Aelred was experiencing a crisis of confidence regarding a book Bernard had urged him to write entitled ‘The Mirror of Love’, Aelred was not educated to the same standard as his contemporaries and didn’t feel he had the wherewithal to complete the task at hand. Bernard penned an extremely entertaining letter that is simultaneously admonishing and encouraging, he recites the second half of the above - milk and honey… valleys full of wheat… books of masters… etc. as a metaphor for Aelred’s achievement if he can overcome the fear of criticism and simply give it his best effort. This letter pre-dates Malachy’s visit by a number of years. He finishes his letter with a get out of jail free card for Aelred - “Indeed, to spare your modesty, let this letter be copied at the beginning of the book, so that whatever may displease the reader in ‘The Mirror of Love’ (for that is the title I gave it) may be blamed not upon you who obey, but upon me who forced you to write it against your will.

Farewell in Christ, beloved brother”

A pragmatist to the last, getting things done even when it's not his responsibility. I wish I had a letter excusing my efforts at the beginning of A Hymn in Stone…




Above and below, Jerpoint Abbey, Co. Kilkenny.



Bernard was a man opposed to religious dogma (except perhaps in the case of Pierre Abalard) he was able with an open heart to receive and respect the beliefs of others. He was dispatched in 1147 as a missionary to southern France to convert the Cathars to Christianity. He failed

miserably but upon his return, he described the Cathars to be good godly people with whom the church should seek to co-exist. He would have been horrified at the persecution and genocide committed against these people after his lifetime.


As a child, Bernard had a recurring dream of an interaction with the virgin Mary wherein the blessed virgin was trying to give the Christ child to Bernard to care for. This dream, or vision, shaped his life, his devotion and veneration of Mary was unwavering. He had a statue of Mary placed adjacent to his cell at Clairvaux and he would say good morning and good night to her image every day. Another of Bernard's passions was an obscure extract from the Old Testament, entitled ‘Solomon’s Song of Songs’. Bernard had a special love for the Song of Songs. Early in his monastic life, he had made himself ill through overwork and spent some time convalescing in the monastic gardens with William St. Thierry, himself a convalescent. To pass the time they discussed at length the Song of Songs. The themes of this text were ever to the fore of Bernard's mind when he wrote and preached, and in 1135 he began a series of sermons examining these texts which he continued, intermittently until his death. He found matter there for reflection on current affairs, on his personal experiences of human life, and the love of God. The book proved to be a hymn to eternal things, and in his sermon (No.30) he points to the likeness of self-knowledge and the knowledge of God as one and the same. Knowledge of one leads to knowledge of the other. It was a work he was destined not to complete, however, two subsequent Abbots of Clairvaux took up the mantle and eventually finished what Bernard had started. It is very much a testament to Bernard that during a period in history where unorthodox or non-narrative belief systems were being crushed, Bernard’s Order not only survived but flourished. There seems to have been a general acceptance of mysticism by both the Cistercians and the Templar knights which was viewed through the lens of both biblical scripture and the complimentary scripts and concepts of the ancients. I would hypothesise that the scrolls found under the Temple mount by Hugues and translated by Lambert de St Omer (or Stephen Harding?) were a confirmation of the assertion that Jesus was a priest of the Essenes and that John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene were High Priest and High Priestess. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Jesus wasn’t crucified in a literal sense but only in metaphor, a metaphor for a crisis of faith perhaps? Perhaps he meditated in a cave for several days and re-emerged renewed, born again so to speak, and ready to continue his mission. The gospel of Thomas (removed from the bible at the council of Nicaea) might possibly confirm this thesis, we’ll never know. The central concept of this belief system is that the Divine exists within you and the purpose of your brief existence in this realm is to connect fully with this energy. When put into this context the importance of solitude within the Order becomes clear. Silence is a virtue, you can’t connect with your inner self with some motor-mouth nattering away in your ear all day long. As previously mentioned, asceticism also comes to the fore here, a lack of physical comfort and stimulation will enable the mind to focus more clearly on the spirit within. The Essenes teachings have widely inspired and informed a great many belief systems including Abrahamic, Hermetic, and of course the writings of the Kaballah.


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