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The Cistercians - part 2

Updated: Jan 23









Dunbrody Abbey, Co. Wexford.


It can be said the job of the monk is prayer, in his workshop of prayer, the monastery or abbey. A chief motivation for becoming a benefactor of the abbey would be to have your soul prayed for by the brothers, this great honour would of course grease the wheels of entry into the kingdom of heaven. The Order itself is a self-sustaining, self-sufficient enterprise, which will have as little contact with the outside world as possible. The monks although living together, through their vow of silence live both in community and solitude. A large part of a monk's day is occupied with manual labour, the rest with prayer. The labour gives contemplative balance whilst also providing a food source or income for the abbey. The idea of God being everything, in everything, and the individual is perhaps an example of the unconventional non-fundamentalist practice of the Cistercians. This concept of connecting with your inner self to find peace is an idea later promoted in secular society by Carl Jung.


The monk's day began at 01.30/02.00 hrs during the brighter months, with the brothers descending the night stairs to celebrate matins and lauds. The duration of devotions and start time would vary with the time of year. The monks would gather at 04.30 in the chapter house of the abbey, whereupon a chapter from the rule of St. Benedict would be read, after which sins were confessed in an act of ‘mutual justice’ considered a key element of spiritual life. There would also be a discussion surrounding the coming day's activities, an opportunity to admonish and publicly address any poor behavior, and to deal with any other business (this somehow all seems painfully familiar to me). Hereafter followed the day of work which ended at 11.00 hours, when a bell would call the brothers to the office of sext, this was followed by the first meal of the day after which the brothers returned to their labours. At 18.00 it was vespers followed by a light evening meal, which, as with the majority of the brother's meals was vegetarian.

Silence was observed during mealtimes with a bible verse read aloud to keep all entertained. After this meal, probably still a tad peckish, the monks would gather in the cloister to hear ‘collation’ and the final service of the day. The day in the main ended at 20.00 when the monks would retire to snatch 5 hours of sleep before starting all over again.


The level of consistent manual labour these men endured during the construction of their abbeys is somewhat mind-boggling, the working hours of the monk's day would have involved carpentry and stone masonry with heavy building materials for extended time periods. I’m sure it became obvious during the construction of the first Cistercian abbey at Citeaux that a small number of devout men, even with the spiritual assistance of the almighty were going to be unable to undertake projects of any real size. Even with a full complement of lay brothers extra labour was often drafted in for these projects as they progressed. These men were a frequent support to the strong back of the Order that built, farmed, and engaged in the labours that the abbey needed to maintain its self-sufficiency and viability. Master masons, the architects of their day were more often than not brought in to manage and engineer the construction process of Cistercian building works, often these master masons died during a 50-100 year project and another master mason would continue the job. There was an understanding amongst these men that one would never demolish or alter the work of a predecessor, the result of this ethic can be seen in different styles of work on single buildings with some highly creative adaptations and incorporations.



Kilcooley Abbey, Co.Tipperary.


Cistercian Abbeys at Bernard's insistence are of a simplified architectural style with a purity of form, proportion, and harmonics replacing the unnecessary distraction of decoration. Bernard considered excessive ornamentation especially odious, he regarded such as merely of entertainment value, and completely inappropriate in a place of contemplation. He cites the ornamentation of pillars in the cloister with creatures and other artistic representations as distracting and inexcusable. Bernard writes - “What excuse can there be for these ridiculous monstrosities in the cloisters where the monks do their reading (lectio), extraordinary things at once beautiful and ugly?” Impeding the recollection of a monastic life is the greatest problem with such architectural embellishments. He notes, “One could spend the whole day gazing fascinated at these things, one by one, instead of meditating on the law of God.”

Although cloisters had been in existence on the grounds of monasteries since 900AD or so the Cistercians placed the cloister in the heart of every abbey. All other buildings surround and emanate from the cloister. Following the strict rule of Benedict, the Cistercians made real the concept of this sacred place being used to commune with the divine. It is here, in silence, God speaks to man - “This is why monasteries are oases in which God speaks to humanity; and in them we find the cloister, a symbolic place because it is an enclosed space yet open to Heaven.” - Benedict XVI - General Audience on Man in Prayer. Sicard of Cremona Stated - "that the four sides of the cloister represented contempt of self, contempt of the world, love of one’s neighbour and love of God.” Another view of the symbolic nature of the cloister was that of Honorius Augustodunensis who saw the site of the cloister itself as replicating the portico of Solomon constructed next to the holy temple in Jerusalem, whilst still others identified the cloister with the Garden of Eden. With such varied understandings of the cloister, one thing was clear: the cloister was to be respected and well-maintained. The importance of Jerusalem to the medieval mind cannot be overstated, to the people and clergy of the time it was heaven on earth and the sacred place upon which their beliefs were based.


