Our initial formation director, Sister Mary Core, OSB, taught this class in monasticism at the monastery recently. Three members in initial formation took the class, and several Sisters sat in. Here’s a summary of what we learned. Enjoy!
Class 1: A Run through Pre-Christian and Pre-Western Monasticism
Earliest recorded monasticism predates Chritianity by hundreds of years. While it is often similar to today’s model, it is not identical. In fact, historians believe that Christian monasticism doesn’t reflect an outgrowth of the earliest models. Nevertheless, pre-Christian and pre-Western monasticism – several of which continue to thrive today – reflect commonalities with Christian monasticism that are both inspiring and informative.
Pre-Christian monastics were found within India, the Middle East and Egypt. Although living by different principles and practices (they didn’t feel necessarily that lifelong celibacy was necessary), they did hold one thing in common: they were renouncing the order – or way – of the life that was being led around them. That is, they were leaving their current life to seek a life that would be spiritual in nature, and better at heart.
Hinduism spawned a monastic group called the Sannyasa. Although the founding date is not known, it is clear that they were well-established by 1700-1100 BC. Often solitary in nature, rather than living in community, the Sannyasines were comprised by men who sometimes had left families – after their children were raised – in an act of honorable self-sacrifice to live a monastic life.
Buddhism – itself an outgrowth of Hinduism – came into being about 450 BC through Siddhartha Guatama, the Buddha, who believed in unity with all. Buddhist monks embraced quiet and meditation, in an effort to lift themselves above the material world of suffering to become one with the world around. Again, often solitary even in community (taking rice from the common bowl back to their individual cells to eat), the Buddhist monks were joined in solidarity of purpose.
The Judean Essenes at Qumran were rediscovered with the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Inhabiting the caves around the Dead Sea, some historians believe Jesus and/or John the Baptist may have been members of the community for a time. We know, from their writings, that they worked as scribes, shared meals and pursued a simple way of life. They elected a leader and professed vows upon membership that included love of God, righteousness toward humanity, moral living, preservation of the books of the Essenes, and work.
The Egyptian Therapeutae were first recorded in 200-100 BC, making them closest in chronology to Jesus. As the word suggests, Therapeutae were known as healers, philosophers and spiritual servants. They lived near one another in cells in northern Egypt, always available to those seeking their help. Dedicated to contemplative life, the Therapeutae lived chastely and simply, studying Scripture and fasting.
While none of these pre-Christian monastics had a direct impact on Christian monasticism, they did reflect spiritual longing that is common to all. What does that say about the human heart?
Class 2: A Romp through Christian Monasticism in the East
Christianity began to spread throughout Palestine, Asia Minor and the Roman Empire via newly-paved roads and a developing trade system. The “Followers of the Way” (as the first Christians were known) became “Christians.”
Indeed, once the Pentacost event occured, the apostles were afire with the spirit to spread the Word. Paul was the first convert. After violently persecuting Christians himself, Paul experienced his own conversion. He took the faith to Asia Minor and eventually Rome. Near the same time, Peter took the faith to Babylon.
During this spread of faith, outbreaks of persecution were common and violent. From around 64 AD to 311 AD, Christians risked martyrdom for practicing their faith. The Christians often were blamed by the Roman Empire for anything that couldn’t be explained. Remembering that this was a polytheistic and superstitious time, people feared the Christian god. The thinking was: if an earthquake or devastating storm occured, it must be the result of Christians praying to their god. If they got rid of the Christians, their god wouldn’t pester with them any more.
Other crimes they were accused of committing included infanticide and cannibalism. The Romans thought the Christians were killing babies, because they took in infants who had been abandoned by their parents at the side of the road with birth defects (a common practice at the time). The Romans thought the Christians were using these infants in sacrificial practices.
Cannibalism was the charge in response to the Christians’ Eucharistic practice of eating the Body and drinking the Blood!
