The Monastic Life


The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, celebrated each year on 2nd February, is also kept as the World Day of Prayer for the Consecrated Life.  As such, we pray both for those who are already living this vowed life in the Church and those whom, we know, God is calling, that they may hear his invitation in their hearts and answer, both humbly and courageously.  It is a life which explains itself, to some degree – a special consecration which sets the person aside to live a life of ongoing conversion and becoming conformed to Christ.  The consecration begins and grows through the grace of vows.  For many religious persons these consist in the so-called evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  For others, depending on the type and degree of vowed life, the vows may be expressed as promises.  For those, like Cistercian nuns and monks, who live according to the Rule of St Benedict, the vows are very particular: obedience, stability, and conversion of life (conversatio morum).

To celebrate this day of prayer this year we thought it would be good to hear, without much comment, what some of the Cistercian Fathers from the 12th and 13th century have to say about Cistercian monastic life.  Their thought and reflection continues to inform us in our life and invite us to deeper consideration of what it is God has called us to for him.  These men stood on the very foundations of the Cistercian reform and so possessed a very special outpouring of the Spirit in their lives, by which they constantly strengthened, comforted and stretched their brethren.  For us who still read them and hear them they continue to communicate the essence of our life, a life which listens closely to the Gospel word, the Word Himself, as he addresses himself to us and calls us into union with himself.


Aelred of Rievaulx – The Monastic Life: A Fortified City

From the beginning the Cistercian reformers wanted to claim again the frugality and asceticism which they read at the heart of the Rule of St Benedict.  The simplicity of their life was hung upon a shared embrace of outward practices which reflected interior grace and work.  And throughout their preaching there is the feeling that those who come to monasteries need monastic life if they are to live out the redemption won for them by Christ.

There are the celibates, who decide to observe chastity.  Some of them chose one city, some another.  Some chose solitude, others a cloister.  Some apply themselves more to fasting, some especially to vigils, while some tame the pride of the flesh by hard work every day and some extinguish their vices by heartfelt contrition and abundant tears.

Let us take a look at ourselves and our city.  Our way of life is a strongly fortified city surrounded on all sides by sound observances which, like walls and towers, rise up to prevent our enemy from deceiving us and enticing us away from our Emperor’s army.  What a wall poverty is!  How well it defends us against the pride of the world, against harmful and ruinous vanities and superfluities.  What a tower silence is! It repels the assaults of contention, quarrelling, dissension, and detraction.  What about obedience, humility, cheap clothing?  What about a restricted diet?  They are walls, they are towers against vices, against the attacks of our enemies.

You who are strong in religious observance and very quick to embrace all sorts of austerities should be warned not to judge rashly those whom you see tempering their rigour somewhat to the infirmities of the weak.


Aelred of Rievaulx – Observance without rigidity; compassion without relaxation

Aelred’s words here counter the idea that the monastic life was superhuman in what it proposed and demanded – the life always recognised the strengths and weaknesses of each individual: no one was to be broken by some type of ideal life, which ultimately could not be lived and would drive away from God rather than bring the monk close to the Divine Bridegroom.

I am entrusted with the care of my brother’s body and soul – for I do not love the whole man if I neglect anything belonging to either.  If I see him suffering some distress, whether on account of the austerity of the food or of the work or of the vigils – if, I say, I see that he is tormented in body and tempted at heart – for it is extremely difficult for the mind not to be tempted when the flesh suffers grievously – if I see him in such affliction and, although provided with the goods of the world, I shut up my heart against him, how can it be said that God’s love dwells in me? 

Surely, if I always conduct myself according to the rigour of the strong and do not on occasion accommodate myself to the infirmities of the weak, I am running not in the fragrance of Christ’s ointments but in the harshness of the Pharisees.  They vaunted themselves on their rigorous abstinence and condemned the disciple of the Lord, indeed the Lord himself, calling him a glutton and a wine-biber.  What must certainly be guarded against is fostering self-indulgent relaxation under the guise of accommodation.  Blessed Gregory’s maxim must be observed: observance without rigidity and compassion without relaxation (Aelred refers here to Pope Gregory the Great)


Guerric of Igny – Solitude in Community

One of the great and distinguishing features of monastic life is the degree to which both the community and the individual enjoy the privilege of solitude so as to become more aware of the presence of God, my brother and myself.  Guerric extols its quality as a monastic gift here.  The quotation from Ecclesiasticus is found throughout Cistercian writings as a signal for the necessity of community living.

