[St. Stephen Harding seems to have had a retiring personality, which would help explain why his memory has tended to be eclipsed by the charismatic St. Bernard de Clairvaux. But Stephen’s brilliance as an organizer and a legislator (e.g., his Carta Caritatis) not only laid the foundation for the success of the Cistercian reforms, it also influenced all future religious institutes by providing a model of organization and mutual oversight. The general chapters of the twelfth-century Cistercians, which gathered the abbots and conventual priors of all the houses for regular legislative meetings, were the harbinger of parliaments and international assemblies. Whether such bodies as the British Parliament, the U.S. Congress, and the U.N. are, on the whole, admirable institutions is open to debate. But St. Stephen’s vision that charity can transcend tribal, parochial, local differences is surely an ideal still worth cherishing.
Martin Thornton posits that the personality and thus the writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux are generally less congenial to English spirituality than those of St. Aelred of Rievaulx and William of St. Thierry, two of several important early Cistercians. Had Stephen left substantial writings of his own, he too might have had an influence on English spirituality, for the rapport between him and St. Bernard seems to have had a chalk-and-cheese element to it, which suggests some of the un-English-spirituality characteristics of St. Bernard would have been absent in St. Stephen’s spirituality. The joke about heaven being populated by English legislators and hell by French legislators turn the irony on itself because of its ethnocentric narrowness, especially in this period of the Brexit situation. Still, in the case of Sts. Bernard and Stephen, there might be in that observation un morceau de verité.
Br. John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B. (and former O.Cist.)]
From Jason John Edwards, Obl.S.B.’s continuing series on Benedictine saints.
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Born c. 1060, Sherborne, Dorsetshire, England. Died March 28, 1134, Cîteaux, Burgundy, France. Canonized 1623; feast day July 16. Third abbot of Cîteaux (Latin: Cistercium) and a founder of the Cistercian Order.
Stephen Harding was born in Dorset, England. He was a speaker of English, Norman French, and Latin. He was placed in the abbey of Sherbourne at a young age, but eventually put aside the cowl and became a travelling scholar. 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. Their intent was not to found a new order but simply to live the Rule of St. Benedict according to a spirit of reform.
Robert was initially abbot at Citeaux, returning to Molesme after a year. Alberic then took over, serving as abbot until his death in 1108. Stephen Harding, the youngest of the three men, became the third abbot of Citeaux. 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 movement. In 1119, Stephen wrote the Carta Caritatis, (‘Charter of Love’) an important document for the Cistercian Order, establishing its unifying principles.
Stephen served the house at Citeaux for twenty-five years. While no single person is considered the founder of the Cistercian Order, the shape of Cistercian belief and its rapid growth in the 12th century was due to the leadership of Stephen Harding. In 1133, he resigned as the head of the order, due to age and disability. Before his death in 1134, Stephen had established 13 monasteries. By the end of the 12th century there were 500 in Europe.