So the Christians went underground where possible. They developed the Icthus, or fish, sign to covertly identify one another, to try to avoid being burned at the stake or fed to wild animals (which happened occasionally). Those who were unable – for family responsibilities or personal fear – to face persecution, and left the faith to protect themselves, were called “Apostates.”
Why would anyone be willing to die for their faith? Again, remember the fearful, polytheistic world that Christianity was born into. The Roman – and Greek – gods were vengeful and powerful, showing little compassion for the poor human beings who labored below them. Jesus introduced a loving God. It was a very appealing concept! Human beings were treasured by the God who had created them, and promised everlasting joy! It was worth dying for.
By 311, Emperor Constantine signed the Edict of Toleration which ended the period of persecution. Influenced by his mother (St. Helena, who discovered the true cross), Constantine himself began to practice Christianity, but refused Baptism until his deathbed (another common practice), so that all of his life’s sins could be removed at the last minute, allowing him a straight shot into heaven.
By now, “Christianity” had become synonymous with “Catholicism.” You could be a member of the Catholic Church (remember, “catholic” means “universal”), no matter what your nationality. The entire Roman Empire was declared Christian by Emperor Theodocius in 380.
Now in the majority, the Christians began to persecute the non-Christians, forsaking their former pacifist ways. They began to re-adopt their Pagan and immoral practices. Further, a rift was developing between those who had remained devout during persecution and the Apostates, who had forsaken the faith.
Monastic responses began to crop up, first in the Eastern Greek-speaking half of the Roman Empire, in Egypt and Palestine. Embracing many of the same practices of the pre-Christian monks (see Class 1), Christian monks – both women and men – lived simply, often in solitude, following ascetic lifestyles that included fasting. Additionally, they were God-centered, praying the Psalms in the Jewish tradition. Several models of monastic communities developed, including individual caves in the desert, huts along the edge of town, and even in homes in town.
It became an issue of heresy whether to let the Apostates back in to the faith. In order to show repentance, they often would become monks for a period of time as penance.
Class 3: A Fast Walk through Western Monasticism
As western monasticism spread, it gained a strong foothold in three areas: Gaul (present-day France), Italy, and Ireland.
Gaul (early 400’s)
Martin of Tours was the first person to establish a monastery in the west. A Roman soldier, he left the army, converted to Christianity, became monk and finally a bishop.
John Cassian wrote a Rule that influenced St. Benedict about 100 years later. Cassian established two monasteries – one for women and one for men – near Marseilles. This two-monastery model is yet common today, 1600 years later!
Honoratus of Marseilles established a community on an island in Lerins, near Cannes. A Roman prefect, upon seeing the monastery, wrote, “It’s a filthy island filled with filthy men fleeing the light; it’s the mad folly of demented brains.” Mad folly, indeed!
The Rule of the Master – author unknown – was written south of Rome around 500, and influenced St. Benedict as well.
Benedict (480-547) was the son of a Roman nobleman, well educated in Rome. As the others who were fleeing the city, Benedict disdained the barbarism of the culture and opted to become a hermit outside Subiaco. (While we sometimes think of hermits as anti-social, they are not necessarily! In Benedict’s case, he was seeking a deeper silence, yet welcoming guests and answering their questions.)
Benedict attracted many seekers who also wished to live the monastic life. In 520, he established the best-known monastery in the Christian world at Monte Cassino. In all, he established 12 monasteries. Benedict also wrote the Rule of Benedict, borrowing from the Rule of the Master, John Cassian (among others) and, of course, referencing Scripture. Truly, Benedict is the Father of Western Monasticism.
Benedict’s Rule is still followed by monastics across the globe today. Short, simple, non-legalistic and based on reverence of God in one another, the Rule serves as a wonderful guide to living together in love and peace.
What we know about Benedict we have learned largely from Pope Gregory, who wrote about him and his sister, Scholastica. She established a women’s community that in all probability followed the Rule.
