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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume IV: April. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

April 29

St. Robert, Abbot of Molesme, Founder of the Cistercians

        From his life by Guy, abbot of Molesme, his immediate successor, and other monuments collected in the History of Religious Orders, t. 5, p. 341. M. Stevens, Monas. t. 2, p. 22. See also Le Nain, t. 1, p. 1, Hist. Litér. de la France, t. 10, pp. 1, 11, Gallia Christ. Nov. t. 4, p. 729, 730.

A.D. 1110.

ST. ROBERT was born in Champagne, about the year 1018. His parents, Theodoric and Ermegarde, were no less noble than virtuous, and brought him up in learning and piety. At the age of fifteen, he became a Benedictin monk in the abbey of Montier-la-celle, where he made such progress in perfection, that, though he was one of the youngest in that house, he was chosen prior, and some time after made abbot of St. Michael de Tonnerre. But not finding the monks of this place disposed to second his good intentions and labours to establish regular discipline among them, but rather of a refractory temper and obstinate behaviour, he left them on the following occasion. There dwelt at that time, in a neighbouring desert called Colan, certain anchorets, who, not having then any regular superior over them, besought him to undertake that office. After several impediments he complied with their request, and was received by them as another Moses to conduct them through the desert of this world to the heavenly Canaan. Colan being unhealthily situated, Robert removed them thence into the forest of Molesme, where they built themselves little cells made of boughs of trees, and a small oratory in honour of the Holy Trinity, in 1075. The poverty of those religious, and the severity of their lives being known, several persons of quality in the neighbourhood, stirred up by the example of the bishop of Troyes, vied with one another in supplying them with necessaries, which introduced by degrees such a plenty as occasioned them to fall into great relaxation and tepidity, 1 insomuch, that the holy Robert, having tried in vain all means to reduce them to the regular observance of their profession, thought proper to leave them, and retired to a desert called Hauz, where certain religious men lived in great simplicity and fervour. Among these he worked for his subsistence, and employed as much of his time as possible in prayer and meditation. These religious men, seeing his edifying life, chose him for their abbot. But the monks of Molesme, finding they had not prospered since his absence, obtained of the pope and the bishop of Langres, an order for his return to Molesme, on their promising that Robert should find them perfectly submissive to his directions. He accordingly came back; but as their desire of his return was only grounded on temporal views, it produced no change in their conduct after the first year. Some of them, however, seeing their lives were not conformable to St. Bennet’s rule, which was daily read in their chapter, were desirous of a reformation, which the rest ridiculed. Yet the more zealous, seeing it was impossible faithfully to comply with their duties, in the company of those who would not be reformed, recommended the matter to God by ardent prayers, and then repaired to Robert, begging his leave to retire to some solitary place, where they might be able to perform what they had undertaken, find were engaged by vow to practise. 2 St. Robert promised to bear them company, and went with six of the most fervent of these monks to Lyons, to the Archbishop Hugh, legate of the holy see, who granted them letters patent to that effect; wherein he not only advised, but even enjoined them to leave Molesme, and to persist in their holy resolution of living up to the rigour of the rule of St. Bennet. Returning to Molesme, they were joined by the rest that were zealous, and, being twenty-one in number, went and settled in a place called Cistercium, or Citeaux, an uninhabited forest covered with woods and brambles, watered by a little river, at five leagues distance from Dijon, in the diocess of Challons. Here these religious men began to grub up the shrubs and roots, and built themselves cells of wood, with the consent of Walter, bishop of Challons, and of Renaud, viscount of Beaune, lords of the territory. They settled there on St. Bennet’s-day, the 21st of March, in 1098. From this epoch is dated the origin of the Cistercian Order. The archbishop of Lyons, being persuaded that they could not subsist there without the assistance of some powerful persons, wrote in their favour to Eudo, duke of Burgundy. That prince, at his own cost, finished the building of the monastery they had begun, furnished them for a long time with all necessaries, and gave them much land and cattle. The bishop of Challons invested Robert with the dignity of abbot, erecting that new monastery into an abbey. 3 The first rule established by St. Robert, at Citeaux, allotted the monks four hours every night for sleep, and four for singing the divine praises in the choir: four hours were assigned on working days for manual labour in the morning, after which the monks read till None: their diet was roots and herbs. 4