If then you have been led away to remain in the solitude continue to stay there; wait there for the one who will save you from pusillanimity of spirit and the storm.  Jesus himself fasted indeed in the wilderness but the multitude that followed him into the desert he fed often and in a wonderful manner.

By the wonderful favour of God’s loving care, in this solitude of ours we have the peace of solitude and yet we do not lack the consolation and comfort of holy companionship.  It is possible for each of us to sit alone and be silent, because we have no one to disturb us with interruptions, and yet it cannot be said of us: “Woe to him who is alone, since he has nobody to console him or if he should fall has none to lift him up” (Eccles. 4, 10). 

We are surrounded by companions, yet we are never in a crowd.  We live, as it were, in a city, yet we have to contend with no tumult, so that the voice of one crying in the wilderness can be heard by us, provided only that we have interior silence to correspond to the exterior silence that surrounds us.  And now if the depths of your soul were to keep a quiet silence, the all-powerful Word would flow secretly into you from the Father’s throne.  Happy then is the man who has so fled the world’s tumult, who has so withdrawn into the solitude and secrecy of interior peace that he can hear not only the Voice of the Word but the Word himself: not John but Jesus.

He prepares the way who amends his life; he makes straight the path who directs his footsteps along the narrow way.  By what does a young man correct his way, if not by observing his words, if not by following in the footsteps of him who made himself the Way by which we might come to him?


Guerric of Igny – The Religious Habit: Buried with Christ

The religious habit is a sign – both to the world and to oneself – that a different reality can be lived.  The physical putting on of new garb represents the Pauline teaching of putting of Christ, the New Man.  In particular the Cistercian Fathers see this reflected in Chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Humility.

Rightly then this religious habit which I wear, to which is added almost no witness of virtue, fills me with both shame and fear.  For can I safely take to myself the name and honour of a monk when I do not possess its merit and virtue; since, as has been said before our time, an affected sanctity is a double iniquity, and the wolf that is caught in sheep’s clothing is to be condemned all the more severely?

You follow in the giant’s footsteps in these things, even if from afar, if you love poverty, if you choose its extreme limit among the poor, if you are subject to the monastery’s discipline, if you allow one who is less than yourself to command you, if you bear patiently with false brethren, if you overcome with meekness when you are judged, if you requite with charity those who unjustly make you suffer.  This humility truly rebaptizes us with no infringement of the sole baptism, for it does not repeat Christ’s death but renews the mortification and burial of sins and carries out in very truth what is represented in outward form by that baptism.

Behold, brethren, the true Jordan, that is the descent of the humble, in which we find that we may be devoutly rebaptized.  All that is required is that we should not be reluctant to go down day by day more deeply, be submerged more completely, and be wholly buried together with Christ.


Aelred of Rievaulx – The Monastic Tools of the Trade

All the Cistercian Fathers draw up lists – differing in little aspects from one to another – of the various tools which the life offers: here, Aelred recognises that each of us needs different tools.

For each one of us has his unique gift from God, one this but another that.  One person can make an offering of more work; another, more vigils; another, more fasting; another, more prayer; and another, more lectio or meditation.

The Moses of old established six cities of refuge for the children of Israel, three outside the Land of Promise and three within the Land of Promise, so that anyone who committed unintentional homicide would be safe if he fled to one of them.  There is a physical homicide and a spiritual homicide.  For sin indeed is the death of the soul.  And this is the worst kind of homicide: to kill oneself by vice or someone else by example.

It seems to me that those six cities of refuge can signify the six general exercises that are provided for us.  Three are physical: work, watching, and fasting.  These pertain especially to those who are still assailed by physical passions and are still, as it were, outside the Promised Land.  They cannot say: “Our way of life is in heaven.”  Three, however, are spiritual: lectio, prayer, and meditation.  These pertain to those especially whose passions are now weakened and who have passed on to an attachment to the virtues; in these cities they taste how sweet the Lord is.

