Being a Cistercian – FAQs

The nature of the Cistercian monastic life is such that it invites a great number of questions, dealing with all sorts of aspects of the vocation.  Perhaps because it has become somewhat less well-known today but also, conversely, because monks and cloistered religious are more than ever being portrayed in media and films – think of The Name of the Rose, Cadfael, and even some of the almost religious characters in Game of Thrones – people’s curiosity is awakened, and they begin to wonder about what we do, how we do it, and why we do it.  So, in this first article we will try to pick out some of the more common questions about our life, and attempt to provide brief answers. 

  1. Where does the name ‘Cistercian’ originate?
    • The name by which we are known – Cistercian – is derived from the Latin place name of the area in which the Order was founded: Cistercium, rendered into French as Cîteaux.  It’s original meaning, handily enough, seemed to mean a “desert place” or “wilderness”, which, of course, suited our founding fathers down to the ground.   Cîteaux is just outside Dijon, in France.
  1. Why are Cistercians sometimes called ‘Trappists’?
    • The term Trappist is one which is revered in our Order and serves as an alternative designation, especially in European countries and in the USA.  Specifically, it denotes a further reform of our Order – something of a return, in fact, or reclaiming of our founding charism, and especially the stricter observance of the Rule of St Benedict – which was led by the great abbot of the monastery of La Trappe, Armand Jean de Rancé (1626-1700).  While overwhelmingly penitential in its practice, the life at La Trappe centred on a frugality which was to become the characteristic of the Reformed Cistercian unification of 1892, and which ultimately saw the regulation of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (OCSO), to which we belong.  So, essentially there is no difference between Cistercians of the Strict Observance and Trappists.
  1. Why is “The Rule” so important?
    • When we refer to “The Rule” we intend The Holy Rule of St Benedict.  Written around 520 by the monk Benedict of Nursia, who founded, among other monasteries, Subiaco and Monte Cassino, it became, by around 800 the most widely applied monastic rule in European monasteries.  The Rule of St Benedict emerged as the favoured rule over other such rules as those of St Augustine, St Basil and St Columbanus, all of which had some application in those centuries.  The Rule, then, became the single great building block of a most spectacular monastic reform in the ninth century centred on the Benedictine monastery at Cluny in France.  The Cluniac reform eventually gave way to the Cistercian reform, which began in 1098 with the foundation of Cîteaux, which looked to a stricter, truer monastic life lived in accordance with St Benedict’s Rule.
    • The Rule of St Benedict has continued to be the formative document for monks and nuns of the Benedictine tradition (which includes, of course, Cistercians) to this present day.
  1. What led to the founding of the Cistercian Order?
    • It’s frequently the case that new movements come about through a desire for reform, and Cîteaux was no different.  Dissatisfied with the manner in which Benedictine monastic life was being lived in his monastery in Molesme, the Abbot Robert decided that he would up sticks and, with some companion monks, head off to establish a New Monastery (and this was the name the new foundation took to itself initially) where monastic life could be lived with greater fidelity to the Rule of St Benedict.  So, essentially Cîteaux was an attempt to reform monastic life lived according to the Holy Rule.  It had a bumpy start: Robert was ordered to return to Molesme because, understandably, his own monks there were not a little put out by his taking off; life was tough for the pioneers as they tried to establish themselves under two succeeding abbots, Alberic and Stephen Harding; and the place looked doomed to failure until a young Burgundian noble man called Bernard arrived at the monastery door in 1112 or 1113, with most of his family in tow, and they all joined up!  And we’ve never looked back!
  1. Why do you wear funny clothes?
    • Looking around us today at some of the clobber people call clothing we look reasonably respectable!  That aside, the monastic habit (to give it the dignity it deserves) has a long history,  There seems to be no doubt that from earliest times – certainly from the time of monasticism in the Egyptian desert – a specific type of clothing was given which was associated with this type of life.  So, Pachomius, when he begins his monastic life, is clothed with the habit.  John Cassian, in The Institutes, gives a spiritual interpretation of the monastic habit.  St Benedict, according to the dialogue of Gregory the Great which tells us about his life, receives the monastic habit from the monk, Romanus.  And when he comes to write the Rule, Benedict is quite specific about the clothing of the new monk in the habit of the monastery, and is clear that the abbot should provide proper clothing and the monks should have their monastic tunics and cowls (see the Rule of St Benedict chps 55 and 58).
