ST. STEPHEN HARDING was an Englishman of an honourable family, and heir to a plentiful estate. He had his education in the monastery of Sherbourne, in Dorsetshire, and there laid a very solid foundation of literature and sincere piety. A cheerfulness in his countenance always showed the inward joy of his soul, and a calm which no passions seemed ever to disturb. Out of a desire of learning more perfectly the means of Christian perfection, he, with one devout companion, travelled into Scotland, and afterwards to Paris, and to Rome. They every day recited together the whole psalter, and passed the rest of their time on the road in strict silence, occupied in holy meditation and private prayer. Stephen, in his return, heard at Lyons of the great austerity and sanctity of the poor Benedictin monastery of Molesme, lately founded by St. Robert, in 1075, in the diocess of Langres. Charmed with the perpetual recollection and humility of this house, he made choice of it to accomplish there the sacrifice of himself to God. Such was the extreme poverty of this place, that the monks, for want of bread, were often obliged to live on the wild herbs of the wilderness. The compassion and veneration of the neighbourhood at length supplied their wants to profusion: but, with plenty and riches, a spirit of relaxation and self-love crept in, and drew many aside from their duty. St. Robert, Alberic his prior, and Stephen, seeing the evil too obstinate to admit a cure, left the house: but upon the complaint of the monks, were called back again; Robert, by an order of the pope, the other two by the diocesan. Stephen was then made superior. The monks had promised a reformation of their sloth and irregularities; but their hearts not being changed, they soon relapsed. They would keep more clothes than the rule allowed; did not work so long as it prescribed, and did not prostrate to strangers, nor wash their feet when they came to their house. St. Stephen made frequent remonstrances to them on the subject of their remissness. He was sensible that as the public tranquillity and safety of the state depend on the ready observance and strict execution of the laws, so much more do the perfection and sanctification of a religious state consist in the most scrupulous fidelity in complying with all its rules. These are the pillars of the structure: he who shakes and undermines them throws down the whole edifice, and roots up the very foundations. Moreover, in the service of God, nothing is small: true love is faithful, and never contemns or wilfully fails in the least circumstance or duty in which the will of God is pointed out. Gerson observes, how difficult a matter it is to restore the spirit of discipline when it is once decayed, and that, of the two, it is more easy to found a new Order. From whence arises his just remark, how grievous the scandal and crime must be of those who, by their example and tepidity, first open a gap to the least habitual irregularity in a religious Order or house.
Seeing no hopes of a sufficient reformation, St. Robert appointed another abbot at Molesme, and with B. Alberic, St. Stephen, and other fervent monks, they being twenty-one in number, with the permission of Hugh, archbishop of Lyons, and legate of the holy see, retired to Citeaux, a marshy wilderness, five leagues from Dijon. The viscount of Beaune gave them the ground, and Eudes, afterwards duke of Burgundy, built them a little church, which was dedicated under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin, as all the churches of this Order from that time have been. The monks with their own hands cut down trees, and built themselves a monastery of wood, and in it made a new profession of the rule of St. Bennet, which they bound themselves to observe in its utmost severity. This solemn act they performed on St. Bennet’s-day, 1098: which is regarded as the date of the foundation of the Cistercian Order. After a year and some months St. Robert was recalled to Molesme, and B. Alberic chosen the second abbot of Citeaux. These holy men, with their rigorous silence, recollection, and humility, appeared to strangers, by their very countenances, as angels on earth, particularly to two legates of Pope Paschal II., who, paying them a visit, could not be satiated with fixing their eyes on their faces; which, though emaciated with extreme austerities, breathed an amiable peace and inward joy, with an heavenly air resulting from their assiduous humble conversation with God, by which they seemed transformed into citizens of heaven. Alberic obtained from Paschal II. the confirmation of his Order, in 1100, and compiled several statutes to enforce the strict observance of the rule of St. Bennet, according to the letter. Hugh, duke of Burgundy, after a reign of three years, becoming a monk at Cluni, resigned his principality to his brother Eudes, who was the founder of Citeaux, and who, charmed with the virtue of these monks, came to live in their neighbourhood, and lies buried in their church with several of his successors. He was great grandson to Robert, the first duke of Burgundy, son to Robert, king of France, and brother to King Henry I. The second son of Duke Eudes, named Henry, made his religious profession under B. Alberic, and died holily at Citeaux. B. Alberic finished his course on sackcloth and ashes, on the 26th of January, 1109, and St. Stephen was chosen the third abbot. 1 The Order seemed then in great danger of failing: it was the astonishment of the universe, but had appeared so austere, that hitherto scarce any had the courage to embrace that institute. St. Stephen, who had been the greatest assistant to his two predecessors in the foundation, carried its rule to the highest perfection, and propagated the Order exceedingly, so as to be regarded as the principal among its founders, as Le Nain observes.