We have fled to these cities, taking refuge from those who pursue us because of homicide.  Who are they?  Either the devil or our own cravings.  The more one sins, the more the very yearning to sin increases.  Listen to the Apostle, who intensely feared the enemy: “I see another law in my members, fighting against the law in my mind and leading me captive into the law of sin which is my members”.  Listen to him fleeing to these cities: “I chastise my body and bring it into submission”.


St Bernard of Clairvaux – The Sisters Martha and Mary, Models of the Monk

Contrary to popular teaching and devotion, the Cistercian Fathers held that the sisters Martha and Mary, Jesus’ friends in the House in Bethany, represented aspects of the monastic life that did not compete, but rather were both essential and had to be kept in balance.  Lazarus completes the picture, the beginning of conversion.

For we discover Martha as the Saviour’s friend in those who do the daily chores.  We find Lazarus, the mourning dove, in the novices just now dead to their sins, who toil with fresh wounds and mourn through fear of judgement. ‘Like the slain that lie in the grave, like those you remember no more ‘, so they amount to nothing until Christ’s command removes the burden of fear that crushes them like a block of stone, and they can breathe again with the hope of pardon.  We find a contemplative Mary in those who, cooperating with God’s grace over a long period of time, have attained to a better and happier state.  By now confident of forgiveness they no longer brood anxiously on the sad memory of their sins, but day and night they meditate on the ways of God with insatiable delight, even at times gazing with unveiled face, in unspeakable joy, on the splendour of the Bridegroom, being transformed into his likeness from splendour to splendour by the Spirit of the Lord.

The mind accustomed to quietude receives consolation from good works rooted in a sincere faith whenever, as often happens, the light of contemplation is withdrawn.  For who can enjoy the light of contemplation – I do not say continually but even for long – while she remains in the body?  But, as I said, as often as she falls away from contemplation she takes refuge in action, from which she will surely return to the former state as from an adjoining place, with greater intimacy, since these two are comrades and live together: for Martha is sister to Mary.  And she loses the light of contemplation, she does not permit herself to fall into the darkness of sin or the idleness of sloth, but holds herself within the light of good works.


St Bernard of Clairvaux – Sin and Conversion

At the heart of monastic life is the deep and personal embrace of the call to conversion: conversion is the monk’s work, transformation is Christ’s.  Again and again, the Cistercian Fathers warn against falling into the habit of sinning, and Bernard paints a vivid picture here of habit as a series of walls, progressively being thrown up by us between us and Christ.  But there is always a way back!

Let him who yields to sin take note that he has raised another wall against himself by that wicked and unlawful consentA man of this kind cannot boast that for him the Bridegroom stands behind the wall, because not one wall but walls intervene.  Much less still if the consent has passed to action, for then a third wall, the sinful act itself, wards off and bars the Bridegroom’s approach.  But what if the repetition of sins becomes a habit, or the habit induces contempt?  If you die like this, will you not be devoured a thousand times by those that roar as they await their food, before you can reach the Bridegroom now shut off from you not merely by one, but by a succession of walls?  

The first is sensual desire; the second, consent; the third, the action; the fourth, habit; the fifth, contempt.  Take care then to resist with all your strength the first movements of sensual desire lest they lure you to consent, and then the whole fabric of wickedness will vanish.  But there is one thing that you must attend to with total vigilance: that you always open the windows and lattices of your confessions.  Since therefore there are two kinds of compunction – the one in sorrow for our deviations, the other in rejoicing for God’s gifts – as often as I make that confession of my sins which is always accompanied by anguish of heart, I seem to open for myself a lattice or a narrow window.  God will not despise a humble and contrite heart.


St Bernard of Clairvaux – Preserving Peace in Community

Living in community, with little chance to avoid a brother, moments of anger, impatience and hurtful actions will arise.  But they cannot be allowed to linger.

When an offence is committed against you, a thing hard to avoid at times in communities like ours, do not immediately rush, as a worldly person may do, to retaliate dishonourably against your brother; nor under the guise of administering correction, should you dare to pierce with sharp and searing words one for who Christ was pleased to be crucified; nor to make grunting, resentful noises at him, nor mutter and murmur complaints, nor adopt a sneering air, nor indulge the loud laugh of contempt, nor knit the brow in menacing anger.  Let your passion die within, where it was born; a carrier of death, it must be allowed no exit or it will cause destruction, and then you can say with the Prophet, “I was troubled and I spoke not.”


