Jordan Aumann O.P.: Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition



In the seventh and eighth centuries the Church was still carried along by the momentum received from the fruitful pontificate of St. Gregory the Great. The Council of Orange (529) had given the Holy See great prestige and had confirmed the doctrinal authority of St. Augustine. Prior to this, the writings of Boethius (+ 524) had also helped to propagate Augustinian doctrine. However, the predominant influence and unifying force was monasticism, and especially Benedictine monasticism.(1)

At Toledo in Spain the entire Visigoth nation had embraced Christianity, and St. Isidore of Seville (+636) emerged as an influential theologian and a promoter of monasticism.(2) In Italy the Lombards, tainted with Arianism, were gradually assimilated into orthodox Christianity. Meanwhile, the Anglosaxons, who had arrived in England as pagans, were now sending forth missionary monks to the continent. Willibrord evangelized the Low Countries and St. Boniface, assisted by monks, nuns and clerics from England, labored from 718 until his martyrdom in 754 to establish the Church in Germany and to reform the Church in the Frankish empire. The successors of St. Boniface also preached the Gospel in Hungary and in Scandinavia. Back in England, Bede the Venerable (+735) dedicated himself to a life study and literary productions based on the teaching of St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great and Cassiodorus.(3)

When Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus) came to the throne in 768 he achieved by peaceful means what the Visigoths, the Vandals and the Lombards had failed to do by warfare and pillaging: a unified Europe. It was not, to be sure, a reincarnation of the ancient Roman Empire, but Charlemagne did succeed in bringing the Roman and Germanic peoples together under one emperor and the universal authority of the Holy See. During his long reign (768-814) the liturgy was stabilized, the biblical text was unified, the Gelasian Sacramentary was revised, Gregorian chant was promoted and new hymns and prayers were introduced. The monasteries played a significant role in all of this renewal and reform; in fact, Charlemagne had desired to see all monasteries under one rule but the first move in that direction was made only after his death.(4)


The first representative writer on the theology of the monastic life, according to Leclercq,(5) was Ambrose Autpert, who died in 784 as abbot of a monastery in southern Italy.(6) His doctrine was fully in accord with that of St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great, since he saw the monastic life as a distinctive form of ascetical combat in which the monk seeks personal sanctification by separation from the world and loving meditation on the mysteries of Christ. Although Benedictine spirituality did not subscribe to the speculative contemplation and gnosis of the Alexandrian Fathers, it did esteem that affective or loving contemplation which is superior to pure intelligence.

However, the man selected by Charlemagne to work for the desired unification and renewal of monastic life was Alban Flacco, whose pen-name was Alcuin (+ 804). Educated in the tradition of Bede the Venerable and imbued with the spirit of the Rule of St. Benedict, he developed a series of liturgical devotions for each day of the week. Perhaps he contributed as much as anyone to the numerous additions to the prayer life of the monks, thus extending the hours of community prayer and interfering with the manual labor and lectio of the monks.(7)

Charlemagne also called to his service the Spanish intellectual, Teodulfo (+ 821), and the Italian, St. Paulinus (+ 802). And although Paulinus praised Charlemagne extravagantly, he nevertheless had the courage to defend the rights of the Church whenever the emperor tended to overreach his authority. Cilleruelo observes that in Spain the ecclesiastics controlled the kings, but in the Carolingian period the emperor controlled the ecclesiastics.(8)

When St. Benedict of Aniane appeared on the scene as a reformer, he endeavoured to restore the observance of the Rule of St. Benedict, but at the same time he imposed lengthy ritual prayers in addition to the Divine Office and he extended the lectio divina to the study of the writings of Origen, St. Jerome, St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great. Benedict did not attempt to restore a primitive observance; he tried rather to adapt Benedictine monasticism to a new age and new needs, accepting the customs and usages that had been introduced.

Born in 750, Benedict became a monk in 774 and later founded his own monastery at Aniane, near the Pyrenees. At the outset he was greatly inclined to the monasticism of St. Pachomius, considering the Rule of St. . Benedict too lax. Eventually, however, he changed his mind and adopted the Rule of St. Benedict as the only practical solution. Benedict of Aniane was convinced that the only way to prevent monasteries from falling into laxity was to discover a basis for constant renewal and to provide some kind of central organization.

When Louis the Plus became emperor in 814, Benedict became a kind of visitator for all monasteries and he sent monks from his own monastery to reform other monasteries. In this way he formed a federation of monasteries with himself as the "abbot primate." He also composed two monastic documents: the Codex Regularum, a collection of existing Latin rules, and the Concordia Regularum, a kind of commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict with parallel passages from other monastic rules.(9)

The Synod of Aix-la-Chapelle in 816 and 817 promulgated legislation touching the lives of clerics (De institutione clericorum) and a capitulary for the reform of monastic life.(10) Unfortunately, for the most part the laws were ignored and when Benedict of Aniane died in 821, the empire was torn apart by strife among the sons of Louis the Pious and by invasions by the Northmen and the Saracens. Monastic reform was thus delayed, but when it did begin to materialize, it was on the foundations laid by St. Benedict of Aniane.(11)

He is one of the most important figures in Benedictine history; what he envisaged, or something very like it, became the pattern of Benedictine life for most of the middle ages . . . . This does not mean that a Benedictine monastery according to the conception of Benedict of Aniane was exactly like Montecassino of the sixth century. The introduction of the Rule of St. Benedict did not displace the numerous layers of tradition that had already accumulated in Gaul. The Gallic monasteries still bore the imprint of the old Martinian monasticism, of the tradition of Lerins, of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon contributions, and especially of the vastly changed social and economic situation of the feudal period.

A great Carolingian abbey was a vast establishment that might have several hundred monks and a number of boys to be instructed in the monastery school. It might be surrounded by a town whose life was dominated by the monastery. The abbey was supported by large tracts of land worked by serfs and had to fulfill obligations toward its feudal overlord. The life of the monks was highly ritualized: many additional psalms and prayers were added to the Benedictine opus Dei; churches, altars and private Masses were multiplied; there were daily processions for the veneration of altars and relics . . . . The life of the monks was indeed a continual seeking of God through prayer, asceticism and liturgical service. But the monastery was conceived of as an organ of the Christian state; the abbot became an important political functionary, the abbey was a powerful economic force, and the state assured control by reserving the right to appoint the abbot in most cases. This factor was to have disastrous consequences.(12)


In an effort to achieve greater uniformity of monastic life and observance, "customaries" or "statutes" began to appear in the eighth and ninth centuries. These were necessary because the Rule of St. Benedict was not a detailed code of law; particular matters were left to the abbot of the monastery. Benedict of Aniane had already set the pattern for congregations of monasteries under one head and eventually the Benedictines would be recognized as a religious order.(13)

At the same time, a more intensive study of the Rule of St. Benedict led to the composition of numerous commentaries. Four of them appeared in the first half of the ninth century, although some scholars prefer to reduce them to two distinct and independent commentaries. The first was attributed to Paul the Deacon, around Boo; the second was composed by Smaragdus around 82o; the third was written by Hildemar between 84o and 845; and the fourth was written shortly thereafter by the abbot Basil.(14)

Hildemar concedes that the perfect life can be lived either as a hermit or as a member of a community, but he emphasizes the value of the spiritual community which is based on one baptism, one faith, one hope, one spirit and one Church. In fact, the common life is much better for the majority of monks; the solitary life of a hermit is possible for only a few.

According to Hildemar, Benedictine spirituality should be characterized by a profound sense of the supernatural, an intense love of Jesus Christ, total renunciation, an awareness of the presence of God, and the virtues of holy fear, obedience and patience. In order to have a rightly formed conscience and grow in humility, the monk should likewise be faithful in confessing his actions and thoughts, either to the abbot or to a spiritual brother. The life of the monk should be divided between the contemplative and the active life, but by this Hildemar means that the monk applies himself to the practice of prayer and to manual labor.

The commentator offers some specific regulations concerning the practice of prayer, which is the primary function of the Benedictine monk. Since preoccupation with the things of this world tends to destroy the simplicity of one's recollection in God, the monk should give himself to the psalmody with great attention and fervor. Chanting the words of prayer which come from God himself, the monk is able to enjoy God's presence in a special manner.