    • As with most formal stations and offices in life there is often a designated uniform associated.  Perhaps one of the astonishing aspects of life today is the loss of this sense of dressing for specific functions, a sort of inverted snobbery about uniforms.  The monastic habit was undoubtedly simply a development of the common clothing of the age, but perhaps made with greater care and formalised in a certain sense, especially because it became the garb of the monastic as they went into Church.  The same is exactly true of the vestments which are used during Mass and other liturgical celebrations – they are formalised and developed versions of Roman dress.  For Cistercians the habit is a relatively simple matter and, as with all these things, reasonably practical: a white robe which serves as the fundamental, all-covering garment; the black scapular, literally a garment worn over the shoulders – originally the scapular was a work garment; and a leather belt to keep everything together.  Sandals or shoes are worn according to preference, although we don’t tend to the Gucci/Prada end of the spectrum!  Then for the Work of God – the Divine Office, our community prayer, and the central activity of monastic life – we wear a cowl, a big fitting white garment with long sleeves which cover our hands.  This, probably, was intended to be the distinguishing dress of the monk and, indeed, gives Cistercians their traditional nickname – the White Monks – because the Cistercian cowl was woven from unbleached and undyed wool, unlike that of the Benedictines, or Black Monks.
  1. What does the monastic diet consist of?
    • The short answer to that is: food. It’s astonishing to notice how secular society has progressively convulsed and contorted itself over the issue of food – what to eat, what not to eat, how often to eat; what diet to adopt this month; how I should go about my detox this month, because I need to get ready to retox next month; carnivor, herbivor, pescatorian, vegetarian, vegan (am I leaving some out?).  But food – as those of us who know about the eight afflictive thoughts will tell you – has always been on the menu.
    • Our diet, once again, takes its lead from the need to live in a frugal way and according to the advice given by Benedict in the Rule.  And he is extraordinarily practical.  His life was lived in a  time of real crisis – the Italian peninsula was being overrun by the northern tribes, there was a fair bit of war waging and food shortage no doubt, and so he wanted his monasteries to be able to provide for themselves – “grow their own”, if you like.  So, the Rule gives details about the types of meals and when the community should eat (and fast).  The monastery should have a kitchen garden and, presumably, be able to produce its own bread, since that is a daily staple.  For the most part the flesh of animals is not to be eaten, except by those who are sick, old or weak.  This might very well reflect a lack of animal husbandry in monasteries at that stage, but interestingly the monastic lifestyle is slower than most others, and so heavy mass foods like red meat are really not good to eat – they take a lot of digesting!  Generally, fish is eaten in our monasteries, but even at that it tends to be reserved for Sundays and feasts – at Christmas and Easter the main meal will be of fish, not turkey or something similar.  So, by and large, we stick to a vegetarian type diet.
    • All that said, even monks and nuns, whose diet tends to be simple but enough, cannot but be shocked and shamed at the scandal of food poverty today in our own society.  It’s even more the case today that most people eat until “they can’t eat another bite”, while many others not far from them cannot provide for their own families and themselves a bite to eat, and so have become more and more reliant on food banks.  We who don’t have to worry about our next meal, how much we have, and how much we still waste, should ask what we are doing to feed our neighbour – actually.  
  1. Why do you get up so early?
    • The tradition of rising in the night to pray goes back to Christ’s own prayer vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane and his instruction to his disciples, and so, obviously, to us: “Watch and pray”.  It is probably one of the hallmarks of monastic contemplative life: keeping vigil or watch.  Again, we see this in the lives and prayer practice of the Egyptian desert fathers and mothers – their own practice, and the practice of the communities which gathered about them, was to rise at night to pray the psalms, both individually and together.  The keeping of vigil in prayer is a recognition that the invitation to pray carries with it that invitation to pray always and to pray unceasingly – we don’t, effectively, take a break from our prayer, of being actively in God’s presence, and responding to his being present to us.  In this sense we have come to the heart of the monastic life – what is it for, what is it about, why does it exist?  It exists to offer the opportunity for men and women to answer this invitation – to enter into a situation and place in which it is possible to aim at this life of unceasing prayer.  What is the point of the monk, after all? It is to take up the privilege which the Church gives to be in prayer always.  And we, as monks and nuns who live this life, must always remind ourselves of this gift: the Church has created a space in which we can live this invitation to pray constantly, and gives us permission to do so.  Thus, our life’s work, and its only point, becomes prayer.
    • St Benedict backs this up in the Rule: we are to praise God in common at the Work of God, as he says, seven times each day, and rise at night to keep the prayer of vigil (RB16).  Rising at 3.30am or so each day does not happen from the very minute one enters a monastery!  It takes time for the body and spirit to adjust to this practice, and still, from time to time, the work of the day will sometimes leave us sleepy in the early hours.  But one thing must be born in mind: this is part of why a man or woman enters a monastery – to be able to give themselves over to prayer and to embrace the rhythm of prayer which a community has made its own.  It’s not for everyone to pray in this way, but many more should ask themselves, positively, am I being called to this chance and grace to begin to pray constantly, even when so many others forget to pray from time to time?