The most important structure adjacent to the cloister was of course the church, construction normally started with the choir and progressed to the transepts and nave. For the master masons, the importance of perfect geometric proportion, ratio, and symmetry reflected the harmony of creation itself, these men cared passionately about the monuments they were creating and considered their work a spiritual endeavor. The way these proportions were achieved is beautiful in its simplicity; for example, the square root of the cloister dimensions are used to determine the length of a nave; the root 2 of the nave gives the length of the church.

Of course, these structures have been modified throughout hundreds of years but the principles of light, space, exquisitely delicate stonework, and resonance/harmonics would have been there from the beginning. It is widely considered that the birth of gothic architecture was with the Basilica of Saint-Denis in Paris, work on the gothic style new choir (the nave remaining Romanesque) started in 1140. The stonemasons who designed and built this wonder for Abbot Suger remain anonymous. At the consecration of the new choir Abbot Suger declared -

“The work should brighten our minds as they travel through the light to the true light of Christ; in seeing this light, the dull mind is resurrected from darkness”. The Abbot of Clairvaux was also invited to witness the consecration of this ornate, spectacular gothic wonder, when asked for his view on the structure he replied “O vanity of Vanities, but more folly than vanity, every part of the church shines but the poor man is hungry. The wolves are clothed in gold, while the children of the church remain naked”. Upon completing this statement, after a period of awkward silence, a contemporary source suggests Bernard then uttered the words “I’ll get my coat shall I?”


Although I suspect Bernard clearly understood the use of architectural geometry, the extent of his knowledge can’t have been comparable to a master mason for whom this skill was a lifetime, and indeed previous generations of knowledge brought to the mind, hands, and heart of an artisan in stone. It is here again I would suggest that master masons with knowledge of Eastern/Egyptian geometric and mathematical principles were the prime movers for the Cistercians. Bernard had this expertise deployed through the creation of these abbeys not only to create the astonishing resonance of the human voice, when singing or praying but also for the pure aesthetic joy of those perfect proportions. It was Stephen that developed a specific interest in harmonics and the importance of chanting, the chants of monks recorded in these abbeys are breathtaking and even to a distant listener create a perfect environment for meditation and connection with inner divinity. To be in a choir stall taking part in a chant must be utterly mesmeric, which of course is the intention. Where Bernard brought his unique expertise to bear was in his understanding of the spiritual and its relationship to the material. Today, a scientific consensus is evolving whereby it is understood that the material world we perceive is in fact knowable only through its underlying pattern of waveforms rather than substantive matter. Ancient civilisations chose to understand reality through the metaphors of geometry and music, it would appear they had an innate, intuitive understanding of what contemporary science is now revealing.

The Cistercians in Ireland



Kilcooley Abbey.


The Cistercians first arrived in Ireland in 1142. A small number of monks from the Abbey at Clairvaux led by Malachy, Bishop of Armagh, arrived on Irish soil in County Meath and with a band of willing new monks set about the task of building Mellifont Abbey. This was to become the mother-house of Ireland. There was an unfortunate cultural and language barrier between the French monks and the ethnic Irish monks, and although for the most part these diverse monks did their best to get along, underlying issues would inevitably remain. The ‘Irish’ daughter houses tended to be constructed in the harsher environments in the north and west of the country, whilst French/Norman abbeys were based on the fertile lands of the East. This divide eventually led to a crisis, a schism within the Cistercian Order in Ireland, which resulted in a letter being written to the Pope by the Abbot of Citeaux describing the situation in Ireland as a conspiracy against the order fueled by - “dissipation, dilapidation of property, conspiracies, rebellions and frequent machinations of death”.


In response to this, a delegation of the general chapter was dispatched to Ireland to try and bring the situation under control. At Mellifont the party had the doors of the Abbey unceremoniously shut in their faces and at Jerpoint Abbey the monk's resistance to this interference in their lives by a remote authority resulted in a riot. Perhaps it is