In speaking of private mental prayer, Hildemar asserts that it is difficult for most people and therefore it should be brief. The reason given for the difficulty of prolonged mental prayer is that the human mind cannot normally fix its attention on silent prayer for a long period without being invaded by distracting thoughts. When this occurs, says Hildemar, the monk should leave silent prayer and occupy himself with reading, the psalmody or manual labor. The monk who continues his silent prayer while troubled by bad thoughts would act against the Rule; the same is true of one who abandons silent prayer for a light reason when he has received the grace to continue his prayer without being interrupted by distracting thoughts. And if, through God's. grace, a monk receives contemplative prayer while he is occupied with lectio divina or manual labor, he should leave his reading or work and go to the oratory. This will occur rarely, says Hildemar, and there is always the danger of illusion. The psalmody is the normal prayer for a monk and it should be followed by a brief period of silent prayer; but some -- and they are always few in number -- will also practice silent mental prayer for long periods.(15)


As the Benedictine monks gradually moderated their practices of asceticism and gave less importance to the place of manual labor in the monastic life, they concentrated more and more on the liturgy and lectio divina as the essential elements of monastic life. As a result, the influence of Benedictine spirituality on the Church at the dawn of the Middle Ages was predominantly in the areas of Scripture and the liturgy. It was in this period that Teodulfo and Alcuin made a revision of the Latin Bible and Rabanus Maurus wrote his scriptural commentary. The purpose was eminently spiritual, namely, to provide Christians with the truths of revelation as a basis for their pious reading and meditation.

In the area of the liturgy the Benedictine monks contributed to the success of the liturgical reform inaugurated by Charlemagne. The literary output was tremendous, especially by way of new hymns, and the monks also restored the chant to its primitive purity. New feasts were introduced into the Church calendar; original hymns and invocations, the expressions of private devotions, were interwoven in the public liturgical prayers. The diocesan clergy were obliged to the daily community Mass and choral Office in their churches, although the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle (817) refused to impose on the clergy the obligation to private recitation of the Divine Office.(16) The liturgical themes were centered on Christ -- especially under the titles of Redeemer, King of kings, Lord and Holy Cross -- and on his Blessed Mother. The use of the Saturday votive Mass in honor of Mary was already in vogue and during this period there was a noticeable increase of prayers and hymns in honor of Mary. Two doctrinal questions that attracted the attention of theologians of the time were the virginity of Mary and her assumption.(17)

The Eucharist also received a great deal of attention, as did the Mass. This is to be expected, of course, in a spirituality that was centered on the liturgy. The Eucharist was seen as a memorial of the passion and death of Christ and the means by which Christ communicates to men the fruits of his paschal victory. Great insistence was placed on the dispositions required for the worthy reception of Communion.

Such were the characteristics of Christian spirituality under Benedictine influence at the end of the Carolingian era, just prior to the dissolution of the Roman Empire. The history books recount the scandalous and damaging effects of the destruction of central authority in civil government and the seizure of Church power by the laity: schisms and scandals in the papacy, confiscation of churches and monasteries by the laity, simony and sins against celibacy among the clergy, investiture of laymen as abbots of monasteries. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Church would oscillate between decadence and reform, but eventually, under the leadership of Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), Christian renewal would prevail.

There were, however, centers of reform in the tenth century and the first and most influential was Cluny, founded in 910. This monastery had a glorious history and its impact was felt not only in spirituality but in literature as well. What had been initiated by Benedict of Aniane was carried forward by Cluny, namely, the establishment of a federation of monasteries under the control and guidance of Cluny. The formation of such a federation of monasteries was considered necessary in order to achieve "exemption" from control by laymen or bishops. In some instances abbeys were placed under the protection of the Holy See, as was Cluny itself.

What developed at Cluny was "a monastic empire of almost incredible proportions and yet for more than two centuries, under a series of abbots whose sanctity was equal to their discretion and administrative ability, it maintained a disciplined and fruitful monastic life that constituted the most powerful reforming influence in the Church."(18) It was not, however, a question of strict reform in the sense of literal observance of the Rule of St. Benedict. The changed times and social conditions called for an adaptation, and this was achieved by composing a customary based on the text of Benedict of Aniane.

Characteristic of this form of Benedictine monasticism was a certain centralization and uniformity of observance, an enormous development of ritual, a refined monastic culture based upon intensive study of the Bible and the Fathers, a genuinely contemplative orientation, a far-reaching charitable activity, serious though limited work, especially that of the scriptorium, and a discreet practice of the eremitical life alongside and subject to the coenobium.(19)
Numerous other Benedictine monasteries rallied to the reform and although they differed in some details of observance, all of them followed the Rule of St. Benedict as interpreted by Cluny. The reform spread to other parts of France and to Belgium and England in the tenth century, and to Italy, Germany and Spain in the eleventh century. The effects of the renewal of monastic life extended far beyond the cloister and contributed greatly to the reform of the diocesan clergy and the ordinary faithful. The monasteries were ultimately freed from domination by the laity and civil power and also protected against undue intervention on the part of bishops.

Unfortunately, the very structure of the Benedictine congregations, the necessary traveling and visitations by abbots, and the increasing apostolic activities of the monks took their toll on the contemplative aspect of Benedictine life. Moreover, as more and more monks confined their work hours to the scriptorium, manual labor was more and more neglected. Finally it led to the introduction of conversi, familiares or oblates to whom the monks entrusted the manual labor and the maintenance of the monastery. Eventually this led to a division of the monastery into "choir monks" and "lay brothers."(20)

In the eleventh century and well into the twelfth, while these monasteries were still prosperous and fervent, a reaction was nevertheless developing. They had become the Establishment; they had not changed with the times, whereas society was beginning to undergo profound transformations. For this reason there developed a fervent and widespread desire for a life that would be more simple, less institutionalized, more solitary, less involved in the political and economic fabric of society -- in short, a return to monastic origins. It is not surprising, then, that it often led to a reintroduction of the eremitical life. This movement, which sprang up spontaneously all over Europe, brought about a revolution in the monastic world and produced a whole variety of new "orders" and observances alongside the established houses.(21)
Monasticism remained Benedictine at basis but it moved in two different directions. Thus, St. Romuald founded the Camaldolese in 1010, fostering a strictly eremitical life under the Rule of St, Benedict; St. Robert of Molesmes, on the other hand, founded the Cistercians in iog8 in an effort to promote a cenobitic life of greater separation from the world, poverty and strict observance of the Rule of St. Benedict. During this period two men worked most assiduously for reform, both in the Church and in monastic life: John of Fécamp and St. Peter Damian.


Thanks to the work of Dom Wilmart,(22) the name and the works of John of Fécamp have been rescued from oblivion, although John himself perhaps would have preferred to be forgotten. He always referred to himself in deprecatory terms, calling himself "poor John" (misellus Johannes), and for many years his writings were wrongly attributed to such great authors as St. Ambrose, Cassian, Alcuin, St. Anselm and St. Bernard. For example, John of Fécamp was the author of the prayer, Summe sacerdos, that is given under the name of St. Ambrose in the prayers before Mass. Until the wide popularity of The Imitation of Christ, beginning in the fifteenth century, the devotional works of John of Fécamp were the most widely read in Christendom.

Born near Ravenna, he lived as a hermit until he went to the monastery of St. Benignus at Dijon and then, in 1017, to the monastery at Fécamp. After travels that took him to England and back to Italy, he died in 1076.

The spirituality of John de Fécamp is eminently Christocentric and he loved to dwell on those aspects of the life of Christ that show his love for mankind. In his longing to enjoy the sweetness of union with God, he realized that there are no methods that can provide this sweetness. Nevertheless, he provided contemplative souls with a kind of lectio divina that could dispose them for an experience of the divine.

Indeed, Sitwell maintains that John of Fécamp's writings illustrate perfectly the type of spirituality that developed from the lectio divina.(23) Wilmart praises him as the most remarkable spiritual author of the Middle Ages before St. Bernard.(24) His descriptions of prayer are a refinement and advancement of the silent mental prayer to which Hildemar referred in his commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict. After chanting the Divine Office or reading the word of God in Scripture, the monk may be moved by divine inspiration to enjoy an affective, silent prayer which will sometimes blossom into genuine infused contemplation. John describes this type of prayer in his Confessio theologica:

There are many kinds of contemplation in which the soul devoted to thee, O Christ, takes its delight, but in none of these do I so rejoice as in that which, ignoring all things, directs a simple glance of the untroubled spirit to thee alone, O God. What peace and joy does the soul find in thee then. While my soul yearns for the divine vision and proclaims thy glory as best it can, the burden of the flesh weighs less heavily upon it, distracting thoughts subside, the weight and misery of our mortal condition no longer deaden the faculties as usual; all is quiet and peaceful. The heart is inflamed with love, the spirit is filled with joy, the memory is powerful, the mind is clear, and the whole soul, burning with a desire for the vision of thy beauty, is ravished by a love of things invisible.(25)
The foregoing passage illustrates clearly the importance of prayer in the Benedictine spirituality of-the early Middle Ages. However, John of Fécamp, like St. Benedict himself, while recognizing the validity of a purely contemplative life, believed it was better to live in a monastic community and thus combine the active with the contemplative life (orare est laborare).


