Cistercian Founders 2013
We love to romanticize about our founders and their vision of a new monastery at Citeaux. I do not say a new Order because that, I feel, only grew out of the circumstances that unfolded in the years following 1098.We have only to look at our own beginnings to get a glimpse of the struggle and disappointment that can accompany the effort to begin something new in the monastic life like the founding of a monastery. No matter how well intentioned the pioneers are there seems to be a time of testing, some years of not quite knowing will we make it or not.Perhaps a bit like a novitiate for a novice. That lingering ‘doubt’ as to whether I will actually be able to make it in this way of life, and also of course the question: will the community accept me? But that shows that I am ‘normal,’ that the circumstances I find myself in are something similar to those of the great saints who also needed a time of testing. I am always reminded of John the Baptizer when in prison and had lost all his power – or so he thought. He was not even sure of Jesus any more. ‘Are you really the one who is to come or are we to wait for someone else?’I learned a lot from my experimental garden by the fjord last year. Was it actually possible to make soil from a mixture of seaweed and sand? I had collected quite an amount of seaweed over the previous number of years. The problem was how first to turn seaweed into compost. Leaving it in a heap meant a very slow process. To turn it often would accelerate the process a hundred fold. But, as anyone living by the sea knows, when you turn a heap of seaweed the odors are so bad visitors would almost have to leave the island!Then there was only one thing to do – wait. One, two, three, four years. So the year before last I decided to give it a try. There was a little sand left from the digging of the water trench to my new flat. I took it down and mixed it with the more abundant heap of rotting seaweed. It was late October and my new enterprise looked promising.But then in early December came a storm coupled with a spring tide, the highest I have seen since coming to Tautra. ‘The waters have lifted up O Lord, the waters have lifted up their voice, the waters have lifter up their thunder’ (Ps 92). Yes, even the fjord has its moments of fury! A high tide brings plenty of what I might describe ‘give and take.’ It brought us lots of wood and gravel. But it also had to have its pound of flesh – and for me that was in the form of 25% of my new garden!Now where on earth am I going with this sermon . . . I guess the founders of Citeaux asked the same question about their dream. The swamp of Dijon was dying hard. On the other hand some of the original group of 20 or so were losing the battle for life. The harsh terrain was difficult to tame and the early years were taking their toll. That was the ‘take’. But there was some ‘give’ as well. The monks found that through their perseverance they were gaining new strength. Something they could not explain held them together and kept their vision alive.You remember the story of Columbus as he was journeying to discover the New World. He had been many months at sea, food was growing short, giant waves billowed against the boats and his crew was on the verge of mutiny. Yet, each evening he would record in his log book: ‘Today we sailed on.’When I was going to school many moons ago we had a hardcover book of Mathematics. When I bought my hand-me-down copy for the grand sum of one shilling from a boy who was graduating to a higher class I was pleasantly surprised to discover the answers to every question were to be found at the back of the book. They were upside down and in small print - but that didn’t matter. When we were given a math question for homework, there was a great temptation to simply turn the book upside down and write down the answer found in the back page.That was fine until the teacher called you up to the blackboard and asked you to show the class exactly how you arrived at the answer. The right answer was of little use now when you couldn’t show how you got it.Many have written and given fine talks about solving the problems in monastic life. But there are no quick and easy answers to the perplexities of any way of life and especially to those of religious life.It is much easier to copy the right answers and take the broad road that gives us easy solutions than to take the narrow way and enter into the process of genuine discernment. And true discernment is above all about getting rid of the myths, fantasies and prejudices and arriving at a genuine discovery.This was what I found out when I attempted to create a garden out of seaweed and sand. It was a very novel and exciting idea for me. I imagined wonderful things growing there by the fjord where nothing had ever grown before. Soon I was brought down to reality. My first two crops, carrots and beet root, failed completely. Too much salt and too little lime. But my next two, lettuce and radish went better. In fact they went very well!So having lost a quarter of my garden to the fjord and my first two crops to poor judgment I finally had a harvest. Now my fine ideas had been demythologized and, I could say, my discoveries were real. What is real can only be discovered by hard work. We won’t get all the answers from the prophet Google.To find the will of God for me I will have to go beyond my daily prayer and reading. The will of God must be tried and tested. The will of God must be examined and discussed. Even St Paul needed to consult with the other apostles about God’s will for him. ‘The will of God must be discerned.’ (Kenneth L Samuel)It was this sort of approach that brought our Cistercian Founders their first answers. The process they used opened the way to much greater possibilities and to a deeper testing of their own values.Today as we honour Robert, Alberic, Stephen and the other founding fathers of our Order we ask them to stir up our hearts to a deeper appreciation of these values so that we can open up to all the possibilities the Holy Spirit has in store for us.