Cistercian Order Of The Common Observance
Robert, the son of the noble Thierry and Ermengarde of Champagne, was heavy of heart as from his hidden place of prayer on a hill flecked with the first pale shoots of a Burgundian spring, he looked down upon the monastery of Molesme. Well he knew every comer of it in this year of 1098, for he had long been its abbot, wise in years and experience, and endowed with power to direct the men who were its monks their long hours of prayer, and their work in the wide fields which spread everywhere about. God had seen fit to place upon him this responsibility, and he had failed.
It was not that he was unloved by these long ranks of black-robed Benedictines, men from every state of life, who looked upon him as their spiritual father. Actually they were devoted to him. Yet try as he might, he could not win them over to his way of thinking that certain usages, which were already well established at Molesme long before he had assumed its abbotship, were contrary to the spirit of the ancient Rule of their holy father Saint Benedict, to which the abbey was pledged.
Through the centuries since that Rule, the model for all monastic life, had been laid down in the year 529 through the wars of the Goths and the invasions of the Lombards, and throughout the "Dark night of Europe" the Rule had survived. But not without suffering. Violences and upheavals had caused succeeding sons of Benedict to grow lax, and even blind to many of its provisions. Once having tasted of a less rigid life than that practiced by the first cenobitic monks, they had found it sweet, and not to be foregone without a struggle.
To be sure, at Molesme they were faithful to the vows of poverty and chastity and, in measure, obedience. To be sure, they arose before dawn to sing the Divine Office in choir. They labored in the fields. They fasted and did penance. But all at a more leisurely degree than the good Father Benedict had ordained. And as for the silence designed to prepare their souls for the high state of contemplation and the adoration of God the very raison d'etre of monks it was now scarcely observed at all.
Robert buried his head in his hands. Only his Lord and he knew how hard he had tried. Others too, before him, had tried. And had also failed. The great Benedictine monastery of Cluny, parent-house of Molesme, and now the most powerful ecclesiastical influence in all Europe Cluny, with its hundreds of abbeys and thousands of monks, itself had been established in 910 as a Benedictine reform. Yet with the years it too had grown lax, and it was this very laxness, carried over into the roots of Molesme, which was rotting them.
Throughout five hundred years it had seemed that periodically the spirit of holy Father Benedict had returned to earth to direct certain of his sons back to the ideals he had set for them at the start. Reforms had come and gone; reforms had briefly endured. And now Robert himself in his forest place of prayer, which was radiant with the beauty of God, seemed to hear the insistent, whispered urgings of the holy author of the Rule. And a determination, long dormant in his soul, arose and compelled him.
Since he had not been able to convince all the brethren with whom he dwelt in community, he would take to himself those who had proved docile and who strove to follow the primitive observance of the Holy Rule. With the permission of the Papal Legate they would seek a remote, solitary spot where they could abolish the time-consuming devotions, which through the centuries had spread like tentacles about the long liturgical observance, and thus had decreased the hours of manual labor. For had not Father Benedict ordained that his monks should earn their bread by the sweat of their brows? It would be a place where they would eat only the simplest, harshest food; would abstain totally from meat. There would be time for both manual labor and spiritual reading. Above all, it would be a place of silence where they could pursue contemplation and adore God, undisturbed. It would be a new Benedictine monastery devoted to the primitive Rule.
But when Robert began to count over those who would follow him into such austerity, he was forced sadly to acknowledge they were but twenty. Yet twenty would suffice.
Now Raynald, Viscount of Beaune, and his wife Hodierna, held among their vast feudal estates a swampy tract deep within a remote forest in the diocese of Chalons-sur-Saone. The scattered peasantry had good reason to shun it, for not only was it a damp, unhealthful spot, but also a place of fierce wolves and wild beasts. Because of the rushes, which abounded in the marsh and were known in the patois of the country as cistels, the fearful peasantry had named the spot "Citeaux." The Viscount and his wife were amazed when Robert, the holy abbot of Molesme whom all men knew for his sanctity, came to them and in the Name of God and of the Virgin Mary, begged the land for a new monastery. Gladly they granted it.