Born in 988 and educated at Ravenna, St. Peter Damian entered the eremitical monastery founded by St. Romuald at Fonte Avellana, where he became superior in. 1044. Created a cardinal, he dedicated the rest of his life to the much-needed reform of the Church. His activities extended into three distinct areas: reform of the diocesan clergy, renewal of monastic life, and adjustment of

Church-State relations. Although he was interested primarily in reform and the spiritual life, St. Peter Damian also composed a treatise, De fide catholica, on the interpretation of Scripture, and a work entitled De divina omnipotentia, in which he discussed the relationship between theology and philosophy and coined the expression "philosophia ancilla theologiae."

The regulations of St. Peter Damian in view of reform were often severe to the point of harshness, and yet when he wrote about Jesus or Mary, the reformer could be as tender and loving as a child. In this respect he resembled John of Fécamp and St. Romuald and was at the same time typically medieval. Like St. Augustine, he insisted that ascetical practices (which were extremely harsh for the hermits of the Middle Ages) are not an end in themselves, but a means to attain to the perfection of charity and divine wisdom.

Nevertheless in his teaching on the reform of monastic life he advocated the use of the discipline and other severe bodily mortifications. In some cases his advice was met with resistance and resentment on the part of monks and clerics alike. In addition to fidelity to the Divine Office and the night vigils, he sought to impose on the monks an almost continual fast and a strict observance of poverty. His concept of monastic life was that of separation from the world and concentration on the things of God; a life of penance and prayer.

As regards the reform of the diocesan clergy, St. Peter Damian was tireless in his efforts to combat the sexual immorality and the ignorance of secular priests and to correct the abuses of simony. He drew his arguments from Scripture, the Fathers and the canonical legislation of the Church. To help the clergy overcome their ignorance, avarice and incontinence, he advocated the study of Scripture and the practice of meditation on the word of God. Later, the Church would propose the community life for the diocesan clergy.(26)


Since Benedictine monasticism developed indirectly out of the colonies of hermits in Egypt, some traces of the eremitical life still remained within the framework of the cenobitic character. The first rule for hermits in the Western Church appeared in the tenth century under the authorship of Grimlac, a solitary from the environs of Lorraine.(27) Unlike the Benedictine practice of prayer, the prayer of the hermit, according to Grimlac, should not be common, vocal prayer, but continual mental prayer. In Italy, however, St. Romuald founded the Camaldolese Order in 1010. It follows the Rule of St. Benedict as adapted to the eremitical life. The Constitutions for the Camaldolese were composed by Blessed Rudolph, between 1080 and 1085, and they list the following as the occupations of the Camaldolese hermit: prayer, reading, bodily flagellation and prostrations, accompanied by recitation of specified prayers. Great discretion was urged in the use of penitential practices, which were to be gauged by one's bodily strength, personal need or an inspiration of grace. The life of the hermit was totally contemplative; chant was reduced to an absolute minimum; solitude was jealously safeguarded as a means of death to self and exile from the world.(28)

During this period two predominant characteristics of contemplative religious life emerged clearly and definitively: separation from the world And asceticism. Partly because of the reaction against the abuses and excesses of the times, Christians in and outside the monastic life felt the need to do penance and to flee from the world. Given the violent passions of men of that period, conversion was often accompanied by austerities and penances carried to the extreme. It was not unusual for monks to leave their monasteries and become hermits; nor was it unusual for bishops to renounce their dioceses in order to become monks. Uneducated peasants and members of the nobility could also be found among those who sought admission to the monastic life; sometimes husbands and wives would separate by mutual agreement and each would leave the world for the cloister or a hermitage. Those who did not embrace the monastic life, but still felt the need for asceticism, could flee from the world temporarily by a self-imposed exile or pilgrimage or they could remain at home and make use of the discipline in self-flagellation.

The Rule of Grimlac provides a detailed description of the life of a hermit. The candidate was examined for four or five days as to his past life and his ability to live the eremitical life. Religious profession was indissoluble and the hermit also made a vow of stability. He was then led to his hermitage, carrying the clothes he would henceforth wear, and the abbot or the bishop would close and seal the door. There were two openings in the hermitage: a small window to the outside, and another small opening through which the hermit could assist at Mass in the church and receive Communion. Priest-hermits could have an oratory, consecrated by the bishop for the celebration of private Mass. Each hermit also had a small enclosed garden for taking fresh air or for planting vegetables. Since hermits are also obliged to love of neighbor, they were to be sufficiently versed in sacred doctrine so that they could instruct candidates or disciples and give spiritual direction to persons who asked for it. In many respects the life described in the Rule of Grimlac is similar to the life of the Carthusians.


The Carthusian Order, established by St. Bruno of Cologne (+1101) in the valley of La Chartreuse, near Grenoble, in 1084, provided for its members an eremitical life within the framework of the primitive Benedictine coenobium. They do not follow the Rule of St. Benedict but their own Consuetudines. Their mode of life resembles that of the anchorites in the deserts of the East. Carthusians are totally cut off from the world; their sole occupation is to cultivate and maintain a direct and immediate contact with God. Even within the charterhouse the community aspects of religious life are minimal, and seem to be allowed with a certain reluctance. Pope Innocent XI said of the Carthusians, in 1688, "Cartusia numquam reformata, quia numquam deformata."

Typical of all Carthusians, who are extremely reticent about their own spirituality, St. Bruno left only two letters, and these were written toward the end of his life. One of them, addressed to the lay brothers of the Order, states that the "key and seal of all spiritual discipline" is obedience, safeguarded by humility and patience and accompanied by chaste love of the Lord and true charity.(29) It remained for Guigo I, the fifth successor of St. Bruno, to formulate the Carthusian Book of Customs between 1121 and 1128.(30) Leclercq does not hesitate to classify Guigo as "one of the most remarkable spiritual authors of his century."(31)

In his prologue to the Book of Customs Guigo I refers to St. Jerome and the Rule of St. Benedict but he does not follow them slavishly. Throughout the entire treatise the emphasis is on simplicity, moderation and peace. The hermits are to observe an austere simplicity in the ceremonies of the liturgy and Divine Office; poverty is to be observed with great diligence; as hermits, the Carthusians are to observe strict silence and keep to the solitude of their cells.

There are two classes of Carthusians -- monks and lay-brothers but all are hermits, and their residence is to be called "hermitage" or "charterhouse" rather than monastery. The use of the discipline and other penitential instruments is allowed, but always with permission of the prior. Moderation is observed, in accordance with the example and teaching of St. Bruno, so that an atmosphere of joy may pervade the silent but occupied solitude of the hermits. Guigo states in one of his letters that the Carthusian life is given to the study of Scripture and spiritual writings.

Everything that the Carthusian needs for his health, work and prayer is provided for him so that he need never depart from his cell for anything at all. Everything in the life is ordained to solitude and prayer, and perhaps the only reason for prescribing the minimal community prayer and liturgy -- and in modern times the weekly walk -- was for the sake of the moderation and balance that are so characteristic of St. Bruno. The Carthusians never intended to be recluses, but hermits who live in a communal setting.

Although in a strict sense there has never been a "school" of Carthusian spirituality, it is characterized by the following traits: wise discretion, joy and simplicity, constant care not to lose sight of the lowly struggles of the purgative way, even in the heights of the contemplative life, and a tender love for Jesus and Mary.

This is evident in the writings of Guigo "the Angelic," also known as Guigo II because he was the second Guigo to be prior at the Grand Chartreuse (1114-1180). His letter on the contemplative life, known also as Scala Claustralium and Scala Paradisi, was more widely read and more highly praised than any other work of its kind.

Guigo II describes four stages in the development of the spiritual life of the contemplative: reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation. "Reading," says Guigo, "is the careful study of the Scripture, concentrating all one's powers on it. Meditation is the busy application of the mind to seek the help of one's own reason for knowledge of hidden truth. Prayer is the heart's devoted turning to God to do away with what is evil and obtain what is good. In contemplation the mind is in some way lifted up to God and held above itself, so that it tastes the joys of everlasting sweetness." He then proceeds to explain each of these "rungs" on the ladder of perfection. Then, in summary, he again returns to a brief description of the four stages:

Reading comes first, and is as it were the foundation; it provides the subject matter which we must use for meditation. Meditation considers more carefully what is to be sought after; it digs, as it were, for treasure which it finds and reveals, but since it is not in meditation's power to seize upon the treasure, it directs us to prayer. Prayer lifts itself up to God with all its strength, and begs for the treasure which it longs for, which is the sweetness of contemplation. Contemplation, when it comes, rewards the labors of the other three; it inebriates the thirsting soul with the dew of heavenly sweetness. Reading is an exercise of the outward senses, meditation is concerned with the inward understanding, prayer is concerned with desire, contemplation outstrips every faculty. The first degree is proper to beginners, the second to proficients, the third to devotees, the fourth to the blessed.(32)

Guigo then offers some conclusions that are stated in the terse manner characteristic of Carthusians: "Reading without meditation is sterile; meditation without reading is liable to error; prayer without meditation is lukewarm; meditation without prayer is unfruitful; prayer, when it is fervent, wins contemplation, but to obtain contemplation without prayer would be rare, even miraculous."(33)


The third outgrowth of monasticism in the Middle Ages, and the most popular, was the Cistercian Order, founded by St. Robert of Molesmes at Citeaux in 1098. After making the foundation, the Pope commanded Robert to return to Molesmes but the other members remained at Citeaux, living in great austerity under St. Alberic and St. Stephen Harding. St. Bernard arrived at Citeaux with thirty companions in 1112, and so great was the expansion of the Cistercian Order that when St. Bernard died in 1153, there were 343 monasteries of strict observance covering Europe and reaching into the Balkans and the Holy Land.