According to legend, Benedict visited his sister one day, and they enjoyed a lengthy and wonderful discussion about spiritual matters. As darkness neared however, Benedict said he must return to his monastery, in accord with his own Rule that declared monks were to be home at night. Scholastica begged him not to leave yet, but to continue their sharing. When he refused, Scholastica prayed to God, who caused such a storm that it became impossible to leave. The moral? That love and relationship are more important than legalistic rules!
Benedictine monasteries continued to flourish and grow throughout the west. Their emphasis on gentleness and humanity, their lack of hierarchy, their indistinction between rich and poor were all major factors. When you entered a Benedictine community, you embraced a common life that held each member – regardless of background – in reverence.
St. Patrick founded a different type of monastic community in Ireland. A monk himself (not Benedictine), Patrick’s monasteries looked more like tribal family units, with a church and a small village around it. The focus was on faith and loyalty to one another. If there was a rule, we don’t know about it – so much was destroyed by the Vikings that almost no written history exists.
St. Brigid of Kildare established the Abbey at Kildare, which was a “double abbey,” with one side for women and the other for men. So many legends have grown up around this saint that we have no way of knowing what is fact and what is fiction. Two of the most-loved stories include the following.
Brigid – who wanted to enter religious life – was born of a Christian mother and Pagan father. Compelled to care for the poor, she had a tendency to give everything away to those in need. Her father tolerated this but forbid his daughter to take the veil … until the day she gave away his sword! Then he relented!
On the day Brigid took the veil, the bishop accidentally read the wrong formula and made her a bishop. Hence, Brigid could celebrate the sacraments throughout her life! In fact, she was the Superior over both sides of the Abbey, even appointing the Abbot for the men’s side.
Class 4: More about St. Scholastica
What we know about Sts. Benedict and Scholastica comes from the Dialogues, written by Pope Gregory I at the end of the 6th century. From him, we know that Benedict and Scholastica were siblings who came from a wealthy family. Because of the wealth, Scholastica – which means learned – probably was well educated and stayed in the home a longer time than her brother. She was consecrated to God at an early age. Together with Benedict – which means blessing – they expressed the philosophy of their family, as Divine Learning.
If you have read Benedict’s Rule, you know he created a “school for God’s service.”
Gregory wrote that Scholastica was a tenacious pray-er, and that she had a great relationship with her brother and with God. (See above!) She no doubt had great influence on her brother’s thinking as he wrote the Rule, as he incorporated more compassion, tenderness and mercy into the later chapters.
As women monastics, it’s important to remember that Scholastica was called to love, commitment and devotion: the same things we are called to.
Class 5: Benedictinism spreads
Back in England, now producing a new kind of Benedictine monasticism (based on the Irish clan concept), St. Boniface decided to take Benedictine monasticism – spreading across Europe – to the Germanic tribes. Boniface asked his female relatives – Lioba and Walburga, among others – to help him.
Boniface’s family was very well-educated. As there was no distinction in the way women and men were educated, women were as valued as men. Boniface believed the best way to convert the Germanic tribes was to organize the land into centers for learning, and asked Lioba – a skilled classicist who was learned in Scripture and Canon Law – to help do that.
Meantime, Boniface established the Double Abbey at Heidenheim from which St. Mary Monastery ultimately would come. Walburga was eventually appointed Abbess over both the women’s and men’s sides. As with other monasteries, Heidenheim became a center for learning, as people settled around it to work for and worship with the monks and nuns.
From Heidenheim, Walburga was sent to Eichstatt to establish St. Walburga Abbey in 1035, and that is the monastery from which Benedicta Riepp was called, hundreds of years later, to educate immigrant German children in the new land of America.
