Robert of Molesme was 70 years old in 1098 when he left his place in the prosperous Abbey of Molesme at the head of 20 beloved sons to seek a new life in the wilderness of Citeaux. Some contemporaries accused Robert of instability—this was his fourth or fifth move. But later ages in canonizing him have honored his undying zeal, which brought forth a monastic order that flourishes today, over 800 years later. Robert’s sanctity shines forth in the way he obeyed the pope’s order and returned to Molesme only a year after he launched what was to be the fulfillment of his life’s dream and labor.

Robert’s work was carried forth by his disciples—first Alberic, and then the Englishman, Stephen Harding, who one day welcomed into the monastery Bernard of Fontaines and 30 companions. It was Stephen who imparted to Bernard the spirit of Saint Robert and Robert’s master, Benedict of Nursia. The permanence of Robert’s undertaking was assured once it was commanded by the gifts for leadership, writing, and sanctity with which God had endowed Bernard.

Cistercians today, in the last years of this 20th century, in nearly 150 monasteries scattered throughout the world, still seek to live Robert’s "stricter observance of Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries. In this time of ongoing renewal the monks and nuns continuously seek to discern between what are the adaptations to these times and to various cultures that are necessary to live authentically the evangelical way laid out in the Rule, and what might be simply compromises of its life-giving practice.

Benedict, a monk of the West venerated equally by Orthodox and Catholics, has, through his Rule, exercised the most powerful of prevailing influences. Most monks and nuns of the West still follow it, at least to the extent of drawing their main inspiration for evangelical living from it, and observing some of its basic practices. In chapter 58 of his Rule, Benedict calls upon the wise old monk who is to shepherd the newcomers to discern among them which ones are truly called to the monastic way. And what is the norm Benedict gives him to use in this discernment?: “Do they truly seek God?”

Common Elements of the Monastic Way

Monastic life could perhaps be defined or described as a life that is centered upon the search for communion with God—a way that is organized to facilitate this search for the experience of the living God, and a life lived in complete harmony with his will.

Benedict sees this monastic search, or way, characterized by three deep concerns: zeal for humility, zeal for obedience, and zeal for the Opus Dei (the “work of God”)—the spiritual practice that is meant to place the monk or nun immediately in the presence of the Divine.

Humility, true self-knowledge, is the realization that there is in fact something, or Someone more: Someone to be sought as the fulfillment and meaning of one’s life. Humility is an openness to reality, to what is, a freedom from the false self, the world of illusions, the constructs of our own mind. Humility expresses itself in obedience—obedience to reality. In the monastic way it takes on the form of obedience to a master who sees more and can guide one in the way that leads to the total, open, free embrace of reality. It is obedience to a tradition which speaks to us of the beyond, and of traditional ways through which one can come into communion with that beyond, into the experience of God.

At the heart of spiritual practice for Benedict were gatherings to chant the Scriptures and listen to them being read. Seven times in the day and once in the night the monks would chant their religious poetry from the inspired book of Psalms until they not only knew it by heart but the sacred words shaped their hearts. The words became a very part of the being of the monk.

Outside these hours of chanting, the monastics’ prayer was to be very pure, a thing of the spirit, moved by the Spirit, and prolonged according to the movement of the Spirit. Benedict allowed many hours for what is traditionally called Lectio Divina. A literal translation (“divine reading”) is misleading; in the monastic tradition the phrase implies not simply the reading of Holy Scripture, but a spiritual process: Lectio-Meditatio-Oratio-Contemplatio (Reading-Meditation-Prayer-Contemplation).

While many of the monastic fathers urged that all their disciples learn to read, this would not always be the case, so often they urged committing the Scriptures to memory. Lectio could well be reading the Scriptures in one’s own heart. Meditatio would not be merely some rational exercise (as meditation became so commonly in later Western practice), but rather an allowing of the received word to rest in the mind until it descends to shape the heart. Like a mold that embraces and shapes soft clay, the word forms the heart and the heart responds.

Oratio refers to a stage when the pure movement of the heart is in harmony with the received word. And when the whole of the person is absorbed into the activity of the divine, into the divine harmony, the goal, contemplatio is achieved.

In contemplation we pass beyond. We leave the rational mind in its gropings; images fail us. We go beyond them to the deeper reality. It is here where we are all one. Those who have experienced this, know this oneness. When we return, we have to grope again for words and concepts if we would think or speak at all of the traces of the divine that have remained with us, if we would speak to one another about this. We must fall back on the words and concepts, the images and poetry our tradition gives us, knowing how completely they fall short.

A Continuing Influence

Monasticism and the experience it lives and seeks to share is present within the Church to remind us all that we must not let our poor words and concepts and images, no matter how sacrosanct, stand as barriers to our spiritual experience. Today, thousands of men and women continue to follow this way of Benedict, which was brought to such transcendent and powerful fulfillment in the life and writings of Bernard.

Each year, one or two new Cistercian monasteries are founded in different parts of the world to make this way of life more widely available. The Second Vatican Council has declared that no local Catholic church or diocese should consider itself complete until it has at its heart a monastic community devoted to a life of contemplation.

Cistercians have seen in the powerful healing and uplifting role that Bernard exercised in Christendom in the first years of the Order a sign of what the Cistercian life represents within the people of God. As the monk of today goes quietly about the daily monastic program, he may not think of it in the lyrical terms of Bernard’s commentaries on the Song of Songs, but his enduring fidelity is not untouched by the powerful faith he has found in the writings and spirit of his well-loved father, Bernard of Clairvaux.

M. Basil Pennington, ocso, is a Benedictine monk, and a leading contemporary exponent of the monastic way of life. Among his various scholarly and popular writings, he has edited and contributed to the books Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: Studies Commemorating the Eighth Centenary of His Canonization and The Cistercian Spirit (Cistercian Publications). He lives at Assumption Abbey in Ava, Missouri.