Saints of the Day – 26 January – St Alberic of Citeaux O.Cist (Died 1109) Monk and Abbot , St Robert of Molesme O.Cist (1028-1111) Abbot and St Stephen Harding O.Cist (c 1060-1134) Monk, Priest and the three are Co-Founders of the Cistercian Order.
Robert was born about 1029, a nobleman from Champagne, a younger son, who entered the Benedictine abbey of Montier-la-Celle near Troyes at age fifteen and rose to the office of prior. He was made the abbot of Saint Michel-de-Tonnerre around the year 1070 but he soon discovered that the monks were quarrelsome and disobedient, so he returned to Montier-la-Celle.
Meanwhile, two hermits from a group of monks that had settled at Collan went to Rome and asked Pope Gregory VII to give them Robert as their superior. The pope granted their request and as of 1074 Robert served as their leader. Soon after, Robert moved the small community to Molesme in the valley of Langres in Burgundy. Initially, the establishment consisted of only huts made of branches surrounding a chapel in the forest, dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Molesme Abbey quickly became known for its piety and sanctity and Robert’s reputation as a saintly man grew. It is because of this reputation that in 1082 St Bruno of Cologne (c 1030 -1101) came to Robert seeking advice. He lived with Robert’s community for a time before going on to found the Grande Chartreuse, the first Carthusian monastery.
In 1098 there were 35 dependent priories of Molesme and other annexes and some priories of nuns. Donors from the surrounding area vied with one another in helping the monks; soon they had more than they needed, slackened their way of life and became tepid. Benefactors sent their children to the abbey for education and other non-monastic activities began to dominate daily life. The vast land holdings they had acquired required a large number of employees. As the community grew increasingly wealthy, it began to attract men seeking entry for the wrong reasons. They caused a division among the brothers, challenging Robert’s severity. Robert twice tried to leave Molesme but was ordered back by the Pope.
In 1098, Robert and twenty-one of his monks left Molesme with the intention of never returning. Renaud, the viscount of Beaune, gave this group a desolate valley in a deep forest, there they founded Cîteaux Abbey. Saints Stephen Harding and Alberic – two of Robert’s monks from Molesme – were pivotal in founding the new house. The archbishop of Lyons, being persuaded that they could not subsist there without the endorsement of an influential churchman, wrote in their favour to Eudo, duke of Burgundy. Eudo paid for the construction they had begun, helped the monks finance their operating expenses and gave them much land and cattle. The bishop of Challons elevated the new monastery to the canonical status of an abbey.
In 1099, the monks of Molesme asked Robert to return and agreed to submit entirely to his interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict, the local bishop also pressured Robert to return. He agreed and Molesme became a major centre for the Benedictines under his tutelage. Albéric was made successor abbot at Cîteaux, with Stephen Harding as prior.
Robert died on 17 April 1111. Pope Honorius III Canonised him in 1222. His feast day in the Roman Catholic Church was at first observed on 17 April, later transferred to April 29 and finally combined with the feast of Alberic and Stephen Harding and is observed in our day on 26 January.
The Life of Saint Robert de Molesme was written by Guy, his immediate successor as abbot of Molesme.
Alberic was a hermit in the forest of Collan in France who, along with five other hermits, invited Abbot Robert of Molesme to begin a new monastery with them that would operate under the Rule of St Benedict.
Alberic is credited with attaining the Cistercian Order’s legal foundation. Pope Pascal II granted this legitimacy with his Bull Desiderium quod (around 1100). Albéric also decided to move the monastery’s buildings a kilometer to the north and initiated construction on the first abbey church. The Church was consecrated less than six years later. Alberic also introduced the use of the white Cistercian cowl. It was given to him for the monks, according to legend, by the Virgin Mary as they were at choir praying vigils. Accordingly, the white cowl is one of Alberic’s attributes in hagiographical paintings.
Alberic’s feast day, together with that of Robert of Molesme and Stephen Harding, is celebrated on 26 January.
Harding was born in Sherborne, Dorset, in the Kingdom of England and spoke English, Norman, French and Latin. He was placed in Sherborne Abbey at a young age but eventually left the monastery and became a travelling scholar, journeying with one devout companion into Scotland and afterwards to Paris and then to Rome. He eventually moved to Molesme Abbey in Burgundy, under the Abbot Robert of Molesme (c. 1027-1111). During his time at Molesme abbey he seemed to have assumed the name Stephen.
When Robert left Molesme to avoid what he perceived to be the abbey’s increasing wealth and overly strong connections to the aristocracy, Harding and Alberic of Cîteaux went with him. Seeing no hope of a sufficient reformation in Molesme, Robert appointed another abbot for the abbey and then, with Alberic, Harding and twenty-one other monks, received permission from Hugh, the Archbishop of Lyons and legate of the Holy See, to found a new monastery in Citeaux, a marshy wilderness five leagues from Dijon. There, they formed a new, more austere monastery. Eudes, afterwards Duke of Burgundy, built them a little church which was placed under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin, as all the churches of the Cistercians from that time have been.
Stephen became the third abbot of Cîteaux. However, very few were joining the community and the monks were suffering from hunger and sickness. In 1112, Bernard of Clairvaux entered the community, bringing with him thirty companions. Between 1112 and 1119, a dozen new Cistercian houses were founded to accommodate those joining the young order. Harding’s organisational skills were exceptional, he instituted the system of general chapters and regular visitations. In 1119, he received official approbation for the Carta Caritatis (Charter of Charity), an important document for the Cistercian Order, establishing its unifying principles.
Stephen Harding served Cîteaux Abbey as abbot for twenty-five years. While no single person is considered the founder of the Cistercian Order, the shape of Cistercian thought and its rapid growth in the 12th century were arguably due to Harding’s leadership. Insisting on simplicity in all aspects of monastic life, he was largely responsible for the severity of Cistercian architecture and the simple beauty of the Order’s liturgy and music. He was an accomplished scribe for the monastery’s scriptorium, his highest achievement is considered to be the Harding Bible, famous among medieval manuscripts. In 1133, he resigned as head of the order because of age and infirmity. He died on 28 March 1134 and was buried in the tomb of Alberic, his predecessor, in the cloisters at Cîteaux. Stephen was largely responsible for the severity of Cistercian architecture because he was an adherer of simplicity in all aspects of monastic life.
In a joint commemoration with Robert of Molesme and Alberic, the first two abbots of Cîteaux, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates Stephen Harding’s feast day on 26 January. There is a Catholic Baroque Church established by 1785, the patron saint of which is Stephen Harding, it is located in Hungary, in the village Apátistvánfalva.
The north aisle of the Church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in London was formerly a chapel dedicated to him (it became the Musicians’ Chapel in the 20th century).
He was Canonised by the Catholic church in 1623.
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