Class 6: Benedicta Riepp Comes to America
Born in 1825, Benedicta Riepp entered St. Walburga Abbey in 1844 and was appointed Novice Director in 1849. Meantime, Boniface Wimmer, OSB, had begun to spread Benedictinism in America, and wanted Benedictine women to come teach the German immigrant children who populated the area in which he lived in Pennsylvania. Although his first request for St. Walburga nuns was denied, subsequent requests finally succeeded. The volunteers for the trip to America included Benedicta, who was appointed superior, and two other nuns.
On the trip over the Atlantic, a horrendous storm blew up. To avoid capsizing, passengers were told to throw everything overboard. Benedicta and her companions tied a rope around their statue of the Blessed Mother before they threw her over. As she was lowered into the water, the storm subsided.
When the young nuns arrived in New York, where they had been told Boniface Wimmer would meet them, they found no one who expected them. Despite their language barrier, the nuns succeeded in hiring a carriage to drive them to Latrobe, Penn., where Wimmer lived. When they arrived, both Wimmer and the bishop – whom Wimmer had forgotten to inform – were surprised.
The nuns stayed in Latrobe until the small farm house could be prepared for them in St. Marys, Penn., where they were to begin a school for immigrant German children. They could have no way of knowing what lay ahead.
Class 6: The American Experience
Benedicta found the U.S. to be very different from Bavaria in every possible way. Coming as she did from the vast monastery in Eichstadt where she had enough to eat and everything else she needed, the poverty she encountered here was shocking.
The small farm house that served as the nuns’ living quarters had to function as school and chapel as well. Surrounded by what Benedicta called “horrible woods,” the sun itself must seldom have been visible, and pathways anywhere hard to find. Indeed, they lived in a primeval forest, never thinned or cut.
Food was scarce, often black bread, spoiled beef and starches. Disease spread easily in the close quarters, and several nuns died within months of their arrival. Despite the wretched poverty, however, the most horrific problem was Wimmer himself.
According to surviving papers and letters, Wimmer intercepted most of Benedicta’s correspondence with her Eichstadt superiors. Her requests for money – to build an enclosure for the nuns, to rebuild a church that had burned down, to feed themselves and their young charges – yielded pocketsful for Wimmer and none for her community. Moreover, he declared himself the superior of her community, filling it with postulants, many of whom Benedicta felt had no vocation.
Finally, Wimmer succeeded in stripping the Benedictine women of their solemn vows. As they could not maintain an enclosure – the children roomed with the women – they could no longer call themselves ‘nuns.’ The American Benedictine Sister, who would take only simple vows, was created.
Class 7: On to Nauvoo and Rock Island
Benedictine communities began to crop up all over the United States, with small groups of Sisters following the settlers from Pennsylvania to Ohio, Indiana, the Dakotas and beyond. Our own community moved first to Chicago, where they established St. Scholastica’s Convent, and then, downriver, to Nauvoo, Illinois.
The move to Nauvoo came in 1874, when Father Reinbolt asked the Chicago convent to send Sisters to establish a school for girls. Sr. Ottilia Hoeveler made the trip by train and steamship with four other Sisters, founding the school that would become St. Mary Academy. By the turn of the century, the Sisters of St. Benedict had built a thriving academy for girls and a grade school for boys. They also had acquired several buildings to house classrooms and dorms. “The nuns are making a thriving city out of a deserted Illinois town,” said the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
When the popularity of boarding schools began to decline across the country in the 1990s, the Sisters began to question how they best could continue to serve God and God’s people. After much prayerful discernment, they closed their school and sold everything to provide sufficient funds to build a new monastery. They chose to build atop a hill one hundred miles upriver, in Rock Island, Illinois, where they could preserve acres of woods for wildlife and dig a lake for the environmentally protective practice of geothermal heating and cooling.
The new St. Mary Monastery was built according to the Rule of Benedict, incorporating such values as community, hospitality and good stewardship. It fosters community in its layout, provides ample room for guests and is built to last. From this new location, the Sisters continue such ministries as prayer, education, parish work and outreach to the poor.