medieval monasticism

There is little doubt that the monastic ideal exercised a powerful influence on the communities in which monasteries were found.

It has been estimated that there were around 340 religious houses and about 15,000 men and women in religious orders in the last quarter of the twelfth century in England and Wales. Rievaulx and the other surviving Yorkshire abbeys are testimony to the major building work then under way in that part of the European community. Abbots such as Ailred became influential 52figures in the church (Coleman, 1993). Italian abbots were automatic members of kings’ councils, simply because of their station, their influence, and their service.

Though not the first monastery founded to serve Christian beliefs, and not even the first founded by St. Benedict, Monte Cassino was founded in 529 by Saint Benedict of Nursia on the site of an Apollonian temple, northwest of Naples, and was to become the best known. Monte Cassino became the home of the Benedictine Order and was for many centuries the leading monastery in western Europe. It was destroyed by Lombardsin 590, by Saracens in 884, and by earthquake in 1349, and was rebuilt each time. The present buildings are in the style of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Judged by the standards of the time, the Benedictine rule imposed no great amount of austerity or asceticism. It required the provision of adequate food, clothing, and shelter for the monks. Depending on the season of the year and the festival celebrated, the monks each day devoted a period of four to eight hours to celebrating the Divine Office and one period of seven or eight hours to sleep; the remainder of the day was divided about equally between work (usually agricultural) and religious reading and study. The abbot was given full patriarchal authority over the community, but was himself subject to the rule and was required to consult the members of the community on important questions. During the lifetime of Benedict, his disciples spread the order through the countries of central and western Europe; it soon became the only important order in those lands, remaining so until the founding of the Austin Friars in the 11th century and of the mendicant orders in the 13th century.

During the 11th and 12th centuries it was a center of learning, particularly in the field of medicine. The famous medical school at Salerno was established by Monte Cassino monks. Regardless of order, nearly all monasteries provided community services lacking in their local areas. They were the centers of learning in a time when illiteracy was the norm. They provided rest and shelter for travelers, and counseling and solace for any who asked. It was the nature of a monastery to be self-supporting. With the attention given to prayer and introspection, it was necessary to attend to the matters of survival in the most efficient way possible, leaving as much time as possible for spiritual or scholarly pursuits.

That the order was (and remains) influential is indicated by the sheer numbers of leaders and those who were “sainthood eligible” generated through it: Gregory I was the first of 50 Benedictines who have occupied the papal throne; some others were Leo IV (800?-55); Gregory VII; Pius VII; and Gregory XVI (1765-1846). St. Augustine, the disciple of Gregory the Great who took the Benedictine rule to England late in the 6th century, became the first of a long list of Benedictine archbishops of Canterbury. As early as 1354 the order had provided 24 popes, 200 cardinals, 7000 archbishops, 15,000 bishops, 1560 canonized saints, and 5000 holy persons worthy of canonization, a number since increased to 40,000, and it had included 20 emperors, 10 empresses, 47 kings, 50 queens, and many other royal and noble persons. The order had 37,000 monks in the 14th century; in the 15th century it had 15,107. The Reformation drastically reduced the numbers of the Benedictines, but today, 1400 years after its founding, the order not only still exists, but is quite active in diverse areas of the world.

Present-day Christians are often cautioned, “Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.” The admonishers could have taken their cue from these active, caring, involved monasteries.

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