Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Steeped in Charity and the Utility of Souls

Happy St. Stephen Harding Day! He was the third Abbot of Citeaux, the motherhouse of my beloved Cistercian order.

Stephen Harding was a man steeped in charity, with strong administrative gifts, a rare combination indeed in the Church. He authored the Charter of Charity, which still guides the Cistercian family even today. It is noted for its recognition both of the freedom of individual communities and its call to loving accountability among them.

I daresay the spirit of this charter could provide a helpful model for both service and accountability between different ecclesial bodies and even among the various factions in our Roman Church today.

Here is how it reads, in part:

In this decree the aforesaid brethren, in the intention of obviating rupture of mutual concord explained and ordered and transmitted to those to come after, the bond and manner, or rather the charity whereby their monks divided in the body in abbeys in different parts of the world, should be indissolubly banded together in spirit.

They also considered this decree should be called Charter of Charity because putting aside the burden of any money contribution it pursued only charity and the utility of souls in things human and divine.

One can see how focused Stephen Harding and the other Cistercian founders were on the two things necessary: charity and the health of the souls of those intrusted to them.

My prayer today is that we always in the Church behave with a like-minded spirit. I know that often we don't.

Here are some 0ther "fun facts" about Stephen Harding from Wikipedia:

Saint Stephen Harding (died March 28, 1134), is a Christian saint and monastic abbot, one of the founders of the Cistercian Order. While Stephen Harding was born in Dorset, and though his name is Anglo-Saxon, he was a speaker of Norman French, as well as Latin. He was placed in the abbey of Sherbourne at a young age, but eventually put aside the cowl and became a travelling scholar of sorts. He eventually moved to the abbey of Molesme in Burgundy, under the abbot Saint Robert of Molesme (c. 1027 – 1111).

When Robert left Molesme to avoid its corruption and laxity, Stephen and Saint Alberic went with him. Unlike Alberic, however, Stephen was not ordered to return, and he remained in solitude with Robert. When twenty-one monks deserted Molesme to join Robert, Stephen Harding, and Alberic, the three leaders formed a new monastery at Citeaux.

At Citeaux, Saint Robert was initially abbot. However, Robert returned to Molesme after a year, and Alberic took over, until his death in 1108. Stephen Harding, the youngest of the three men, therefore became the third abbot of Citeaux after Robert and Alberic.

As abbot, Stephen Harding guided the new monastery over a period of great growth. Bernard of Clairvaux came to visit in 1112 and brought with him his followers. Between 1112 and 1119, a dozen new Cistercian houses were founded to contain the monks coming to the new, austere, reformed monastic movement. In 1119, Stephen wrote up the Charta of Charity, which is a defining document in the Cistercian Order and establishes its unifying principles.
Stephen ruled the house at Citeaux for twenty-five years.

While no single person founded the Cistercian Order, most of the credit for the shape of Cistercian belief and its rapid growth in the 12th century goes to Stephen Harding. In 1133, he resigned the head of the order, due to his age and increasing blindness. He died the following year.

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