The Architecture of Simplicity: A Concern for Light and Quiet Shape Cistercian Monasteries and Spirituality
Fox, Thomas C., National Catholic Reporter
NCR: Who are the Cistercians and how do they fit into the Catholic monastic tradition?
Kinder: There have always been Christians who didn't want to live the normal life, raising a family and working. In southern Italy during the sixth century, St. Benedict lived as a hermit in a cave. Admiring his wisdom and lifestyle, others came, wanting to be his disciples. That happens with hermits. He welcomed them and in the end wrote a rule because he knew that when you live in community, you need rules about what, where, when and how you're going to live.
He went on to found a monastery, Monte Cassino, and ever since this Rule of St. Benedict has been lived out in monasteries around the world.
In 1098, a group of Benedictine monks decided they wanted to get back to the original rule that had been amended and added to over the centuries. They felt their abbey had become too worldly and wealthy. This first Cistercian monastery was called the "New" Monastery. The name Citeau, from which "Cistercian" comes from, came 20 years later. It was a back-to-the-sources kind of movement. We have had these throughout history with religious orders. They wanted to live a much simpler life than was being lived in most monasteries at the time.
How did you come to study Cistertian architecture?
On my way to medical school at Syracuse University, I took a course in Gothic architecture. The university had inherited a gift of 10,000 slides of Cistercian monasteries. When an art professor saw them, she put together a seminar. What struck me powerfully then at the dawn of my career was the uncluttered design of the buildings, the harmonious proportions, and the subtle play of light--all important components of Cistercian architecture. I was awed by the simplicity, the lack of clutter, the harmonious proportions and the absence of ornate art.
When you ask why they didn't have such art, you must look at it from the point of view of a monk or nun. If you want a simple life, you have to be free of clutter; the ambience that surrounds you is key. There isn't anything that happens in a Cistercian monastery that doesn't happen to us as well. Winston Churchill observed once that we build buildings, then buildings build us. Simply put, we are formed by our surroundings.
Benedict's Rule has a chapter on silence. It reminds monks that silence is not just about hearing but is visual as well. If you have to too much overload, then you can't focus well. The Rule's prologue says: "Listen, my son." We live in a talk culture, but if you're talking all the time you can't listen. The idea of being quiet and listening to the abbot, the teachers, the officers in charge of farm and work is ultimately about listening to God, so Cistercian buildings are visually quiet. It's a counter statement to our culture where we must keep ourselves constantly stirred up and entertained, blunting our ability to listen to the wind rustling in the leaves--or to God.
Cistercian architecture is about light as well. When you come into a monastery in the middle of night for service, it's animated by candles. At Lauds, the first light of day pierces the gloom, then a few hours later the sun is up through the east windows. As you come back throughout the day, you have seen how the light is changing all the time. It's not just the sun moving across the sky but also the reflections of snow in winter or the softer light of overcast day.
There's a lot of subtlety inside a monastery. It takes a while when you visit to slow down and begin seeing it. Cistercians don't want to be distracted, because they are after a deeper place within. We live in a culture that is dominated by sound, light, advertising, movement, color. Ironically, though, when people now visit these abbeys, they often just sit with tears in their eyes, finding a kind of renewal. There are few places anymore that offer something we need badly.
The strict monastic rules about not owning things, not accepting gifts, are not to make the monks unhappy; they are helps to polish the mirror, as images of God. …