Monastic Saints – Saint Stephen Harding – 28 March

Monastic Saints – Saint Stephen Harding – 28 March

[This is a series on saints from the Benedictine family (Benedictines, Cistercians—“the Benedictine order and its branches”).  There used to be a commemoration of all saints of the Benedictine family on 13 November.  But even in the days when the liturgical calendar was much more heavily festooned with saints’ feastdays, I suspect there were many monastic saints who had been lost to memory.  This series tries to introduce or re-introduce us to at least a few in this monastic cloud of witnesses.]

[ Image: St. Stephen Harding Bible (ca. 1110), Illuminated capital beginning the Gospel according to St. Matthew – Bibliothèque Publique de Dijon. ]

St. Stephen Harding.  Born ca. 1050, Sherborne, Dorset, Kingdom of England.  Died 28 March 1134, Cîteaux Abbey, Duchy of Burgundy

In contrast to earlier liturgical/sanctoral calendars, we now commemorate the three founders of the Cistercian order—Saints Robert de Molesme, Alberic, and Stephen Harding—on the same day, 26 January, which means the respective personalities and contributions of each tend to be muted at best.  St. Alberic, discussed in a post for 26 January, tends to fade most completely into the background.  In the world of historical scholarship, for example, he merits an entry in neither the online versions of the Catholic Encyclopedia (the 1913 edition or the new 2003 edition) nor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.  But all three founders have tended to be eclipsed by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who arrived, with companions, at Cîteaux in 1113 and soon became a major force not only in this new thing, a religious “order,” but also in what today we would call international affairs of church and state.  By the time of St. Bernard’s death, the new Cistercian order—which was intended to be nothing other than Benedictine monasticism returned to an authentic interpretation of the Rule—extended from Scandinavia to the eastern Mediterranean.

So influential was the charismatic Bernard in his time that contemporary (or nearly-contemporary) chroniclers, swayed by his personality and accomplishments, have not been able to avoid a “pious fraud” or two.  The most notable instance is in the Exordium parvum, a twelfth-century Cistercian document that provides a history of the order’s beginnings.  There it is stated that Abbot Stephen and his monks prayed, cried, and wept before God, “groaning and sighing deep and long, day and night, all but verging on complete despair, because they had scarcely any successors” (Lekai 19), when along comes the twenty-something Bernard and his companions in the April of 1112 to save the day.  And save it they do, claims the Exordium parvum and subsequent history, for Cîteaux’s first foundation, La Ferté, quickly follows in 1113 and then many, many other foundations follow quickly thereafter—338 by the time St. Bernard dies in 1153.

It was not until as recently as the scholarship of Adriaan H. Bredero in 1961, however, that widespread acceptance of the 1112 date began to be corrected.  The “first manuscripts of the Vita prima [the life of Bernard written by William of Saint-Thierry in its first draft, and continued by Arnold of Bonneval then Geoffrey of Auxerre] clearly give 1113” as the year Bernard arrived at Cîteaux.  (Lekai 19)  In other words, Stephen Harding’s community was already doing quite well by nearly any standard of monastic “success.”  This included not only establishing excellent relations with noble neighbors, who generously gave Cîteaux some of the finest real estate in Europe, but also attracting “some of the greatest artistic talents of France” as well as setting standards of erudition “that would test the talents of the best modern researchers.”  “The illuminations of the Bible and [of St. Gregory’s] Moralia in Job, both produced during the first three years of [Stephen’s] administration, were the most original achievements of the whole epoch.”  (Lekai 18)

Far from crying and weeping and groaning, Stephen not only established the New Monastery at Cîteaux as an impressive monastic foundation in the world dominated by Cluny, he set a bold course that challenged the accepted way of doing things—a way that included too much entanglement with secular powers, which had bedeviled Robert’s reform efforts at Molesme.  The internal government of this order “was based on three features: (1) uniformity—all monasteries were to observe exactly the same rules and customs; (2) general chapter meeting—the abbots of all the houses were to meet in annual general chapter at Cîteaux; (3) visitation—each daughter house was to be visited yearly by the founding abbot, who should ensure the observance of uniform discipline. The individual house preserved its internal autonomy, and the individual monk belonged for life to the house where he made his vows; the system of visitation and chapter provided external means for maintaining standards and enforcing legislation and sanctions.”

But for Stephen’s insights into organizational structures and the implementation of these insights at the New Monastery at Cîteaux as foundations were planned and established, Bernard’s personality would not have had as effective a framework in which to build what became, in some aspects, an international government that aspired to be run not by military conquests but by wisdom, charity, and, thanks to the Rule of St. Benedict, votes and counsel from the governed.  Stephen was “the first person in the Order’s history who can unmistakably be recognized as a creative genius.  He … left behind the first ‘order’ in monastic history, possessing a clearly formulated program, held together by a firm legal framework and in the process of an unprecedented expansion.”  (Lekai 17).

Stephen Harding was an Englishman born around 1060 of a noble Anglo-Saxon family, likely in the West Country, since he had connections in his early years with Sherborne Abbey in Dorset.  Some accounts claim, if without strong evidence, that Stephen had been a professed member of the monastic community at Sherborne and “abandoned” the monastic life.  It is likely, however, that since families of means often sent children to monasteries for educations, Stephen was what we might today think of as a boarder at the local monastery school.  Since William of Malmsbury records that Stephen once wore the black habit of the Benedictines (in contrast to what became the Cistercians’ habit of undyed wool, which was generally a kind of off-white, hence the nickname “white monks” for Cistercians) Stephen might have been a child oblate, as mentioned in the Rule.  (Matarasso 10)  But regardless of Stephen’s status at Sherborne Abbey, 1066 and the arrival of the Normans changed the world of Stephen’s noble Anglo-Saxon family.  Remaining in England, even if theoretically tucked away in a monastic enclosure, might not have been a viable option.  Louis Lekai’s account of Stephen’s leaving England and his life thereafter is cautious against presuming to identify Stephen as a monastic fugitivus while offering a few speculations that accord with the mind and ideals of reform that characterize the rest of Stephen’s life.

