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LETTER XXXI (A.D. 1132)

To the Abbot of a Certain Monastery at York, from Which the Prior Had Departed, Taking Several Religious with Him. 5050    Letter 318 clearly shows what monastery these had left, namely, the Benedictine Abbey of S. Mary, at York, and this the Monasticon Anglicanum confirms.
   The Abbey of S. Mary, at York, was founded in 1088 by Count Alan, son of Guy, Count of Brittany, in the Church of S. Olave, near York, to which King William Rufus afterwards gave the name of S. Mary. Hither were brought from the monastery of Whitby the Abbot Stephen and Benedictine monks, under whom monastic discipline was observed; but about the year 1132, under Geoffrey, the third abbot, it began to be relaxed. It was at that time that the Cistercian order was everywhere renowned, and was introduced into England in the year 1128 (its first establishment being at Waverley, in Surrey). Induced by a pious emulation, twelve monks of S. Mary, who were not able to obtain from their abbot permission to transfer themselves to this Cistercian Order, begged the support of Thurstan, Archbishop of York, to put their project into execution. With his support they left their monastery on October 4th, 1132, notwithstanding the opposition of their abbot; to the number of twelve priests and one levite (deacon). Of these one was the Prior Richard, another Richard the sacristan, and others named in the History before mentioned, taking nothing from the monastery but their habit. Troubled by their desertion, Abbot Geoffrey complained to the king, to the bishops and abbots of the neighbourhood, as well as to S. Bernard himself, of the injury done by this to the rights of all religious houses, without distinction. Archbishop Thurstan wrote a letter of apology to William, Archbishop of Canterbury, and at the same time Bernard himself wrote to Thurstan and to the thirteen Religious to congratulate them, and another to Abbot Geoffrey to justify their action (Letters 94 to 96 and 313). In the meantime these monks were shut up in the Episcopal house of Thurstan; and as they refused, notwithstanding the censures of their abbot, to return to their former monastery, Thurstan gave them in the neighbourhood of Ripon a spot of ground previously uncultivated, covered with thorn bushes, and situated among rocks and mountains which surrounded it on all sides, that they might build themselves a house there. Their Prior Richard was given to them for abbot by Thurstan, who gave him the Benediction on Christmas Day. Having passed a whole winter in incredible austerity of life, they gave themselves and their dwelling-place, which they had called Fountains, to S. Bernard. He sent to them a Religious, named Geoffrey, of Amayo, from whose hands they received the Cistercian Rule with incredible willingness and piety (Life of S. Bernard, B. iv. c. 2).

1. You write to me from beyond the sea to ask of me advice which I should have preferred that you 125had sought from some other. I am held between two difficulties, for if I do not reply to you, you may take my silence for a sign of contempt; but if I do reply I cannot avoid danger, since whatever I reply I must of necessity either give scandal to some one or give to some other a security which they ought not to have, or at all events more than they ought to have. That your brethren have departed from you was not with the knowledge nor by the advice or persuasion of me or of my brethren. But I incline to believe that it was of God, since their purpose could not be shaken by all your efforts; and that the brethren themselves thought this also who so earnestly sought my advice about themselves; their conscience troubling them, as I suppose, because they quitted you. Otherwise, if their conscience, 126like that of the Apostle, did not reproach them, their peace would not have been disturbed (Rom. xiv. 22). But what can I do that I may be hurtful to no one neither by my silence nor by my reply to the questions asked me? Thus, perhaps, I may relieve myself of the difficulty if I shall send those who question me to a person more learned, and whose authority is more reverend and sacred than mine. Pope S. Gregory says in his book on the Pastoral Rule, “Whosoever has proposed to himself a greater good does an unlawful thing in subordinating it to a lesser good.” And he proves this by a citation from the Gospel, saying, No one putting his hand to the plough and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God (S. Luke ix. 62); and he proceeds: “He who renounces a more perfect state which he has embraced, to follow another which is less so, is precisely the man who looks back” (Part iii. c. 28). The same Pope in his third Homily on Ezekiel, adds: “There are people who taste virtue, set themselves to practise it, and while doing so contemplate undertaking actions still better; but afterwards drawing back, abandon those better things which they had proposed to themselves. They do not, it is true, leave off the good practices they had begun, but they fail to realize those better ones which they had meditated. To human judgment these seem to stand fast in the good work, but to the eyes of Almighty God they have fallen, and failed in what they contemplated.”

2. Here is a mirror. In it let your Religious consider, not the features of their faces, but the fact of their turning back. Here let them determine and distinguish their motives, their thoughts, 127accusing or excusing them with that sentence which the spiritual man passes who judges all things, and is himself judged by no one. I, indeed, cannot rashly determine whether the state which they have left or that which they have embraced was the greater or less, the higher or lower, the severer or the more lax. Let them judge according to the rule of S. Gregory. But to you, Reverend Father, I declare, with as much positive assurance as plain truth, that it is not at all desirable that you should set yourself to quench the Spirit. Hinder not him, it is said, who is able to do good, but if thou canst, do good also thyself (Prov. iii. 27, Vulg.). It more befits you to be proud of the good works of your sons, since a wise son is the glory of his father (Prov. x. 1). For the rest, let no one make it a cause of complaint against me that I have not hidden in my heart the righteousness of God, unless, perhaps, I have spoken less of it than I ought, for the sake of avoiding scandal.


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