On this day: St. Stephen Harding

On this day we celebrate the feast of St. Stephen Harding, an Englishman who was one of the three founders of the Cistercian Order. He served as Abbot of Citeaux from 1109 until his death in 1134.

Stephen Harding's date of birth is unknown, although it is presumed to have been in the middle of the 11th century. His parents' names are unknown, but we know that as a boy, he was educated at Sherborne Abbey.

(There has been a school at Sherborne since the 8th century, and maybe before that. In addition to Stephen Harding, Sherborne alumni include John le Carré, Alfred the Great, Jeremy Irons, and Alec Waugh. See the Wiki article for other famous alumni and for the school's history. The school was the setting for the 1969 version of Goodbye Mr. Chips. Click here for the website of the current Sherborne School, re-established in 1550.)

Stephen Harding left Sherborne and traveled to Scotland for additional study. He then went to Paris and to Rome. On his way back, he and his traveling companion "came to a poor monastery situated on the side of a sloping hill, on the right bank of the little river Leignes." Molesme was "a collections of huts, . . . more like an encampment than a settled dwelling".

Stephen was so attracted by the poverty of the community and by the holiness of its abbot, Robert, and its prior, Alberic, that he decided to stay. His traveling companion went home without him. Apparently Stephen Harding never saw England again.

As Molesme began to prosper, Stephen Harding began to press for a return to the primitive rule of St. Benedict. In 1098, Stephen, Robert, Alberic, and a band of other monks, twenty-one in all, left Molesme and established a new monastery at Citeaux, "in the midst of a wild wood, in the diocese of Chalon and the province of Burgundy. It was only tenanted by wild beasts".

Robert was elected abbot, Alberic prior, and Stephen Harding sub-prior. Soon Robert was ordered to return to Molesme, and Alberic became abbot, and Stephen became prior. The monks of Citeaux -- Cistercians -- wore white, in honor of the Virgin Mary, instead of the traditional black Benedictine habit.

St. Alberic died in 1109, and Stephen Harding was elected Abbot of Citeaux. So many monks died in the terrible years 1111 and 1112, that Stephen began to wonder if God was displeased with the austerities he imposed on the Cistercians. Then one of the deceased monks appeared to him in a vision and let him know that his foundation was pleasing to God. This was demonstrated within a few months when thirty novices arrived, "led by one young man of about twenty-three years of age, and of exceeding beauty", St. Bernard.

For details of life at Citeaux -- what the monks ate, how they slept, how they worked, how they prayed, how they sang (no "womanish counter-tenor voices" allowed), how they confessed their sins, and how they established new monasteries (including Clairvaux with Bernard, just twenty-five, as abbot), see the Life of St. Stephen Harding: Abbot of Citeaux and Founder of the Cistercian Order, by J. B. Dalgairns, edited (and with an "advertisement") by John Henry Newman ("when Newman had already left Oxford and had taken up his residence at Littlemore"), London, 1843. The 1898 edition, edited by Herbert Thurston, S.J., may be read online.

Stephen died on March 28th, 1134. "St. Stephen was in character a very Englishman; . . . His very countenance, if we may trust his contemporary the monk of Malmesbury, was English; he was courteous in speech, blithe in countenance, with a soul ever joyful in the Lord. His order seems to have thriven in St. Stephen's native air; most of our great abbeys, Tintern, Rievaulx, Fountains, Furness, and Netley, which are now known by their beautiful ruins, were Cistercian. . . . Doubtless St. Stephen, when he was working under the hot sun of France, often thought of the harvest moon and the ripe corn-fields of his native land. May his prayers now be heard before the throne of grace".

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