It was his first care to secure, by the best fences, the essential spirit of solitude and poverty. For this purpose, the frequent visits of strangers were prevented, and only the Duke of Burgundy permitted to enter. He also was entreated not to keep his court in the monastery on holydays, as he had been accustomed to do. Gold and silver crosses were banished out of the church, and a cross of painted wood, and iron candlesticks were made use of: no gold chalices were allowed, but only silver gilt; the vestments, stoles, and maniples, &c., were made of common cloth and fringes, without gold or silver. The intention of this rule was, that every object might serve to entertain the spirit of poverty in this austere Order. The founder, with this holy view, would have poverty to reign even in the church, where yet he required the utmost neatness and decency, by which this plainness and simplicity appeared with a majesty well becoming religion and the house of God. If riches are to be displayed, this is to be done in the first place to the honour of Him who bestowed them, as God himself was pleased to show in the temple built by King Solomon. Upon this consideration, the monks of Cluni used rich ornaments in the service of the church. But a very contrary spirit moved some of that family afterward to censure this rule of the Cistercians, which St. Bernard justified by his apology. Let not him that eateth, despise him that eateth not. 2 And many saints have thought a neat simplicity and plainness, even in their churches, more suitable to that spirit of extraordinary austerity and poverty which they professed. The Cistercian monks allotted several hours in the day to manual labour, copying books, or sacred studies. St. Stephen, who was a most learned man, wrote in 1109, being assisted by his fellow-monks, a very correct copy of the Latin Bible, which he made for the use of the monks, having collated it with innumerable manuscripts, and consulted many learned Jews on the Hebrew text. 3 But God was pleased to visit him with trials, that his virtue might be approved when put to the test. The Duke of Burgundy and his court were much offended at being shut out of the monastery, and withdrew their charities and protection: by which means the monks, who were not able totally to subsist by their labour, in their barren woods and swampy ground, were reduced to extreme want: in which pressing necessity St. Stephen went out to beg a little bread from door to door: yet refused to receive any from a simoniacal priest. For though this Order allows not begging abroad, as contrary to its essential retirement, such a case of extreme necessity must be excepted, as Le Nain observes. The saint and his holy monks rejoiced in this their poverty, and in the hardships and sufferings which they felt under it; but were comforted by frequent sensible marks of the divine protection. This trial was succeeded by another. In the two years 1111 and 1112, sickness swept away the greater part of this small community. St. Stephen feared he should leave no successors to inherit, not worldly riches, but his poverty and penance; and many presumed to infer that their institute was too severe, and not agreeable to heaven. St. Stephen, with many tears, recommended to God his little flock, and after repeated assurances of his protection, had the consolation to receive at once into his community St. Bernard, with thirty gentlemen: whose example was followed by many others. St. Stephen then founded other monasteries, which he peopled with his monks; as La Ferté, in the diocess of Challons, in 1113; Pontigni, near Auxerre, in 1114; Clairvaux, in 1115, for several friends of St. Bernard, who was appointed the first abbot; and Morimond, in the diocess of Langres. St. Stephen held the first general chapter in 1116. Cardinal Guy, archbishop of Vienne, legate of the holy see, in 1117, made a visit to Citeaux, carried St. Stephen to his diocess, and founded there, in a valley, the abbey of Bonnevaux. He was afterwards pope, under the name of Calixtus II., and dying in 1124, ordered his heart to be carried to Citeaux, and put into the hands of St. Stephen. It lies behind the high altar, in the old church. St. Stephen lived to found himself thirteen abbeys, and to see above a hundred founded by monks of his Order under his direction. In order to maintain strict discipline and perfect charity, he established frequent visitations to be made of every monastery, and instituted general chapters. The annalist of this Order thinks he was the first author of general chapters; nor do we find any mention of them before his time. The assemblies of abbots, sometimes made in the reigns of Charlemagne and Lewis le Debonnaire, &c., were kinds of extraordinary synods; not regular chapters. St. Stephen held the first general chapter of his Order in 1116; the second in 1119. In this latter he published several statutes called the Charte of Charity, confirmed the same year by Calixtus II.
