The Cistercians Are Back at Zirc

Fr. Placid Czismazia.  Fr. Chris Rabay.  Fr. Roch Kereszty.  Fr. Gilbert Hardy.  And of course Fr. David Balas. These were the names of some of the Hungarian Cistercians who blessed my time (or dogged my steps) while I did graduate work at the University of Dallas, all of whom had fled Hungary after the suppression of the Cistercian monastery at Zirc (pronounced Zeerts) near Budapest.  Their stories could be multiplied a thousand times, and we’d still have barely scratched the surface. 

There was the story of Fr. Placid, walking the streets of Budapest during the Nazi occupation, when it might have meant being shot on sight, so that he could visit his students at their homes to check on their Latin and Greek assignments.  He wanted them to continue to have as much regularity as possible, he once told me, and a sense of hope that they were preparing for the period after the war was over.  And of course what else would you be doing while war was enveloping the world around you other than translating your Latin and Greek?

Then there was Fr. Chris Rabay, a man not even five feet, but hard as a rock and built like a fire plug, who was said to have carried one of his fellow Cistercians across the mountains on his back after this brother had broken his ankle during the dangerous crossing.

And then there was Fr. Gilbert Hardy, the paradigm of the Eastern European bureaucrat: all papers in order, all forms signed, all files complete.  I annoyed him to no end.  When he was graduate dean, he once called me into his office and demanded to know, “Rahndy, vich prograhm ahr you een?”  “I’m finishing the Masters in Theology and have begun the Masters in Philosophy.”  He shook his head.  This was not the proper order of things. He said again, very slowly: “Vich prograhm ahr you een?”  To which I made the exact same reply.  We went back and forth like this eleven times, him asking the same question, me making the same reply.  At the time, I thought he would make a good James Bond villain.  I feared he might push a button and drop me into a tank of sharks.

The stories are endless.  But all of those individual stories are part of a bigger story.  One sort of “bigger story” – the ultimate “bigger story” – is the story of salvation history: the story of our fall and redemption by Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross, His resurrection from the dead and ascension to the God’s right hand, from whence He sends His Holy Spirit, and where He awaits us after death to welcome us into the bosom of His Father and the eternal communion of Trinitarian love. 

Zirc Abbey

Most of the men I named above have, as T. S. Eliot puts it, accepted “the constitution of silence.” What has now become of their lives, their struggles, their wisdom, their love?  As Christians we believe that none this has been obliterated and “left behind” at death, rather it is preserved and glorified in its ultimate Source and End, in the one who is both the Alpha and the Omega. 

But there is another story, a little closer to home: The Cistercian monastery at Zirc was ordered closed and vacated by the Communist authorities in 1950.  Many of the monks fled the country and established new abbeys in wild, untamed places like Spring Bank, Wisconsin, and Dallas, Texas, while others continued to live “underground” in Hungary, some as diocesan priests, others simply living the life of laymen though keeping their vows and celebrating Mass privately, as they were able. 

But then, in 1989, once the people of Hungary were freed from the Communist worker’s paradise that had been enforced on them by the Soviets, something amazing happened:  the Cistercian Order received back the entire monastery at Zirc and control of four schools.  The problem was (and is), the monastery at Zirc had been built over centuries and in years past had housed hundreds of monks.  Now there are roughly only thirty living there.  It’s like a five-year old trying to wear his father’s size-13 loafers.  It will take some time before they grow into the vestment passed on to them by their forefathers.

But I’m reminded of a little poem by Robert Frost, in which he advises that:

When at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
[We should] choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

When we’re tempted by the fear that the Church will be “swept away by the forces of history” — abortion, gay marriage, suppression of Catholic charities and businesses — we should remember that there was a time when rich and powerful forces conspired with the intellectual elite of Hungary to suppress the Cistercians and destroy them entirely. They were reputed to be “stuck in the Dark Ages,” doomed to be “left behind by history,” whereas their oppressors were thought (even by some Catholics) to represent the future: something bright, shining, and new.  “We will bury you,” they said (not realizing that resurrection has always been Christ’s special gift to the faithful).

But where are those utopian reformers now?  They’ve been swept into the trash heap of history, in that place we reserve not only for the departed, but for the cads and thugs and cowards.  They’re not only dead, their memory is despised.

And the Cistercians?  The Cistercians are back at Zirc – not to mention in Spring Bank and Dallas.  Praying. Teaching.  AS they have been for centuries.  Proving once again that, despite the latest machinations of the Enemy:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.