Cistercian legacy
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If one is searching for windows from timemarks into the lives of real human beings, their literature, their history, and their work as part and parcel of planet Earth, and its creation and social dependencies, there can be no better place to begin that in the ruins of a Cistercian monastery.
The Cistercian Order originated towards the end of the eleventh century when certain monks broke away from the abbey of Molesme in Burgundy to follow a stricter rule. They found a fitting place in a wild wood at Citeaux and there built themselves a wooden monastery where other like-minded monks joined them. For a time the hardness of the rule frightened awav recruits, and the settlement was threatened with extinction. Stephen Harding, an Englishman from Sherborne in Dorset, one of the original members, became the abbot and the real founder of the new Order. Before he ruled, Citeaux was the poorest of all monasteries; when he died, it had become the head of an organisation which in a few years spread beyond the confines of Christendom and became the most powerful of all monastic Orders. It was puritanical in outlook and one of its inmates, the famous St. Bernard, thundered his denunciations against the luxury and temporalities of other monasteries, to which the Cistercians were a standing rebuke.
In his Apologia, written about 1124, he says, "I will not speak of the immense height of their churches, of their immoderate length, of their superfluous breadth, costly polishing, and strange designs, which while they attract the eyes of the worshipper, hinder the soul's devotion. However let that pass; we suppose it is done, as we are told, for the glory of God. But as a monk, I say, Tell me, O ye professors of poverty, what does gold do in a holy place? for amongst us, who have gone out from amongst the people, who have forsaken whatever things are fair and costly for Christ's sake; who have regarded all things beautiful to the eye, soft to the ear, agreeable to the smell, sweet to the taste, pleasant to the touch, all things which can gratify the body, as dross and dung that we might gain Christ, of whom among us, I ask, can devotion be excited by such means ? So carefully is the money laid out, that it returns multiplied many times. It is spent that it may be increased. By the sight of wonderful and costly vanities men are prompted to give rather than pray. What do you suppose is the object of all this? The repentance of the contrite, or the admiration of the gazers? Oh! vanity of Vanities! but more vain than foolish. What has all this to do with monks, with professors of poverty, with men of spiritual minds? In the cloisters, what is the meaning of those ridiculous monsters, of that deformed beauty, that beautiful deformity, before the eyes of the brethren when reading? In fact such an endless variety of forms appears everywhere, that it is more pleasant to read in the stonework than in books, and to spend the day admiring these oddities than in meditating on the law of God. Good God! if we are not ashamed of these absurdities, why do we not grieve at the cost of them?"
Cistercian regulations prohibited anything savouring of pride or superfluity. Crosses were to be made of painted wood, the single candlestick of iron, the censers of copper. Silk was forbidden, and also gold and silver, except for the chalice. The first buildings of the Order were of the utmost simplicity, destitute of any adornment. The formation of an ascetic and ultra-strict Order was at once popular, and the founding of new houses spread with rapidity. When by 1152 the number had reached 330, the general chapter thought it wise to forbid any further increase. In spite of this, new houses continued to be founded, so that by the thirteenth century they exceeded six hundred. Those of the order in England numbered seventy-five. As an instance of Cistercian popularity, Rievaulx, founded in 1131, was able within six years to establish houses at Melrose and Warden, and continued with Dundrennan in 1142, Revesby in 1143 and Rufford in 1148.