By the late 11th c, some Benedictine monks
felt that their order had become too worldly, so that St Robert of Molesme and
his followers founded the Cistercian order in 1098, with its first house at
Oteaux; their white habits distinguished them from other Benedictines. The
Englishman Stephen Harding, third abbot of Oteaux, sent Hugues de Macon to
found a daughter community at Pontigny in 1114.
Pontigny! A name with a magical resonance, surrounded
by other places with euphonious names - Tonnere, St Florentin, Auxerre. It is a
low, mean and lean Cistercian abbey in the austerity of the First Pointed
style, as early ecclesiologists would have termed it. The nave and transepts
date from c.1140, the choir from 1185 onwards, but they have a wonderful unity,
best viewed from the south-east. Thomas Becket stayed here in exile (1164-6),
Archbishop Stephen Langton came here when banished by King John (1208-13), and
Archbishop Edmund Rich, in conflict with both King Henry III and the monks of
his own chapter, died close by in 1240.
Rich was an heroic
figure; from a cash-strapped
wealthy family, he used none of his advantages, living
a life of prayer and meditation, wearing sackcloth and thinking only of others.
The 17th c. furnishings of the choir do not reflect the Cistercian desire for
austerity, but it is here that the remains of St Edmund remain, enshrined in a
wondrous (yet not wholly incongruous) 18th c. casket above the high altar; Edme
is still used as a baptismal name locally to this day, a tribute to an
Englishman in exile.
Consider Edmund Rich's last words: 'I have never
sought anything else on this earth but you, Lord.'
Pray for those who live and die away from home,
including British soldiers.