  The year following, 1099, the monks of Molesme sent deputies to Rome, to solicit an order for their abbot St. Robert’s return to Molesme, alleging that religious observance had suffered greatly by his absence; and that on his presence both the prosperity of their house, and the security of their souls depended: assuring his Holiness that they would use their best endeavours to give him no further reason to complain of them. Urban II. therefore wrote to the archbishop of Lyons, to procure St. Robert’s return to Molesme, if it could be conveniently compassed. The legate sent his orders to that effect, and Robert immediately obeyed, remitting his pastoral staff for Citeaux to the bishop of Challons, who absolved him from the promise of obedience he had made him. He was installed anew by the bishop of Langres, abbot of Molesme, which he governed till his happy death, which happened not in 1100, as Manriquez imagined, but in 1110; for, in that year, he reconciled together two abbots, who had chosen him umpire in a quarrel. 5 The ancient chronicle of Molesme says, that St. Robert was born in 1018, and died in 1110: consequently he lived ninety-two or ninety-three years, and survived St. Alberic, who died in 1109. Upon proof of many miracles wrought at his tomb, Pope Honorius III. enrolled his name among the saints. Martenne has published the information of several of these miracles, taken by an order of that pope. 6 Mention is made of this his canonization by Manriquez, 7 the Younger Pagi, 8 and Benedict XIV. 9  2
Note 1. Baillet and some others have retailed false exaggerations of the disorders which reigned among the monks of Molesme. Robert de Monte assures us, they consisted only in this, that St. Robert would oblige them to manual labour, for their subsistence, forbade them to receive oblations, and retrenched certain innovations in their habits; for which relaxations the monks alleged the examples of St. Columban and St. Odo. Sea Hist. Litér, t. 10, p. 6. [back]
Note 2. Martenne, Ampl. Collect. t. 6, Præfat. n. 40. Orderic Vitalis, l. 7. Hist. p. 711. Robert. de Monte, l. de Abbatiis Normanniæ, post Opera Guiberti, p. 311. [back]
Note 3. The Cistercian Order professes to follow the Benedictin rule in its primitive rigour. The habit used at Molesme was tawny. St. Alberic, who succeeded St. Robert at Citeaux, changed it for white, and the Order took from that time the Blessed Virgin for its special protectress. The Cistercian nuns were instituted before the death of St. Alberic. Within fifty years after its institution, this Order consisted of no less than five hundred abbeys; which number was increased to eighteen hundred soon after the year 1200. The sole monastery of Trebnitz, in Silesia, reckons above forty princesses of Poland who have there professed this Order. The noble military Orders of Calatrava, Alcantara, and Montreza in Spain, and those of Christ and of Avis in Portugal, are subject to it, and borrow from it their rules of piety. The primitive extreme austerity of the Cistercian Order being relaxed, Pope Sixtus IV. in 1475, granted to the superiors power to dispense with the original obligation of abstinence from flesh. But several reformations have been since established in it to restore its ancient severity. That of the Feuillans in France, which took its name from Feuillens, a Cistercian abbey in Guienne, in the diocess of Rieux, (which is the chief of this reformed congregation, and the residence of the general, whose office is triennial,) was begun by Dom. John de la Barriere, a native of Quercy, and abbot of Notre Dame des Feuillans. Whilst a student at Paris, he resolved to become a monk, and reform it. After many tears and prayers in the Carthusians’ church at Paris, he went thither and took the habit in 1577: established a reform to use no food but roots and herbs, often not dressed by fire: no raiment but a single tunic, even in winter, without sandals, sleeping and eating on the ground. Clement VIII. in his bull of confirmation in 1595, mitigated these austerities: but the founder himself observed them to his death. Dom. Bernard, called the Petit Feuillent, chosen abbot of Urvab, in the Low Countries, established a great part of these austerities there. King Henry III. founded at Paris the second convent, called St. Bernard’s, in 1601. Doctor Asseline, famous at Paris, thirty-two years old, in 1605, took the habit, taking this motto:—
Omnia nil sine Te, sine Te, Deus, omnia vana:
Cuncta relinquenti sis mihi cuncta Deus.
which he often had in his mouth. He took the name of F. Eustache de S. Paul. (See his life in French.) This reformation extended itself into Italy, under the name of Reformed Bernardins. The most pious and learned Cardinal John Bona, who died in 1674, was of this congregation.
