JANUARY 26, 2004- SAINTS ROBERT, ALBERIC AND STEPHEN- HOMILY: HEBREWS 11:1…16
BY FAITH THEY DESIRED A BETTER COUNTRY, THAT IS A HEAVENLY ONE. THEREFORE GOD HAS PREPARED FOR THEM A CITY- THE CITY OF GOD. These words from the Epistle to the Hebrews characterize very strikingly the profound, ineradicable conviction that motivated the founding fathers of our Cistercian Order, Saints Robert, Alberic and Stephen. Longing for the heavenly city caused them to risk their all to go forth to a poor property to begin the New Monastery, as Citeaux was first named. Not that this desire is specific to them; on the contrary, this longing for the heavenly city of God they shared with all those who truly sought to follow Christ in this life. If they are read to us today as we commemorate their memory it is because we too must make this same longing after life in the City of God our own.
When Saint Benedict wrote his Rule he established an ordered way of life that was intended to provide a community with a security and leisure enough to give the best portion of their days to the worship of God. He wished to enable the monks to live in such a way as would allow them to support themselves while keeping their minds and hearts free for attention to the Lord. In his chapter on the Instruments of Good Works he encourages his followers to remember death and to long for heaven in order that we might cultivate this same desire for life in that City whose light is God Himself. By this practice Benedict inculcate that love of God and of heavenly things which casts our fear. He stresses the importance of this longing for true life in the Prologue as he addresses the new comers to the monastery in the words of a Psalm (34: 12,13): “What man is there who desires life and covets many days that he may enjoy good? ... Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” From the beginning this desire for heaven and detachment from the world’s distracting enticements were fundamental to monastic spirituality. Accordingly, entering upon the monastic way was in itself already a kind of death to its pleasures and ambitions. Not, however, to its needs and the worthy values that the world strives to realize.
This manner of viewing life did not originate with St. Benedict; nor was it the desert Fathers who first gave it form and expression. Our Lord himself taught it by word and by example. He warns his followers against the angelic powers who are the rulers of this world (John 14:30), and at the Last Supper he refuses to pray for the world that refuses to accept his light (John 17:9) The Epistle to the Hebrews follows up this teaching in the chapter from which today’s reading is taken and just before it ends it sums up with the statement that states “Here we have no lasting city but we seek one that is to come.(13: 14)”. This vision of a heavenly city in which we already participate by faith and desire was referred to by St. Paul as he contrasted the hopes of the believer with those “whose taste is for earthly things” (qi sapiunt terrena). “Our citizenship”, he affirms, “is in heaven. From there we await our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:20).”
Ardent desire, longing for that city where God is all in all led our Fathers to imitate Abraham who, in faith, left the security of his family and country behind, as they undertook their new way of living their monastic vows. They had formed a sufficiently elevated concept of God’s holiness to realize that only the pure of heart could behold His glory. Men of long experience, dedicated to self knowledge, they understood that in order to arrive at such purity they required a community that followed the Rule in all its rigorous separation from the world with its allurements and distractions. St. Gregory the Great, whose writings had a broad and lasting influence on their spiritual outlook, had noted long before that desire for God gives the strength and motivation needed to remain constant in the pursuit of heaven. He pointed out that earthly desire and heavenly have opposite characteristics in this regard that earthly desire becomes weaker as it is fulfilled, and stronger when its object is absent. When no food has come our way for some time we desire it strongly; after a good meal, the sight of more food leaves us unmoved. Heavenly realities , however, cease to inspire desire when they are out of mind and absent to our attention; when they are present to us our desire for them grows stronger. Consequently, it is needful for us to set up a manner of life that keeps the memory of God and of life in His presence fresh within us. This was the aim our Fathers had in establishing the sloister in a place of solitude and providing for the daily worship of God in the Divine Office.
We know how their faith was tested. They were not understood or accepted by outsiders nor by those they left behind. Their life seemed too harsh and so for years no one joined them. They had to accept probable disappearance as a community. But they remained faithful to the vision that led them to leave Molesmes and refused to compromise with their principles. Then suddenly their prayers were answered and all changed for the better [when St. Bernard and his thirty companions arrived, attracted by the very things that had repelled those who did not share the same intensity of desire for life with God. They went on to form a community that proved abundantly fruitful, in a short time spreading to other places. They thought of their life as an anticipation of the heavenly city, as a return to Paradise. They sought to make visible by community of charity the kingdom of God that others might enter along with them. The newness of the life they established was created by the ardent love of God and of the brothers. Their project exemplified the doctrine that St. Augustine had set forth many centuries before:
Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord… in [this] city there is no human wisdom, but only godliness, which offers due worship to the true God, and looks for its reward in the society of the saints, of holy angels as well as holy men, “that God may be all in all” (1Cor 15:28).] [City of God, xiv,28]
As we honor these saints today may we draw strength from the consideration of their labors, sacrifices and sufferings that we might imitate their zeal and dedication. And at this altar may the sacrifice of our Lord and communion in his Body and Blood obtain for us the same desire that motivated our Fathers- the desire for union with God in that heavenly city where God is light , joy and life without end. Amen. &
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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