Cistercian Order


Many people, Catholics and non-Catholics, recognize the name “Trappist”. Some people are familiar with food products, like Trappist Preserves; some people are aware of the writings of Thomas Merton, perhaps the highest profiled Trappist of the Twentieth Century. The name Trappist may evoke monks at prayer or work, an austere life, rigid rules and regulations, discipline and perpetual silence. These same people may be confused, however, when we call ourselves Cistercians. What is the difference between a Trappist and a Cistercian? Is there a difference? To answer this question requires a little history. 

1. CITEAUX. The word Cistercian is derived from the Latin word for a Burgundian place name, Citeaux. In 1098 a group of Benedictine monks from a Burgundian Monastery at Molesme, inspired by the reforming spirit of their era, accompanied Abbot Robert (c.1027-1110) to the New Monastery at Citeaux. At this new foundation, they hoped to establish a simpler form of monastic life based on the spirit of the Rule of St. Benedict, free of the accretions and elaborations of observances of the past five hundred years. Their life could be described as reformed Benedictine Monasticism, one of many such reforms shaping religious life in the Twelfth Century. Rather than defining themselves in terms of any existing Benedictine authority, they validated their observance through Papal and local diocesan support. This would provoke contention between Benedictines and Cistercians through the next century.

Cistercian Ideals, Cistercian Realities: The foundation had its ups and downs, complicated by their desire to disengage monasticism from the feudal system. That innovation was never entirely successful since they depended on feudal lords for land and natural resources; inevitably, their survival would be tinged by feudal obligations, even if mitigated. The early Cistercians became an effective pawn in feudal disputes; for example, if there were a border dispute between two counties, one solution was donating land to the monks for a foundation at that disputed border. Either they would be a reconciling presence or they’d carry on the litigations freeing up one of the counts with a rival claim.

The early Cistercians sought out locations removed from the centers of civilization to live the religious life free of secular distraction or ecclesial responsibilities and honors. As such, they might become beneficiaries of uncultivated or marshy land that had been a deficit to their benefactor, but which their hard labor could transform into arable, productive land. Wishing to separate themselves from feudalism they did not want to inherit serfs to support them but sought to support themselves by their own work. Again, this value was compromised in fact–some donated land came with serfs already attached to it; in some instances their new monastic landlords worked out systems for the former serfs to work their way to become freedmen and land owners, renting their plots from the monks. The Cistercians didn’t need extra workers for themselves; they already had a work force built into the monastic community–the Conversi or Lay Brothers. 

Lay Brothers and Choir Monks: The Lay Brothers performed most of the manual work, directing the functioning of the physical plant. They were illiterate men; at this period, this means that they were not only drawn from the peasantry but could have been nobles, members of the military leadership, but unlettered. Since they could not read or write, they could not read Mass, the Psalter, participate in elections or be elected; but they supported the community by a life of simple prayer (Our Father’s, Hail Mary’s and Glory Be’s) and manual work. They wore a drab habit of brown wool–work-a-day stuff that would not show dirt.

The other monks, known as Choir Monks, kept the seven canonical hours of prayer in Latin and were the pool of leadership for the community; they too, however, contributed daily to the community’s manual work. In the spirit of poverty, they eventually abandoned the expensive black-dyed wool used by many Benedictines for inexpensive unbleached wool. This is the origin of the white tunic and cowl of the Cistercians (retaining the black scapular of their Benedictine forebears) which led them to be known as the White Monks while the Benedictines became known as the Black Monks.

By the early Twelfth Century the movement had taken root and Citeaux made four major foundations: Morimund, Clairvaux, La Ferte and Potigny. Clairvaux, under the dynamic leadership of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), made 68 foundations. By the end of the century Clairvaux would be responsible for 164 foundations. Cistercian monasticism was present throughout Europe from Brutain, Ireland and Scandanavia down to Spain, Sicily and Cyprus and as far east as Austria.

Filiation and the General Chapter: This new form of monasticism was organized along the lines of “filiation”, that is a mother house responsible for its foundations (or of pre-existing communities “adopted” when they assumed Cistercian usuages), ultimately descended from Citeaux. To maintain the integrity of monastic observance, the Abbots of all the Cistercian monasteries would meet every year at Citeaux at the feast of Pentecost for the General Chapter. At this meeting they could correct abuses, initiate legislation and maintain their particular vocation. It was this body of all the Abbots of the Order under the Presidency of the Abbot of Citeaux which became the governing body of the Order.

