Feast of our Founders

Jan 26 2010

Karl Gervin was telling me on Sunday that one of the problems the monks at Monkeby had with their cheese making was to get that even skin all round the finished product. Top and bottom went fine from the start but around the sides there was a problem. The portions of cheese were inclined to be bare around the outer regions.

Now they seemed to have solved the problem. What was it? A simple thing. I don’t know anything about cheese making only that it requires a culture, a bacterium. Now they had this okay in the cheese but - and this is interesting - the room where they make the cheese needed it too. In other words the bacterium had to come into the cheese from outside as well. And this took time before the room built up its own level of bacterium. It took time to build up the right atmosphere for the product. Once this was achieved the problem was solved.

This little story came to my mind when I began to think about something to say for the feast of our Founders. We have heard so much about the hardships of the first years of Cîteaux. The unbounded enthusiasm of founding the new monastery was soon dampened by many challenging factors. Their abbot had to return to Molesme, probably others went with him.

Young recruits found the life too hard. They too left. Numbers were getting critical. As we might say today, their position was precarious. What was wrong? I think it was the very same problem as that of the cheese in Munkeby. It took time for the right atmosphere to be established. Monastic life is not simply about the heart. It is also about the place. And the place has first to wait to receive this special gift from those who live there. The bacterial culture had, somehow, to exude from the monks praying, working, celebrating and building up their own story. Gradually it began to cling to the walls, the ceiling, the dormitory, the chairs, the walk ways and the fields. The culture then began to multiply and grow so that eventually, by the time St Bernard arrived it touched everyone who entered the monastery. Now, they were able to love the place because the place itself had assumed a new dynamic of its own.

What we could call a spiritual dimension because there was now something there which attached itself to the newcomer, giving them a new sense of belonging, a tangible feeling that this place has the right atmosphere for one to grow in grace and live completely for God and for the brethren. The monk has now the wherewithal to become a lover of the place. The place itself carries its own charism, its own power.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that monastic ruins hold such an attraction. Even though the daily monastic life has long ceased, the walls still carry that culture, that spiritual bacterium built up over hundreds of years. Every old ruin carries its secrets, its stories. Those secrets and stories are preserved in those walls because there is still life in those stones.

Our stories are so important for posterity. How often in any monastery is it that the one so needed is suddenly taken out... Dom Brendan loves to tell this story when he was novice master. How he was working on a scaffold in the church with a model novice assisting him. Then the scaffolding began to roll leaving him hanging by his finger tips from a cross beam, ten metres high. He shouts at the novice to get help immediately. But the novice, loath to lose his composure, walks contemplatively, with head bowed, in search of the other novices. Then, in sign language, he tells them the novice master "needs help"! Tautra has its stories too. More than one sister has lost her veil to Nordic winds, finding it four months later among the raspberry bushes! You know, these sorts of stories are infinitely better than the ones we could tell about, say, our airport experiences. For these are the stories that go to create that culture, that monastic bacterium that will attach itself to our floors and ceilings, our walls and our walks, our days and our nights.

It was these sort of stories that our founding fathers had first to experience before their fledgling foundation could hold on to new life. Their stories became the life blood of the new monastery. These stories began to be absorbed by the dry walls, the pine and the larch, the stone of the floors and the grass of the lawns. So that they created their own distinctive atmosphere, an atmosphere that the newcomer could tangibly feel, inviting them in and holding them there.

The story of Citeaux is a great source of encouragement for all fledgling communities. It takes time for the bacterial culture to build up in the new cheese room. So too in the new community. First must come the cut finger, the hanging from the roof by the finger tips and the wind that blows the veil away. And many more. Our founding fathers gave us hope to keep going. They are an inspiration for any fledgling monastery. We pray that they will be with us as we write our stories so that these floors, these walls may exude a fragrance of welcome, that they whisper in the ear of the visitor: Yes, this is a good place to be.

Fr Anthony