Baldwin of Ford – The Monastic Community as Communion

As with other writers, the Cistercian Fathers looked to the example given by the early Christian community in Acts of the Apostles for a model of community life.  However, they also frequently went a step further, as Baldwin shows us here.

There is still another sort of communion: that of those who live in a (monastic) community.  It is said of them: “The multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul; no one said that any of the things that he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.”  What makes the common life, therefore, is one heart, one soul, and having everything in common.  Such a life is an earthly copy – so far as human weakness allows – of the life of the angels.  Since they have but one heart and one soul and all things in common, there is concord and unanimity throughout, and they always put the general profit and the common good before their own individual convenience.  They so far renounce themselves and what is theirs that none of them, if indeed he is (truly) one of them, whether in (making) decisions or in (giving) advice, presumes to make a stubborn defence of his own opinion, nor to strive hard after his own will and the desires of his own heart, nor to have the least thing which could be called his own.


Gilbert of Hoyland – Charity, the Emblem of Discipleship

Rightly, the Cistercian monastic way has been called a “school of charity”, and it is this charity which lies at the heart of Cistercian communio – the striving toward concord and unanimity, having one heart and one soul.

Charity rejoices in what is in the centre and common to all.  It does not seek its own interests but those of Christ Jesus.  Christ is common to all for he is the Mediator and therefore things which are not in the centre but confine themselves to a part, are not his.  Why do you wish through spite to restrict Christ to a part?  Do you want the grace of the Spirit to be miserly?  Do you want his blessings to be restricted to you alone?  Allow the Spirit of the Lord to spread and overflow and pour itself out over all flesh and fill the universe.  Do not imprison within the narrow limits of your heart a generosity that is common to all.  The Spirit bestows his riches upon all, and do you attempt to diminish the affluence of grace and reduce its immensity to pettiness?  Christ scorns the miserly confines of an envious heart.  His goodness cannot be held back by your jealousy.  His goodness flows freely; its oil pours itself not only into you but also into your neighbouring vessels.  Ensure that they be yours in turn  They will be yours, surely, if you rejoice in the common good.  “By this”, he says, “shall all know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Do you see how charity is the special emblem of discipleship in Christ and the singular mark of his teaching?


Aelred of Rievaulx – Friendship as the Basis for Community Life

Aelred has been noted, from his own day, as the master teacher in the way of spiritual friendship, and gives it ample space for development in his treatises The Mirror of Charity and On Spiritual Friendship.  Here, he sees it as an indispensable building block in a monastic community.

Whence it is that the Lord in the Gospel says, “I will not now call you servants but friends”, and then adding the reason for which they are considered worthy of the name friend: because all things, whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you.  And in another place: you are my friends, if you do the things that I command you.  From these words, as St Ambrose says, he gives the formula of friendship for us to follow: namely, that we do the will of our friend, that we disclose to our friend whatever confidences we have in our hearts, and that we be not ignorant of his confidences.  Let us lay bear to him our heart and let him disclose his to us.  For a friend hides nothing.  If he is true, he pours forth his soul, just as the Lord Jesus poured forth the mysteries of the Father.


Bernard of Clairvaux – Unity of Brethren: The Glue of Charity

In a striking image, St Bernard shows us that charity – evangelical love – binds a community.  Without it, our life together would be nothing and would disintegrate in mere appearance and vainglory.

For what is our hope, our joy, our crown of glory?  It is not your unity and unanimity whereby, I am happy to see, you are found to be lovers of brotherhood, possessing in yourselves before all else, that mutual charity which is the bond of perfection...  Will we be loved by the angels for our own sakes, namely, on account of our likeness to their spiritual nature, if they find that we do not love those who share our own human nature, especially if, from dissensions in our community, it is clear that we are fleshly rather than spiritual people?  Moreover will they love us for their own sakes either … if, God forbid, that one thing necessary is missing by which alone we can be united and built up together: I mean, the glue of charity.  How will they entertain the hope that the everlasting walls of that city are to be built through us, if they knew, if they perceived us to be, not living stones capable of being cemented together, but rather like the dust which the wind drives from the face of the earth?


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