THE ORIGINS OF THE CISTERCIAN ORDER

This monastic order dates back to the Middle Ages. It isn’t considered only a religious order but also a theoretical movement.

At the beginning of the 11th century, the Benedictine monastery of Cluny dominated the European monastic scene: its organisation and thoughts were trendy, to use a modern word. It was based on Saint Benedict’s Rule and on his work "Opus Dei". Yet the prayers and chorus mentioned by the Saint became so important that manual labour and reading slowly disappeared and the order became self-centred. A constrast spread between the rule written by the founder Saint and what had become the habit, made almost sacred by tradition.

It wasn’t easy to solve this antithesis, and around the debated personality of Robert of Molesme a movement rose, trying to find a compromise. In 1075 Abbot Robert, described as "a strange but sensitive man, shy as well as courageous" had founded the monastery of Molesme together with other hermits; the new monastery had soon became wealthy and well-known and became even richer through a number of donations given by rich benefactors.

Yet it later copied the contemplative model of Cluny, although Robert endeavoured to restore the primitive strictness, but the monks showed so much resistance that the abbot left the monastery and retired on a hermitage. Pope Urban III advised Robert to become reconciled with the monks but the abbot’s efforts proved unsuccessful, so Robert went to Hugues de Die, Archbishop of Lyons and Legate of the Holy See in France, who shared Robert’s ideals. Hugues "ordered the complete restoration of the original Benedictine rule and suggested Robert settling elsewhere to serve God better. He was sent to Burgundy to Duke Eudes and one of Eudes’ subjects, the Viscount Renard de Beaune, gave the abbot an area to build the monastery.

The origins

In 1098 the building of the new monastery began. It was called "Novum Monasterium", new as opposed to the old one in Molesme. The name of the surrounding area was Citeaux, from the Latin "Cistercium"; hence the name of the Cistercians. Yet the monks didn’t believe their movement to be a new one: they saw it as the renewal of an old and already established state.

Today it can be seen as a creative adjustment to a new situation: in other words, it meant first of all to overcome the contradiction between the "regula", the monastic rule, and tradition. This rule was based on the reading of the Gospel, seen as the main support to the soul and the only way to poverty, obedience, hierarchy, silence, fasting, common prayer. In this way Robert and the other monks found a compromise, looking for purity and honesty through poverty and seclusion.

Abbot Robert aroused so much jealousy that in 1099 he was obliged by the pope to go back to Molesme. In order to solve the quarrels sprung around the new monastery, Robert’s successor, Alberic, with the help of the Legate and of the Bishop of Chalon, asked for the pope’s protection, that was given in the year 1100 by Pope Pascal II. This new situation gave the monks a greater self-knowledge about the diversity and the discipline of what had to become a new monastic order. After Alberic’s death, Steven Harding became the new abbot and in this period Bernard de Fontaine (Saint Bernard) joined the order.

The church

These two people are rightly considered the two milestones of the Cistecian order. The first is the organiser, the founder of monasteries, among which La Ferté (1113), Pointigny (1114), Clairvaux and Morimond (1115) and the one who decided to give birth to the new order, which was founded in 1119 when Pope Callistus III approved the Charta Caritatis, the constitution of the Cistercian order. The second is the theologian, the one who completely devoted himself to God and the order, totally absorbed in spiritual life, preaching and practicing extreme austerity.