Monasticism: from Benedict to the Singing Nun

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 The first, most lasting, and influential of the monastic orders is attributed to Benedict of Nursia (5th and 6th century). Benedict converted to Christ through a religious experience, became an ascetic hermit, and then established 12 monasteries each of twelve monks, after the biblical pattern. He founded the monastery of Monte Cassino south of Rome in about 529. Tradition tells us that the rule went to England with early missionaries, was established there, and then later was reintroduced to continental Europe by the 9th century. The written rule itself seems to be a focused redaction of the earlier Regula Magistri.

 By the 8th century, Benedictine missions had carried the rule and the Gospel throughout Europe, England, and Ireland. Monasticism became the driving force of Christian evangelism with each monastery conforming the rule to some extent to its particular socio-cultural environment. Notable monastic missionaries include Boniface to the Germans, Patrick to Ireland, Columban to the Celts, and Augustine to England. Pope Gregory should also be mentioned for his enduring devotion to Benedict and his rule. Early Benedictine monasticism was responsible, to a great extent, for the conquest of the barbarians, pagans, and heretics of the Western world.

 The rule itself was one of austerity and disciplined living, articles found therein deal with such subjects as poverty, chastity, obedience to the abbot, clothing, reception of guests, and prayer: "Our prayer must be brief and pure, unless it chance be prolonged with the inspiration of God's grace."

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 By the time of the Carolingian dynasty, monasticism had become an important and invaluable political tool used by Charlemagne to maintain power, solve social problems, and insure the way to eternal bliss. Benedictine monasteries flourished by means of the incessant military campaigning of the Carolingians, official sanction, and local patronage. As a result, and because of the especially sad state of the clergy in those days (participants in simony, immorality, controversy, and ignorance), the discipline of monastic life broke down over the course of time, permitting laxity in behavior, additions and subtractions to the Rule, and the allowance of outside manual labor. Because of the prominence and importance of monasticism and the Christian faith to the empire, Charlemagne and his immediate successors determined to bring about reform through standardization of religious practices, governmental supervision, and enforcing strict observance of the Rule among monastics.

 In 910, William the Good, ruler of Aquitaine, chartered a new Benedictine monastery at Cluny of Burgundy, granting patronage to the Pope rather than to himself or any local vassal. The monks were cautioned to recapture the purity of the Rule, develop and utilize ceremonial forms of praise to God, stringently observe the canonical hours, and, most importantly, branch out to other, "daughter" monasteries. Such reform was a fresh breeze to medieval Christianity, and within 300 years, Cluny had over 1500 daughters. With the benefit of central authority and power (the abbot of the mother house was the president over all), the Cluniac houses became rich and opulent, attracting great benefices from the rich and powerful.

 At about the same time and for perhaps the same reasons, new monastic reforms began to take root simultaneously throughout Europe. At Metz, one John Groze, dismayed with the affluence of Cluny, began a work of greater austerity, finally attaining some 150 daughters. Unlike Cluny, these houses were only loosely affiliated with the motherhouse. In addition, some Benedictine monasteries, like the one at Bec in Normandy, wanted to retain their individuality of identity, thus did not want to join with the Cluniac-Benedictine system. Rather, due to the influence of reform, they began to "revive," determining to "strip away local accretions" of sloth and lethargy. The Normans conquered England in 1066, exporting this renewed Benedictine monasticism to England through their abbot of Bec and Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, and later the great the Christian apologist, Anselm, known well yet today for his treatise Why the God-Man:

 The God-Man...cannot be made from a divine nature and a human nature either by the transformation of one into the other or by the corrupt mingling of both into a third.

 I believe one of the most important of the reform movements began at Hirsau, Germany in 1069 by one William. Though not affiliated with Cluny, the monastery at Hirsau observed the same variations to the Benedictine rule, but was granted, by papal authority, the freedom to modify its rule for the sake of local custom and religious practice. Such modification would allow the inclusion of the conversi, lay monks who were allowed to be married, and retired nobility. Such "reform" seems to have paved the way for greater and greater aberration from the Rule, and new orders such as the Cistercian, Augustinians, and other, later and more divergent, orders.