possible that after Bernard’s death, very slowly, a degree of intolerance towards the Druidic/Culdean nature of Irish monasticism developed and reached a crescendo with the aforementioned incidents. There were many altercations between individual abbeys too, for example, the monks of Tintern and Dunbrody were often at odds. Offences such as kidnapping, sheep theft, and other nefarious activities appeared to be commonplace. Roger Stalley (the author of The Cistercian Monastries of Ireland) describes an incident in 1390, whereupon Richard II appointed his commissioner David Esmond to investigate extortion in County Wexford. Soon he found himself captured by the abbot and monks of Dunbrody and held in the monastic prison for sixteen days until he swore not to prosecute any of them in his proceedings. There is a wonderful description of the Abbot of Dunbrody, Hervey Montmorency by the well-known scholar of the time Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales). Bear in mind that Hervey was involved in several disputes and lawsuits at the time, two of which were with the Templars - “A tall and comelie man, his eyes graie and somewhat big, amiable of face and pleasant of countenance, an eloquent man, having a long and a round neck, his shoulders somewhat low, his armes and hands something long, he was broad brested, but small in waste, though the same being big in others is thought to be commendable, his bellie was somewhat big and round, his thighs, legs and feet being well proportionated and answerable to his bodie; of stature he was indifferent. But as in bodie he was well beset and compact so, on the contrarie, his mind, life, and conversation were corrupt and disordered. Besides he was a privie and an envious accuser, and a double man uncertaine, vaine, and altogether unconstant, saving in inconstancie; a very subtill man and a deceitfull; under his toong he had both milke and honie, but both of them were mixed with poison. He was sometimes in great prosperitie, and all things fell out according to his own desire; and suddenlie fortune turning hir wheele he had such a fall, that he did never recover the same againe. He was sometimes a very good soldier, and had good experience in the feats of wars, after the maner used in France; but he was so suddenlie altred and changed, that he became more skilfull in malice than valiant in prowess, more full of deceit than renowned in honor, more puffed up in pride than endowed with worship, more hastie than happie, and more full of words than abandoning in truth”.


Even though these men were pure of heart in their service to the almighty, it would seem the base tribal nature of humanity had survived to some extent within them. What would Bernard and Malachy have thought of such behavior? In terms of personal connections, Malachy the foremost Irish churchman of his time was a friend of Dermot Mc Murrough the deposed king of Leinster (a quadrant province of Ireland). Dermot was according to writings of the time a vengeful, savage, wanton, and cruel man but ironically very church minded! He founded several Augustinian and Cistercian abbey’s in the country and endowed two nunneries in Dublin and Waterford. As a consequence, Mc Murrough was well known amongst the clergy on the continent and was rewarded by Bernard of Clairvaux with a certificate of co-fraternity with the Cistercian order for his largess to the ‘poor of Christ’.


The Bishop of Armagh, was the pre-eminent reformer of the Irish church and monasticism in his lifetime. The ages had eroded adherence to the principles of the sacraments and under his guidance, confession, confirmation, and marriage were elevated and restored into everyday life. Quite remarkably, until his intervention, monks didn’t sing in the monastery. What today seems a central and integral element of a monk's devotions, was unheard of before Malachy. In 1139 he set off for Rome to obtain papal approval for his reforms and to confirm the authority of Irish archbishops, en-route he visited the Abbey at Clairvaux and was of course introduced to the abbot at the time Bernard. He was so impressed with the abbey, the Order, and Bernard, that he petitioned the Pope to let him resign his Bishopric and join the Cistercians. The Pope however had other ideas and appointed him papal legate to Ireland. This unfortunately crushed any possibility of Malachy joining Bernard at Clairvaux. On his return journey from Rome, four of his travel party elected to stay at Clairvaux and enter the abbey as novitiates. These men later returned to Ireland with French brothers to establish the abbey at Mellifont.


Over subsequent years Malachy visited Bernard many times and the two men developed a deep mutual respect and close friendship, Bernard was the author of his friend's biography ‘The Life of Malachy’. His final journey to Clairvaux was in October 1148, whilst there he fell Ill, and whilst the monks of Clairvaux stayed up all night praying for an intervention, he died in the Arms of Bernard in the early hours of the 2nd of November. Of his loss, Bernard wrote - “If we had here an abiding city we might rightly shed many tears at the loss of such a fellow citizen as Malachy; and if we look, as we should, for the one that is to come, the loss of such a valuable leader will still be an occasion for sorrow.” Bernard continued his beautiful and moving words in his requiem homily and subsequently on the anniversary of Malachy’s death. Acclaiming him a patron of the order, Bernard begged Malachy - “Be to us, we pray, another Moses or another Elijah, imparting to us something of your spirit; at least you have come in their spirit and power.”

After Bernard's death in 1153, he was interred close to the tomb of Malachy at Clairvaux.



Holy Cross Abbey, Co. Tipperary.


Further reading


Niall Byrne - The Irish Crusade

Roger Stalley - The Cistercian Monastries of Ireland

Colmcille O’ Conbhuidhe - Studies in Irish Cistercian History

Dr. Breda Lynch - A Monastic Landscape

Thomas Merton - An Introduction to Christian Mysticm

David M. Odorisio - The Cistercian spirit in stone

Fr. Andrew Walsh - Behold, your servants love her very stones

Alexandra Gajewski - Stone construction and monastic ideals

Megan Cassidy-Welch - Monastic Spaces and their Meanings


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