What is it about monastic reforms that renders them (relatively speaking) short-lived and apparently unsustainable? This question is especially pertinent when you consider that at the heart of these reforms is the resolve to turn from sin and seek holiness through an ever deepening union with God. In other words, the essence of reform would seem to have an inbuilt momentum towards ever greater virtue and spiritual maturity. And so what intervenes to interrupt and then derail most (if not all) monastic reforms? Is it because the goal of holiness and a life of virtue is seen to be ultimately obtainable only by the few; or is it because the demands it places on those who set out on this spiritual path are found to be simply too great to sustain over the long haul?
Although there is no simple answer, it is well to remember that it is not a monastery or an order that undertakes a reform, but the individuals making up monasteries and orders who actually reform. Successful reforms (even when not permanent) have thus typically drawn together monks or nuns who share a common vision of monastic life and a united commitment to more authentic Christian living. Thus our Cistercian founders realized the need to leave Molesme and carry out their reform at Cîteaux because not all at Molesme shared their fervent desire to rekindle the spirit of early monasticism.
However, as we know all too well, our spiritual lives don’t flow smoothly and uninterruptedly. Much like the history of monasticism we experience periods of greater fervor and fidelity alternating with varying degrees of spiritual mediocrity—and even regression that eventually require a personal reform and recommitment to our spiritual quest. Presumably those early Cistercians were not immune from these same spiritual vacillations, trials, and temptations that are integral to monastic life. And so, perhaps, the initially imperceptible beginning of decline began when one or more at Cîteaux began to succumb to the “wear and tear” of the journey and gradually surrendered the shared vision and wholehearted commitment that had first inspired their noble endeavor.
These early chinks in their spiritual armor may then have opened them to a gradual infiltration by those cunning forces of evil bent on the destruction of this upstart monastery in the wilderness that was threatening their domain. And perhaps, too, the subtlety of this demonic infiltration ensured that a spiritual decline was not really noticeable until it was too late and the common vision was already lost and the shared commitment compromised. That the so-called “Golden Age” of Cîteaux lasted as long as it did can, perhaps, be attributed to those early spiritual giants of the order whose holiness compensated for those who steadily lost their initial fervor and surrendered to compromise.
Our own recent efforts to rejuvenate our community and renew monastic life here at Holy Cross will thus be assisted by pondering these sobering lessons of history. Accordingly, two things are crucial if our efforts are to bear fruit: The first is the need to continue working towards, and then sustaining, a shared vision and common commitment. Otherwise, our efforts will founder on the treacherous rocks of individualism and inauthentic eremitic pursuits. The second is that we need to remain engaged in our own individual spiritual journeys and not succumb to the unremitting temptations to give up or settle for mediocrity and compromise. To this end we all need to give our all and encourage one another by word and example. And so in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, we must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works. And in doing this we need to remember that this is not just until our situation improves and stabilizes, but each one of us will need to persevere in these efforts until we breathe our final breath and hand on the baton to the next generation of Cistercians.
Therefore, on this special day when we honor our holy Cistercian Founders let us, as Saint Paul urges, not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up. And although giving up seems to be precisely what has time and again led to the decline of monastic life, this is not inevitable even though (as the Letter to the Hebrews warns) you will need endurance to do the will of God and receive what he has promised, The same author assures us that my just one shall live by faith, and if he draws back I take no pleasure in him. Through the intercession of Robert, Alberic, and Stephen, may we not be among those who draw back and perish, but among those who have faith and will possess [the fullness of] life.