  The most austere reformation of this Order is established at La Trappe. Its author, John le Bouthillier de Rancé was of a noble and puissant family, who, having embraced an ecclesiastical state, was designed to succeed his uncle in the archbishopric of Tours. By his learning and eloquence he distinguished himself among the French clergy, was their oracle on many important occasions, and their speaker in their general assemblies. He was chaplain to the duke of Orleans, and enjoyed several considerable pensions, and a large church revenue. But, at thirty years of age, entering seriously into himself, he thought it inconsistent with his profession to employ the revenues of the church in support of a splendid equipage and a great table, and to spend his precious time in company and diversions. He addressed himself to those directors who would the least flatter him; and in order to make restitution for past superfluous expenses, he, by their advice, sold his paternal estate of thirty thousand livres, or between two and three thousand pounds sterling a year, and out of the purchase-money distributed a hundred thousand crowns among the poor, and gave the remainder to pious uses. He resigned three abbeys and two priories, which he possessed in commendam, and reserved only the abbey of our Lady of La Trappe, in which he took the Cistercian habit, commenced regular abbot, and, in 1664, introduced a reformation of that Order according to the austere primitive institute of St. Bennet, afterwards renewed by St. Bernard. His books on the obligations of a monastic state, cannot be too often read by those who profess it; nor his edifying life, written by Le Nain, which seems preferable to that published by Marsollier. He lived thirty-seven years in this rigorous solitude, and died in 1700. The monastery is situated in a forest in le Perche, near Normandy: it consisted, in 1746, of sixty lay-brothers and novices, and fifty-seven choir monks, of whom eighteen were priests, three oblates or extern lay-brothers, who are allowed to speak upon necessary occasions. One of these opens the door to strangers, prostrates himself before them, and then leads them first to the chapel, and, after a short prayer, into a parlour; but desires them, while within the monastery, to refrain from speaking of news or any worldly affairs: only the abbot, prior, or guest-master are allowed to speak to them. The monks are never allowed to speak to visitors, nor to one another, otherwise than by signs, except it be to their superior or confessarius. They never write to their friends in the world after their profession, nor hear any thing relating thereto; being content to know that there is a world, that they may pray for it. When the parent of any monk dies, the news is only sent to the superior, who tells the community that the father of one of them is dead, and orders their joint prayers for his soul. When a novice is about to make his profession, he writes to his friends to take his last leave of them, and makes a renunciation of whatever he possesses in favour of his heirs; but gives some part to the poor, to be distributed in his own country: for nothing is received by the monastery, which, though its revenues are not large, maintains a great multitude of distressed persons. The monks till their ground themselves. They usually keep their eyes cast down, and never look at strangers; but make them a low bow if they pass by. When Pope Innocent III., returning from the emperor’s court, called at St. Bernard’s monastery, he took notice that not one of the monks lifted up his eyes to see him or his attendants; so much were they dead to all curiosity, and to whatever could interrupt their attention to God; which made that great pope call St. Bernard’s monastery the wonder of the world. In like manner the recollection of the monks of La Trappe in the fields, at work, at meals, and particularly in the church, is a most moving spectacle. The more perfectly to renounce their own will, they are bound to obey not only superiors, but the least sign of any other, even the last among the lay-brothers, though by it they spoil their work; as it happened to one who, by obedience to another’s sign, knowingly set wrong all the books of the church-music which he was composing. And abbot John told the brother who was gardener, it were better that they should be without herbs, than that there should be found in the garden one plant of self-will. Their drink is a weak cider, such as is used by the poorest people in Normandy: but small beer is allowed those with whom cider doth not agree. On fastdays they eat only dry herbs, boiled with a little salt, with a piece of coarse bread, and are allowed half a pint of cider. On other days they have an