In the latter half of the eleventh century, when Stephen was still a child, his parents presented him to Sherborne Abbey in Dorset as an oblate. He received a monastic education, but, frustrated at the restrictions inherent in monastic life, decided to leave the abbey and see the world, traveling first to Scotland and then to Paris as a wandering scholar (this, of course, was an age of wandering scholars).
Stephen’s dissatisfaction with monasticism at Sherborne did nothing to weaken his Christian devotion, and, nourished on the Psalms (which were for him the root and source of all his spiritual life), he began – perhaps unusually for a wandering scholar – to experience a desire not for a less restrictive kind of monasticism, but for a Benedictine monastery where the Rule was observed with full strictness and austerity.
He appeared to have discovered just such a monastery when he happened upon a community living in the forest of Langres in Burgundy under the abbot St Robert of Molesmes, where long hours of prayer and hard manual labour underpinned a rigorous interpretation of St Benedict’s Rule.
The Bishop of Troyes, however, was hostile towards this reformed kind of Benedictinism, and took it upon himself to burden the community with property in the hope that this would have the effect of mitigating the zeal and austerity of the monks.
His plan was so successful that, appalled at the descent into mediocrity and indiscipline, St Robert decided to leave, being followed by St Stephen and St Alberic (both of whom succeeded him briefly as abbot).
The Bishop of Troyes ordered them to return, but, increasingly disillusioned with lax spirit which the bishop had engendered within the monastery, the fled the region and took refuge in Lyons under the Archbishop Hugh, who happened to be the papal legate.
Thanks to Hugh’s support, Robert, Stephen and Alberic were permitted to start a new, stricter religious order modeled on the original spirit of the monastery from which they had come, and the new monastery of Cîteaux opened in 1098 with Robert as abbot, Alberic as prior and Stephen as subprior, though Robert was later ordered by Pope Urban II to return to Molesmes for the purpose of extending the reform movement.
Alberic succeeded Robert as Abbot of Cîteaux, and, after his death in 1109, was in turn succeeded by Stephen. Stephen was determined to move the new Cistercian order in the direction of a commitment to radical poverty, and cut Cîteaux off from the usual sources of feudal income on which monasteries normally depended.
Due to a chronic lack of vocations, the new venture made little headway, and it was only Stephen’s unshakeable trust in divine providence that kept Cîteaux going. However, almost miraculously, in 1112 a group of thirty men, led by the future St Bernard of Clairvaux, appeared out of the forests which surrounded Cîteaux and entered the monastery as novices.
The Cistercian movement now exploded into life, expanding to around ninety monasteries by the time of Stephen’s death in 1134.
In 1119 Stephen framed the new Cistercian constitution, the “Charter of Charity”, which emphasized those principles of the reformed monasticism – radical poverty, solitary silence, hard manual labour, economic self-sufficiency, and a spirit of austere (even severe) liturgical simplicity – which set the Cistercian charism apart from that of less observant Benedictine houses.
Stephen’s dying words were: “I am going to God as I had never done any good. If I have done some good, it was through the help of the grace of God. But perhaps I have received this grace unworthily, without turning it sufficiently to account”.
In fact, he had turned the grace of God to very good account. Having co-founded a reform-movement within Benedictinism, he went on to shape and preside over a monastic renaissance which did much to transform the spiritual, intellectual and economic landscape of mediaeval Europe.
Most images of Stephen including some of those reproduced here, depict him as an abbot presenting his church to the Virgin Mary. In this images he is invariable the figure at the left of the painting or icon.