The Strongest Kind of Monks

CHAPTER I. Of the several kinds of Monks and their way of life
8 Jan. 9 May. 8 Sept.
It is well known that there are four kinds of monks. The first are the cœnobites: that is those in monasteries, who live under a rule or an Abbot. The second are the Anchorites or Hermits: that is those who, not in the first fervour of religious life, but after long probation in the monastery, have learned by the help and experience of many to fight against the devil; and going forth well armed from the ranks of their brethren to the single-handed combat of the desert, are able, without the support of others, to fight by the strength of their own arm, God helping them, against the vices of the flesh and their evil thoughts. A third and most baneful kind of monks are the Sarabites, who have been tried by no rule nor by the experience of a master, as gold in the furnace; but being as soft as lead, and still serving the world in their works, are by their tonsure to lie to God. These in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd, shut up, not in the Lord’s sheepfolds, but in their own, make a law to themselves in the pleasure of their own desires: whatever they think fit or choose to do, that they call holy; and what they like not, that they consider unlawful.

The fourth kind of monks are those called “Girovagi,” who spend all their lives-long wandering about divers provinces, staying in different cells for three or four days at a time, ever roaming, with no stability, given up to their own pleasures and to the snares of gluttony, and worse in all things than the Sarabites. Of the most wretched life of these it is better to say nothing than to speak. Leaving them alone therefore, let us set to work, by the help of God, to lay down a rule for the Cœnobites, that is, the strongest kind of monks.

The English words “cœnobite” and “cœnobitic” are derived, via Latin, from the Greek words koinos (κοινός), “common”, and bios (βίος), “life”. To my mind, it is Saint Jerome who gives the best description of cœnobitic life in his famous Letter 22, addressed to Eustochium. The letter is very long, but the section on the cœnobitic life is indispensable reading for one who seeks to understand Chapter I of the Holy Rule. Today, I merely refer you to Saint Jerome’s letter; you can read it for yourselves.*

I often think of the cenobitic life of the Apostles, first, around Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostles surrounded Him as sons do their father, and disciples do their master. This was the vita apostolica: a common life held together by the presence of Jesus. It is remarkable that when Saint Mark relates the call of the Apostles, he stresses first that Jesus called them to be with Him. Before being sent out, the Apostles must learn to live with Jesus and with one another. This is their initiation into the cœnobitic life.

And he made that twelve should be with him, and that he might send them to preach. (Mark 3:14)

Again, it is Saint Mark who evokes the apostolic cœnobium when he says:

And the apostles coming together unto Jesus, related to him all things that they had done and taught. (Mark 6:30)

The image calls up the psalmist’s description of family life: Filii tui sicut novellæ olivarum in circuitu mensæ tuæ; “Thy children as olive plants, round about thy table” (Psalm 127:3). The apostolic cœnobium was a dominici schola servitii, a school of the Lord’s service, in which Jesus was the Master, the Father, the Heart. The rabbinical schools of the First Century were true coenobia; the rabbi and his disciples lived together, prayed together, ate together, and spoke together of the great questions that rose in their hearts. The rabbi lived in full view of his disciples; their common life became a school of holy living. The disciples observed their rabbi in every detail of daily existence, so as to enter into his views and model their behaviour after him, according to Our Lord’s own word: “A disciple is no better than his master; he will be fully perfect if he is as his master is” (Luke 6:40). A rabbi’s teaching was called his yoke: a particular way of interpreting the Law and applying it to all the circumstances of life. This casts light on Our Lord’s words: “My yoke is sweet and my burden light” (Matthew 11:30). I can almost hear the Apostles intoning Psalm 132; it is the song of cenobites:

Gracious the sight, and full of comfort, when brethren dwell united. Gracious as balm poured on the head till it flows down on to the beard; balm that flowed down Aaron’s beard, and reached the very skirts of his robe. It is as if dew like the dews of Hermon were falling on this hill of Sion; here, where the Lord grants benediction and life everlastingly

After the Ascension of Our Lord, the Apostles, gathered in the Cenacle, begin to grow into their new roles as fathers, shepherds, and teachers. After Pentecost, filled with the Holy Ghost, they will disperse to the various cœnobia that will make up the Church: “And they were persevering in the doctrine of the apostles, and in the communication of the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). All during this time, Our Lady provides the Apostles with the presence that holds them together. Saint Luke, in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, makes a point of placing “Mary, the mother of Jesus”, in his text, between “the women” and “His brethren”. This is Saint Luke’s artful and almost iconographic way of telling us that Mary is in the midst, and that her role at the heart of the apostolic cœnobium is unique and indispensable.

