Founded in 910, the Abbey of Cluny was built in Beaune, Burgundy, France as a measure to put into place the Benedictine Reforms that would allow the monks to return to the essence of the Rule of St. Benedict –  to focus on prayer, poverty, solitude, peace and work such as caring for the poor. With the reforms and via a quirky twist of events, the monastery became only answerable to the pope and was not subject to the local levies and taxes from the lords who governed the land. This allowed Cluny to become extremely wealthy. Between the 10th and the 12th centuries, Cluny attracted the patronage of many noble houses and became a centre-hub where the arts could flourish. The abbey became a seat of European influence and power whose monastic authority stretched across more than 10,000 monks, and 1,100 priories. So much so, that the popular saying arose, “Wherever the winds blow, Cluny Abbey is paid its dues.” As a seat of temporal influence and power, Cluny had a tangible say in the History of the time, and was instrumental in the reconquest of Spain and in having its abbots advise the papacy, and kings. An increasingly rich liturgy simulated the demand for fine gold and jeweled vessels, intricate tapestries, and fabric, and stained glass.

At the time of the Cistercian Reforms, Cluny was suffering from excess, corruption, and materialism. Robert de Molesme, a Benedictine monk under Cluny was made aware by the stirring of the Holy Spirit of the decay that Cluny was experiencing.

In the year 1075, Robert obtained permission from Pope Gregory VII to set up a monastery away from Cluny at Molesme, Burgundy. At that monastery, Robert tried to restore the Benedictine order under the Strict Observance of St. Benedict’s Rule. However, it was difficult enterprise, and the monks themselves were resistant to change, after all Cluny paved the way. In 1098, Robert left Molesme with a band of 21 monks to set up a different monastery at Cîteaux.

The fervour and inspiration of the first monks at Cîteaux was soon put to the test. From the sources that are available, some tension arose on account of the somewhat ambiguous relationship between the new monastery and the Benedictine house the monks had left. In order to preserve peace, after only a short time St. Robert was required to leave Cîteaux and return to Molesme in order to resume his duties there as abbot. For this reason in Cistercian iconography he is often pictured as a Benedictine monk wearing a black habit, instead of the traditional white-and-black habit of the Cistercian Order. Some monks decided to return with St. Robert, while those remaining professed their stability to Cîteaux, thereby sealing their commitment to the new reform. As abbot of Cîteaux, St. Robert was succeeded first by St. Alberic and then by St. Stephen Harding; together these three men are celebrated as the Founders of the Cistercian Order with a solemn feast on January 26.

The fascinating history of medieval monasticism serves as a cautionary tale to us about what could happen if we let greed otherwise known as avarice, get in the way of our mission in the Church.

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines “Avarice” (from Latin avarus, “greedy”; “to crave”) as the disordered and inordinate love for riches. Its special malice, broadly speaking, lies in that it makes the getting and keeping of money, possessions, and the like, a purpose in itself to live for. It does not see that these things are valuable only as instruments for the conduct of a rational and harmonious life, due regard being paid of course to the special social condition in which one is placed. It is called a capital vice because it has as its object that for the gaining or holding of which many other sins are committed. It is more to be dreaded in that it often cloaks itself as a virtue, or insinuates itself under the pretext of making a decent provision for the future. In so far as avarice is an incentive to injustice in acquiring and retaining of wealth, it is frequently a grievous sin. In itself, however, and in so far as it implies simply an excessive desire of, or pleasure in, riches, it is commonly not a mortal sin.

Avarice, like fornication, is a form of idolatry. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, human beings have a sensitive appetite to desire pleasant things that we do not have, for example, warmth, when it is too cold, or the desire to eat when we are hungry. These innate desires are often good for themselves. However, things turn towards the bad, when these desires drive us to exceed the limits of reason and cause us to covet unjustly what is not ours (CCC. 2534 – 2535).

The Tenth Commandment forbids greed and the desire to amass earthly goods without limit. It forbids avarice arising from a passion for riches and their attendant power. It also forbids the desire to commit injustice by harming our neighbour in his or her temporal goods (CCC. 2536). When the Law says, “You shall not covet,” these words mean that we should banish our desires for whatever does not belong to us. Our thirst for another’s goods is immense, infinite, never quenched. Thus it is written: “He who loves money never has money enough.” (Roman Catechism, III,37; cf. Sirach 5:8)

St. Paul warns in Ephesians, “But know this, that no fornicator, or unclean person, or covetuous person who is an idolater has inheritance in the kingdom of God.” (Ephesians 5:3-5)  These have to be avoided, for they shut us out of the Kingdom of God.

St. John Cassian writes, “Of covetousness there are three kinds: (1) That which hinders renunciants from allowing themselves of be stripped of their goods and property; (2) that which draws us to resume with excessive eagerness the possession of those things which we have given away and distributed to the poor; (3) that which leads a man to covet and procure what he never previously possessed.”

He goes on to give some salient recommendations:

“Wherefore we must enter the lists against these faults in such a way that every one should discover his besetting sin, and direct his main attack against it, directing all his care and watchfulness of mind to guard against its assault, directing against it daily the weapons of fasting, and at all times hurling against it the constant darts of sighs and groanings from the heart, and employing against it the labours of vigils and the meditation of the heart, and further pouring forth to God constant tears and prayers and continually and expressly praying to be delivered from its attack. For it is impossible for a man to win a triumph over any kind of passion, unless he has first clearly understood that he cannot possibly gain the victory in the struggle with it by his own strength and efforts, although in order that he may be rendered pure he must night and day persist in the utmost care and watchfulness.”

The tools then to conquer avarice are found in fasting, constant prayer and supplication to the Lord, for it is not of our merits that we may conquer our sins. St. John Cassian compares the sins to beasts that need to be conquered, with the recommendation to deploy our attacks against the fiercest  and strongest first, and to bring all the forces in assault against these, then the other beasts will thus be succumbed easily. He concludes his treatise with:

“But you must know that our battles are not all fought in the same order, because, as we mentioned that the attacks are not always made on us in the same way, each one of us ought also to begin the battle with due regard to the character of the attack which is especially made on him so that one man will have to fight his first battle against the fault which stands third on the list, another against that which is fourth or fifth. And in proportion as faults hold sway over us, and the character of their attack may demand, so we too ought to regulate the order of our conflict, in such a way that the happy result of a victory and triumph succeeding may insure our attainment of purity of heart and complete perfection.”


By Brian Bartholomew Tan

Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 11, Roman Catechism III, The Catholic Encyclopedia