Cistercian Monasticism

Table of Contents

1. Monks and the Rule of Benedict
2. Benedict of Nursia, Italy
3. Prayer
4. Spiritual Reading
5. The Cistercian Style
6. Who are Associates?
7. Kopua and the Catholic Church

Monks and the Rule of Benedict

Both Cistercian Monks and Nuns are unmarried and live in monasteries, seeking to live spiritual lives ; Monks in monasteries for men and Nuns in their own monasteries for women .

This form of life is found in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican traditions, and also in other religious traditions such as Buddhism.

“Listen and attend with the ear of your heart.” Benedict of Nursia

Benedict of Nursia, Italy

The Rule of Saint Benedict is a text written by the Italian Benedict of Nursia (c. AD 480–550) for groups of monks living communally under the authority of their leader, the Abbot. The Rule sets out how they are to live their daily lives in the monastery. When reading the ancient Rule today one quickly finds many specific rules – ritual (liturgical), disciplinary and practical – that are no longer followed in any monasteries today. However, the key principles and exemplary practices in the Rule continue to guide the lives of all monks living within the Benedictine tradition, including the Cistercians, who began as a reform movement within the Benedictines in the 12th century.

A Benedictine monk seeks to be responsive to the divine Word through the community, as represented for the monk by the Abbot. Monks seek to gradually become holy – whole as persons in the image of God – through persevering in fidelity to the stable pattern of daily life outlined in the Rule within the monastery. The Benedictine lives each day in a balanced pattern of periods of work and reflection, anchored by regular times of prayer. Through this patterned practice the monks’ lives are gradually oriented to loving service to one another in the community, and to hospitality to any guests who come to the monastery. The Rule itself is noted for its moderation and discretion, exemplifying these values that are meant to characterize a Benedictine community.


Prayer, our response to the divine Word in Christ, is the heart of the Christian and the Cistercian life. In the Benedictine tradition prayer is primarily communal. Monks gather in the church at regular times throughout the day to pray. Each time they recite together a set of prayers that are part of the liturgy called the Divine Office. This collective prayer is based around chanting the Psalms from the Hebrew scriptures. Regular recitation of the divine Office is complemented by the daily celebration of the Eucharist.

For Benedict the monastic vocation is participation in the monastic community, which is primarily expressed in communal liturgical prayer, called the ‘work of God’ in the Rule. All of the various activities of the day are oriented around the times of communal prayer. Through this pattern of prayer the monk’s entire day is oriented towards and dedicated to God.

The Rule of Benedict, focused at length on communal prayer in the monastery, rarely refers to personal prayer. However, he is clear that the goal of monastic life is communion with God. The spirituality of the Cistercian tradition, as articulated by its spiritual writers, is focused on personal meditation and contemplative prayer, complementing communal recitation of the divine Office. Typically, monks spend time in the early hours of the morning before dawn in personal prayer and spiritual reading.

Spiritual Reading

Regular reflective reading with a spiritual focus is an important part of monastic life, dating back to the Rule of Benedict, where it is required daily. What is read can be from the scriptures, a writer from the monastic tradition, or a contemporary spiritual writer, anything that helps one to reflect on one’s spiritual life.

Spiritual reading nourishes our development towards gradually becoming the people God has called us to be as His children. The Cistercian tradition has its own spiritual writers, from Aelred and Bernard in the 13th century to Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating in the 20th century, expressing the Cistercian style of spirituality.

One traditional form of spiritual reading that has recently become popular again is called lectio divina. This is a form of slow meditative reading of a short passage, focusing not on the overall meaning of the text, but responding with a ‘listening heart’ to particular words or phrases that resonate, in order to be open to the divine Word to oneself in that moment.

The Cistercian Style

What distinguishes the Cistercian from other forms of Benedictine monastic life? While based on the Rule of Benedict, the Cistercian is a specific form of monastic life. Begun as a reform of Benedictine life, it has its own tradition. This has produced a particular style of Benedictine life (commonly called the Cistercian charism).

The Cistercian style encompasses all the values in the Benedictine approach based in the Rule, with a particular focus on certain specific elements in the Rule, in contrast to the general Benedictine style. These are the specific values that express the Cistercian charism and attract people to this way of life.

  • Daily periods of silence, especially in the evening and early morning.
  • Simplicity or austerity in one’s general lifestyle.
  • An orientation to meditative or contemplative prayer.
  • Regular ordinary daily work as a spiritual activity.
  • Warm hospitality to our guests.
    Cistercian spiritual writers articulate the Cistercian style of Benedictine life.

Who are Associates?

Associates are drawn to the spirituality expressed in the life of the monastic community in the monastery, but not to become monks themselves. After a period of preparation (called preliminary formation) they may be accepted by the monastic leader to make a permanent commitment as a member of the Associate group of the Southern Star Abbey.

At a liturgy in the monastic church they promise, before the monastic and Associate communities, to live out their ordinary lives according to a personal rule of life they have developed through reflection on the Rule and the Cistercian style. The personal rule of life always involves reciting daily part of the Divine Office, regular spiritual reading and an annual retreat at the monastery (if feasible). Each rule of life may have other personal elements.

In other forms of Benedictine monastic life, lay people who commit to live in the monastic spirit are generally called Oblates.

Kopua and the Catholic Church

For those who are not from a Catholic background, the question arises: What is the relationship of Kopua to the Catholic Church?

As a Cistercian monastery Kopua is an institution within the Roman Catholic Church. All the monks are Catholics. However, the monastery welcomes guests from all Christian communities, from other religious tradition or no religion at all, treating them as if they were Christ as the Rule of Benedict requires.

Members of the Associates community come from various different Christian backgrounds, united by their commitment to live in the spirit of the Cistercian monastic tradition. Associates can participate fully in the monastic liturgies at the monastery.

Associates who are not of Catholic background accommodate for themselves how to manage the more overtly Catholic elements of Cistercian Spirituality, for example Catholic devotion to Mary, the Mother of God.
Those who do not share the Catholic understanding and belief that the Bread and Wine after the Consecration are the Body, Blood ,Soul and Divinity of Christ are not to receive Holy Communion, but are welcome to present themselves at Communion time for a Blessing by crossing their arms on their chest.