With the approval of the Legate, Robert and his twenty followers bade farewell to Molesme and took possession of the swamp and the land about it, making for themselves rude shelters, depending on prayer to protect them from the perils of the place. Among the monks who had yearningly sought the solitude with him, were two of outstanding holiness: Alberic, the prior; and one who had come from far England to join Molesme, Stephen Harding.
Thus in the year 1098, on March 21, the Feast of Saint Benedict, in a damp, sinister wilderness, with naught to aid them but their strong hands and firm wills, was the great Order of Citeaux founded by a handful of men. Their purpose was not indeed to launch a new Order such was far from Robert's intention but merely to establish a Benedictine community where the Rule of the founder could be literally observed in all its pristine simplicity.
The Duke of Burgundy, Eudes I, hearing of the venture and moved with admiration, offered to defray the expenses of a monastery; whereupon Robert, giving thanks to God, began with his monks the construction of what he called his Novum Monasterium, to distinguish it from the monastery of Molesme. The twenty elected Robert as their abbot, and he led them in the sure way of silence and solitude; in the way of outdoor labor with their hands, even as the holy Father Benedict had prescribed. They gave themselves over to prayer and contemplation, they chanted the Divine Office in chapel at the regular hours, and they drained the dank swamp, cutting back the cistels, felling brush and trees, clearing fields, and sowing grain.
Fascinated by the endeavors of these silent holy men, the Duke of Burgundy increasingly found that he preferred to be at Citeaux rather than at his feudal castle; and had a way of arriving suddenly with his court for a visit, much to the dismay of Abbot Robert. It was all very nice for the Duke, although his court no doubt viewed the rugged life with something stronger than misgiving. But it was far from agreeable to Robert, who found the foolish chatter of the noblemen completely destructive of the monastic silence for which he and his monks had fled Molesme. So, regardless of the fact that the Duke was their chief benefactor to whom solely they owed their monastery and upon whom they must still largely depend for survival in the wilderness, he told him gently but firmly that his visits were not welcome. It was a tribute to Robert's personality which mirrored the love he felt for all men that the Duke took his dismissal with good grace, and continued notwithstanding to protect the monastery.
The news of Citeaux and its Cistercians, as they had now come to be known, was not slow in reaching Molesme. There the monks had been grumbling at the loss of their beloved Abbot Robert. Things had not been going so well at Molesme. There was something missing; they weren't quite sure what it was. Actually, although not all realized it, what was missing was the presence of a Saint. Also the governing heads of Molesme looked with some jealousy upon the New Monastery, which now gave promise of becoming a threat to the parent-house.
So, forgetting the fact that they had been unwilling to conform to his austere way, they inconsistently enough began to demand his return. The incumbent abbot was forced to send a plea to Rome, begging Pope Urban II to order Robert to return to his first monastery of Molesme. Robert, who had mastered the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (and it is said that the hardest of these is obedience) complied without demur, leaving the paradise of silence in the wilderness, less than two years after he had established it, and returned to the trials of Molesme. There, a few years later he died, too soon to realize that from the slender shoot he had planted in a swamp would grow the tremendous and powerful tree, which for two centuries would dominate the ecclesiastical life of Europe.
Upon his departure from Citeaux, the holy Alberic had been elected by his brother-monks abbot of the Novum Monasterium. It was an almost impossible assignment, now that Robert had gone; for hostile forces resented the reform movement and attempted to destroy it. The poverty and hardship of the monks were excelled only by their zeal and labor. But Alberic had a genius for organization. He won from the reigning Pope, Paschal II, protection and approval of the monastery, and secured its peaceful development without interference. And he composed the first Statutes of Citeaux. He also introduced lay brothers into the community, who would share the privileges of the monks and yet be relieved of many of their duties, thus becoming free for longer hours in the fields and workshops.
Alberic had a great devotion to the Mother of God, and the story goes that during his abbotship she appeared to him and presented him with a white robe, intimating that this should be the habit of the monks of Citeaux, and would replace the black robe of the Benedictines which they had hitherto worn. From that day forward the Cistercians, clad in white with a black tunic, became known as the White Monks. And consistently through the centuries they maintained their devotion to Our Lady.
