Wednesday, April 17, 2013

St. Stephen Harding

The saint of the day for April 14 is St. Stephen Harding, who is regarded as the founder of the Cistercian monasteries. 

The son of an English noble, Stephen was born at Sherborne in Dorsetshire, England, about the middle of the eleventh century. He consecrated himself to the monastic life in the Abbey of Sherbonne in Dorsetshire, where he received his early education. He later studied in Paris and Rome, where he pursued a brilliant education in humanities, philosophy and theology.

After studying in Paris and Rome, while on pilgrimage, he visited the monastery of Molesmes. Impressed by its leaders, Robert of Molesmes and Alberic (who were later canonized), Stephen joined the community. A few years later, Stephen, along with four other monks, the abbot and prior, requested permission to leave Molesmes to find a more spiritual way of life. They established a more austere monastery in Citeaux.

Eventually, Robert was recalled to Molesme (1099), Alberic died (1110), and Stephen was elected abbot. The number of monks was now reduced, as no new members had come to fill the places of those who had died. Stephen, however, insisted on keeping the strict observance he originally instituted and, having offended the Duke of Burgundy, Cïteaux's patron, by forbidding him or his family to enter the cloister, was even forced to beg alms from door to door.  Stephen began to have doubts that the new institution was pleasing to God. He prayed for enlightenment and received a response that greatly encouraged him and his small community. From Bourgogne a noble youth arrived with 30 companions, asked to be admitted to the abbey. This noble was the future St. Bernard. In 1115, St. Stephen built the abbey of Clairvaux, and installed St. Bernard as its Abbot.

Stephen Harding is credited with writing the famous Carta Caritatis (Charter of Charity - often referred to as the Charter of Love). It was a six page constitution which laid out the relationship between the Cistercian houses and their abbots, set out the obligations and duties inherent in these, and ensured the accountability of all the abbots and houses to the underlying themes of charity and living according to the rule of Benedict.

In 1133, due to poor health, blindness, and his age, Stephen resigned as the head of the order. He died the following year and was canonized in 1623 by Pope Urban VIII.  Stephen had established 13 monasteries. By the end of the 12th century there were 500 in Europe.

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