The Birth of the Cistercians

The Cistercian beginning was part of a general eleventh century movement toward reform characterized by the desire to break free of worldly entanglements in order to free the soul for the life of contemplation. For what had happened to Benedictine monasticism by that time was the same process that affects all human institutions: a rigorous and enthusiastic beginning leads to success, numbers, wealth, finally complacency. Eleventh century monasticism was not decadent so much as it was wealthy, comfortable, and involved with the world, materially and politically. The eremitical life of the Desert Fathers therefore, more extreme than Benedict's, appeared as an antidote to complexity and involvement, hence the appearance of hermit-based orders such as the Carthusians and the Camaldolese (like the Cistercians, followers of the Benedictine Rule and hence members of the Benedictine family).

In this climate of readiness for renewal as new religious Orders emerged in the second half of the 11th century, the Cistercian order began in 1098 when a group of reforming monks led by Robert of Molesme, the renowned Stephen Harding, his friends Peter, and Alberic seceded to Citeaux, founded the abbey of Citeaux in Burgundy.

The Cistercian Fathers said their program was a return to the absolute observance of the Rule. In fact, they interpreted it somewhat freely and actually deviated from its letter in some points. But whatever they did furthered the life of contemplation and so observed the spirit of the Rule. What they achieved was a synthesis of the eremitical and cenobitical traditions. Their rigorous adherence to silence, to a greater degree than required in the Rule, for instance, was a means of achieving the "desert solitude" essential for the soul's openness to God's action, while simultaneously retaining the cenobitical principle of Benedict's community. Their penance was that common to the race: to eat your bread in the sweat of your brow and to bear one another's burdens. The monk's gift of self to God consisted chiefly in the gift of self to his abbot and his brothers. He proved his love for God by the love with which he obeyed abbot and brethren, and dedicated his body and soul to praise of God, labor, reading, and meditating, as Benedict had originally worked out.

The communal emphasis is seen also in the way in which the "new monasticism" spread. There had been earlier federations of monasteries, most notably that of Cluny (itself a reform monastery in the tenth century) whereby the mother foundation kept control of the daughter houses. But when Citeaux had to send out its own new groups due to the great influx of vocations, the nexus between mother and daughter houses was set down in a "Charter of Charity" which assured the autonomy of the new foundations within a truly familial relationship.

Within fifty years of the founding of Citeaux, the Order numbered 339 houses, and at the greatest extent of the Cistercian growth in the fifteenth century there were more than 700 abbeys of men and 900 of women. Such magnitude, together with a general decline of spiritual fervor, the Reformation, political complications, etc., led to the need for another major reform.


In 1664 Armand de Rancé felt called to reform his abbey of La Trappe in France according to his conception of the original Cistercian life. In a time of relative laxity within European monasticism, he stressed the need for a life of penance, austerity, and expiation. The rigorous austerity and the obviously passionate commitment to God practiced at La Trappe offered a spiritual challenge to de Rancé's era, and his reform attracted numerous followers. "Trappist" Cistercian life grew and continued to exist even during the difficult and anti-clerical decades of the nineteenth century. In 1892, the Trappist Observance was constituted as an Order separate from the Cistercians of the Common Observance. In 1902 they took the name of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (OCSO).
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