Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Monastic life at Nunraw Abbey 2 - Abbot Mark

Autumn Ivy & Rowan harvest

Roots are the firm foundation for our lives,
and for our Faith.
ABBOT MARK CAIRA of NUNRAW writes in this week’s SCO spirituality section.

It’s common enough nowadays to want to go back to our family roots, to see where we came from.  We need to feel that we belong to someone or we like to become identified with something.   We want to get to the truth of our history.  So much of what we believe about ourselves and our past may have become oversimplified and maybe distorted.  The truth can often be more interesting than what we first believed.  It would be surprising if some of our personal history or anything that we are associated with did not have a degree of fiction about it.  However, we are told that the truth will set us free.  To be someone we don’t have to be larger than life, like some of the mega stars in today’s world.

Like all religious Orders, Cistercians have been looking at their early history.  Contrary to a popular belief, St Bernard was not their founder.  That popular assumption may have arisen because Bernard wrote so much about the life and times of the Order, or perhaps from the influence he undoubtedly had in his own lifetime.  Before he appeared on the scene, it was a small group of monks who founded the monastery of Cîteaux in 1098 in northern France. This was the seed that grew into the Cistercian Order.  

This little band of monks was led by Sts Robert, Alberic and Stephen Harding, an Englishman.  Each one of them no doubt had their own strengths and weaknesses of personality.  But together they put down their roots in the wooded area of Cîteaux.  There they set about creating a suitable environment in which they could continue their search for God.  There are different reasons given as to why they left their monastery to make this new foundation.  The one that lies nearest the truth is that they wanted to live the Rule of St Benedict more strictly according to what they believed St Benedict intended when he wrote his rule for monks in the sixth century.
It used to be claimed that these first Cistercians were reacting against a decadent monasticism.  That is far from the truth.  The eleventh and twelfth centuries were periods of enormous change in Church and society.  People were being challenged with new ideas and ways of doing things.  There were obvious risks involved but peoples’ lives did become more meaningful.
In the Church itself at this time, men and women were being drawn by charismatic and holy figures who were setting up new forms of community life.  What they were offering was different from what went before. This upsurge of interest threw up new forms of monastic life some of which still exist today.  Perhaps the best known of these are the Carthusians under the inspiration of St Bruno.
The Benedictine monks of this period were themselves far from decadent.  One accusation against them was that they were lax or had lost their vision.  But it wasn’t entirely a case of White Monks (Cistercians) rejecting the loose living of Black Monks (Benedictines).  Around this time, for example, there were the Benedictine monks of Cluny who lived edifying lives.   These were headed by a number of very holy abbots over a period of 200 years.  The feast day of these Holy Abbots of Cluny is kept on 11 May.

Then and Now
Robert, Alberic and Stephen and their companions left their original monastery because they sought to live more simply and strictly than their monastery allowed.  They didn’t leave to follow some charismatic figure.  With St Robert and his companions it was a matter of doing things together.  When Robert was asked to return to his previous monastery, Alberic was elected Cîteaux’s next abbot and when he died Stephen was chosen to replace him.
It was only later that the first monks of Cîteaux began to develop and organise their lifestyle so that their first spirit would be protected for the future.  They adapted to the times.  Because of that they became the most influential and popular of the new monastic groups of the twelfth century.
These early Cistercians were responding to changed times in which uncertainty and experiment were part of the spirit of the time.  God was still calling people to leave their ordinary ways of life but the manner was different.  The characteristics of the Cistercian way were the call to simplicity and authenticity, without giving up beauty in their liturgy or pleasing forms to their buildings. 
Religious communities today are facing reduced numbers.  This does not necessarily mean that the days of religious communities are over.  But we do need to be more alert in today’s world to what God is asking of us.  People are still searching for God, seeking how to tune into his wavelength.  It is the vocation of everyone to make time and space in their lives to receive the message God is sending out.  Not all of us are good at this but we can all pray that those who do have this gift from God may help us become more attuned to it.
The men and women of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were called to serve God in the new ways that their society both offered and needed.  God didn’t stop calling them to give themselves to the needs of the Church and society then.  It’s not likely that he has stopped doing that now. 
Through the ages every religious order has had to take stock of itself.  Everyone in fact needs to do that.  Those who do this well will find peace in their lives.  Those who do not are likely to wither.  It is the old call of the Gospel for renewal and transformation.  When we let God into our lives we get to know what the love of God is.  If we don’t make an effort to do this or simply ignore God, it doesn’t mean that he will leave us alone – just that it will take God a little longer to show us what is best for us.

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