The Cistercian Order

The Cistercian Order, like the Cluniacs, were born of zeal for reform and a desire to return to the original Benedictine Rule. At the end of the 11th century, a group of French monks from several houses left their houses. All of them were reformers and all had found the Cluniacs too lax and decadent for their tastes. These monks of good birth and education formed their own community at Citeaux, dedicating it on March 21st, 1098, the Feast of Saint Benedict. They took off incredibly, and by 1220 there are 400 Cistercian monasteries across Europe. They prefer wilderness areas and focus on manual labor while strictly observing the Benedictine Rule, and are widely seen as exemplars of piety and devotion. Ironically, this has led to considerable donation of wealth from the laity, who now often regard the mendicant friars as the reformers and the Cistercians as the fat and lazy monks. The Cistercians are on good terms with the Knights Templar and a number of other military orders, primarily through the efforts of one (now deceased) particularly active Cistercian, Bernard of Clairvaux, who led the Cistercians in preaching the Second Crusade.

The Cistercians are generally closer to the Benedectine ideal than the Cluniacs, and they are known as White Monks, for they wear white in contrast to the black of the Benedictines and Cluniacs. They tend to have monasteries in beautiful wilderness areas, far from human habitation. It is not especially uncommon for a traveller lost in the wilderness to stumble onto the paradisic gardens and fields of a Cistercian monastery. They do not run schools or provide welfare, as other orders do, and instead focus on their own spiritual retreat from the world. Some say they hide secrets in their isolation. Many of them are illiterate, and formal study is not nearly as stressed among Cistercians as the other orders. They are more interested in agricultural improvements, manual labor and construction work. They have begun employing lay workers to help on their farms, giving rise to monastery villages that will expand into towns. Their principle is simple: to work is to pray. Stories of demons raising their monasteries overnight are probably just a tribute to their hard work and ingenuity, as well as the fact that their churches look magnificent.

Like Cluniac houses, the Cistercians stand independent of the ecclesiastic structure, answering only to the papacy. However, they have a strong system of visitation, with each daughter house being visited annually for thorough inspection by the abbot of the mother house. Unlike the Cluniacs, the Cistercians are not hierarchical. Rather, the abbots gather at Citeaux every autumn for the annual chapter meeting, make policy decisions and are remarkably democratic and reminiscent of a Hermetic Tribunal. They even have a sort of peripheral law in the form of the Institutiones Capituli Generalis of 1203. In recent years, these meetings have become fractious, arguing over interpretation and aspects of their rule, with the unity of purpose that once marked the early Cistercians being lost.

The Cistercian Order

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