The community, because of its stark austerity, grew slowly. When Alberic died some nine years later, he was succeeded as abbot by Stephen Harding, the Englishman who had found his vocation in Burgundy. He was to write the Exordium Parvum to expound the purposes of Citeaux. An ascetic to the core, Stephen maintained the austerity set by his predecessors; thus the growth of the little family of cenobites not only remained static, but even diminished as sickness and death swept their slender ranks. For three years Stephen struggled to maintain the impoverished community, constantly praying for reinforcements. Then one day, in the year 1112, there came a knock at the monastery gates. It was to turn the tide of fortune for Citeaux.
Without the portals waited a company of thirty-one horsemen, elaborately mounted and richly dressed all young noblemen of Burgundy. Their leader was the winning Bernard of Fontaines, twenty-one years of age and son of nobly-born parents by whom he had been well educated. Quickly tiring of a life of pleasure and luxury, Bernard, deeply religious, had been drawn as by a magnet toward Citeaux. The extraordinary thing was that upon announcing his decision to become a monk, all his four brothers, all his cousins, and many gay young men of his acquaintance declared in a body that they too would become monks and would follow him even into the austerity and silence of Citeaux. Abbot Stephen could scarcely believe his ears as Bernard, dismounting from his horse, knelt in the dust and begged that the company of thirty-one be admitted as postulants.
It was the saving of Citeaux. Stephen and Bernard were spiritually of complete rapport; and Bernard was born to be a leader. Soon the monastery was nourishing beyond its bounds, and within a few years it became necessary to expand. Accordingly in 1113, a "daughter-house," La Ferte, was founded in the diocese of Chalons; another, Pontigny, in the diocese of Auxerre; and Morimond, in the diocese of Langres. Stephen dispatched Bernard and some companions to another spot in Langres, where in a deep, wooded valley Bernard set up still another foundation, giving it the name Clairvaux. To him and the other monks it did indeed appear a "Valley of Light," and that light was to illumine what was to become the greatest of all the first daughter-houses. In the year 1115, Bernard at the age of twenty-five had become the first abbot of Clairvaux. Now indeed, did the Order of Citeaux flourish.
Within eight years of its founding, Stephen's organizational ability and the saintly Bernard's power to win people, had so increased the following that now there were twelve daughter-houses scattered throughout France. All were carefully situated in remote places, far from the paths of the world and those who trod them. Stephen had written his great Charter of Charity to supplement the original statutes and to draw the group into a tightly knit organization. It established annual General Chapters at which all the abbots would convene to discuss problems and to legislate.
It also provided for annual supervisory visits by the abbots of the parent-houses, to all their foundations. The Charter was approved by Pope Callistus II, and its pattern became a model for other religious congregations. Stephen also introduced the Cistercian observance into the convent of Benedictine nuns of Tart, whose abbess was Bernard's only sister, Humbelina, later to be known as Blessed. By the close of the twelfth century an Order of Cistercian nuns had been established.
While Stephen was firmly grounding his organization, Bernard, the brilliant leader, was busy preaching God's love for man. Wherever he talked, men from every walk of life followed him along the Cistercian path: scholars and knights, princes and troubadours, artisans and peasants. One of his pupils became the first Cistercian Pope, Eugenius III, who in 1134 ordered Bernard to preach a new Crusade throughout Europe. His eloquence and holy life wrought thousands of conversions, and drew increasing numbers to the monasteries. Under the sweep and power of his inspiration, the Order spread out from France into most of contemporary Europe, establishing foundations in Italy, Germany, England, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, France, Scotland, Portugal, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, Bohemia, and all Scandinavia.
