In calling ourselves Cistercians we are not–like some orders in the Church–basing our title on some exemplary person who served as an inspirational founder; but rather we are basing our title on some place, namely, Citeaux. This reminds us that the founding group of monks who set our from Molesme did not consciously set out to found a new order in the Church. Instead, they wished to make themselves true sons of St. Benedict by implementing a lifestyle that would reflect greater fidelity to this great Saint’s Rule for Monasteries. And despite some initial struggles and challenges this new enterprise manifested its Spirit-inspired origins by growing and eventually transforming medieval monasticism. In doing so our Cistercian founders took their place in that long line of reformers whose actions have repeatedly breathed new life into seemingly moribund monastic institutions.
These facts are worth bearing in mind as we continue with our efforts at re-founding Holy Cross Abbey. Precisely because this is not a founding but a re-founding, its demands–among other things–that we step back and re-evaluate the quality of our monastic life as we’ve been living it, and do this in the light of Saint Benedict’s Rule. This is not without its challenges because unlike an initial foundation in which you begin, as it were, with a blank slate and no history, our re-founding has to be cognizant of our history with its already established lifestyle, longstanding ways of doing things, ingrained customs, practices and attitudes. Accordingly, because of this difficulty re-founding also needs to incorporate a true spirit of reform. However, reform here understood not so much in the sense of a moral reform because of existing decadence, but rather the idea of re-forming that we find in the image of the potter and the clay. You will recall how the Lord speaking to the Prophet Jeremiah points out how whenever the vessel of clay the potter was making turned out badly in his hand, he tried again, making another vessel of whatever sort he pleased. And then the Lord asks: Can I not do to you, house of Israel, as the potter has done? Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, House of Israel.
And in allowing ourselves to be re-formed by the Holy Spirit–as the potter with the clay–we need to turn once again to Saint Benedict and his Rule. And whereas, unlike our Cistercian forebears, we are not necessarily about to attempt a literal return to the Rule, we need to more than appeal simply to the so-called “spirit of the Rule.” For to draw inspiration solely from the spirit of Saint Benedict’s Rule while ignoring some of its practical wisdom and guidelines, is to forget that we are not purely spiritual beings but spirits united to real flesh and blood. Regardless of how appealing and inspirational the so-called “spirit of the Rule” may be, unless it finds practical and physical expression in the way we live our daily lives, its power and effectiveness will be significantly impaired and we will be frustrated in our efforts to re-found this community. And because the Constitutions of our Order are an attempt to incorporate both the spirit and the letter of the Rule, re-founding is going to have to include an earnest and on-going dialogue with our Constitutions as we discern and evaluate how our living of the monastic life reflects what is essential and non-negotiable both in the Rule and the Constitutions, so that we may adjust our lives accordingly.
All of this naturally presumes our personal striving to fully live our vow of conversion of life–or what our Constitutions speak of as fidelity to the monastic way of life. This, in turn, is to affirm that there needs to be a two-way and mutually reinforcing process underway in our efforts at re-founding and re-forming Holy Cross Abbey–it cannot simply be either purely external and communal or purely internal and individual. The change and transformation that we dearly wish for our community, has to also be accompanied by a corresponding change and transformation within each of our hearts. And then if what is occurring with our hearts through the personal conversion finds expression in outward behaviors and practices, then these behaviors and practices will in turn reinforce and further develop what is occurring in our hearts.
And to the degree that we are faithful in striving towards this individual and communal conversion and transformation, we will be heeding Saint Paul’s exhortation in our Second Reading. For integral to conversion and transformation is the striving to have our own thoughts, words and actions, directed to all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent, virtuous or worthy of praise. Then, in the words of Paul, we will be living according to what we have learned and accepted–both from Saint Benedict and from our Cistercian Fathers. And in living according to what we have learned and accepted, we will begin manifesting something of that unity and spirit of the early Church where though our unity in Christ no one will claim anything as his own, but all will share everything in common. Then, in the spirit of today’s Gospel, with Christ living in us and we in him, our unity will be complete and through us the world will be more likely to believe that Christ was sent by the Father; and the Father loves the human race as he loves his Son.