Following the regulations laid down by Stephen Harding in his Carta caritatis in 1114, the Cistercians moved away from the centralization of the Cluniac system and introduced government by a general chapter, which became a model for religious orders in the future.(34) The Cistercians succeeded in adapting monastic life to the needs of the times by adjusting the perennial values of monastic life to changing conditions. As a result, while many of the other newly-founded orders flourished for a time and then disappeared, the Cistercians have prospered to the present day.

The Cistercians did not differ essentially from the Benedictines in general as regards their concept of monastic life; what they sought to do was to restore the primitive observance in all its simplicity and austerity. Consequently, they greatly reduced the liturgical accretions, restricted the activities in the scriptorium, and returned to manual labor. This, says Sitwell, constituted the fundamental difference between the "black" monks of Cluny and the "white" monks of Citeaux.(35) It was, therefore, a difference that sprang from two distinct customaries or constitutions based on the same Rule of St. Benedict.

However, there was yet another difference between Cluny and Citeaux: the desire of the Cistercians to seek a more eremitical life, not in the manner of the Camaldolese and Carthusians, but as a community totally separated from the world and observing the Rule of St. Benedict as literally as possible. Nevertheless, the Cistercians, while endeavouring to restore primitive Benedictine monasticism, also made adaptations to suit their purpose. Consequently, they tended to subordinate everything else to the ascetical and contemplative elements of monastic life, while the Cluniac interpretation gave the primacy to the liturgy and lectio divina.

For the Cistercians, separation from the world was as complete as for the monks of the East, and for that reason they sought more remote places for their monasteries and observed strict cloister. Their asceticism consisted in manual labor and an austere mode of life, thus embracing the cross of Christ without mitigation. In order to safeguard their contemplative recollection, they withdrew from all forms of apostolate and priestly ministry, observed perpetual silence, and avoided the accumulation of wealth. And to those who would ask how the Cistercians fulfilled the precept of love of neighbor, they could reply with the teaching of St. Bernard, who stated that the practice of fraternal charity was amply evident in the community life of the monks themselves.

Whether or not one can go so far as to speak of a "school" of Cistercian spirituality as distinct from Benedictine spirituality, (36) there are certain characteristics that distinguish the monks of

Citeaux. First of all, in accordance with the monastic axiom of solo Deo, there was an eschatological quality to Cistercian life. Their gaze was fixed on eternal realities and on the goal of life in glory. They considered themselves very much as pilgrims on the road to heaven, and to keep themselves ever prepared for the coming of Christ, they divested themselves as much as possible of all earthly interests and attachments.

Paradoxically, however, the Cistercians always preserved a deep appreciation for created things and a delicate sensitivity to human needs. They cultivated the fields, became experts in animal husbandry, and even became renowned for the production of such domestic items as bread, cheese, and other edibles. In liturgical art they did away with the ornate style characteristic of so many abbey churches and returned to the pure lines of nature that provide the simplicity of beauty. In the area of human relations, following the example of St. Bernard, William of St. Thierry and especially St. Aelred, they gave an example of authentic spiritual friendship in the monastic milieu."(37)

Another characteristic of Cistercians was their prudent adaptation of monastic observances. Holding fast to the beneficial traditional practices, the Cistercians did not hesitate to abandon or change those elements that no longer served the purpose for which they were instituted, but always with a view to preserving the pure monastic sources. This did not lead to rugged individualism, however, for the basic statutes of Cistercian life were rigorously observed by all the monasteries, while allowing individual abbeys to make necessary adjustments as regards implementation.

Two other qualities of Cistercian life are poverty and manual labor. For the Cistercians, poverty went beyond the interior detachment and the extirpation of a possessive spirit, as required of all monks; the Cistercians practiced poverty as a means of personal privation and asceticism as a community witness. They did not go to the extremes that the mendicant friars would propose in the thirteenth century, but they did add a new meaning to the concept of monastic poverty. As regards manual labor, they saw it as a logical consequence of their concept of poverty. St. Benedict had stated in his Rule that the monks should not be distressed if local conditions or their poverty make it necessary for them to do their own harvesting, for when they live by the labor of their hands, they are truly monks (chap. 48). The Cistercians, desiring to be "truly monks," made manual labor a required element of their life. One could say that for the Cistercians, manual labor was as essential to monastic life as liturgical prayer and the lectio divina. However, with the emergence of the lay brothers or conversi, a certain imbalance was created in this threefold division of Cistercian monastic activities.

Lastly, and perhaps as a result of the foregoing characteristics, Cistercian life was marked by utter simplicity. Whether one considers their liturgy, which was drastically abridged and simplified, or their architecture or their whole style of living, the impression received is always that of a simplicity marked by discretion. Doing away with all pomp and ceremony and avoiding any trace of triumphalism or ostentation, the Cistercian monks desired nothing more than to live the Rule of St. Benedict with all fidelity and to devote themselves entirely to a life of prayer and manual labor.(38)


In order to have a better understanding of Cistercian spirituality and to appreciate the impact of the monks f Citeaux, it is necessary to discuss the teachings of their three most influential writers: St. Bernard, William of St. Thierry and St. Aelred of Rievaulx. Mabillon refers to St. Bernard as the "last of the Fathers,"(39) and Sitwell says that he "towers over the whole of the first half of the twelfth century.(40)

Born in Burgundy, near Switzerland, around 1090, Bernard entered the abbey at Citeaux in 1112 with four of his brothers, an uncle and twenty-five friends. After three years of spiritual formation, Stephen Harding sent Bernard to make a new foundation at Clairvaux, if only to ease the crowded conditions at Citeaux. So great was the influence of Bernard in attracting vocations to the Cistercian life that he has been called "the second founder of the Cistercians."(41)

As to his activities, it is almost impossible to recount the various works and movements with which he was involved. He composed an Apologia in defense of the Cistercian reform; he worked for the reform of the diocesan clergy and the laity; he helped to end the schism in the Church by defending the rights of Pope Innocent II against the pretender, Anaclete II; he argued against the errors of Abelard, who was condemned later by the Church; he obliged Gilbert de la Porée, bishop of Poitiers, to retract his errors at the Council of Reims; he preached against the Manichaeans in southern France; he went on missions as a peacemaker between warring factions and preached the Second Crusade; he sent to Pope Eugene III, his former disciple at Clairvaux, the treatise De consideratione for reforming the Church. Unfortunately, Pope Eugene III died in July, r 153, and St. Bernard died in August of that same year. The biography of St. Bernard was written during his lifetime; William of St. Thierry and Arnold of Bonneval wrote what is called the Vita prima, and it was completed by Geoffrey of Auxerre. St. Bernard was canonized in I 1'74 and proclaimed Doctor of the Church in 1830.(42)

In spite of his varied and demanding activities, St. Bernard was also a prolific writer. His voluminous correspondence comprises more than 5oo letters and there are 332 sermons, including the well-known series on the Song of Songs. His first spiritual work was written about 1124 and was a treatise entitled The Degrees of Humility and Pride. The following year he wrote his Apologia or defense of the Cistercian reform, and between 1126 and 1141 he wrote The Love of God, Grace and Free Will, The Customs and Obligations of Bishops, Conversion (for the reform of diocesan priests), Precepts and Dispensation, and various tracts on such topics as baptism, the Cistercian Antiphonary, and the errors of Abelard. Toward the end of his life he composed the De consideratione and a Life of St. Malachy, an Irish bishop who died suddenly during a visit to Clairvaux.(43)

In accordance with the tradition and practice of Benedictine spirituality, St. Bernard drew the inspiration for his spiritual doctrine from Scripture, directly by meditation on the Bible and indirectly by reading the biblical commentaries of Origen, St. Jerome, St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great. For St. Bernard, "the Bible contains no other mystery than that of Christ, for it is he who gives the Scriptures their unity and their meaning. It is Christ who is the principle of that unity for he is everywhere present, pre-figured in the Old Testament and revealed in the New.(44) As a result, the spiritual doctrine of St. Bernard is eminently Christocentric. The Christian is perfect to the extent that he is assimilated to the mystery of Christ. This, in turn, can be effected only by participation in the doctrinal, sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, because Scripture -- which reveals the mystery of Christ -- can be understood truly only in and by the Church.