When Bernard died in 1153, he left a community at Clairvaux alone of 700 monks and lay brothers. The Order's total personnel must have run into the thousands, for there were some 350 Cistercian houses scattered over the continent. The Cistercian reform was on in full swing. Monks everywhere were following the precepts laid down by Abbot Robert in the swamps of Citeaux silence, prayer, contemplation; the Divine Office, a living from the soil the Rule of Saint Benedict. And the once powerful Order of Cluny was on the decline. Robert, Alberic, and Stephen, the first three abbots of Citeaux, eventually were canonized as Saints; as, only twenty-one years after his death, was also Bernard of Clairvaux. Revered as the great Saint of contemplatives, he was chosen by Dante as his guide to the throne of God in the Paradiso.
Bernard had launched the Order's golden age, which was to last almost two hundred years, and to produce numerous scholars, statesmen, counselors of kings; two Popes, and a galaxy of more than forty Saints. Paradoxically, in Bernard's era (the age of chivalry and of the Crusades) it even produced warriors. Bernard and his monks assisted in the formation of the Knights Templars, the Knights of Alcantara, the Wing of Saint Michael, and other military orders. They followed the Crusades; in the thick of combat they advised military commanders, and even died fighting. Cistercian lay brothers fought against the Moors in the defense of the castle of Calatrava.
When the Order was at its zenith, the Abbot of Citeaux was indeed a figure to conjure with. Elected from the total membership, he was not only superior-general of all the foundations, but a power in both Church and state. He was first counsellor in the Parliament of Burgundy, and held the right to be called to the assembly of states-general of the kingdom.
Although it would be many years before Citeaux would outwardly evince any signs of decline, actually forces were at work by the middle of the thirteenth century which were weakening it. Generally speaking, the Order was dying side by side with the era of feudalism. The abbots with their far-flung rural estates were, in a sense, feudal lords. The monks and lay brothers working the fields were producing for their abbeys what the serfs were producing for their masters. Every perquisite of the land belonged either to a monastery, or to a local ruler.
Under this system, the reform which Robert had launched in the swamps of Citeaux a hundred and fifty years earlier, and had dedicated to poverty, prayer, and simplicity, had with its vast expansion grown over-rich and over-powerful. While its monks remained poor, and large numbers faithfully followed the Rule, its abbeys were rich with the land they had acquired and the industry with which it had been developed. Forests had been cleared, swamps drained, irrigation established, and vast areas lay under cultivation. Virtual feudal estates, many holdings were so large that it had become necessary to develop a system of "granges" in the remote sections and at considerable distance from the monasteries shelters from which the lay brothers went forth every day to toil in the fields, returning to the monastery only at stated periods to observe their religious duties.
While within the monasteries the monks were busy illuminating beautiful manuscripts, and the abbot was engrossed in his extensive mercantile operations, the lay brothers in the fields were growing the produce he would sell, along with the wool which came from the monastery's numerous flocks and the wine which flowed from its vineyards. To be sure, the Cistercians were at the same time civilizing Europe. They had not only pushed back the wilderness and cultivated the waste places, but were teaching the peasantry the agricultural arts, and educating them.
But the tradition of wresting a living from the soil had conspired to make them one of the most powerful economic forces of mediaeval Europe. With their profits they were amassing valuable libraries for the monasteries; building magnificent churches and abbeys which under the hands of their own inspired architects were fusing the Romanesque and the Gothic styles of architecture into masterpieces of rugged simplicity which to this day delight the eye of man. Yet in all this they did not forget the poor. Each monastery maintained a house for these, and an infirmary for the sick who were brought to its doors. Plentiful food was daily dispensed to all in need. It should never be forgotten that the monks were the main purveyors of widespread charity in the centuries before municipalities and the state had come to recognize their own responsibility in this respect.
Meanwhile feudalism, with which Cistercianism was so closely allied, was dying as the development of industry and trade increasingly drew men from the rural sections into the villages and towns. As the population tended to centralize, a new type of religious Order had, at the start of the thirteenth century, sprung into being. Francis and Dominic, far from fleeing the haunts of men as did the contemplatives, had led their followers into an active apostolate wherever men were thickest. With an eye upon the condition of the masses, they had dedicated their friars to poverty; and almost as a rebuke to the richly endowed monasteries, had caused them to foreswear any ownership of property. Among the long established religious congregations, their new scheme seemed positively revolutionary. To the abbots, that is; to the masses it carried great appeal.
