January 26, 2020 Solemnity of Our Holy Founders Gospel: Mark 10: 24b – 30
Today we give thanks that, in the year 1098, God brought together three men to do Him a specific service He committed only to them.
Robert, Alberic, Stephen –
different ages, nationalities, temperaments … no one of them could have done it alone.
Robert, a monk at age 15, a dreamer, always moving around, looking for greener grass.
But at age 70, a spark ignited within him, enabling him to lead 21 monks
from their monastery at Molesme
to begin a reformed monastery at Citeaux, eighty miles south.
Alberic, his invisible partner, a caretaker, “lover of the brethren,” elected Second Abbot.
He provided consistency that became a foundation for future growth.
Stephen, the Englishman, called Stephen Harding, a perfectionist, an organizer, Third Abbot.
He set up the Scriptorium to copy Bibles and hymnals, producing the most authentic texts and hymns possible.
Word spread about their reformed lifestyle … new monks joined … eventually hundreds…
causing more than a dozen daughterhouses before Stephen’s death…
thus, the Order of Cistercians was born.
Ironically, they never intended an Order…. one good monastery to live out their monastic life
would have been enough.
The first growth came when that 22-year old looked over the wall at Citeaux,
stayed to visit, live, pray, work with them,
talked to Stephen Harding, the newly-elected Abbot, then went home.
But Bernard returned, followed by – some say – 30 others … all asking to join.
The question is:
What so attracted Bernard, what testimony was so irresistible that not only did he come back … but convinced his five brothers, two uncles, cousins, friends to join a monastery??
He could see the monks had one common goal: to turn their lives over to God.
Prayer came before anything else, accompanied by silence and solitude.
It was a life of saving their souls, where selfishness was brought into line.
They rose in the middle of the night to pray, with a real thirst to pray,
to taste and see how good God is.
Their community prayer centered around celebrating the Divine Office, the way the Rule of Benedict laid it out.
Another thing was their simplicity and poverty.
They chose to live poor, like the poor Christ:
No gold in their church… only wrought iron candlesticks and plain undecorated vestments.
Even their clothing: Good black dyes… which didn’t wash out or fade … were costly..
so, instead of black robes, they wore whatever wool came off the sheep … undyed … labeling them ‘the White Monks’.
They shared simple meals: each had a pound of bread, a pint of drink, two dishes of cooked vegetables, enough to keep the body fervent in worship of God … but no meat, because meat was for tables of the rich.
Brotherhood was all-important.
Having left behind whatever riches, lands, or titles they had,
nobles got merged with servants into equality in Christ,
with no part of worldly rank or hierarchy.
Per the Rule of Benedict, they were brothers gathered around one father, the Abbot,
the only mark of exception being a greater sanctity, achievable by all.
Work and silence were essential.
They chose to do the work themselves, manual labor, raising animals, because Benedict had written: “They are truly monks when they live by the labor of their hands as did our Fathers and the Apostles.”
They lived in a world of Silence, using speech and music only to praise God.
There were no hawks or hunting dogs, no tournaments or games, only what led to prayer.
But external disciplines like these weren’t enough to attract Bernard … They were the means,
man-made tools to prune back human appetites.
The main attractiveness was the monks’ fervor and dedication to saving their souls …
getting to heaven … which they couldn’t do alone … they needed each other.
In a world of knights and armor and liege lords,
the monks were Soldiers of Christ, robed in white,
united — one army lined up for spiritual warfare, ready to fight their sins and failures.
They admitted being individually weak and vulnerable,
but they were welded together by bonds of charity.
They were mutually willing to accept each other and help each other,
because they got healed as they healed others.
They forgave each other because their own forgiveness flowed from forgiving others.
They were willing to live together in love, even tho they might not be loved back.
As monks, they were willing to do battle with whatever might destroy monastic life.
They vowed personal conversion … to be changed through love …
and they proved how serious they were about observing Christ’s Golden Rule.
Their test for love of the unseen God
was love of the neighbor, who can be seen..
neighbor defined as the monk next to them.
No matter his dialect or village,
noble-born or peasant,
he was called by God, an equal, a brother to be respected and loved.
The test was simple: Do I treat my brother as I want to be treated?
Not the brother I like … what reward’s in that?
But the one I don’t like … How do I treat him?
Am I rude to him … walk away … mumbling something?
Do I speak well of him, or open my lips in gossip?
They fought trading in gossip, saying:
‘Meat is forbidden,’ but less a sin to chew on a roast than chew on a brother.’
They struggled against judging others,
being the Pharisee who condemns and murmurs: “He’s not a good monk!”
‘Garments of fur are forbidden’, they said,
‘but far less a sin to hide fur clothing under the cloak,
than to wear God’s robes and judge another.’
They asked themselves: Which brother is it I don’t want to travel with,
have sitting next to me in the wagon
all the way to market … and back?
That’s where my conversion is stalled. That’s where I have work to do.
When Bernard saw how intent they were on building a community of love,
how they would welcome anyone truly seeking God,
how could he NOT return to join them …
how could his 30 friends NOT follow him to see if all this were true???
Our Father Raymond called them “Three Religious Rebels,” Robert, Alberic and Stephen.
They were more dreamers, dreaming the dreams of God.
They didn’t so much build a monastery,
as build up a patrimony passed down to us, 900 years later.
If we’re really thankful, and want to honor them, they would ask us
to allow God to kindle a spark within us today,
to continue on living the vows we’ve professed in their Order,
to help each other live lives of love and prayer…
And may God bring us all together to life everlasting! Amen.