Saint of the Day – 28 March – St Stephen Harding O.Cist (1050-1134) Monk, priest, Abbot, Reformer and co-founder of the Cistercian Order. He was born in c 1050 in Meriot, Sherborne, England and died on 28 March 1134 at Citeaux, France of natural causes. His remains are buried at Citeaux Abbey, France. He was Canonised in 1623 by Pope Urban VIII.
Stephen Harding was an Englishman of an honourable family and heir to a large estate. Born in Dorset, he was educated at the monastery of Sherborne and spoke English, Norman, French and Latin.
Desirous of seeking a more perfect way of Christian perfection, he, with a devout companion, travelled into Scotland and afterwards to Paris and to Rome. On their return journey, the two travellers chanced upon a collection of huts in the forest of Molesme in Burgundy, where monks lived in great austerity. Struck by their way of life and finding kindred spirits in Robert the Abbot and Alberic the Prior, he bid his friend goodbye and threw in his lot with the monks.
After some years, finding that religious fervour had waned considerably, Stephen, Robert, Alberic and others went to Lyons and with the support of Bishop Hugh struck a new foundation in the forest of Citeaux sponsored by Rainald, Lord of Beaune and Odo, Duke of Burgundy. Later Robert returned to his monks of Molesme who reclaimed him as their abbot, and upon the death of Alberic, in 1109, Stephen succeeded him as Abbot of Citeaux.
He immediately instituted such austere measures to keep the spirit of the world out that he alienated the support of many who had helped to establish the abbey. Novices ceased applying and to make matters worse, a mysterious disease decimated his monks to the point that even Stephen’s stout heart began to quiver wondering if he were really doing God’s will.
God answered him dramatically when thirty noblemen knocked at the abbey’s door seeking admittance. They were headed by young St Bernard (1090-1153) Doctor of the Church, who in his zeal had convinced his brothers, uncles and a number of his acquaintances to give up the world with him.
Increasing numbers called for additional foundations and the first two were made at Morimond and Clairvaux. To the general surprise, Stephen appointed twenty-four-year-old Bernard as Abbot of Clairvaux. When nine abbeys had sprung from Citeaux, Stephen drew up the statutes of his Charter of Charity which officially organised the Cistercians into an order.
St Stephen died in 1134, advanced in age and nearly blind and having served as Abbot of Cîteaux for twenty-five years. Whilst he was in his agony, he heard many whispering that, after so virtuous and penitential a life, he could have nothing to fear in dying: at this he said to them, trembling, “I assure you that I go to God in fear and trembling. If my baseness should be found to have ever done any good, even in this I fear, lest I should not have preserved that grace with the humility and care I ought.” He was interred in the tomb of Blessed Alberic, in which also many of his successors lie buried, in the cloister, near the door of the church. His Order keeps his memorial as of the first class, with an octave and with greater solemnity than those of St Robert or St Bernard, having always looked upon him as the principal of its founders.
In the words of author Stephen Tobin, “Stephen Harding found Cîteaux just another reformed abbey and left it the head of the first (European) religious order … Nothing like it had ever been seen before … At the head of a flourishing family of daughter houses, with a clearly defined manifesto and full legal constitution, Cîteaux was a force for change and a force to be reckoned within a world where (other leaders) vied to outdo each other in accruing and displaying wealth and power.”