herb-soup, a dessert of a radish or two, or a few walnuts, or some such thing, and a mess either of lentils, roots, hasty-pudding, or the like. They never eat fish on any account, and never touch eggs or flesh-meat, unless when very sick, but sometimes use milk. Once, the bread being made a little less coarse than ordinary, the abbot, John de Rancé, put the whole community under penance to atone for the fault of the baker. For supper they have only three, and on fast-days only two ounces of dry bread. They use long prostrations, and practise a general mortification of their senses. Abbot de Rancé turned out a novice, as not having the spirit of the Order, because he observed him in weeding to put by the nettles too carefully, for fear of being stung. When they come to the fire in winter, they stand at some distance from the calefactory, and never put out a foot, or pull up their clothes to warm themselves, nor stay long in that place: even in their sicknesses the superior often treats them harshly, in order to increase their humility and patience: and the monks, under the greatest pains, reproach themselves as faint penitents, and add voluntary mortifications, of which we read very remarkable instances in the relations that have been published of the death of several of the religious of La Trappe. In their agonies they are carried to the church, laid on ashes, and there receive the last sacraments, and usually remain in that situation till they expire. But nothing is more edifying in this house than the most profound humility which the monks practise, and the care with which the guest-master or abbot suppresses whatever makes for their reputation, and even that of their house or Order in general, that they may avoid the dangers of a refined pride. They work in the fields many hours in the day, but join prayer with their labour. Their church duties are very long; and during the whole day no one is out of sight of some others, to take away all possibility of sloth. They lie on straw beds. The lightest faults are severely punished in chapter. It happened that a venerable abbot of a very great monastery of the Cistercian Order, full seventy years of age, being lodged at La Trappe, had by a sign, out of humility, refused to suffer a lay-brother to take the trouble to show him the way to his cell at night; but this being contrary to the rule of the house, in relation to obedience to every one, the next day De Rancé, in chapter, reproached the abbot, that, not content to ruin discipline and souls at home, he came to spread scandal among them: and enjoined him a public penance. How cheerful these holy penitents are amidst their austerities, appears from the visitations made by authority of the general, the abbot of Citeaux. In 1678, the abbot of Prieres, being deputed visiter of La Trappe, declared that he found the religious, though some were persons of a very delicate and tender constitution, yet several above four-score years old, all well, cheerful, and begging that their austerities might be increased. In 1664, when many censured the institute as too severe, the abbot De Rancé assembled his religious, and commanded them to declare their sentiments concerning it. The fathers all unanimously cried out, that their mortifications were too light for heaven, and in consideration of their past sins; protesting that they underwent their austerities with joy, and were ashamed of their sloth, and that they did so little. When it was urged by a certain prelate, that at least the lay-brothers ought to be allowed some indulgence, the same abbot, in 1687, summoned them to chapter, and ordered them to speak their sentiments. Brother Malc spoke first, and said: “Twenty years have I lived in this house, and I never found any thing in it but what was easy and agreeable. I have always regarded myself as wax, to receive from your hands whatever figure you are pleased to mould me into: I consider myself as an untamed horse, if I am not held in by the bridle. If my state wants any alteration, it ought to be more restrained.” Then, falling on his knees, he added, that he was as a handkerchief in his hand, which he might use in the manner he pleased. 2. B. Pachomius said, his life had been unprofitable, and wished his rigours augmented; and was ashamed to see many in the world undergo so much for vanity, whilst he did nothing for heaven. 3. B. Hilarion said, his austerities ought to be doubled, in order to subject his body to the spirit, lest he should lose his crown. 4. B. Firmin begged on his knees, that, instead of any relaxation, his abbot would shut him up in a close prison. 5. B. Francis prayed his austerities might be increased. The rest answered after the same manner. See abbot John’s Conferences, t. 1, p. 287.