Where the Cistercians had aggrandized to their own detriment, from what paradoxically was a virtuous practice and primal Benedictine precept to earn their daily bread by working the soil the Franciscans and Dominicans were to win the people by begging theirs. They were the first mendicant Orders, and while working for subsistence was not prohibited, it was made secondary to their ministry of preaching and succoring the poor. They would live from hand to mouth, and by the charity, which the Lord might put into the hearts of those whom they helped and healed.
The result was devastating to the Cistercians. Increasing thousands hastened to follow Francis and Dominic, and the ancient Order of Citeaux began to see its hitherto unassailable position threatened. Taking stock of themselves, they were forced to emerge somewhat from their precious solitudes, to engage in activities upon which the mendicant Orders were already embarked: affiliation of their scholars with the great universities, and pastoral duties among the people. But the colleges they established and the innovations they introduced could not stem the tide. Over-expansion had weakened administration. Rivalries between the two great abbeys of Citeaux and Clairvaux had resulted in a serious breach as early as 1262. With riches and power the primitive spirit of Citeaux had been soiled. Something had gone out of it, not to be easily regained.
The abbots, widely scattered in many countries and busy directing armies of workers and trading operations, now found little time to attend the annual General Chapters which had held the Order in unity. Indeed, many of them considered themselves almost autonomous from the parent tree. Nevertheless, the thirteenth century closed with little perceptible outward change, and the fourteenth dawned upon a total of 1600 Cistercian foundations scattered over the continent. In 1334 they won the Papacy for a second time by the election of Pope Benedict XII, who along with succeeding Popes tried unsuccessfully to help restore the harmony, which had marked the first glorious century of Citeaux's existence.
The second half of the fourteenth century proved an ill-starred epoch for the Order. Disasters were three-fold; the start of the Hundred Years' War and corresponding loss of men; the decimation wrought by the Black Death; and the system of abbeys held in commendam, ordained by the Papacy in an effort to restore unity. It involved the placing of high Church dignitaries who were members of no religious Order, at the heads of the more important abbeys. The new abbots in commendam were to supervise the revenues, allocating some to the Papacy and some to themselves, with a share left over for the abbey. Princes and local rulers, jealous of the increased revenues to the Papacy, were quick to press their own claims upon monasteries within their territory; hence they also asserted the right to nominate abbots in commendam.
The result was chaos. The democratic process, by which the monks had been free to elect their own abbots, was completely broken down. The system spread, for the abbeys, built by the industry of monks and lay brothers, were rich plums. By the middle of the fifteenth century commendatory abbots ruled all the important monasteries of Europe, with the exception only of England. Generally these abbots, who rarely lived in the monasteries, were members of the hierarchy; and sometimes even laymen. They took their share of the revenues, leaving little for the poor monks and the house. Although eventually the abbeys of Citeaux and Clairvaux and a few others won exemption from this system, the custom generally proved ruinous to the far-flung Cistercian foundations.
Now once again did the spirit of Saint Benedict stir uneasily in the hearts of some, as it had long ago stirred in Robert's in his wooded retreat of prayer. Reforms were dreamed of and even launched, but they were a trifle late. More than two hundred years had elapsed since the death of Francis, the Little Poor Man years in which the Franciscans and Dominicans, busy in their populous centers, had won the hearts of the people and innumerable followers. It was the year 1446 before the first Cistercian congregation detached itself from Citeaux, and was launched independently in Spain. By the start of the sixteenth century others existed in Tuscany, Lombardy, and Portugal.
It has been charged that the Renaissance and the spirit of change it brought to Europe before this time, was a contributory factor in the disruption of the Order. But one need only look to the Protestant Reformation, which before the mid-sixteenth century had swept Germany, England, and other lands, to find the cause for the almost virtual extinction of the Order of Citeaux. While the Latin countries remained Catholic, elsewhere monasteries were demolished or expropriated; monks imprisoned, hanged, or banished; and many Cistercians died as martyrs for the Faith. When the storm had at length quieted, the shaken Order began to rebuild; and as early as 1563 a new independent reform, the congregation of the Feuillants (which even outdid Saint Benedict in austerity) was launched, spreading throughout France and Italy. Others soon sprang up in Aragon, Poland, Ireland, and southern Italy. That of northern Germany was established in 1595 at the request of Pope Clement VIII. These movements inspired reform within the parent branch, and Citeaux began again to emerge as a force in contemporary life.