He caused afterwards a collection of sacred ceremonies and customs to be drawn up, under the name of the Usages of Citeaux, and a short history of the beginning of the Order to be written, called the Exordium of Citeaux. The holy founder made a journey into Flanders in 1125; in which he visited the abbey of St. Vast, at Arras, where he was received by the Abbot Henry and his community, as if he had been an angel from heaven; and the most sacred league of spiritual friendship was made between them, of which several monuments are preserved in the library of Citeaux, described by Mabillon. In 1128, he and St. Bernard assisted at the council of Troyes, being summoned to it by the Bishop of Albano, legate of the apostolic see. In 1132, St. Stephen waited on Pope Innocent II., who was come into France. The Bishop of Paris, the Archbishop of Sens, and other prelates, besought the mediation of St. Stephen with the King of France and with the Pope, in affairs of the greatest importance. The Cistercian monks came over also into England in the time of St. Stephen. The extreme austerity and sanctity of the professors of this Order, which did not admit any relaxation in its discipline for two hundred years after its institution, were a subject of astonishment and edification to the whole world, as is described at large by Oderic Vitalis; St. Peter, abbot of Cluni; William of St. Thierry; William of Malmesbury; Peter, abbot of Celles; Stephen, bishop of Tournay; Cardinal James of Vitry; Pope Innocent III., &c., who mention, with amazement, their rigorous silence, their abstinence from flesh-meat, and, for the most part, from fish, eggs, milk, and cheese; their lying on straw, long watchings from midnight till morning, and austere fasts; their bread as hard as the earth itself; their hard labour in cultivating desert lands to produce the pulse and herbs on which they subsisted; their piety, devotion, and tears, in singing the divine office; the cheerfulness of their countenances breathing an holy joy in pale and mortified faces; the poverty of their houses; the lowliness of their buildings, &c.
The saint having assembled the chapter of his Order in 1133, when all the other business was dispatched, alleging his great age, infirmities, and incapacity, begged most earnestly to be discharged from his office of general, that he might in holy solitude have leisure to prepare himself to appear at the judgment seat of Christ. All were afflicted, but durst not oppose his desire. The chapter chose one Guy; but the saint discovering him unworthy of such a charge, in a few days he was deposed, and Raynard, a holy disciple of St. Bernard, created general. St. Stephen did not long survive the election of Raynard. Twenty neighbouring abbots of his Order assembled at Citeaux, to attend at his death. Whilst he was in his agony, he heard many whispering that, after so virtuous and penitential a life, he could have nothing to fear in dying: at this he said to them, trembling: “I assure you that I go to God in fear and trembling. If my baseness should be found to have ever done any good, even in this I fear, lest I should not have preserved that grace with the humility and care I ought.” He passed to immortal glory on the 28th of March, 1134, and was interred in the tomb of B. Alberic, in which also many of his successors lie buried, in the cloister, near the door of the church. 5 His Order keeps his festival on the 15th of July, as of the first class, with an octave, and with greater solemnity than those of St. Robert, or St. Bernard, having always looked upon him as the principal of its founders. The Roman Martyrology honours him on the 17th of April, supposed to be the day on which he was canonized, of which mention is made by Benedict XIV.
Butler’s Lives of the Saints