St Stephen Harding

Abbot of Citeaux, Confessor (entered heaven on March 28th, 1134)

Dear Steve,

I really am sorry to hear that your plans for this year didn’t work out as well as you had hoped.  But for all that, you mustn’t stop your efforts.  In fact, you should redouble them for next year.  The task of building Christ’s Kingdom on campus is too important, too urgent.  And just because you didn’t see the kind of results you wanted to see doesn’t mean that God isn’t using your efforts to good effect.  The devil wants you to give up.  He’ll use all kinds of lies and half-truths and pleasant distractions and reasonable arguments to convince you to do so – before the results start showing up.   But if you persevere, you can be sure that God’s blessing will bear abundant fruit.  Today’s saint is a perfect example of that law of Christian living.

Stephen was a noble Englishman, well educated, athletic, and popular.  After finishing his studies, he and a friend decided to take a pilgrimage to the Continent.  They visited many of the great Catholic shrines, praying the Psalms together on the road, or traveling in silence in order to dedicate themselves to reflection and meditation.  Stephen was inspired by the example of some of the monasteries he visited on his pilgrimage, and felt that God was calling him to that life.  He joined a newly founded monastery at Langres, in northeastern France, which practiced an especially austere rule of life under their holy founder, St Robert.

But the spiritual success of this monastery soon attracted the attention of the town and city folk in the district, who expressed their veneration by showering the monks with gifts.  Discipline suffered.  St Robert, Blessed Alberic (the prior) and St Stephen saw that there was no hope of amendment, so they left in order to start a new foundation and return to the discipline and rigor that they knew God was asking of them.  The monks promised to change, however, and convinced the ecclesiastical superiors to call back their holy founder and his companions.  The three returned, and Stephen was made superior.  But try as he might with exhortations and encouragements and punishments, the spirit of ease, comfort, and worldly praise had fully corrupted the community.  The three faithful monks received papal permission to leave Langres.  They went to a marshy, wooded valley in Citeaux, not too far away, and started fresh.

This was the beginning of the Cistercian Order, which became a vast network of male and female monastic communities that filled medieval Europe with a rich spirituality and a steady supply of remarkable saints.  The secret to the Cistercian way of life was silence and poverty.  They kept the Rule of St Benedict in all its original strictness, and used only the simplest decorations and materials even in their chapels.  St Stephen ended up becoming the most influential of the first three abbots of Citeaux, and it was under his intelligent and farsighted leadership that the Order blossomed.  He himself founded 13 other monasteries in his lifetime, and monks under his direction formed another 100.  That, my bright young nephew, is spiritual fecundity.  But it didn’t happen right away.

In fact, there was a period when the experiment at Citeaux as actually on the brink of extinction.  As part of their discipline, St Stephen forbade the local Barons, who supported the monastery, from visiting the monks whenever they pleased.  This displeased the nobles, so that they withdrew their support.  The poor monks, unable to live off of the marshy land no matter how hard they worked, became emaciated and almost starved.  St Stephen had to make an exception to his rule and go begging for bread.

Although all those who knew of Citeaux were duly impressed by the fidelity and holiness of the monks, the austerity seemed to discourage new vocations.  For a period of years, right during their poorest stretch, they had no new novices.  Monks even left the monastery.  And then sickness struck.  More than half of the community died… You can imagine the criticisms that came St Stephen’s way – he was being too strict, God was punishing them, etc.  But the saint persevered in what he believed to be God’s plan, as approved by the bishop and the Pope, and eventually, in God’s time, the results came around.

So don’t let an apparently fruitless year discourage you.  Forge ahead, using all your energy and intelligence to advance his Kingdom on campus.  When the time is ripe, the fruit will come.

Your loving uncle,


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