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount that is called Olivet, which is nigh Jerusalem, within a sabbath day’s journey. And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode Peter and John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James of Alpheus, and Simon Zelotes, and Jude the brother of James. All these were persevering with one mind in prayer with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brethren. (Acts 1:12–14)

The relationship of Peter and of the other Apostles with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is expressed in perseverance with one mind in prayer. At the heart of the prayer of the Apostles is Mary. Saint Luke does not relate anything Our Lady said. In his Gospel, he gives us the words of Our Lady at the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the finding of Jesus in the Temple. Saint Luke would have been capable of relating Mary’s words in the Cenacle, had the Holy Ghost inspired him to do so. Instead, he shows us “A Woman Wrapped in Silence”, as the poet John Lynch calls her. Mary’s prayer in the Cenacle is utterly silent; her silence draws into itself the prayer of the whole Church and sets that prayer all ablaze. The Immaculate Heart of Mary is like a lantern sheltering the fragile flame of the apostles’ prayer; it is a safe place from which no one and nothing can be taken away. All feel secure in the Cenacle because Mary is there. I can almost hear the Apostles, full of anxiety and buffeted by fears, saying one to another, “Still, all will be well because the Mother is here and she is praying”.

We, as cœnobites, have both a Rule and an Abbot. Saint Benedict tells us that we belong to the strongest race found among monks. And, in spite of these advantages and assurances, it is only Mary who can so arrange things that the life of the cœnobium is consolidated, and that each man, if he be but willing, is given whatever graces are needed for the upbuilding of the Body of Christ that is the Church. At the heart of our cœnobium is Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Her maternal prayer animates the monastery and makes it attractive. There is no brother who may not approach her at any time of the day or night. There may be hardships of all sorts, poverty, illness, and anxiety. Still, in our cœnobium we can say, “All will be well because the Mother is here and she is praying”.

Our part is to allow Mary to draw us out of ourselves and into her prayer. This we can do surely by making the consecration of the monastery and of ourselves to her. This we can do also by taking up her beads day after day and by allowing the grace of each of the mysteries to descend, through her mediation, into our hearts. I would not feel safe in a monastery where Mary was not fully Mother, not only in title and with a kind of maternity of honour, but really, by the union of each brother with her ceaseless prayer. In such a monastery, I am not afraid to live. From such a monastery I would not want ever to be separated.


* Having then rid ourselves of these as of so many plagues, let us come to that more numerous class who live together, and who are, as we have said, called Cœnobites. Among these the first principle of union is to obey superiors and to do whatever they command. They are divided into bodies of ten and of a hundred, so that each tenth man has authority over nine others, while the hundredth has ten of these officers under him. They live apart from each other, in separate cells. According to their rule, no monk may visit another before the ninth hour; except the deans above mentioned, whose office is to comfort, with soothing words, those whose thoughts disquiet them. After the ninth hour they meet together to sing psalms and read the Scriptures according to usage. Then when the prayers have ended and all have sat down, one called the father stands up among them and begins to expound the portion of the day. While he is speaking the silence is profound; no man ventures to look at his neighbor or to clear his throat. The speaker’s praise is in the weeping of his hearers. Silent tears roll down their cheeks, but not a sob escapes from their lips. Yet when he begins to speak of Christ’s kingdom, and of future bliss, and of the glory which is to come, every one may be noticed saying to himself, with a gentle sigh and uplifted eyes: “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! For then would I fly away and be at rest.” After this the meeting breaks up and each company of ten goes with its father to its own table. This they take in turns to serve each for a week at a time. No noise is made over the food; no one talks while eating. Bread, pulse and greens form their fare, and the only seasoning that they use is salt. Wine is given only to the old, who with the children often have a special meal prepared for them to repair the ravages of age and to save the young from premature decay. When the meal is over they all rise together, and, after singing a hymn, return to their dwellings. There each one talks till evening with his comrade thus: “Have you noticed so-and-so? What grace he has! How silent he is! How soberly he walks!” If any one is weak they comfort him; or if he is fervent in love to God, they encourage him to fresh earnestness. And because at night, besides the public prayers, each man keeps vigil in his own chamber, they go round all the cells one by one, and putting their ears to the doors, carefully ascertain what their occupants are doing. If they find a monk slothful, they do not scold him; but, dissembling what they know, they visit him more frequently, and at first exhort rather than compel him to pray more. Each day has its allotted task, and this being given in to the dean, is by him brought to the steward. This latter, once a month, gives a scrupulous account to their common father. He also tastes the dishes when they are cooked, and, as no one is allowed to say, “I am without a tunic or a cloak or a couch of rushes,” he so arranges that no one need ask for or go without what he wants. In case a monk falls ill, he is moved to a more spacious chamber, and there so attentively nursed by the old men, that he misses neither the luxury of cities nor a mother’s kindness. Every Lord’s day they spend their whole time in prayer and reading; indeed, when they have finished their tasks, these are their usual occupations. Every day they learn by heart a portion of Scripture. They keep the same fasts all the year round, but in Lent they are allowed to live more strictly. After Whitsuntide they exchange their evening meal for a midday one; both to satisfy the tradition of the church and to avoid overloading their stomachs with a double supply of food. (Saint Jerome, Letter 22)