The Blessed Virgin Mary has always been honoured in the Christian tradition as the mother of God, or Theotokos (‘bearer’ of God) as the Council of Ephesus affirmed her in 431, but in twelfth century Europe devotion to Mary increased and the new Cistercian Order played in important part in this.
From the beginnings of the Cistercian Order all new houses and monasteries were dedicated to the Virgin Mary and according to a legend, St Alberic, the second abbot of Citeaux, introduced the white robe and cowl for his monks. The story goes that the white cowl was given to him for the monks by the Virgin Mary as they were singing vigils. The white of the Cistercian habit honours the purity of Mary.
For many centuries the Cistercians sang the Little Office of Our Lady before each of the canonical offices but even today devotion to Mary remains prominent in the liturgical life of the monks. At each of the seven hours of the Work of God the monks sing an antiphon in honour of the Blessed Virgin honouring the different aspects of her calling as the mother of God, and the solemn Cistercian Salve Regina is sung at the end of Compline each day.
St Bernard of Clairvaux was one of the best known advocates of the devotion to the mother of God. In his homilies and writings, particularly on the Song of Songs, he extols the unique role and calling that were given to Mary and the humility and faith of her response.
You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.From St Bernard’s homily On the Annunciation