The Promises and Charisms of Lay Cistercians

In May, God willing and with the permission of my community, I will make my first simple promises as a Lay Cistercian. The Lay Cistercians are an association of laymen and laywomen who have chosen to live their vocation as Christians in accordance with the unique charisms of the Cistercian Order, adapted to the circumstances of life “in the world.” Lay Cistercians participate in communities associated with Cistercian monasteries; my Lay Cistercian Community is affiliated with the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia.

I’ve been in the Lay Cistercian novitiate since Palm Sunday 2007. As my two-year novitiate draws to a close, I am invited to reflect on the following charisms which define Cistercian spirituality:

  • Early Rising
  • Encountering the Presence of God especially at the Divine Office
  • Recitation of the Psalms as song and prayer
  • Lectio Divina (“Sacred Reading,” or the meditative, prayerful reading of the Bible or other holy books)
  • Contemplative Prayer
  • Silence
  • Solitude
  • Simplicity
  • Living by the Work of One’s Hands
  • Obedience (for Lay Cistercians, not so much to an abbot as to Christ)
  • Stability
  • Celibacy (or, for Lay Cistercians, fidelity to one’s state of life)
  • Community
  • Hospitality to Newcomers
  • Conversion of Manners (i.e., ongoing conversion of life)
  • Humility
  • Patience
  • Doing all the above for the Love of Christ

Even for monks, living into the charisms is a process; and certainly this is, if anything, even more true for laypersons who embrace these charisms as guidelines for our own spiritual life.

The actual promises of a Lay Cistercian include:

  • Daily Eucharist, when possible
  • Liturgy of the Hours
  • Lectio Divina
  • Devotion to the Blessed Mother
  • Regular Participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation
  • Embracing of Silence and Solitude
  • Regular attendance at the monthly Lay Cistercian gathering days
  • Attendance at the Lay Cistercian Annual Retreat, if possible
  • Acceptance of the Rule of Benedict as guide for living the Gospel

Obviously, there is much overlap between the promises and the charisms. But even though there are only nine promises, they look pretty overwhelming. The Lay Cistercian community acknowledges that everyone will live into these promises in a different way. For some people, daily Eucharist and Lectio Divina are easy, while embracing silence and solitude is a challenge; for others, it’s the other way around. I am woefully imperfect at each of these, but for now the key factor is that I have accepted each of these promises as an important principle for my spiritual life — even if at the present such principles are largely unrealized.

One of the questions I have been asked to reflect on as I discern whether or not the request permission to make my simple vows is this: “What changes in my  life have I noticed since becoming a novice Lay Cistercian?” In other words, what difference has it made for me to participate in the Lay Cistercian community and way of life over the last two years? I can’t say that being a Lay Cistercian novice has made me more disciplined, or more committed to the Daily Office, or more holy in any kind of measurable way. But what it has done has been to make me more attentive: attentive to the sheer grace found in silence and solitude; attentive to the simple joys that can arise from participation in the Liturgy; attentive to the down-to-earth blessings that are available to me (and everyone) when I embrace such counter-cultural values as humility, patience, simplicity, and stability. Lay Cistercian spirituality is not glamorous or “sexy,” but it is deeply nourishing and quietly satisfying in the subtle ways it helps me to be more mindful of God’s loving presence in my life.

Assuming that both I and the community discern that I am to make my promises in May, it will be a time-specific commitment: I’ll promise to live the life of a Lay Cistercian for one year. I’ll need to do that at least three times before making the solemn promises that will make me a Lay Cistercian for life. During that at least three year period, I will continue to study, under the guidance of both monks and my elders in the Lay Cistercian community. With God’s help, I can grow not only in my experience of what it means to be a Lay Cistercian, but — most important of all — in my experience of what it means to be a Christian.

My friends, please pray for me. Thank you.

Emptiness and Non-Attachment
Pentecost and Ecstasy
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What's the Difference?
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Gwyn

    From one who is in candidacy for ministry, I fully understand the joy and solemnity of making your vows. I pray the discernment of God’s will and blessing on you. Remember, God’s plan is already in place. We are just waiting to find out what it is.

  • Joe Rawls

    It took me several years and several false starts to get to the point where I say the office every day and say the Jesus Prayer on a regular basis and I’m still working on other practices. You don’t have to become Bernard of Clairveaux all at once (actually you can probably give Bernard a rest!). It sounds like you have a good support system and I’ll keep you in my prayers.

  • judith collier

    Bless you Carl. At first I was thinking of your wife, me being a woman. The solitude and silence practice really isn’t that hard at home especially if you don’t have children around. My husband and I communicate more by silence than words anyway. We know each other’s thoughts and we each have our own interests. I don’t know your household but what you have acknowledged of your wife she appears to be a soul mate and things should go well. I will pray for you.

  • Carl McColman

    There is a very strong ethos within the Lay Cistercian community that one cannot pursue the demands of the Lay Cistercian life to the detriment of one’s family commitment. Many couples (esp. retired couples) embrace the Lay Cistercian life together. Fran isn’t a Lay Cistercian yet — in terms of attending the gatherings, becoming a novice, etc. — but she is, if anything, even more committed to silence and prayer and the Eucharist than I am. We both think that some day she’ll become a Lay Cistercian as well: either after I am professed, or after Rhiannon moves away from home (into a group home). We’re not sure if or when that will happen, so we’re not sure about what the future holds (are we ever?), but that’s the general idea. In the meantime, I tell my fellow Lay Cistercians that Fran is the one who keeps me honest in regard to living a contemplative life!

  • Liz


    I think this is so cool that I’m speechless. Really, I’m sitting here and can’t find the words to sum up how much I agree with so much of what you said and how wonderful I think it is that you are able to open yourself up for this process.

    So here is my feeble attempt. This is very, very cool. My prayers and best wishes are with you.

  • Ken


    Great to read – I am about to make the first step into becoming a Benedictine Oblate of my local church – which just happens to also be a Benedictine Monastery . It has been along journey for me from an awakening at the age of 10 through Christian fundamentalism to a ‘return’ as it were to the truth for me in Catholicism.

    Bless you my brother in your service and walk


  • Mike

    I am grateful for your witness of merging the contemplative life and the active life.

    May the Lord who has given you the will to do these things give you the grace and power to perform them.

    Peace, Mike

  • Jay

    Congratulations Carl. I know it is tough to consider what your vocation might be, and then going through all the steps in the process. God bless you on your journey.

  • cloudunnkowing (Bill)

    Thanks for sharing your plans for commitment to become a Lay Cistercian on twitter. I am considering the same. It is nice to see your posting on the topic. I look forward to following your progress! Please keep us updated on twitter.

  • Carl McColman

    Thanks, Bill. You’re in the Atlanta area, right? You should come out to Conyers and stop by the Abbey Store and say hello. I’m there most weekdays, and every third Saturday.