This is a very different model from what went before. For the most part, new foundations had been totally autonomous once they could function on their own. In the Eleventh Century, a Benedictine Reform, begun at Cluny, made numerous foundations throughout Western Europe but they were all priories under the administration of their sole abbot, the Abbot of Cluny. The Cistercian reform retained the autonomy of each foundation without severing ties to the immediate mother house. In the language of our times, they enjoyed autonomy while exercising accountability. The Abbot of Citeaux was not the Abbot of all the Cistercian monasteries; rather it was the meeting of all the abbots of the Cistercian monasteries who would govern the Order.

Ciatercian Nuns: The early monks seemed to have exhibited an ambivalent attitude toward the pastoral care of nuns from the start. Unlike the early middle ages, by the Twelfth Century it was unthinkable that nuns might organize their lives without masculine leadership. At least in theory. Consistent with their disengagement from secular and ecclesial privilege and responsibility, the General Chapter did not want to be responsible for houses of nuns. However, from the start nuns were, in fact, associated with the Cistercian reform.

Jully: In 1113, Stephen Harding (Abbot of Citeaux, 1109-1134) sponsored a foundation of nuns at Jully for the wives and other women dependents of men entering Molesme. It was a community following a reformed Benedictine observance under a prioress. St Bernard’s own sister, Humbeline, separated from her husband to embrace the monastic life there and eventually became prioress of that community. As Jully grew another foundation was needed and the third Abbot of Citeaux, with the co-operation of the Bishop of Langres, the Cathedral Chapter and the Dukes of Burgundy, founded a nunnery at Tart.

Tart and Las Huelgas: The nuns at Tart followed Cistercian customs, were governed by an Abbess, were identified as Cistercians and made eighteen foundations in Burgundy. The abbesses of those foundations met annually in Chapter at Tart on Michaelmas Day (September 29), the Abbot of Citeaux presiding. However, it was the Abbess of Tart who visited her daughter houses to correct abuses. In 1187 King Alfonso VIII and Queen Eleanor of Castile sponsored a foundation for Cistercian nuns at Burgos, Santa Maria la Real (Las Huelgas) modeled on Tart. It was a “royal” foundation both in the sense that it was sponsored by the royal family and founded as a nunnery for women from the royal family. Following the organizational model of Tart, Las Huelgas would be recognized as the “Mother” of all Cistercian nunneries in Alfonso’s kingdom and he had this priority confirmed by the Abbot of Citeaux in 1188. Las Huelgas is also interesting because the Abbess of that community administered parishes on the Abbey’s land and conferred faculties to their clergy. It was a running dispute with the Cistercian General Chapter and the local bishop that she could not hear her nuns’ confessions nor confer their solemn professions. 

Other Cistercian Nuns: In actual fact, despite the decisions of the Cistercian General Chapter, there were nuns recognized as Cistercians from the Twelfth Century on. Between 1190 and 1210, women were organizing themselves into communities of nuns following Cistercian observances. Their status could be ambiguous and some, at least, sought a Cistercian chaplain from the Order. Despite formal resistance from the Cistercian General Chapter, monasteries of women came into the Order singly or in “families” of foundation or reform, sometimes under a particular abbot (e.g., of Pontigny), sometimes under the General Chapter itself. By 1213 The General Chapter legislated that any nuns already incorporated into the Order had to observe strict enclosure. This actually changed the fortunes of some of the women’s abbeys where farm work, for example, had been done by nuns but would now depend on hired labor. Both the salaries required and the loss of administration over their lands could be ruinous; in the changed circumstances, communities shrank in size since their incomes could sustain fewer members. Although the General Chapter decreed in 1220 that no new communities of nuns could be incorporated into the Order, the decision had to be repeated in 1225, 1228 and 1239 because it was not being observed. By the mid-Thirteenth Century, it was settled that communities of women could adopt the Cistercian habit, customs and identity but they should be under the jurisdiction of the local bishop, not the General Chapter.

2. CHANGING TIMES. Despite the original intention of the Order to be disengaged from secular and ecclesial affairs, Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade in France and Germany; one of his novices was elected Pope Eugenius III and other Cistercian abbots were consecrated bishops; some Austrian Abbesses became Electors of the Holy Roman Emperor. But there were greater changes in European society beyond the control of the Order that would seriously eclipse its vocation. The rise of national monarchies dependent on urban mercantile centers and baking houses for support; the dependence on mercenaries in waging dynastic warfare; the development of civil law practiced by non-clerical lawyers; the rise of a middle class needing a different piety and religious expression; the increase of literacy and a secular professional class would all change the culture that had supported the Cistercian Reform.