Again, as would be expected in the spiritual teaching of a Cistercian, the central theme of St. Bernard's spirituality is expressed in the words of St. John: "God is love; he loved us first, his love for us was revealed when he sent into the world his only Son so that we could have life through him."(45) Asking, then, how God is to be loved, St. Bernard replies: "The reason for loving God is God himself; the measure of loving God is to love him without measure."(46) In this respect, St. Bernard rivals St. Augustine for the title, "Doctor of charity." He is likewise a forerunner of the style of spiritual writing found in St. Francis de Sales.

Neither in his life nor in his doctrine, however, was St. Bernard a sentimentalist; rather, his ascetical teaching is realistic and demanding. Its starting point is humility, which is basically the fruit of self-knowledge that reveals to man his sinful condition.(47) St. Bernard then develops a psychology of asceticism in which he demonstrates that man's free will is the key to conversion and progress in spiritual perfection. Whether speaking of the degrees of humility through which the soul must pass in its conquest of sin or the grades of love that culminate ultimately in a mystical union with God, priority of emphasis is always given to man's will, though never divorced from intellect and memory.(48) Although he admits that there is no terminus to the love of God in this world nor can man attain absolute perfection in via, St. Bernard nevertheless stresses the obligation of the Christian to strive constantly for ever greater perfection: "No one can be perfect who does not desire to be more perfect, and he shows himself to be more perfect in the measure that he aspires to yet greater perfection.(49) One who refuses to be better is certainly less good; as soon as you refuse to become better, you cease to be good."(50)

The love of God, therefore, should grow constantly in the Christian desirous of perfection and in so doing, it passes through four basic stages which St. Bernard identifies as carnal, mercenary, filial and mystical. Carnal love is a natural, instinctive love which a man has for himself and when it becomes supernaturalized by grace it normally concentrates on the sacred humanity of Christ and the mysteries of his life on earth. Mercenary love is a servile love whereby a man loves God because of the benefits received from God and it springs from man's awareness of his need for God. Filial love is a disinterested love of God as our Father and it enables us to taste the sweetness of the Lord. The fourth and highest stage of love is a pure love of God, totally devoid of self-interest but St. Bernard says that this fourth type of love is one in which the individual no longer loves himself except for God's sake, and his only prayer is: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.(51)

The means of growth in perfection proposed by St. Bernard are the following: God's grace, the humanity of Christ, and Mary co-redemptrix and mediatrix; meditation, especially on the mysteries of Christ; prayer (here St. Bernard follows the teaching of Cassian); examination of conscience; custody of thoughts and affections; and spiritual direction. It is worth noting that the spiritual teachings of St. Bernard exerted a strong influence on the Victorines, the Franciscans, Thomas à Kempis, the Rhineland mystics, St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis de Sales.

The mystical theology of St. Bernard is found in his treatise on the love of God and in his commentary on the Song of Songs, delivered as sermons to his monks. He identifies Christ as the bridegroom, and the Church or the individual soul as the bride. In the beginning the love for Christ is sensible or carnal; it focuses on the humanity of Christ and the events of his life on earth. And although love for Christ in his humanity is a great gift of the Holy Spirit, it is, says St. Bernard, "none the less carnal as compared with that other love which is not so much related to the Word made flesh as to the Word as wisdom, the Word as justice, the Word as truth, and the Word as holiness."(52) When St. Bernard speaks of mystical union, he is speaking of a spiritual love that passes beyond the humanity of Christ in order to concentrate on his divinity. He says: "Be careful to think of nothing corporal or sensible in this union of the Word with the soul. Let us call to mind here what the Apostle says: `He who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him' (I Cor. 6:17). The rapture of the pure soul in God or the loving descent of God into the soul is expressed as best we can by comparing spiritual things with spiritual.(53)

When the soul is completely purified and is well exercised in spiritual love, it may, if called by God, enter a mystical union and become the bride of the Word; it contracts a spiritual marriage with the Word and is completely identified with the divine will in the transforming unions.(54) St. Bernard makes use of the same imagery as the Song of Songs to describe the phenomena that accompany mystical union: embrace, kiss, ecstasy, marriage. Although he was aware of the danger of such language and constantly insisted that these images describe experiences that are totally spiritual and produced by grace, the history of spirituality is dotted with cases of persons who interpreted these expressions in a sensual manner.

Like St. Gregory the Great, St. Bernard saw the apostolate as the fruit of love and an overflow from the interior life of prayer. In the same sermons in which he discussed mystical union, he frequently referred to the pastoral ministry, and especially that of preaching.(55) Those who have received the gift of divine love are able to understand its language, says St. Bernard, and they respond to it "by works of love and piety."(56) And since grace and divine love come to the soul during the time of its communings with God, those who have the care of souls should be especially devoted to meditation on divine truths; then they should pass from the quiet of contemplation to the labor of preaching."(57) Consequently, the apostle should be at once a contemplative and a man of action. Indeed, St. Bernard insists that the apostle must first be concerned with the sanctification of his own soul before dedicating himself to the sanctification of others. St. Bernard also offers some practical observations on pastoral service:

Know that you must be mothers to those that are submitted to you and not masters. If, from time to time, severity must be employed, let it be fatherly and not tyrannical. Show yourselves mothers in encouragement and fathers in correction.(58)

Zeal without knowledge is insufferable. When love is very ardent, discretion, which regulates charity, is especially necessary. Zeal unenlightened by knowledge always loses its force, and sometimes becomes harmful . . . . Discretion, indeed, regulates all the virtues, and thus makes them moderate, beautiful and stable . . . . It is not so much a virtue itself as the chastener and guide of the other virtues . . . . Take it away, and virtue is changed to vice.(59)

According to Yeomans, "Bernard is led through Christ to the Trinity. His devotion to the Savior fructifies into consciousness of the presence of the three divine Persons in his soul and in the whole of creation.(60) It is true that the mystery of the Trinity is at the core of the spirituality of St. Bernard, as it must be for all Christian spirituality, but St. Bernard has been characterized in the tradition as a theologian of Jesus and Mary. It is, rather, in his contemporary and fellow-Cistercian, William of St. Thierry (Io85-I 148), that we find a spiritual theology which is, as Leclercq calls it, a "mystique trinitaire."(61)


For some reason, which is not very well understood, before the end of the twelfth century itself, the treatises of William began to be attributed to St. Bernard and other writers, and from the end of the Middle Ages until some thirty years ago, apart from a few references by the mystics, little or no attention was paid to them. Modern scholarship, however, has vindicated the claim of William of St. Thierry to be considered as a theological and spiritual writer of the first importance.(62)

William of St. Thierry (1085-1148) ruled for fifteen years as abbot of the Benedictine monastery near Rheims. In 1135 he transferred to the Cistercian abbey at Signy, where he remained until his death, except for a visit to the Carthusians at Mont-Dieu. This visit occasioned his famous "Golden Epistle" or Epistola ad Fratres de Monte Dei.

In the course of his lifetime he wrote numerous treatises on a variety of subjects: the love of God, the nature of man, the Eucharist, faith, a life of St. Bernard, and commentaries on the Epistle to the Romans and the Song of Songs. His masterpiece, however, is the treatise Aenigma fidei, written as a defence of the doctrine of the Trinity against Abelard. This work, together with the Golden Epistle and De natura et dignitate amoris, contain the sum of his spiritual theology."(63)

Although the writings of William on the spiritual life are practical rather than theoretical, Déchanet has discovered that he was greatly influenced by the writings of Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa and John Scotus Erigena as well as those of St. Augustine.(64) Sitwell points out in this regard that "the fact that he had gone back to the Greek Fathers is of great significance. It represented a development of interest in the theoretical aspect of contemplation . . . . In calling attention to this purely contemplative ideal, in his appeal to the early pre-Benedictine monachism, and in the use he made of its theological background, William of St. Thierry was looking ahead to a movement which was to come after his death."(65)

Like St. Bernard, William sees man's life on earth as a return or an ascent to God, and in his Golden Epistle he divides this ascent into the classical three stages: beginners, advanced and perfect. The beginner, in whom the "animal" man predominates, is stimulated to a great extent by his senses and sensate appetites; for that reason he needs the guidance of laws and external authority, to which he responds by obedience, and he needs the ascetical practices of mortification, examination of conscience, spiritual reading and prayer of petition.(66) In the advanced stage the "rational man" takes the ascendancy, and in the third and final stage the perfect man is truly spiritual. Since the Golden Epistle devotes three quarters of its contents to a consideration of beginners, we turn to the treatise Aenigma fidei to complete the total view of the spiritual doctrine of William of St. Thierry.(67)

In this work William refers to the three stages of man's ascent to God as the periods or stages of faith, reasoning of faith, and experience. The beginner or "animal" man, as described above, lives by faith, and since he is particularly under the rule of the senses, he is led to the Trinity by that which is perceptible to the senses. Here William stresses the importance of the humanity of Christ and the use of signs and symbols. "This stage," says Brooke, "is closely connected with the Incarnation and the whole temporal economy as a pedagogic preparation leading man by degrees through what is perceptible to the senses toward the eternal, immutable life of the Trinity. The Incarnation is seen as a Sacramentum, not as we use the term for the sacraments strictly so called, but in the patristic sense of the word, implying the whole range of signs whereby what is eternal, spiritual and invisible should be manifested through the medium of what is temporal, material and visible."(68)