  Another famous reformation of the Cistercian Order was established in the monastery of our Lady de Sept-Fons, two leagues from Bourbon-Lanci in France, by the abbot Eustache de Beaufort, in the last century; which house no one can visit without receiving from the example of those holy men the strongest impressions of piety. The gardens are cultivated by the hands of the monks, and yield their principal subsistence, their ordinary food being herbs and pulse: but of these they are allowed at dinner two portions, whereas the monks of La Trappe have only one, and that chiefly carrots, turnips, lentils, or the like: all dainty herbs and roots being forbidden them, such as cauliflowers, peas, and artichokes; the latter are not given even to the sick in the infirmary. Again, at La Trappe, the monks never taste wine, except the priests at mass, which at Sept-Fons is used with water at meals, in a small quantity, because the ordinary liquor in the Bourbonnois. At Sept-Fons the silence observed by the monks is perpetual, except with regard to superiors on necessary occasions, and in conferences of piety. Every thing in the house and church is expressive of sentiments of humble poverty and simplicity. One hundred monks in choir seem to have but one voice, so great is the order of uniformity observed in singing every verse together. They make long pauses in the middle of each verse, that their minds and hearts may draw from each word a spiritual nourishment to feed their affections. They are so intent upon their duty at that time, that no part of their body seems to have the least motion but their lips. They walk to the refectory and to their work with the most edifying modesty and recollection, with their eyes cast down; and one is surprised to see the devotion which appears in their very exterior throughout all their actions, and the vigour with which they ply manual labour in their extenuated and mortified bodies. To be the more perfectly unknown to men, they do not suffer any thing of the eminent virtues which are practised in their house to be published; and the unfeigned humility, compunction, mortification, devotion, and other virtues of these holy penitents, strongly affect those who behold them. See Hist. de la Réforme de l’Abbaye de Sept-Fons, par M. Dronet de Maupertuy, Paris, 1702.
  Some are startled and seemingly shocked at the extraordinary austerities practised by these monks, and by many ancient hermits. What! say they, has the kind Author of nature given us organs, and an inclination to pleasure, yet commanded us to forego it! or does he delight in our pain! These persons seem to be great strangers to what both faith and reason teach on this head. God has indeed annexed pleasure to many actions for necessary and good purposes; and many lawful pleasures of our senses may be sanctified by a virtuous intention. But ever since the corruption of our nature, and the revolt of our passions against reason, our appetites stand in need of a severe curb; and without frequent denials and restraints, self-will and the senses become headstrong and ungovernable, and refuse subjection. God has appointed the mortification of the senses, joined with sincere humility, and the more essential interior denial of the will, to be the powerful remedy, and a necessary condition for obtaining his victorious graces against this enemy: and Christ frequently inculcates the obligation of it, and declares that no one can be his disciple who is not crucified and dead to himself, as the grain of corn must die in the ground before it can bring forth fruit. To deny the necessity of mortification, both exterior and interior, would be, on many accounts, to destroy the whole system of Christian morality. But the extraordinary austerities of certain eminent servants of God are not undertaken by them without a particular call, examined with maturity and prudence, and without a fervour equal to such a state. Neither do they place sanctity in any practices of mortification, or measure virtue by them, as a Dervise or Brachman might do; but choose such as have the greatest tendency to facilitate the subjection of the passions, and regard them only as helps to virtue, and means to acquire it, and to punish sin in themselves. Nor do they imagine God to be delighted with their pain, but with the cure of their spiritual maladies. A mother rejoices in the health of her child, not in the bitterness of the potion which she gives him to procure it. The doctrine of Christ, and the examples of St. John the Baptist, St. Paul, St. Matthias, St. James, and the other apostles; of many ancient prophets, and other saints, from the first ages of our holy religion, are a standing apology and commendation of this spirit in so many servants of God. [back]
Note 4. Mabill. Annal. t. 1. Buching. in Vita Urbani II. [back]
Note 5. Mabill. Annal. l. 71, n. 99. [back]
Note 6. Martenne, Anecdot. t. 1, p. 904. [back]
Note 7. Annal. Cisterc. ad an. 1222. [back]
Note 8. Pagi Junior in Vitâ Honorii III. ex ejus ep. 132, l. 6. [back]
Note 9. Bened. XIV. de Canoniz. l. 1, c. 9, n. 9, p. 73. [back]