Cistercian and Trappist Orders
In 1098, Saint Robert of Molesmes founded the Cistercian Order. Unlike the Benedictine Order, which received its name based upon its founder, the Cistercian Order was named after its mother house at Clteaux (in Burgundy, France). The order would retain its Benedictine roots, but institute a much more austere daily program.
The order came into being, with just a small group of his fellow monks, when Saint Robert became dissatisfied with the lax attitude of his monastery.
Among the first Cistercian abbots were Saint Robert, Saint Alberic, and the famed Saint Stephen Harding. The latter abbot, who served from 1109— 1133, is often called the second founder of the Cistercians. In 1119, Harding wrote the constitution of the order, which was subsequently approved by Pope Callistus II. The constitution, called the Charter of Love, called for manual labor, a simplified liturgy, and strict asceticism.
In 1112, during Harding’s tenure as abbot, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the Church’s greatest figures, arrived at his doorstep. With his fame and brilliance, he helped to spread the popularity of the order across the continent of Europe.
Cistercian monks adhere to a rigorous life of work and prayer. Although each house could exercise control over its own affairs, it was their duty to strictly adhere to the regulations that were passed by the annual general chapter. This allowed the monks to maintain discipline and introduce new or needed reforms and innovations.
During the 1100s and 1200s, the Cistercians enjoyed widespread prominence, exerting a profound influence on the monasticism of the time. Commonly referred to as the White Monks, they possessed more than five hundred abbeys at the beginning of the thirteenth century, including the famed house of Rievaulx. Unfortunately, the order eventually lost its stature and, like other monastic orders, suffered greatly from the tribulations of the late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation.
In the 1600s, a reform movement began that called for the return to a more precise adherence to the rule. Known as the Strict Observance, it found support in many of the French houses. This subsequently led, in France, to a division between those practicing the Strict Observance and the others practicing the Common Observance.
During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Cistercians of the Common Observance suffered terribly because of the French Revolution. Fortunately, they did recover and managed to remain intact. With respect to the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, their rallying point centered around the monastery of La Trappe in France during the Revolution. Although the members of La Trappe were expelled at that time, they returned in 1817. With Augustine Lestrange as their new abbot, they revitalized their austere rule and helped to reestablish it in many of their monasteries which had been closed because of the Revolution. As the order began to spread throughout both the country and the world, their members became known as the Trappists, a name that is still popularly used for those of the Strict Observance.
In 1898, the year that Citeaux was returned to the order, its community chose to join the Strict Observance. Today, the abbot of Citeaux serves as the general for the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, which still remain a separate body from the Order of Cistercians. Currently, there are more than twenty-five hundred Trappist monks in the world, and approximately fifteen hundred Cistercians (including Cistercian nuns of both the Strict and Common observance). Trappists are distinguished by their white habits and black scapulars.