But the reform which was to make history was that of the "Strict Observance," launched quietly in the abbeys of Charmoye and Chatillon, and introduced, with the approval of the Abbot of Citeaux, into Saint Bernard's own Clairvaux by its abbot, Denis Largentier, in 1615. By the middle of the seventeenth century there were at least sixty-two monasteries following the Strict Observance. Although these reform houses remained subject generally to the jurisdiction of Citeaux, they were permitted to enact legislation through local chapters. Such also was the status of the sturdy congregation of northern Germany and that of a name to become famous the abbey of La Grande Trappe in Normandy. Those abbeys, which viewed askance the return to greater austerity remained completely subject to Citeaux; but themselves began to experience a spiritual renewal. At the same time a breach between the two groups of differing observance was steadily widening.
In 1636 there occurred one of the most curious developments to be chronicled in all Cistercian history. The great Cardinal Richelieu suddenly became Abbot General of the Order. There is confusion on the point of his election, some authorities claiming that he practically seized the office without recourse to due procedure; and others that he was elected by the General Chapter, controlled by the non-reform group which resented the Strict Observance and which hopefully expected the mighty Cardinal to abolish it forever. If so, they must have been greatly surprised. For Richelieu took control of the mother abbey of Citeaux, promptly evicted from it all its non-reform monks whose stronghold it had been, and installed in their places monks of the Strict Observance. The bitterness thus created was great, the majority party feeling, not without reason, that they had been shabbily treated. Upon the death of His Eminence and by force of superior numbers, they were quick to reinstall themselves at Citeaux, sending the members of the Strict Observance without ceremony back to their austere monasteries.
Actually at the time there was small difference between the two Cistercian movements, their main point of variance appearing to be nothing more important than the question of abstinence from meat. Meantime, the devitalizing system of abbeys held in commendam had continued, and upon this theme in 1636, was hung an event which was to have a profound effect upon the future history of Cistercianism. Armand-Jean le Bouthillier de Ranee, born to the nobility, godson of Cardinal Richelieu, son of the secretary of Marie de Medicis, was made at the tender age of ten, commendatory abbot of the Cistercian abbey of La Grande Trappe. Later he was to launch the reform, which came to be known as Trappist, and which, after some two centuries was to become the nucleus of a separate and distinct Cistercian Order, whose history is reviewed in a succeeding chapter.
By the year 1662 the breach between the two observances had widened to such an extent that Pope Alexander VII asked both groups to send representatives to Rome for a series of conferences designed to bring about harmony in the great Cistercian family. The result led to a clarification of observances and a Papal Bull of April 19, 1666, which while preserving the single Order, definitely divided the Cistercians into two branches: the Strict Observance, still a minority; and the more numerous non-reform group, now called to distinguish it from the former, the Common Observance. One of the delegates for the Strict Observance to this important conference was Abbot de Rance of La Grande Trappe.
The hundred years which followed witnessed an increasing divergence between the activities of the two; the reformers clinging to austerity and withdrawal from the world; the others inclining further toward external activity, extending their pastoral work and their educational endeavors.
By the time the French Revolution crashed upon the world, the Cistercians were still ostensibly one Order, but with a widely divergent emphasis upon purpose. The Revolution and the suppressions of 1790 struck at their foundations as they struck at all religious congregations. The 228 monasteries, which existed in France alone, were dissolved; their monks dispersed. The abbot of Citeaux, Dom Francis Trouve, despairing of saving his abbey, urged Pope Pius VI to transfer all his powers to Robert Schlecht, the abbot of Salsmansweiler, of the Cistercian congregation of northern Germany, so that the abbatial succession might remain unbroken.
