Weekly Reading review #4


In chapter fourteen of The Medieval Church, Joseph H. Lynch and Phillip C. Adamo set in front of us the many broad and deep styles of monastic life in the twelfth century. What starts as a good idea is expanded into competing forms where some would last the test of time, and the rest will live only in the pages of history.

In section one, “Cluny,” the monasteries in Cluny were growing in both spiritual disciplines and numbers due to its popularity. Problems with maintaining the integrity of the twenty thousand monks as well as financially providing for them during an economic downturn would become evident.

In section two, “The Reformed Benedictines: Cistercians,” we are introduced to a return to the letter of St. Benedict’s Rule through the Cistercians who profited from a structured order and an economic lifestyle of self-sufficiency. Another aspect of their success was achieved by not overextending the role of a single abbot; instead, each house was a complete monastery with its own abbot and integrated into an international structure.

Section three, “Bernard of Clairvaux,” who is the leading abbot of the Cistercian order that achieved a rock star like status due to his austerity and lack of personal ambition. He was seen as a prophet type who, like an Old Testament counterpart, could speak truth to power without fear of serious punishment. He backed the election of Innocent II and was a chief preacher for the second crusade.

In section four, “Beyond the Benedictine rule,” invites us to consider that this was a time of experimentation within the Benedictine rule. Groups would rise and many would not last which is all the more reason to focus on what the Cistercians were doing in their monasteries and nunneries.

In section five we are introduced to “The Carthusians,” who mixed the Benedictine way with the lifestyle of a hermit. The encouragement of individualism, loneliness, and severe austerities were lived out during the week in small apartments called cells, and they would eat, work, pray, and sleep in solitude while maintaining absolute silence. Sundays were the only days of variation with gathering for mass, a common meal, and engaged each other in some conversation.

Section six brings us to “The Warrior Monks,” with the first military religious order made up of nine former knights calling themselves the Knights of the Temple, whose popularity grew during the crusades for the protection of pilgrims and as a police force. After the failures of the crusades and a sham trial, they disbanded in 1312. The Templars saw imitators between 1100 and 1300 such as the Knights of Calatrava in Spain and the Teutonic Knights of Eastern Europe.

In section seven “The Secular and Regular Canons,” are those whose lives of church service are not through the strict monastic style of St. Benedict, but through a more relaxed approach of the Rule of St. Augustine. It was thought that men who were monasticised would be better for the community at large on spiritual, moral, and intellectual levels.

Section eight, “The Servants of the Sick,” the formation of hospitals and leper houses were little more than small religious houses or communities. The central purpose was to have a place for the temporarily ill to recover, the terminally ill to die in some level of comfort, a rest home for the aged, or a residence for the blind.

In section nine, “Women in Religious Life,” we find women at this time positioned in a society where they were worse than second-class citizens everywhere except in the nunneries. The ironic reality of freedom in the confines of a female religious order was so powerful that even those of lower class who could not be granted admittance into official nunneries formed their own groups called beguines. The monastic life for a woman gave four advantages not found in the culture of the time such as elevated status in society, personal freedom within the convent, education, and the powerful opportunity to elect an abbess.

We now focus on section ten devoted to “Hildegard of Bingen,” she lived from 1098 - 1179 with a remarkable set of gifts both spiritual and physical. She had direct and indirect influences in areas of music, medicine, theology, and history. She was said to have had twenty-six visions from God that, with the approval from Pope Eugenius III, she recorded in her work titled Scivias.

The lifestyles of monks and nuns at this time is far more nuanced and expressive than is commonly thought. While I can see the benefits that may come from this way of living, it still leaves me wondering if this attitude is a gnawing distrust in Christ’s redemption that is driving this desire or a genuine form of living sacrifice for the good of the Church? Perhaps there is a little of both, but I would rather we push away the pessimism and focus on the nobility of such a life.