In 1204 Pope Innocent IIIconfined the directionof the Albigensian mission exclusively to the Cistercians. The Albigensian heresy was an extremely dualistic–and anti-clerical–religion rampant in the south of France. However, the Cistercian attempt to return them to the fold was a complete failure. It was the first generation of the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans) who had the credibility, the education, the poverty and popular touch to succeeed. Dominican friars and other mendicants (Franciscans, Carmelites, Augustinians), mobile, educated in the new methodology of scholasticism, propagating an accessible spirituality, could respond to the new questions and needs of a new age. Monasticism in general was too identified with the old system of property and patronage to speak to the rising urban classes. Economic factors also played their role, while national monarchies needed a national economy and a national network of aristocratic support. Monastic lands could be given to a courtier along with the title of Abbot or Prior, a man who would never be seen in the monastery, would not necessarily be in holy orders or vows but would live off the income and resources of the monastic property. This meant that only a small, token “community” of religious could afford to live at the monastery. Finally dynastic wars (e.g., the Hundred Years War fought in France) and the bubonic plague depleted all existing institutions.

Trappist Reform/Trappist Mystique: Despite all the changes, Cistercian life continued, surviving by organizing into national congregations, even reform movements (e.g., the Feuillants in Fifteenth Century France) while maintaining a formal connection with the General Chapter at Citeaux. The Trappist Reform emerged out of the reforms movements of the Seventeenth Century in the wake of the Council of Trent (1545-1564).

De Rance: The reformer of the Cistercian monastery of La Trappe was a man of his times. Born into the rising professional class and with connections at the Royal Court, Armand-Jean Hyacinthe Bouthillier de Rance (1626-1700) was destined for an ecclesial career. By age 11 he was titular prior of two priories and abbot of three abbeys. He earned his Master of Arts by age 17 and had earned his licentiate in theology by age 26, completing his doctorate two years later. He was ordained priest when he was 25. However, in 1663, at the age of 37, he underwent a conversion and abandoned the life of the courtier. He renounced his titles to the two priories and two of the abbeys, deciding to take vows in the remaining Cistercian Abbey of La Trappe in Normandy, France. By that time, La Trappe was a physical ruin and the community was small, their discipline suffering from a lack of leadership. Reform couldn’t hurt it.

The Abstinents: There was already a Cistercian Reform movement–known as the “Abstinents” because they abstained from meat, following the vegetarian diet of the first Cistercians. The monasteries of Sept Fons (still in existence) and Perseigne were centers of the reform and de Rance opted to do his novitiate at Perseigne. He may have completed the formality of a year-and-a-day novitiate there, but it hadn’t been much of a novitiate: he was already a titular Abbot and he was ill in the infirmary during most of his sojourn in Perseigne.  He professed solemn vows in 1664 and was appointed regular Abbot of La Trappe by papal bull; that is to say, he was not elected Abbot by his community. For the next two years, he pleaded for the autonomy of the Reformed Cistercians in Rome but failed–all branches of the Order was to remain subject to Citeaux. In other words, de Rance’s vision of his vocation was not so much that of an ancient Order with continuity to the past but as a particular observance of religious life, organized as an autonomous congregation. His frustration with his failure was such that after 1672 he managed never to attend a General Chapter. All in all, his religious life was not conventional. But he did have his finger on the pulse of French society–and the French religious genius of his era. 

In trying to restore a regular life to the ruined monastery of La Trappe, he published translations of the Desert Fathers and the Rule of St. Benedict in French, and raised the profile of the Cistercian Reform movement by his printed polemics with the Maurist Benedictines. The Maurists were a reform of Benedictine life putting scholarship at the service of monasticism. But de Rance argued scholarship had nothing to do with true monasticism; travelling around Europe, tracking down manuscripts, even sacred texts, had nothing to do with monastic stability. His extreme opinions and austere observance at La Trappe, as well as the voluntary silence elected by the community (not imposed by de Rance himself) spoke to the baroque piety of his times.

Trappist Silence: The celebrated silence of La Trappe preserved the community from the most dangerous verbal controversy, that between the Jesuits and the Jansenists. Theoretically, de Rance could not subscribe to the notions of predestination, the narrow access to salvation and infrequent reception of Communion advocated by the Jansensists; there was nothing of any of that at La Trappe. Before his conversion, de Rance had signed the crown’s formulary against the Jansenists. But he did admire their single-minded and serious pursuit of Christianity and he had a few Jansenist friends and no Jesuit counterparts. The Jesuits formed the party favored at Court. De Rance was well aware of the fate of another Cistercian house,  of the nuns at Port Royal, who identified with the Jansenist movement in a very outspoken way. The nuns had separated themselves from the Cistercian Order and Port Royal was eventually suppressed by the monarchy. At La Trappe, theological questions–such as grace and justification–could not be discussed; and there were discussions for all the strict conventual silence. One of de Rance’s very human and very humane innovations was to periodically take the choir religious to a clearing in the woods where they could sit and informally share opinions on some proposed topic; perhaps it was a sort of safety valve for their strict life.

