The Cistercian Way

The Cistercians are an order of Catholic monks known for their commitment to the life of silence and solitude. In June this year, I spent a week at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in Leicestershire, England.

The most striking aspect of the life of the monks is the total commitment to one goal – the Absolute, or God, in their language. Their day starts at 3 O’ clock in the morning so that they assemble at the church in the monastery at 3.30 for the first of the daily prayers called the Vigils. On my first night at Saint Bernard Abbey, I set an alarm to wake up in time to attend the Vigils. I was sleeping and I had a dream that it is time for Vigils and I am late because my alarm did not ring. I woke up to see that this was actually true. I had 10 minutes before Vigils. I quickly changed my clothes, stumbled through the dark doorways of the monastery’s guest house and got out in the open. It was completely dark and a cold breeze blew, even though it was June. I took the curvy path around the edge of the building to the church, entered it and quietly sat down in the space meant for retreatants. In another part of the church, the monks gathered and started their collective prayer with the words ‘O God, come to my aid’.

The prayers were generally songs from the Psalms sung to a simple tune by the monks with one of them playing the organ. They lasted for about half an hour each time and after every few minutes one would hear:

Glory be to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be

World without end, amen

Listening to the monks sing the Psalms in unison, reading the text in my copy of the prayer book, feeling the cold temperature in the church, noticing two old ladies sitting in the front row singing along and noticing the darkness and the moonlight from the windows of this old church, I wondered what on earth had brought us handful of individuals – me, the two ladies, and the about ten monks, together in this building at 3.30 in the night, to sing or listen to these ancient texts.

I still don’t know the answer. Each of us had a different life history. A different father and a different mother. Different anxieties, different longings. But here we were together, singing something that had been sung for the last 2,500 years. There was something deeply mysterious, but also frightening about the atmosphere.

After a while, the prayer ended and we went to our rooms. I took some time to meditate and take a shower. At 7 in the morning, we had the next prayers. Once again, they began with the chant “O Lord, come to my aid”. The Psalms being sung were different but the tune was the same. The atmosphere was similar, except that the eerie sense of wonder and solitude that was present at the Vigils was not there this time. Now, the church was bright with light coming in from its windows, and more people from the guest house attended the prayers. The birds chirped as the monks sang.

I decided to attend each of the six daily prayers – or Divine Offices as the Christians call them – during my stay at the monastery. Every morning, I would awake at 3 AM, refresh myself and get to the church at 3.30 for Vigils. I would then take some time out for my own reflection and rest, and be back in the church at 7 for the next prayers called Lauds. Five minutes before the time for each prayer, the massive bells of the monastery would be sounded, their ringing echoing throughout the monastery all the way to the edge of its farmland, to inform everyone that it was time to stop, assemble together and reflect.

Following the Lauds there would be the daily Mass, breakfast and then the monks would go off to work – some in the fields, some attending to the cows, others at the monastery’s bookshop, one as the monastery’s plumber, another as the guest-master and one who would listen to people who came in with the stresses and pains of their lives, and so on.

At noon, it was time for the next prayers, called the Sext. This was a short set of prayers, a little reminder in the middle of the day of work that all this work, this production of food, this tending to visitors, the upkeep of the monastery – all this was meant to enable the existence of a space for quiet reflection. This was followed by lunch and some time for rest. At 2.30 PM came the next set of prayers after which the monks went back to their final hours of work for the day. When work finished at 5 PM, there was another prayer and then dinner. The day ended with the last prayers called the Compline at 7.30. The monks, and me too, would retire to bed at 8 PM to wake up in time for Vigils later in the night.

Mount Saint Bernard Abbey

This unique way of life tells us a lot, which is not possible to encompass in one post. Perhaps what is most pertinent is the fact that the whole day is punctuated by pauses where the monks come together and remember God. One may or may not believe in God, but being in that monastery gives one a sense of what one thinker has called ‘ultimate concern’. The whole day of the monks’ lives is structured around this ‘ultimate concern’ to which they give the name God. No more than a few hours pass before everything in the monastery stops to remember this concern and to know that all the rest that is being done is for its sake. The farm is tilled so that this life in isolation and silence is practically viable. The same goes for the pottery, the cooking, the milk production and other activities. The visitors are cared for, physically, psychologically and spiritually, because it is the ultimate concern – God – which is being shared in these activities.

The prayers are a time to withdraw from these outer concerns, look inwards and contemplate the ultimate concern of one’s own life. The purpose of prayer is to come into touch with this ultimate concern. Once we are in touch with it, it demands expression through action. This expression is the purpose for which the rest of the activities in the monastery take place. Contemplation, action, contemplation, action – such is the daily rhythm of the life of the Cistercians. Action is not an independent activity by itself, but only a manifestation of the inspiration and knowledge acquired in contemplation.

Total commitment to an ultimate concern – this is perhaps the best way to describe monastic life, especially that of orders such as the Cistercian. The values that drive such a life are not pleasure or avoidance of pain, but commitment to a vision of life where action is based on contemplation – which comes through prayer – being done several times a day, and this action may bring more pain than pleasure, but it does not matter.

The official website of the monastery:

The final and most beautiful prayer of the day and the only one not in English (this is in Latin):

~ by tdcatss on September 18, 2010.

5 Responses to “The Cistercian Way”

  1. I lived in a Cistercian monastery for eight months, and Vigils was my favorite office and favorite time of day there. I agree there’s something wonderfully mysterious about the atmosphere at that hour — an hour that I think I was most receptive to the movement of the Spirit. Perhaps that openness/receptivity/vulnerability is what you experienced as frightening?

  2. hi steve,

    yes, i think you are right. the openness to what may arise from the depths of one’s being carried some anxiety in it. the darkness outside, the chill and the loneliness that came from the awareness that most other people in the guest house, and in the surrounding towns, cities are fast asleep.. that brought in an eerie feeling.

    not that i don’t like it and want to do away with it.

    did you experience something similar in your eight months at the monastery? were you a novice monk?

    i am not christian but it was still very interesting and fascinating to be at the monastery.


  3. I was at the monastery as a postulant, which is the step before becoming a novice. I left at the point of entering the novitiate, as it was clear that I do better with more direct contact with the outside world than a cloistered monk can really have. Still, I have great respect for the monastic life!

  4. That’s very interesting. Thanks for your comments. I have been drawn to the monastic life – Hindu, Buddhist and Christian – since my teens but I don’t think I want to become a monk. I think what is best for me is to incorporate and embody some of the contemplative dimensions of the monastic life in day to day existence among common, ordinary people and perhaps to communicate some of these contemplative aspects of life to them.

  5. Maybe it has something to do with the time itself: Brahma Muhurtham as is known? I have experienced such mysterious feelings or raptures only during that time… Don’t know why. Even meditation during that period is more intense, shall I say.

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