the abbots of citeaux: lovers of the swamp


This is my homily from January 27, the feast of the Abbots of Citeaux. As you can see, I’ve really been on a roll with this fortress vs. ecosystem image, but this goes right along with the homily for Scholastica. 

In the late 11th century a restless spirit was sweeping Europe. As C. H. Lawrence puts it, folks were “seeking an outlet in new forms of religious organization. Eremitical movements appeared … some of which originated new monastic orders. All of them displayed a common desire to break away from existing forms of monastic and clerical life … In some cases the aspiration was for a simpler kind of claustral life based upon a literal observance of the Rule, a desire to reinstate manual labor and private meditation, and recover seclusion from the outside world.” These were the ideals that prompted a man named Robert “and a group of hermits in the Burgundian forest to found the abbey of Molesme, and later, in 1098, to secede from it [too] in search of a wilder and more remote spot in Citeaux.”

Indeed Robert and 21 companions relocated to this remote place near Dijon, France. In that place there was a small stream of water that overflowed its banks and formed a marsh––which may be a nice way of putting it. Some would say it was a swamp! This swampy marshland was covered with rushes and course grasses that in the regional dialect were known as cistels. That word cistels later morphed into proper French as Citeaux, and thus was born these “lovers of the place,” as one of their abbots, Stephen Harding, was known. Maybe better to call them “lovers of the swamp”! That place was described as “a place unknown to men and hitherto inhabited only by wild beasts.” And thus also, on the Feast of St. Benedict 1098, began a strict observance of the Rule of St. Benedict in what they themselves called the novum monasterium, the “new monastery,” to distinguish them from the abbey Molesme from which they had all come. Robert was eventually called back to Molesme, and he was replaced by Alberic, who gave the monks their distinctive white habit. Then came Stephen Harding, during whose term as abbot Bernard arrived with his thirty companions before heading off to head his own Cistercian foundation at Clairvaux. And from then on the Cistercians became a huge congregation, producing 23 abbots who were counted as either saints or blesseds. Citeaux itself stayed open for nearly 700 years, and spawned not only its own congregation but also the strict observance of the strict observance, the so-called Trappists.

This reminded me of that image that I liked so much, marking the difference between a fortress and a swamp, the very sturdy masculine image of something built on a high, dry, solid spot that never changes, as opposed to the feminine image of a living ecosystem that is constantly changing, constantly calling for adaptation and evolution. In this case, the first Cistercians built a fortress on top of a swamp! And you are free to read as much into that as you wish! Maybe it is always that way: we think we are building something solid, and we forget to take into account active landslides and mudslides and earthquakes and tremors and droughts and forest fires. We forget that the ground is always shifting in some way, and that the Ground of Being itself is constantly pouring creation forth, as Aquinas says about God from whom issues forth a creatio continua, in ever-new forms, ever evolving.

At an individual level, this coincides with the first lines of the section from the Letter to the Hebrews that we read that day: Recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes publicly exposed to abuse and persecution… (Heb 10:32-33) I suppose it’s tempting to think that once we have had some immediate experience of God that everything is going to be okay from then on out. It could feel that way! That this is going to solve everything. And we get disappointed that we are still selfish and petty, we are still lazy and indulgent, that we are still impatient with the daily exigencies of life let alone the huge challenges that come our way. But this lets us know that enlightenment is just the beginning, the beginning of real life, the beginning of incarnating that experience in real life, and bad things still happen to good people, and even holy people, deeply enlightened people, can sometimes still make huge mistakes if they have not done the work of allowing that experience to transform the entirety of their being, inside and out, as the circumstances evolve and change. So the author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that this too is what we in the monastic tradition call conversatio morum–– and we will need endurance, so that when we have done the will of God we may receive what was promised. As we sing when we make our vows, Do not disappoint me of my hope.

This is the challenge as I see it, not only in our individual lives––to weather the changes in the world around us, microcosm and macrocosm, and gracefully face the seasons of our own lives; but also in our communal lives, our religious lives, our shared vocations, even specifically the future of religious life in the church, the future of monasticism, of Camaldolese monasticism, the future of New Camaldoli. Will we endure through the hard struggles? Will we have the patience and the trust, the hope to allow the ecosystem to change and grow? Will we be flexible enough as the ground shifts and evolves to roll with it? The image from that day’s gospel was also helpful here (Mk 4:26-34), especially for anyone in a position of authority or leadership, reminding us of how lightly we have to hold our own plans and visions. Our job is simply to scatter the seed on the land, and then we sleep and rise night and day and the seed will sprout and grow, we know not how! The earth––the ground––produces of itself––all we do is scatter the seed!––first the stalk, then the head––oh, it takes so much patience!––then the full grain in the head. And when the grain is ripe, we wield the sickle at once because the harvest will have come.

I read that famous passage of Reinhold Neibuhr again the other day, and it gave me a lot of consolation, a lot of hope, about the future of New Camaldoli, about the future of monasticism, about the future in general. I thought it especially poignant as we remember these monks who began a reform that became a legacy that they could never have seen when they walked into their beloved swamp with the desire simply to live the monastic life with as much fervor as they could muster:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.

[1] Heb 10:32-33.

[2] Mk 4:26-34.

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