 The Cistercian order of Citeaux was a literal interpreter of the Rule of Benedict. It was the Cistercians' intention to follow every jot and tittle of the Rule - "to the last dot;" if the Rule did not mention a particular situation, that situation was avoided. The few exceptions included Mass and Order for the Dead. Cistercian novitiates took a severe vow of poverty. Since, by 1098, the European population had increase to the point of utilizing much of the arable land, the Cistercians founded their houses on worthless wasteland, therefore they were not subject to patronage. The Cistercian constitution was authored by Stephen Harding in his Carta Charitatis, detailing matters such as relations between abbots (with "fraternal spirit") and houses, and who should judge in case of disputes (the body of abbots, rather than "the abbot" of the mother house). Since prayer was such an urgent matter, time was made for prayer by enlisting conversi to do the majority of manual labor on the "granges," or farmlands. Freed from the confines of patronage, the conversi of the Cistercian order were able to make major advancements in agricultural methods. In doing so, the order became rich even if the members did not.

 The Augustinian Canons, a less well-organized, looser association, came into being about the same time as the Cistercian order (around 1063). This fellowship was mostly urban and secular, allowing for a much broader range of lifestyles the any previous monastic movement. The Order was based on the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, a rule derived from a letter from Augustine (of Hippo) to his "sister," explaining simple instructions for nuns. The fellowship of Augustinian Canons grew rapidly, due, no doubt, to the more inclusive and less austere rule.

 The era of the seven Crusades (1095 - 1274) ushered in an enthusiastic revival of a particularly militant and unique form of devotional Christianity, giving rise to such movements as the Order of Knights Templars and Hospitalars, and mobilizing monks, nobility, the military, and peasants in a holy war against all pagans or heretics, with the final goal of liberating "the holy land" from such. The three branches of the Templars, the Alcantra, Calatrava, and Santiago, were especially important in the reconquest of Spain after 1156. Nobles of these Templars became the secular rulers of the Spanish state after the reconquest.

 In the early 13th century, Dominic of Spain, an Augustinian Canon and inquisitor, was encouraged by the Pope to start a new monastic order devoted to academics and preaching. As a result, the new Dominican order developed from Augustinian roots around 1218, and was known affectionately (or not-so) as the "watchdogs of God." The emphasis of the Dominicans became academics. Although the "friars" begged, they were encouraged to complete in-house coursework in theology, then university work. Dominican houses were affiliated with universities. Being the most hermeneutically oriented order, the Dominican friars were involved to a great degree in the inquisition. Contemporary with Dominic was Francis of Assisi, a youth from a prominent family, who was converted to Christ through a spiritual experience.

Later impressed by one of Jesus' messages to his disciples (when they were to go out two by two), he began an order based on that passage in Matthew 10, exhorting those that would follow him to give up all that they had to minister to the poor and downtrodden, and imitate Christ in their daily lives. The Pope condoned Francisí work in 1210, and by his death (1226), the movement was widespread, even into Africa; there became thousands of Franciscans. These brothers and sisters (the Poor Clares) were given to preaching, begging, and self-abasement. Later, the movement became known for its academics and intellectualism. The Franciscans and Dominicans had many similarities due to identical times, similar missions, and what may have been inspired concern for the dregs of society, Christ, and the Catholic Church.

 Finally, we come to the 13th and 14th century, a time of constant war, plague, political heterodoxy, and flagrant religious hypocrisy. Since I wrote my term paper on the Brethren of the Common Life, I will only mention that this movement was a mixture of both clergy and laity, took no vows at all (at first, later became Canons), with members working rather than begging. The Brethren were founded by Groote as a response to the poor quality of the clergy about him. The summa of the movement is recorded in the writings of Ruysbroek (the leaders of the movement venerated his writings), Groote, and a Kempis. Other movements that were important in this time of crisis include the beghards and beguines (quasi-heretical, loosely bound mendicant sects), the Brethren of the Free Spirit (and other such heretical and spiritualist fellowships), and the Friends of God, based on the writings of the mystic, Meister Eckhart, the via negativa, and flagellation. There were probably countless other groups as well at this time, I can name these: Waldensians, Hussites, and Cathars. Although these named were dealt with harshly and finally by the Inquisition of the Dominicans, there must have been hundreds that fell through the cracks.

 So, beginning with Benedict and continuing through a millennium of Christian development to its decline, we summarize the phenomenon of monasticism in Europe. Although, in retrospect, monasticism is often criticized and questioned for its value in the scheme of Christian philosophy and practice, after a closer examination one finds that the movement fulfilled many needs of its harsh society, changing with time to do so. In the nick, society dispensed with monasticism altogether, preferring only the Dominican "singing nun" and the "flying nun" of the order of St. Bernadette, both commonly known and recognized from the 1960s. The former mendicant was soon rejected, then forgotten, dying an impoverished sexual anomaly. But her song continues to ricochet from one wall of the skull to another like a piece of red-hot shrapnel, keeping us awake until the nightmares come. The latter lives on in our hearts as a specter of absurdity, a total affront to our Christian sensibilities.

  12/14/90