From France, the havoc caused by the Revolution, and later by Napoleon and successive anticlerical governments, spread throughout Europe, sweeping the Cistercians before it in Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Poland. Many of the dispersed monks sought refuge within the ranks of the secular clergy. The Cistercian Order of non-reformists, though greatly decimated, managed to survive in a few scattered spots, notably in a handful of houses within the Austrian Empire. As for the total Order, even wholesale expropriations and banishment failed to destroy the latent spirit of Cistercianism, and the hard core of its idealism.
The first reconstruction of the Cistercian Order of non-reformists began in Italy, early in the nineteenth century, and soon thereafter in Hungary, Belgium, France, Austria, and Germany. In Hungary the monastery of Zirc, sole surviving house, soon re-established two others; and before the end of the century could count four in all, upon which, however, the government had imposed the obligation of conducting schools. The revival in France was launched in 1855 in the ancient Cistercian abbey of Senanque. Restoration of other French houses followed, and the group was amalgamated as the Congregation of Senanque. Although of the Common Observance, they differ in placing greater emphasis upon the contemplative life. With less austerity than the Strict Observance, this single congregation is frequently referred to as the "Middle Observance."
In 1892 when Pope Leo XIII was effecting a fusion of the congregations of the Strict Observance, the monasteries of the Common Observance were invited to join it, but chose to remain aloof on the practical grounds of the incompatibility of the two observances. The Strict Observance, unified, became an entirely distinct and separate Order, and exists today as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, whose history will be traced in a succeeding chapter.
With the centuries, wide indeed had grown the span separating the mode of life of the two groups. Where three hundred years earlier they had differed mainly on the question of abstinence from meat, history had marched on, bringing persecution and disruption, and creating conflicting national and political conditions governing the widespread map of Cistercianism. Each group had clung devotedly to Saint Benedict, but forces stronger than either had caused a varying interpretation of his Rule. At the least, on one definite devotion which can be traced back to the beginnings made by Robert and his holy men they are still, after eight hundred years, united: the devotion to the Mother of God. She has held them with a common tie, as man and history could not.
From the reconstructed congregation of Austria which flourished strong and successful before World War II, monks of the Common Observance first came to the United States in 1927, and one year later founded their first American monastery in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, at Okauchee, Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Oconomowac. They called it Our Lady of Spring Bank. Soon after, they assumed charge of a mission-parish, Our Lady of Gerowval, near Paulding, Mississippi. Recently they have opened a house in Buffalo, New York, for young members of the Order who are studying for academic degrees.
In addition to the ancient monastic and liturgical observances, and the education of youth, the total Order conducts parishes and foreign missions. Following the First World War, it notably expanded its mission activity, establishing communities and schools in South America, Indochina (Vietnam), and Africa. It conducts five monasteries in Brazil, one in Bolivia, three in Vietnam, and one in Africa. At about the same period, the Order made a foundation in Canada. During this time, many new houses were formed in Europe, and the personnel of the Order almost doubled. In 1954, the Indochinese Congregation was formed.
The Cistercian Order is governed by an abbot general, elected for life, who resides in Rome. The General Chapter remains the supreme legislative body, and is composed of representatives from each foundation, all of which enjoy an extensive autonomy. At present the Order is divided into eleven congregations, and governs seventy-four houses throughout the world, numbering over 1500 members men who successfully combine the contemplative with the active life. Most of the monasteries which formerly existed behind the Iron Curtain have been dissolved.
Today the total number of Cistercians in the United States is forty, and they are at present staffing three monasteries, the principal of which is Our Lady of Spring Bank in Okauchee, Wisconsin, in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. This monastery lays stress on the contemplative life, and, with few exceptions, the work of the monastery is carried on within the limits of the monastic property. Retreat and farm work, and a variety of many other forms of work, both manual and intellectual, are performed at the monastery.
More than 800 years have stretched between the first Cistercian monastery, built in the wild swamps of Citeaux, and the American monastery which follows a life of prayer on the beautiful shores of a Wisconsin lake; but the spirit of Saint Robert of Champagne, now as then, still casts its radiance upon the destinies of the White Monks.
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