The Benedictines
Tracey Rowland
Description :A look at the Benedictines
The Order of St. Benedict (O.S.B).
The ‘Benedictines’ is the name given to congregations of monks and nuns who follow the Rule of St. Benedict. The monks and nuns live their lives enclosed within the walls of a monastery. Although each monastery is based on the Rule of St. Benedict, it is an autonomous entity in a legal sense. Benedictine monks and nuns are not transferred from monastery to monastery, but remain within the monastery they have joined.

The life of a monk or nun in a monastery is based around the Recitation of the Divine Office, a collection of Psalms, Prayers, Readings from the Gospels and the Lives of the Saints, Antiphons, and Hymns. The hours at which the Office is recited are known by their French and Latin names: Matins (meaning morning - around 3 Am), Lauds (meaning the prayer of praise at dawn), Prime (around 7 AM - the prayer of sunrise), Terce (the third hour which is about 9 AM), Sext (the sixth hour or mid-day), None (the ninth hour), Vespers (around 6PM by which time the star Vesper can be seen in the northern hemisphere) and Compline (the prayer of dusk).

In addition to sanctifying each day and its division of hours with prayer, the monks and nuns undertake intellectual work and manual labour. The monasteries are usually self-sufficient. They usually have their own dairy, vegetable gardens and bakery. Some also produce wines, cheese, honey, beer and olives. The intellectual work usually takes the form of writing books on sacred topics or teaching catechism to children who visit the monastery for instruction in the teachings of the Church. In the medieval period before the invention of the printing press, the monks were responsible for transcribing manuscripts and those which they illuminated with water-colour drawings of flowers and animals and saints and Christian symbols are now regarded as great works of art. Historians agree that the Benedictine monasteries saved Europe from the barbaric culture which arose during the decline of the Roman Empire, and in particular, kept alive the tradition of scholarly learning. It is for this reason that St. Benedict is one of the patron saints of Europe.

The monasteries which St. Benedict personally founded were: Subiaco, Monte Cassino and Terracina. However the map of Europe quickly became dotted with monastic establishments. The Bendictines played a particularly important role in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon tribes of England. In 596 Pope Gregory the Great sent 40 monks to England, and their superior, Augustine, became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. By 686 all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had accepted the faith.

During the early centuries of Benedictine life monasteries were frequently pillaged and destroyed by marauding gangs of Viking sailors. However by the Middle Ages monastic life flourished throughout Europe. The first major threat to monastic foundations came with the Protestant Reformation. For various different reasons the Reformers were opposed to monastic life. For example, in England King Henry VIII, the founder of the Church of England, decided to plunder the monasteries and distribute their wealth to a new class of aristocrats who were his supporters; while in Germany Martin Luther opposed the whole idea of the spiritual value of monastic life. Following the Reformation in the 16th century, the French Revolution of the 18th Century also destroyed large numbers of monasteries. The Revolutionaries opposed the Church and thought that reason alone without faith or God is all that a person needed to get by in life. Accordingly monasteries were sacked and taken over by the revolutionary government and their members who did not escape were martyred. Today if you visit Paris and go to the area called ‘Montmartre’ you can still see the remains of a Benedictine Monastery for nuns which was taken over during the Revolution. This suppression of the monasteries by the revolutionaries also extended to Belgium 91796), Switzerland (1798), the left bank of the Rhine (1802) and Central Italy (1810). Between 1803-1807 all monasteries of Baden, Bavaria, Würtenberg, and Prussia - 141 of them - were destroyed by anti-Catholic political forces of one kind or another. Those of Spain and Portugal were destroyed in 1834 and 1835. Some of the monks fled to England by which time the anti-Catholic persecution of the Elizabethan era had quelled and new Benedictine foundations were established at Ampleforth (1802) and Downside (1814). In 1850 a Benedictine monastery was founded in New Norcia in Western Australia. In France the Benedictine life was restored at Solesmes in 1833 by Prosper Gueranger.

Some of the greatest Benedictine saints have been women. These include St. Scholastica (who was St. Benedict’s sister), St. Hildegard, St. Gertrude and St. Mechtilde. St. Gertrude and St. Mechtilde are credited with beginning the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In Benedictine monasteries the nuns are called ‘Dame’, not ‘Sister’.

In recent times there has been a revival of Benedictine life in France with the establishment of new monasteries. Some of these, such as the monastery of Le Barroux, is devoted to the preservation of the Church’s liturgical heritage and accordingly, the Masses and Prayers of the Office are said in Latin. As members of the laity it is possible to visit these monasteries and to remain for a few days as guests. The idea is that it is important for lay people to spend some time in retreat from the cares of the world in an environment where everything is focused on the praise and glory of God. The following statement comes from the Monks of Le Barroux about how they see their vocation:


The monks built Europe but they did not do it intentionally. Their adventure is first of all, if not exclusively, an inner adventure, whose only motive is thirst. A thirst for the absolute. Thirst for another world, for truth and beauty. A thirst that the liturgy kindles in order to guide the eye towards eternal things; to make the monk a man who aims with all his being towards the reality which never dies. Before being academies of learning and centres of civilisation monasteries are principally silent signs pointing towards heaven, the obstinate uncompromising reminder that another world exists, of which this world is only the image, the vindication, the foreshadowing.

© 2002