  1. Why are Benedictine vows different to other vows?
    • This is true.  In the Benedictine tradition, according to RB58, the newly professed member of a community makes three specific vows: obedience (as with other religious); stability in community; and conversion of life (known formally as conversatio morum).  All religious take the vow (or make the promise) of obedience – this is a formal adherence to Christ’s own example, in the first place, but also recognises that my own will is subject to the will of my superior and that of my community.  Stability is important for us because it recognises and consecrates our belonging to a specific, concrete, flesh and blood community of like-minded others.  This is very much a reflection of the early Church’s reality, as we come to know it in Acts of the Apostles 2:42 and 4:32 – the community is united heart and soul, and I, by my vow, am part of that unity and community.  Lastly, conversatio morum recognises that my “conversion”, my turning to the Lord, is a lifelong journey, which involves the whole of my person: so this vow includes, if you like, poverty and chastity, learning to live simply and in daily renunciation, and striving for the purity of heart which also embraces a purity in regard to my own body and emotions and feelings.  So, the Benedictine vows, in fact, provide a very beautiful summation of the other vows taken by other religious, and don’t exclude them at all.
  1. What’s an abbot?
    • The abbot is the head of the monastic community.  He is generally elected by his own community to take this place of precedence and service through the exercise of authority.  The Rule says that he takes the place of Christ in the monastery, which, as a calling in itself, is enough to make a man think twice about what he is undertaking!  St Benedict sees the abbot not so much as one who presides over his community, like some sort of tyrant or dictator, but rather as one who stands in the middle of a living, growing, praying and working community.  The community, after all, is, or should be, a dynamic place, embracing not automata who go about their monastic life in some sort of unthinking haze, but people who have various and different backgrounds and experiences and formations, who struggle in various ways, who enjoy and express joy when they can.  Just as there is no perfect community so there can be no perfect abbot – but he (or she, the abbess in a nuns’ monastery) must try to have a finger on his community’s pulse, discern the needs before they become too burdensome, find, in dialogue and conversation, ways to supply for these needs, and make sure, above all, that those who are in the monastery can live, as fully as they can expect, the life which they have come searching.  In this sense, also, the abbot must be the guardian of the charism which defines the community life at a monastery.  But above all, he is a monk too, and his monastic life, and not governance, is his priority.
  1.  What is “the cloister”?  
    • The term “cloister” is used in a variety of ways, and often was used in the past to stand for “the monastic life”.  So, when one “entered the cloister” it meant that one was away to be a monk or contemplative nun.
    • The term is derived from the Latin “clausura”, the closed or locked place, which in itself is derived from the Latin term “clavis” – a key.  So, the cloister is the place in which the monastics are locked away from the world – we on this side, you locked out (!) on the other side.  Then, the cloister itself, as a specific part of the monastery, is generally a covered place reserved to the monastic community.  Most cloisters, as part of the monastic building, are the covered walkway which surrounds the central garden or yard called the monastic garth.  The cloister is considered in all our houses as a place of silence and prayer.  Cloister, then, in a broader sense, comes to mean that part of the monastery which is reserved to the monastic community – more properly this is termed the monastic enclosure, and embraces not just the most of the main monastic building but also parts of the grounds around the monastery which are closed off to secular visitors.  Generally rules concerning cloister are strictly observed – most people need permission to enter the monastic cloister, and we still, generally, ask a permission to leave the cloister, on business or an errand. 

We’ll return to some more frequently asked questions about Cistercian monastic life in a couple of weeks’ time.

-Part of our series on the subject of Vocation-

Other posts…

2 thoughts on “Being a Cistercian – FAQs

  1. Brilliant description of monastic life ….clear history of “Cistercian/Trappist Order”……….I hope it encourages many to join you all in this essential work of praying for “the world”…… Me …well I didn’t get or hear the call……and am well past my sell by date now 🤫.but I advocate on behalf of all enclosed orders ….I see the attraction and wish you all well in all you do.



    On Sat 5 Dec 2020 at 13:00, Bethlehem Abbey Cistercian Family wrote:

    > Bethlehem Abbey posted: ” The nature of the Cistercian monastic life is > such that it invites a great number of questions, dealing with all sorts of > aspects of the vocation. Perhaps because it has become somewhat less > well-known today but also, conversely, because monks and ” >


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