The second stage, called by William ratio fidei, is one in which the soul begins to seek reasons for its faith either by theologizing or meditating on Scripture. In treating of this period of the soul's ascent to God, William never lets the reader forget that the goal of that ascent is the Trinity, although he does not concentrate, as do the Scholastics, on the metaphysics of the mystery. In the stage of "ratio fidei," reason is always obedient to faith. William's "contribution lies rather in the fine dialectic with which he leads us at every turn toward the ultimate mystery of the Trinity. After approaching the Trinity from almost every viewpoint, the emphasis of the Latin Fathers on the unity of nature alternating with that of the Greek Fathers on the distinction of Persons, ratio fidei confronts us at each conclusion with the impenetrable mystery. We are told that the human mind never understands the Trinity so well as when it is understood to be incomprehensible.(69) The initial mystery of the God who is both three and one is never lessened, yet William's speculations always explain more exactly just where the mystery lies in every aspect of the problem."(70)

Coming to the third and final stage, William describes the state of the spiritual and perfect Christian, who passes beyond intellectual reasoning to mystical experience of the Trinity. At this point, says William, the Father and the Son reveal themselves through the Holy Spirit so that the Christian is not only united with God but he shares and experiences the very life of the Trinity. It is an anticipation of the beatific vision, a loving knowledge or a "love which is understanding" (amor-intellectus). "This does not mean that there is no longer a mystery, that the antithesis is now reconciled by reason, so as to see how three and one are compatible. It means that the mind has passed out of the realm of conceptual knowledge, where the question whether reason can in any way explain the mystery no longer arises."(71)

William's concept of the mystical experience of the Trinity involves a transition from man as image of God to man as likeness (similitudo) of God. Man in his very nature, even as the "animal" man of the beginner, has an imprint of the Trinity and it can never be destroyed. This innate image gives him the capacity to receive the higher types of image which come to him through the virtues and through the indwelling of the Trinity.(72) But if a man is to enjoy the mystical experience of the perfect Christian he must somehow become transformed into the divine likeness (similitudo) and not remain simply an image. And just as the eye cannot see unless it is somehow transformed into that which is seen, so we cannot know God mystically unless we are somehow transformed into his likeness. When does this occur? "We become like him when the image of the Trinity in the soul has been perfected. and brought back to a perfect likeness, the similitudo, the most perfect union between the soul and God compatible with the distinction between creature and Creator."(73) This is effected by the Holy Spirit, who is the uncreated union of the Father and the Son. Consequently, William concludes: "Through the Holy Spirit the man of God becomes -- in some ineffable, incredible way -- not God exactly, but what God is by nature, man becomes by grace."(74) Indeed, the Holy Spirit is himself the love by which we love God (ipse enim est amor noster).(75)


Plagued all his life by bad health, Aelred entered the Cistercian monastery at Rievaulx at the age of 24 and died in 1167, after being abbot for twenty years. During much of this time he administered the abbey from the infirmary and gained great renown as a spiritual director. Aelred was completely monastic in his spiritual teaching and writings, attempting to show the monks how to achieve union with God by abandoning self and sin and, through fraternal love in community, restoring the image of God that had been lost through sin.

His best works consist of sermons and treatises, and of these the best are Mirror of Charity, Jesus as a Twelve-year-old Boy, and Spiritual Friendship.(76) Aelred appreciated the eremitical life and in fact he wrote a treatise for his sister on the formation of a recluse, but he was much more in favor of the cenobitic life.

According to Aelred, man's whole being longs for God because God has instilled this desire in the human heart. More than that, man seeks to become like unto God, even when he wanders in the "land of unlikeness" because of his sins. It is only through Christ that man can realize his inmost desire, and hence he should love Christ as his dearest friend. Indeed, "God himself is friendship," and "he who dwells in friendship, dwells in God and God in him." This is where human friendship, if it is a spiritual friendship, can be a means of friendship with God. Anyone who enjoys such a spiritual human friendship is by that very fact a friend of God. Friendship with God, therefore, constitutes perfection because "to love God is to join our will to God so completely that whatever the divine will prescribes, the human will consents to."(77)

For Aelred the monastery is not only, as St. Benedict stated, "a school for the Lord's service" (Prologue, 45); it is a "school of love." Under the abbot, who stands in the place of Christ, the monks are brought to friendship with God through their fraternal love in community. Yet this does not mean that the monastic life is a source of continual joy. The abandonment of human will to the divine will involves suffering, and daily life in community often presents trials and crosses. Some monks may even ask themselves, as did Bernard, why they have come to the monastery or what is the value of their hidden life. To this, Aelred would respond by showing the importance of the imitation of Christ and of his apostles who suffered persecution and death.

It is everyone's affair by charity, and the abbot's by his counsels, to prevent anyone from straying from the path, or any delay on the journey. This peaceful confidence in the monastic life is not peculiar to St. Aelred, but he sets it forth with a charm, a good humor, and at times a humorousness, that are entirely his own. St. Bernard, his master, is a doctor of the Church, whereas St. Aelred is only a doctor of the monastic life; and yet his teaching has a universal value, because monasticism is part of the Church, and he himself lays stress on unity of spirit. Still, he is thinking first of all of monks. The theologian is always the pleasant Father Abbot.(78)


Throughout the history of the Church women as well as men have embraced the monastic life, both eremitical and cenobitic. Until recently, however, the role played by women in the development of monastic life has been neglected.(79) From the very beginning of monasticism in the East, however, there were female solitaries in the desert, and one legend states that St. Mary Magdalen ended her days as a recluse. We know for certain that St. Pachomius founded a monastery for women; St. Basil wrote legislation for them; and women associates of St. Jerome and Rufmus were ardent promoters of the monastic life. In the West, we need only mention St. Scholastica and the monastery for women near Monte Cassino, the consecrated women of the Irish monastic system, and the female collaborators of missionaries like St. Boniface in Germany.

The laws and customs in the West severely restricted the opportunities for women in monastic life and even among the women themselves there were distinctions based on social class, education or economic level. Thus, some monasteries were for all practical purposes reserved for the women of the aristocracy, either because some royal or noble person had endowed the monastery or because the poorer classes could not afford the dowry. In some cases the young woman of the upper class who entered the monastery as a "choir" nun would bring along one of her maids as a "lay" sister to serve her mistress. As time went on, there were monasteries restricted to aristocrats, others for the middle and lower class, and even some for converts to Catholicism.

While men religious were designated by the term monk (monachus) the feminine form, monacha, was never commonly used for women religious. The term was used by St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great and St. Gregory of Tours, and it has survived in Italian as monaca, but the more common Latin word was monialis, from sanctimonalis, designating a person consecrated to God. The term "nun" seems to be of Egyptian origin and is the most common word used in English to refer to a woman religious. However, strictly speaking, the term applies only to a cloistered religious in solemn vows, while the word "sister" (soror) applies to a woman religious of the active life. It is interesting to note that the Italian word "nonna" means grandmother.(80)

Early in the twelfth century Robert d'Arbrissel organized monasteries of nuns according to the Rule of St. Benedict. He also established communities of men composed of priests and laymen or lay brothers. They lived in adjoining houses and were to take care of the spiritual and material needs of the nuns. The arrangement involved certain risks and was severely criticized in some quarters, but the Holy See took the monastery of Fontévrault under its protection. In England, meanwhile, St. Gilbert made a similar foundation under the Rule of St. Benedict as observed by the Cistercians. Leclercq even refers to a monastic "feminist movement" in this period.(81)

The standard text for the spiritual formation of religious women in the twelfth century was the Speculum virginum, composed by an anonymous author, perhaps from the Rhineland, where the monastic life for women flourished to a high degree. It gives examples of the holy women of ancient times, whether wives, widows or virgins, but holds the state of virginity to be the most perfect. Nevertheless, the personal holiness of a wife or widow may possibly surpass that of a nun in given instances. The treatise also insists that the monastic vocation must be the result of the free choice of the individual, although in practice this principle was not always observed.(82)

The two most outstanding nuns of this period are St. Hildegarde and St. Elizabeth of Schönau. Both were German, both were in the Benedictine tradition, and both were highly esteemed mystics. Hildegarde, born in 1098, became a Benedictine nun at the age of eighteen and became abbess in 1136. She was always ill, and she declared that since the age of three she had had visions; and at the age of forty she was commanded by an interior voice to record her visions. When she consulted St. Bernard about the matter in 1141, he wisely told her to practice the virtues and not pay too much attention to visions and revelations. Hildegarde died in 1179 and her revelations were approved by three popes and by the Council of Trèves.