Stephen, Lekai writes, “had to flee [from England] to Scotland and from there to France.  He completed his education probably in Paris, and then, with a fellow-refugee from England, Peter, he undertook a long pilgrimage to Rome, where he became assured of his monastic vocation.  On their way back [to Paris, presumably, which was then the major center of learning in Europe], their attention was called to the promising new venture of Molesme.  They were impressed, and both decided to join the community.  By this time, about 1085, Stephen was a young man of great promise.  As a boy he had been exposed to the rich traditions of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon monasticism, reformed by Saint Dunstan (d. 988) according to Cluniac and Lotharingian models.  France offered him the latest scholarship and acquainted him with contemporary problems of monastic and ecclesiastical reform.  During his Italian journey, he must have been greatly influenced by the prevailing spirit of Saint Peter Damian and impressed by the examples of Camaldoli and Vallombrosa.  At Molesme he had an opportunity to observe the process as well as the causes of the corruption of a noble project through poor internal organization and external intervention.  As abbot of Cîteaux, Stephen was ready to employ his erudition, his experiences and his abilities as an organizer to insure the success of Cîteaux, which until then had merely been trying to find a safe place within a revolutionized monastic society.”  (Lekai 17-18)

Magna Carta, which has come to be regarded as the first great statement towards English constitutional governance, was a century into the future when Stephen wrote the first draft of what became the Carta Caritatis, the constitution of the first monastic order.  We have too little information on the particulars of Stephen’s own decisions and statements to fall into the trap of claiming Stephen was the stereotypically English parliamentarian avant la lettre.  But when Stephen is contrasted with Bernard, the former embodies the “institutional dimension” of the Church, the latter the “charismatic dimension.”  Stephen comes down to us through history as a brilliant but self-effacing, even dry, scholar and thinker.  As such, there is little likelihood he could have warmed hearts and inspired world events as did Bernard.  Nor did he want to, I suspect.  But the deep thinkers, the meticulous organizers, and the nuts-and-bolts planners have their place not only in Church history but among the saints.  For, as St. John Paul II pointed out at the 1998 World Congress of Ecclesial Movements, both the institutional and the charismatic are “co-essential to the divine constitution of the Church” and therefore to the constitutions of religious orders.

Implied in Pope St. John Paul II’s assurance that “there is no conflict or opposition in the Church between the institutional dimension and the charismatic dimension” is the recognition that tensions between the two dimensions nonetheless exist.  So it seems to have been when Stephen Harding—perhaps without realizing how adventurous he was being—set in place the institutional foundations of the first order in monasticism.  Bernard, by glaring contrast, seems to have been impatient about regulations and structures.  Stephen and Bernard were bound to clash in some way or other.  It was not the first time saints would differ (e.g., none other than Sts. Peter and Paul in Jerusalem) nor would it be the last.  Bernard dazzled Europe to such an extent that, it is said, women would hide sons, fiancés, or simply the boy next door when they learned Bernard was coming to town, lest he sweep all available men into his burgeoning foundations all across Burgundy, then Europe and the eastern Mediterranean.  But the Chapter Fathers of the new Order, taken as a whole, “[f]ar from being dazzled by their own success [and perhaps by their brother abbot Bernard’s charisma], proceeded with increasing caution in matters of new foundations or incorporations into the Order of already existing monasteries.”  (Lekai 48).  I cannot help but speculate that the tensions between Stephen and Bernard were sometimes intense.  “An excessively reverent Cistercian posterity carefully abolished the traces of dissension among the members of the General Chapter during these glorious years.”  (Lekai 48)  And that these differences might have existed between Stephen and Bernard in particular is suggested by the fact that though Bernard was a copious letter writer, no correspondence exists between Bernard and Stephen.  It is therefore difficult to believe “that the only reason for Stephen Harding’s abdication in 1133 was his old age.”  (Lekai 48) 

Another speculation in which I indulge is that Stephen worked towards a much more modest future for the Cistercians than the conquest—if by charity rather than by force—of all Christendom.  Burgundy and perhaps his native England might have been big enough for him.  Stephen died before witnessing the debacle of the Second Crusade and Bernard’s role in it.  Nor should Bernard be as hastily and as sweepingly condemned as moderns want to do, both because of the complexities of the situation and because no one was harsher on Bernard’s role in the Second Crusade, after the failure of it was manifest, than Bernard himself.  But one has the impression that whatever tensions might have existed between Stephen and Bernard, had the surviving founder of the Cistercians been living when the pope asked Bernard to preach the Second Crusade, and had Stephen learned of it, he might have been able to counsel moderation and reticence.  “I am, as it were, the chimaera of my age, neither cleric nor layman,” wrote Bernard, “I have put off the monastic manner of life but not the habit.”  (_Ego enim quaedam Chimaera mei saeculi, nec clericum gero nec laicum. Nam monachi iamdum exui conversationem, non habitum_.)  (Bernard, Epistola 250)  If one has a monastic vocation, it is better to be almost lost to history, Stephen’s life suggests, than to be at the center of it, which Bernard seems to have been unable to avoid.

Non-Online Sources

Bernard de Clairvaux, Sancti Bernardi Opera, vol. 8: Epistolae. I. Corpus epistolarum, 181-310.  Paris: Éditions du Cerf.

Lekai, Louis Julius. The Cistercians: Ideals and Reality. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1977.

Matarasso, Pauline Maud, ed. The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century.  New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1993.

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