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Chapter III: Clunaic Benedictines

“Esse niger monachus si forte velim Cluniaci
Ova fabasque nigrascum sale saepe dabunt
Surgere me facient media de nocte, volentem
Amplius in calido membra fovere thoro
Quodque magis noliena vellent me psallere sursum
Et geminare meos in diapente tonos.”

IN the Church of Rome there were various orders of monks, each governed by its own peculiar rule. Among these orders the most famous was that of the Benedictines. As the monks of Paisley belonged to this great brotherhood, it may not be out of place to give some account of its history and government. The order of Benedictines takes its name from St. Benedict of Nursia. This wonderful man was born about 480 A.D., at Nursia, in the diocese of Spoleto, in Italy. He received his early education at Rome, but when only fourteen years of age, betook himself to an ascetic life, and lived for years as a hermit in a cavern, receiving his food through a hole in the roof from the hands of a friend. The fame of his sanctity spread far and wide, and many put themselves under his spiritual direction, and in A. D. 529 he retired to Monte Casino, where he founded a monastery on the site of a heathen temple of Apollo, and instituted that order which afterwards became celebrated throughout Europe. Here he drew up rules for a monastic life which became the pattern of all others. These are constructed with wonderful skill and knowledge of human nature, and bear the impress of a powerful and statesmanlike mind. He was the great prophet of his time—he was called the second Elias, and had a deep insight into human nature in its various phases. It has been well said by Sir James Stephen that “the comprehensiveness of thought with which he exhausted the science of monastic polity, so that all subsequent rules have been nothing more than mere modifications of his own, the prescience with which he reconciled conventual franchises with abbatial dominion, the skill with which he at once concentrated and diffused power among the different members of his order, according as the objects were general or local, and the deep insight into the human heart by which he rendered myriads of men and women throughout successive generations the spontaneous instruments of his purposes: these all unite to prove that profound genius, extensive knowledge and earnest meditation had raised him to the very first rank of uninspired legislators.” [1] It would be out of place to give a minute description of the spiritual polity of this great man. We can only glance at some of its features.

The rule of St. Benedict consists of a code of seventy-seven chapters, in which directions for a monastic life are laid down with great minuteness. The whole history of a monk, from the day that he entered the cloister to that on which his brethren said their office for the repose of his soul, may be clearly learnt from them. As an illustration of the severity of his rule it will be sufficient to cite the directions which St. Benedict gave for the admission of a new member: “For four days he was to stand at the gate and entreat the porter, who was to repel his advances to admission in the severest manner. If he persevered and obtained an entrance he was to be led into a chamber appointed for strangers, and there to be attended by one of the most ancient men of the monastery who was to make him acquainted at first with the severest rules of the order, and then, if he expressed no backwardness to submit, with the remainder. Having passed this preliminary examination, the candidate was to become a novice, and when he had completed six months of his novitiate he was again examined. If his answer proved satisfactory he was allowed to remain among the novices, and at the end of four months the examination was renewed. This was the last ordeal he was to endure, and if he passed it successfully he was numbered among the brethren. In the ceremony of his admission he had to take the most solemn vows that he would continue faithful to the obligations of the order; that he would never leave the boundaries of the monastery; and that whatever he possessed had been or was to be resigned to the establishment or the poor. The substance of this declaration was to be written down and signed by the new monk, after which he was to be admitted a member of the order.”
[2] The Benedictines wore a black gown with large wide sleeves, and on their heads a cowl ending in a point behind, and were styled black monks from the colour of their dress. “No monk had property of his own, but each was provided with two coats, two cowls, a knife, a needle, a handkerchief; and his cell was furnished with a mat, a blanket, a rug, and a pillow.” [3] Their devotional offices were many, and their feasts frequent; but for us the most interesting features of their life were their constant study, and their practice of agriculture. When within their convent they devoted a great part of their time to reading and writing, and became famed through¬out the world for their learning and culture; when abroad, they worked assiduously at the tillage of the soil, and gave an impulse to the practice of agriculture throughout Europe. “Idleness,” said Benedict in his rule, “is the enemy of the soul. Therefore at certain times the brethren must be occupied in the labour of their hands, and again at certain hours in divine study. We think that both ends may be accomplished by this arrangement. From Easter till the kalends of October let them go out in the morning; and from the first hour till nearly the fourth let them labour for the procuring of that which is necessary. Again, from the fourth hour to about the sixth let them be at leisure for reading. Rising from the table after the sixth hour let them have an interval of rest upon their beds, or if anyone should wish to read, let him so read that he may not disturb his neighbour. At the ninth hour let them again work till the evening if the necessity of the place or their poverty require it, and let them gather the fruits of the earth, seeing that these are true monks who live by the labour of their hands as our forefathers and the apostles did. But let all things be done moderately and in measure on account of those that are feeble. From the kalends of October till the beginning of Lent let them be at leisure for reading till the second hour, then from the third to the ninth hear let all labour at the work which is enjoined them. [4] In the days of Lent let them be at leisure for their readings from the early morning to the third hour, from thence to the eleventh, let them do the work which is enjoined them.” This part of the rule brings prominently to view what was the great glory of the Benedictines, the union of study and manual labour. [5]

[1] Sir James Stephen's Essays, vol. I., p. 365.
[2] Lardner's History of the Christian Church, vol. I. p. 321.
[3] Encyclopaedia Britannica, Art. Benedictine.
[4] Quoted in “Learning and Working,” by Maurice, p. 52.
[5] “Pope John the 22d, who died in 1334, found after inquiry that since the rise of the order it had produced 24 popes, nearly 200 cardinals, 7000 archbishops, 15,000 bishops, 15,000 abbots, and 4000 saints, besides founding upwards of 37,000 monasteries. There have been likewise of this order 20 emperors and 10 empresses, 47 kings and above 50 queens, 20 sons of emperors, and 48 sons of kings. The order has produced an immense number of eminent writers and learned men. Rabanus set up the school of Germany, Alcuinus founded the University of Paris, Guido invented the scale of music, Sylvester the organ; and they boast of having produced An¬selm Ildephonsus, Venerable Bede, and many others of equal or superior name.”—Ency. Brittanica, Art. Benedictine.