Her writings are a strange mixture of spiritual revelations, the scientific knowledge of her day, and prophetic intuitions. She left a collection of 300 letters and a principal work entitled Scivias Domini (Scire Vias Domini). Always a humble woman in spite of the many calls upon her for advice and her many travels throughout Germany, Hildegarde taught a prudent asceticism that enabled her monastery to prosper under her guidance. She provided a surprisingly exact account of her mystical experiences and taught that mystical contemplation is available to all who conquer their vices and allow themselves to be set afire by the Holy Spirit. A good predisposition for contemplative prayer is spiritual reading and then meditating on what has been read; but much better than this is the Divine Office.(83)

St. Elizabeth of Schõnau, born around 1129, was also a visionary, but unlike Hildegarde, all of her visions were ecstatic and accompanied by extraordinary phenomena and intense suffering. At the command of her confessor, she wrote down her experiences and also composed letters and prayers and a book called The Ways of God. Her writings were widely read because she gave spiritual counsel to persons from all states of life. Some critics have theorized that The Ways of God is based to a large extent on the Scivias by St. Hildegarde, who was a close-friend and correspondent. Two other works attributed to Elizabeth are three volumes of visions (although some scholars accept only the first book as Elizabeth's original work), and a treatise on the martyrdom of St. Ursula and companions, which has generally been considered unreliable and the source of many unfounded legends.(84) Neither Hildegarde nor Elizabeth have been officially canonized.

As regards the emergence of lay brothers or conversi in the monastic life, we should note that as early as the fourth century Pope Siricius had written to the Bishop of Tarragona: "We desire that monks whom seriousness of conduct, holiness of life, and practice of faith commend, be admitted to the duties of the clergy."(85) In 1311 Pope Clement V stated: "For the increase of divine worship, We prescribe that monks, at the notification of their abbots, must prepare themselves for all sacred orders, once legitimate excuses have been removed."(86) Finally, Pope Clement VIII decreed: "Whoever is received into an order of regulars . . . . must possess such knowledge of letters or give unquestioned hope of acquiring such knowledge that he may receive minor orders, and in due time the major orders as well, according to the decrees of the Sacred Council of Trent."(87)

The foregoing statements reflect a gradual transition in monastic life which led not only to the ordination of monks to the priesthood and, consequently, the ecclesiastical classification of monastic institutes as clerical religious, but it also led to a new class of monks called lay brothers. A variety of causes led to this development: by the end of the ninth century the Benedictine monks had devoted themselves almost exclusively to lectio divina and liturgical worship, to the detriment of manual labor; the intellectual competence and holiness of the monks made them eminently worthy of priestly ordination, while the diocesan clergy of the ninth to the twelfth centuries were often ignorant and immoral; by the eleventh century the monasteries were sorely in need of hands to administer the external goods, do the work of the fields and perform the domestic duties within the cloister. Numerous monasteries had made use of lay help as laborers and servants, but too often this had led to all kinds of difficulties. The solution was found in the institution of a special class of monks who were distinct from the choir monks.

From various documents issued by monasteries of Benedictine life and from statements made by several popes between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, we can describe the lay brothers or conversi as true religious who form an integral part of the monastic community and are dedicated to the manual labor and external services of the monastery so that the choir monks can dedicate themselves to their particular duties. As their form of life became more clearly defined, the lay brothers pronounced only simple vows, wore a distinctive habit, prayed their own Office, assisted at specified monastic exercises such as conventual Mass, compline, chapter of faults and solemn functions, made an annual retreat, received a weekly spiritual conference from their own master or director, and formed a kind of community within the general community of the monastery. Later, when new forms of religious life were approved by the Church provision was usually made for the admission of lay brothers as a distinct but integral part of the religious institute.(88)

To summarize: Benedictine spirituality in the twelfth century still preserved the essential notes that were common to all monastic spirituality, with certain differences in regard to observances. It was, above all, a spirituality firmly rooted in biblical sources and nourished by lectio divina and liturgical prayer. The life of the Benedictine monk was a life of prayer and penance, a life withdrawn from the world by a desire to be united with God. As Leclercq describes it, it was a "prophetic life" because it consisted in waiting for the coming of the Lord, in prayer and penance; it was an "apostolic life" because it was a life of community in love, after the example of the disciples in the Cenacle and the first Christians; it was a "life of martyrdom" because it involved separation from the world and a constant warfare against the obstacles to charity; it was an "angelic life" because it sought total detachment through prayer, asceticism and chastity; it was an "evangelical life" because it sought to imitate Christ by walking the way of the Gospel.(89)

Yet, there were also new trends evident in the Benedictine spirituality of the twelfth century, thanks to the Cistercian movement. First of all, there was a vigorous insistence on the place of manual labor in monastic life, and this, as we have seen, was not so much an innovation as a return to the original teaching of St. Benedict. Secondly, there was an equally strong emphasis on the contemplative purpose of monastic life, with the result that the Cistercians explicitly regulated their lectio divina, prayer and ascetical practices with a view to contemplation and union with God. It is in this second area that the Cistercians made their greatest contribution to spirituality, especially in the persons of St. Bernard and William of St. Thierry, who bring us a step closer to a systematic theology of Christian perfection and a psychology of the mystical state.