Public Relations: De Rance was one of those Counter Reformation superiors (like Ignatius Loyola or Teresa of Avila) who appreciated the value of what we would call public relations. Periodically he’d print short, readable accounts of the monastic conversion and pious deaths of the monks of La Trappe. Although de Rance himself lived to the ripe age of 74, he lived in an era of bad sanitation (the palace of Versailles was a prime example), erratic diet and a psuedo-scientific medical practice that bordered on quackery. In de Rance’s day, the average life span of a monk at La Trappe was four to six years, providing many accounts and frequent updates of edifying deaths. Some of these monks had been courtiers and the tales of their sojourn at La Trappe formed a sensational contrast to the brilliance and extravagance of life at Court. Characteristically, de Rance enjoyed a warm rapport with the Carmelite nuns in Paris. This was a relatively new form of religious life in France, a reform of an older Order, lived with a fervor and lack of compromise attractive to the Cistercian reformer. And his friendship with this community reveals the personal charm of the man who could be so inhuman and alienating in printed polemic yet so edifying in his printed tributes to the dead.

Trappist Observance:Life at La Trappe was not actually extreme. De Rance wrote that the men of his day were not capable of the austerities of the Desert Fathers or the Twelfth Century Cistercians and he would not pursue that asceticism. After he restored the conventual buildings at La Trappe, providing each monk with his own modest room–as was the monastic custom of his day–subsequent reading revealed to him that the first Cistercians slept in an open dormitory. De Rance would not give in to the enthusiasts in his community who wanted more primitive accommodations: the money had already been spent and they could be authentic monks in an unadorned room as well as in an open dormitory. The choir monks of his day performed only two hours of manual work a day, still a record for those who had been courtiers, but no real hardship. We’ve already noted the outdoor conversations for the choir monks while the lay brothers, whose work brought them into contact with seculars , spoke outside the Abbey to conduct the community’s business. There was a certain balance to this simplicity and discipline. La Trappe thrived up until the French Revolution, a dramatic alternative to the life of the court or a career in the Church. 

3. THE FRENCH REVOLUTION AND TRAPPIST EXPANSION. De Rance’s version of the Cistercian Reform would have remained an isolated phenomenon without the French Revolution. The Revolution successfully secularized or suppressed religious houses which did not contribute to society–through education or nursing the sick. The idea was not new and was known as “Josephism” in the Holy Roman Empire; there, in what is now Austria and Hungary, Cistercian monks and nuns had opened schools in their cloisters. But in France the secularization was radical and the great abbeys of the middle ages were leveled when they could be put to no other use and monks and nuns were expelled from their cloisters. It was not a question of re-utilizing the religious but of supressing religion that had been part of the social order that was being overthrown. This effectively destroyed the organization of the Cistercian Order with the destruction of Citeaux. The Cistercian communities in eastern Europe organized themselves as a national congregation.

Out of this dramatic situation emerged an equally dramatic protagonist, Augustin de Lestrange (1754-1827). He had served as Novice Master at La Trappe and with last minute authorization from the Abbot General, the Abbot of Clairvaux and his own Abbot, he fled with the twenty-one monks of his community to Switzerland in 1791. They found refuge in an abandoned Carthusian monastery at Valsainte. Both in a spirit of reparation and from lack of resources, he introduced extreme austerities as part of their regular life: a diet of bread and water with some boiled vegetables, no heat, sleeping on a straw pallet directly on the floor with only a single blanket, sleep itself reduced to six hours a night. To this de Lestrange even attempted to add laus perennis, uninterrupted services in church. This extreme form of life actually attracted vocations and in 1794, de Lestrange was elected Abbot. When the French army invaded Switzerland in 1798, the community evaded dissolution by accepting the invitation of Tsar Paul I to find refuge in Russia. During their two year trek across Europe they added to their company nuns, other displaced religious and a “Third Order” of 60 boys and 40 girls, a company totaling 254 persons.

