Christian Monasticism: Desert Origins
Since earliest times some Christians have felt called to seek God and follow Christ in a specially focused way by going apart to a solitary place or “desert.” They follow the example of Jesus himself who often spent hours or whole nights in prayer on a mountain or other isolated place, and who called his disciples to go apart for the same reason (Mark 6:31).
The first monks lived in the deserts of Egypt and Syria, and were often hermits, living very simply and practising an ascetic lifestyle for the sake of prayer and communion with God. Saint Anthony, known as “the father of monks”, (c. 251-356), attracted many followers, and when St Athanasius wrote The Life of St Anthony in the middle of the fourth century it became widely popular and even more men and women were inspired to follow his example.
Communal monastic life developed in Egypt in the fourth century. St Pachomius wrote a Rule which regulated life in the monastery; this Rule was adopted by others, including in Western Europe. Other monastic leaders later developed their own Rules, such as those of the Celtic monks. The most influential, wise, and enduring one was the Rule of St Benedict, a spiritual guide for monks and nuns. It provides teaching about the basic monastic virtues of humility, silence, obedience and hospitality, and gives directives for times for common prayer, lectio divina, and manual work, but allows a lot of discretion to the abbot to decide what is best in local situations. This Rule became very widely used throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and later.
In 1098, feeling that life in their own monastery of Molesme in France had become somewhat lax, a group of monks set out and began a new monastery at Cîteaux, aiming to live according to the Rule of St Benedict in all its purity. Around 1125 a monastery of nuns was founded at Tart, and from these monks and nuns the Cistercian Order developed. Monasteries following the Cistercian way of life multiplied and spread throughout Europe, including many in Ireland.
One of the first generation of entrants at Cîteaux was the man who became known as St Bernard of Clairvaux (a daughter-house of Cîteaux). His spiritual and mystical teaching on love of God and union with God are a treasure not only for monastics but for the whole Church.
From the very beginning the Order received lay brothers and lay sisters. A substantial spiritual heritage was engendered through the lives and labours of innumerable brothers and sisters that found expression in writing, chant, architecture and crafts, and in the skilful management of their lands.
Monastic history moves in cycles. Times of intense fervour are followed by times of laxity and less enthusiasm, and then another reform sparks a further period of zeal and renewal of spirit. One such reform took place in the Cistercian Order during the seventeenth century. It came to be known as the “Strict Observance” movement, and was associated particularly with the abbey of La Trappe in France (hence the name ‘Trappists’, as Cistercians of the Strict Observance are sometimes known). The “Strict” and the “Common” Observance monasteries ultimately separated into two separate Orders.
The French Revolution brought chaos to religious life in France. Monasteries and other religious houses were suppressed, and many religious were imprisoned or forced to flee the country. A group of Cistercian monks and nuns managed to regroup in Switzerland, but soon had to move on from there to Poland, then to Russia, and then back through northern Europe before eventually returning to France and Belgium. From these brave monastic voyagers many of our contemporary monasteries are descended.
A group of nuns who had been on the “monastic odyssey” to Russia and back made their way to England, and founded a monastery at Stapehill in Dorset. From this community Glencairn was founded in 1932. On the monks’ side, the first monastery to be founded in Ireland since the suppression of the monasteries at the Reformation in the fifteenth century was at Mount Melleray, founded by monks from Melleray in France in 1832.
The desire for an authentic monastic life expressed in different ways through the centuries continues to inspire the monks and nuns of the Order to work hard to renew their way of life. The work of renewal inspired by the Second Vatican Council reaffirmed the Order’s commitment to the Rule of Saint Benedict as its traditional interpretation of the Gospel and gave guidelines for the faithful observance of this Rule in the changed conditions of the world.
That traditional monasticism adapted to the circumstances of the twenty-first century continues to flourish, by God’s grace, at Glencairn.