  1. Cf. J. Lortz, Geschichte der Kirche, Munster, 1950; J. Leclercq, F.Vandenbroucke, L. Bouyer, The Spirituality of the Middle Ages, Burns & Oates, London, 1968; L. Génicot, La spiritualité médiévale, Paris, 1958; J. F. Rivera Recio, "Espiritualidad popular medieval," in Historia de la Espiritualidad, ed. B. J. Duque-L. S. Balust, Juan Flors, Barcelona, 1969, pp. 609-657.
  2. Cf. P. J. Moullins, The Spiritual Life according to St. Isidore, Catholic University, Washington, D.C., 1940.
  3. Cf. M. T. A. Carroll, The Venerable Bede: His Spiritual Teaching, Catholic University, Washington, D.C., 1946.
  4. Migne has two volumes (97 and 98) on Charlemagne under the title Beati Caroli Magni Opera Omnia. See also A. Fliche-V. Martin, "L'epoque carolingienne," in Histoire de l'Eglise, Vol. 7, E. Amann, Paris, 1947.
  5. Cf. J. Leclercq et al., op. cit., pp. 75-76.
  6. For a detailed study, cf. J. Winandy, Ambroise Autpert, moine et théologien, Paris, 1953.
  7. Cf. M. Mähler, "Alcuin," in Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, Vol. I, pp. 296-299.
  8. L. Cilleruelo, "Literatura espiritual de la edad media," in Historia de la Espiritualidad, Vol. I, p. 702.
  9. Cf. PL 103, 701-1380.
  10. Cf. J. Semmler, ed., Corpus consuetudinum monasticarum, F. Schmitt, Siegburg, 1963, Vol. I, pp. 423-582.
  11. Cf. J. Winandy, "L'oeuvre monastique de saint Benoit d'Aniane," in Mélanges Bénédictines, Fontenelle, 1947, pp. 237-258.
  12. C. Peifer, "The Rule in History," in The Rule of St. Benedict, ed. T. Fry, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn., 1981, pp. 122-123.
  13. Cf. J. Leclercq, "Profession according to the Rule of St. Benedict," in Rule and Life, ed. M. B. Pennington, Cistercian Publications, Spencer, Mass., 1971, pp. 117-150.
  14. Cf. C. Peifer, art. cit., pp. 124-125.
  15. Cf. A. Schroll, Benedictine Monasticism as Reflected in the Warnefrid-Hildemar Commentaries on the Rule, Columbia University, New York, N. Y., 1941.
  16. Cf. P. Salmon, "Obligation de la célebration de l'office," in L'office divin, Paris, 1959, pp. 30-31.
  17. Cf. J. Leclercq, "Dévotion et théologie mariales dans le monachisme au moyen âge," in Maria, Paris, 1952, Vol. 2, p. 552.
  18. Cf. C. Peifer, art. cit., p. 126.
  19. Ibid., loc. cit.
  20. In the beginning the conversi were not monks but men dedicated to a life of manual labor and accepted as familiares or oblates in the monastic community. Cf. J. Dubois, "The Laybrothers' Life in the 12th Century: A Form of Lay Monasticism," in Cistercian Studies, Vol. 7, 1972, pp. 161-213.
  21. Cf. C. Peifer, art. cit., p. 127; cf. J. Leclercq, "La crise du monachisme au XIe et XIIe siècles, " in Aux Sources de la spiritualité occidentale: Étapes et constantes, Ed. du Cerf, Paris, 1964, pp. 175-199; J. Leclercq et al., op. cit., pp. 68-126.
  22. Cf. A. Wilmart, "Auteurs spirituels et textes dévots du moyen âge, in Maria, Paris, 1952, Vol. 2, p. 552; J. Leclercq J. Bonnes, Un maître de la vie spirituelle au XIIe siècle, Jean de Fécamp, Paris, 1946.
  23. Cf. G. Sitwell, Spiritual Writers of the Middle Ages, Hawthorn, New York, N.Y., 1961, p. 26.
  24. Cf. A. Wilmart, op.cit., p. 127.
  25. J. Leclercq-J. P. Bonnes, op.cit., p. 182.
  26. Cf. K. Bihlmeyer-H. Tüchle, Church History, tr. V. Mills-F. Muller, Newman Press, Westminster, Md., 1959, Vol. 2, pp. 103-166.
  27. PL 103, 575-663.
  28. Cf. P. Doyere, "Erémitisme," in Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, fasc. 28-29, 1960. Several eremitical communities were founded during this period: Vallombrosa in 1038; Grandmont in 1076; Fontévrault in 1101; and a congregation of Scottish monks in Germany in 1075. Fontévrault was a double monastery of men and women under the jurisdiction of an abbess.
  29. Cf. J. Leclercq et al., op. cit., pp. 150-156.
  30. PL 153, 420-606; cf. A. Wilmart, "La chronique des premiers chartreux," in Rev. Mabillon, Vol. 16, 1926, pp. 77-112.
  31. J. Leclercq et al., op. cit., p. 153.
  32. PL 184, 475 B.
  33. Ibid., loc. cit.
  34. Cf. L. Lekai, The White Monks, Okauchee, Wis., 1953; B. Lackner, The Eleventh Century Background of Citeaux, Cistercian Publications, Washington, D.C., 1972.
  35. G. Sitwell, op.cit. p. 43.
  36. Cf. J. Leclercq et al., op. cit., p. 187; J. M. Mattoso, "Espiritualidad monástica medieval," in Historia de la Espiritualidad, Vol. I, p. 895.
  37. Cf. Introduction to J. Dubois, De l'amitié spirituelle, Bruges, 1948.
  38. Cf. J. Lekai, op.cit.; L. Bouyer, La spiritualité de Citeaux, Paris, 1955.
  39. Cf. PL 182, praef. gen., p. 23.
  40. G. Sitwell op.cit. p. 44.
  41. A. H. Bredero, "Etudes sur la vita prima de St. Bernard," in Analecta S. Ord. Cist., Vol. 17, 1961, and Vol. 18, 1962.
  42. For details on the life and work of St. Bernard, cf. AA. VV., Bernard of Clairvaux, Paris, 1963; J. Leclercq, op.cit., pp. 191-204; E. Vascandard, "Saint Bernard," in Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, Vol. I, pp. 746-785; A. de Bail, "Bernard," in Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, Vol. I, pp. 1454-1499.
  43. The works of St. Bernard are found in PL 182-183.
  44. W. Yeomans, "St. Bernard of Clairvaux," in Spirituality through the Centuries, ed. J. Walsh, P. J. Kenedy, New York, N.Y., 1964, p. 109.
  45. I Jn., chap. 4.
  46. De diligendo Deo, PL 182, 274. The phrase was also used by Severus of Milevum and attributed to St. Augustine.
  47. Cf. De gradibus humilitatis, PL 182, 941 ff.
  48. Cf. W. Yeomans, art. cit., p. 117.
  49. Letter 34, PL 182, 440.
  50. Letter 91, PL 182, 224.
  51. De diligendo Deo, PL 182, 974.
  52. Cf. In cantica, PL 183. Cf. also the authoritative work by E. Gilson, The Mystical Theology of St. Bernard, tr. A. Downes, Sheed & Ward, London, 1940. According to D. Ramos, Obras completas de San Bernardo, BAC, Madrid, 1953, St. Bernard considered the highest degree of love to be most rare in this life, but something to which all should aspire.
  53. In cantica, loc. cit. When speaking of the mystical union, St. Bernard always refers to God as the object, as do St. Augustine and the pseudo-Dionysius. The role of the humanity of Christ in mystical experience was discussed by Cassian, the Rhineland mystics, Thomas à Kempis, Gerson and St. Teresa of Avila.
  54. Cf. De diversis, Sermon 87; In cantica, Sermons 1, 68, 83-85.
  55. Cf. In cantica, Sermons 9, 20, 23, 25, 33, 41, 42, 49, 56, 57. 76, 78.
  56. Cf. In cantica, Sermon 79.
  57. Ibid., Sermon 41.
  58. Op. cit., Sermon 23.
  59. In cantica, Sermon 49.
  60. Cf. W. Yeomans, art. cit., p. 116.
  61. Cf. J. Leclercq et al., op. cit., p. 254.
  62. G. Sitwell, op.cit., p. 57.
  63. The works of William of St. Thierry are found in PL 180, 205-726; 184 365-408. The pioneer in research on William is J. M. Déchanet: Guillaume de Saint-Thierry. L'homme et son oeuvre, Bruges-Paris, 1942; and Aux sources de la spiritualité de Guillaume de Saint-Thierry, Bruges, 1940. Cf. also O. Brooke, "The Trinitarian Aspect of the Ascent of the Soul to God in the Theology of William of SaintThierry," in Recherches de theologie ancienne et médiévale, Vol. 26, 1959, pp. 85-127.
  64. Cf. J. Déchanet, Aux sources de la spiritualité de Guillaume de Saint Thierry, Bruges, 1940.
  65. Cf. G. Sitwell, op. cit., p. 60.
  66. Cf. Epist. ad Fratres de Monte Dei, PL 184, 315-316. William here follows Cassian's division of prayer. "The different techniques of mental prayer had not yet been worked out, and contemplation was not connected specifically with prayer as it later came to be" (G. Sitwell, op.cit., p. 58).
  67. Our source for this material is O. Brooke, art. cit., and "William of St. Thierry," in Spirituality through the Centuries, ed. J. Walsh, pp.121-131.
  68. Cf. O. Brooke, "William of St. Thierry," in Spirituality through the Centuries, pp. 125-126. William states in Speculum fidei: "The Mediator . . . though he is God eternal, became man in time, in order that through him who is eternal and yet subject to time, we may pass through the temporal to the eternal" (PL 180, 382-383).
  69. Aenigma fidei, PL 180, 426.
  70. O. Brooke, art. cit., pp. 126-127.
  71. Cf. ibid., p. 127.
  72. Epist. ad Fratres de Monte Dei, PL 184, 348.
  73. Cf. Speculum fidei, PL 180, 393; Aenigma fidei, PL 180, 399.
  74. Cf. Epist. ad Fratres de Monte Dei, PL 184 349.
  75. De contemplando Deo, PL 184, 376. "The great contribution of William of St. Thierry is to have evolved a theology of the Trinity which is essentially mystical, and a mystical theology which is essentially Trinitarian. He is therefore the initiator of the tradition of Trinitarian mysticism, which is to be found especially in the writings of Ruysbroeck, Eckhart, Tauler and Suso" (O. Brooke, art. cit., p. 130).
  76. Aelred's works can be found in PL 195, 210-796 and PL 184, 849-870.
  77. Speculum caritatis, PL 195, 566.
  78. Cf. J. Leclercq et al., op. cit., p. 208. For further details Cf. W: Daniel, The Life of Aelred of Rievaulx, London, 1950.
  79. Cf. E. Power, Medieval Women, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1976; R. Bridenthal-C. Koonz, Becoming Visible: Women in European History, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Mass., 1977.
  80. Cf. Appendix I, The Rule of St. Benedict, ed. T. Fry, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn., 1981.
  81. Cf. J. Leclercq, op.cit., p. 129.
  82. Cf. M. Bernards, Speculum virginum, Cologne, 1955.
  83. The works of St. Hildegarde are in PL 197. Cf. also Vies des saints et bienheureux, published by the Benedictines of Paris, 1950, Vol. 9, pp. 336-371.
  84. Cf. F. W. Roth, Das Gebetbuch der Hl. Elisabeth von Schönau, Augsburg, 1886; D. Besse, Les mystiques bénédictins, Paris, 1922; pp. 202-215; Vies des saints et bienheureux, Paris, 1950.
  85. J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorunl nova et amplissima collectio, Austria, 1961, Vol. 13, p. 660.
  86. Apostolic Constitution Ne in agro, Corp. Iur. Can., Vol. 2, 1086.
  87. Apostolic Constitution Regularis disciplinae restitutione, Bull. Rom., Vol. 10, 773.
  88. An excellent study on lay brothers has been done by D. K. Hallinger, "Woher kommen die Laienbrüder?", in Analecta S. Ord. Cist., Vol. 13, 1957, pp. 1-104; cf. also M. Wolter, The Principles of Monasticism, tr. and ed. B. Sause, B. Herder, St. Louis, Mo., 1962, pp. 459-461; 481-486; P. Mulhern, The Early Dominican Lay Brother, Washington, D.C., 1944.
  89. Cf. J. Leclercq et al., op. cit., p. 183.