Restoration and Romanticism: To make a long story short, with the fall of Napoleon and the attempted restoration of the old monarchies, de Lestrange and his company made their way back to France founding Trappist communities in Germany, Holland and throughout France. Such an austere life reduced the financial burden of making foundations and even the constraints imposed by a poor monastic economy could be chalked up to penance and reparation. The bold and ambitious character of de Lestrange impressed itself on the sensibilities of the Romantic age. In 1844 that unlikely apologist of Catholicism, Francois Rene de Chateaubriand, published a romanticized account of de Rance’s life without a bit of research or facts to back it up; it read like one of his romantic novels. But it sold well and was widely read and the Trappist mystique became part of pop culture. Like so much of the Nineteenth Century monastic revival, romanticism and resistance to the challenges of modernity made quite an appeal to the declining Catholic population of Western Europe.

The Leonine Union and Beyond: It was not just secularization but centuries of history that left the religious Orders in disorder. Pope Leo XIII sought to re-organize the situation and in 1892 asked the various Cistercian congregations and observances to join together as one Order. However history, culture–especially national identity–and developing traditions rendered that ideal impractical. But a kind of solution emerged. Cistercian communities of a more abstinent observance were flocked together under the leadership of La Trappe. The title of this group changed over the years from the Order of Citeaux Reformed to, finally, the “Order of Citeaux of the Strict Observance” (OCSO). The other branch of the Order, often with schools, missions, universities and parishes to support, became known as the Order of Citeaux (O Cist.).

There was a custom from the restoration of monastic life in the early Nineteenth Century to name monasteries founded from de Lestrange’s lineage “La Trappe of such-and-such” a place, much the same way that a Carmelite nunnery is called a Carmel. From this custom, “Trappist” came into common useage for houses of both monks and nuns perhaps because it trips off the tongue a little easier than “Cistercians of the Strict Observance”. Admittedly, the adjective “Trappist” also carries connotations of rigor, unbalanced asceticism, anti-intellectualism, even fanaticism.

Moderation: From the start of the Twentieth century, and after union with other Cistercian reforms, the General Chapter was realizing that the extremes fostered by de Lestrange were not healthy. They legislated for more sleep, improved celebration of the liturgy and moderation. Dom Vital Lehodey (1857-1948), Abbot of Bricquebec, wrote the influential Spiritual Directory in 1910. Through it, he returned the Trappist reform to the contemplative orientation of the early Cistercians, arguing–with sound theology–that the contemplative life and mystical prayer are the normal outgrowth of the Christian life. Although he would be later criticized for depending upon “modern” authors like John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila or J. P. de Caussade, rather than monastic authors, what his sources propose is, in fact, rooted in the monastic tradition. De Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence could trace a lineage beyond Ignatius Loyola back to John Cassian’s discernment of spirits. Lehodey’s perspective is not dissimilar to de Rance’s, seeing the Cistercian life as a contemporary expression of religious life more than an ancient tradition. To his credit, emphasizing the contemplative orientation of the Order–and realizable by the rank-and-file nun or monk–would be a stimulus to monastic scholars to explore these same themes in the medieval monastic literature.

Monastic Studies: The Twentieth Century, from the period between the World Wars on, witnessed a flowering of monastic scholarship even from the lineage of de Rance. Of course recovery from war, the Liturgical Movement and Catholic Biblical studies, as well as Vatican Council II, provided both context and stimulus. In the Rule of St. Benedict, in the Twelfth Century Cistercian authors, these scholars found a richly humanistic Christian culture that had little to do with rigorism or penitential athletics. Monks like Anselme Le Baille of Scourment or Robert Thomas of Sept Fons,  Jean Leclerq, L.J. Lekai, and Chrysogonus Waddell made the Cistercian tradition accessible and readable, as well as cutting across boundaries of OCSO, O Cist and OSB. If their investigations also generated heated debates, they were certainly not without their entertainment value; and without entertainment there will be no students.  Journals like Citeaux, Collectanea Cisterciensia, Analecta Cisterciensia, Studia Monastica, Cistercian Studies Quarterly, Monastic Studies (which actually began here at Our lady of the Holy Cross before migrating to Mount Savior) kept the stimulus alive. Translation from Latin into French of the Cistercian Fathers in the pioneering Pain de Citeaux series would stimulate translations into English through Cistercian Studies. At the same time, critical editions of the Latin texts would deepen our knowledge of our patrimony. Since the end of the Twentieth Century, a growing number of secular scholars are continuing the work of these monastic researchers.

Perhaps the flourishing of monastic studies would inevitably lead communities back to the lived experience.Our sources may have been one factor that stimulated our present stress on the cenobitic nature of our vocation and the need for dialogue and communication. There may be a contribution, as yet unsalted, from de Rance’s vision of our contemporary relevance and a flexibility–oddly demonstrated by de Lestrange–that can still be of use to us. Is there something in our Cistercian/Trappist “genes” that would keep our traditions from petrifying us into a museum piece?