The young curé of Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest (1937) ruminates about monks (Carthusian and Trappist):
What miracle enables these semi-lunatics, these prisoners of their own dreams, these sleepwalkers, apparently to enter more deeply each day into the pain of others? An odd sort of dream, an unusual opiate which, far from turning him back into himself and isolating him from his fellows, unites the individual with mankind in the spirit of universal charity!
The cloister has always separated us from such men (and women), but once upon a time, their presence was nonetheless powerful.
Writing of medieval monasticism, historian Friedrich Heer insists the monk’s pursuit of perfection was influential at all levels of society: “This is something of far-reaching political and social importance. . . .All the hopes, prayers and demands the medieval Christian set on the monks and the monasteries were centered on one expectation: that they would achieve the complete sanctity of a perfect Christian life.”
Of course, perfection is not given to any man. But an aspiration to perfection – to the highest possible standards in every aspect of life – is possible.
The high point of monasticism came in or around the year 1100, at which point the great Benedictine abbey at Cluny in France (already two centuries old) was like the headquarters of a truly multinational corporation of faith, education, diplomacy, and enterprise, with a thousand branch houses located all over Europe. The democratically elected abbot of Cluny was likely the most powerful person in Europe after the pope, who was himself the only earthly person to whom the abbot had to answer. Several popes during the age were former Cluniac monks.
Cluny was a Benedictine house, but it gave rise to the Cistercian order which, in turn, gave rise to the Trappists. Traditionally, the Benedictines wore all-black habits, the Cistercians all-white, and the Trappists wore a black cowl over a white habit.
Cistercian abbeys have been called “nurseries of saints” because so many members of their order have been canonized. Each new order represented an impulse to reform monasticism, the Church, or even the Faith itself, and behind each new shake-up was the imperative to more faithfully live up to the Rule, the spiritual and organizational guide created by St. Benedict of Nursia (modern Norcia) in the sixth century.
St. Benedict may be the most underestimated man in the history of the West. Of course, he is the patron saint of Europe. Yet I’m amazed how few people know anything about him (or didn’t until Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option). He was not the first monk, but he was certainly the greatest, which is one reason why Joseph Ratzinger chose the name when he became pope.
The earliest monks were anchorites (Greek for “retiring one”), fourth-century men who took to the desert alone. If they interacted with others, it was usually with other hermits, whom they might join for Sunday Mass. A few were itinerant and lived off alms.
Not long after, a handful of cenobitic houses were formed. The word comes from the Latin for “common life.” An Egyptian convert, St. Pachomius, founded the first monastery in 312, and, by the time he died in 348, there were three thousand monks living in nine monasteries, mostly in Egypt what we now call the Middle East. The rule he wrote to govern their common life was a primary source for the later statutes of St. Benedict. The rule of Pachomius was translated into Latin by St. Jerome, who was also responsible for the Latin or Vulgate Bible. St. Augustine used the rule in organizing his North African monastic community.
But it was Benedict’s expansive and compassionate rule that struck the soul’s tuning fork and has kept it vibrating ever since.
Benedict was an anchorite for some years before he became part of a community and adapted several popular monastic constitutions into his Rule. His first brother monks grew restless under his influence and even attempted to poison him, or so the legend goes. But when Benedict blessed the tainted wine offered to him, the goblet shattered. A saddened and disgusted Benedict headed for the mountains.
He promulgated his famous Rule at the monastery he built on Monte Cassino, near the Rapido River in central Italy, about eighty miles southeast of Rome. Few men before or since have had so clear a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the human heart. The Rule of St. Benedict balances autocracy (the authority of the abbot) with democracy (the individual voices of the monks). It unifies manual labor and higher learning.
It has been said of the Benedictine monks that they saved European knowledge and literature during the instability of the so-called Dark Ages, and to the extent that it is true, the credit belongs to their founder. But there is more.
Monasticism was one of the dominant cultural forces in Europe for the millennium from 500 to 1500, and the Benedictine Rule was among the most widely read and studied non-Biblical works during that period. Moreover, it was in this momentous age that the first nation-states were formed, and the first universities and guilds were founded. Each innovation in its way owed a great deal to lessons learned from the governance, education, and organization developed in Benedictine houses: to such an extent that we may begin to wonder whether Benedict ought not to be the patron of modernity itself. Of the good parts, that is.
And it’s no wonder that Alasdair MacIntyre, one of the greatest living Catholic philosophers famously ended his seminal book After Virtue: “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.”
This column is excerpted from the third edition of Mr. Miner’s The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry.