Bernard of Clairvaux to the Abbots*

Bernard distinguished the abbots as vicars of Christ and the apostles. So he addressed them with titles such as: His Holiness, His Greatness, Reverend, Powerful, etc. However such titles were a bête noire to him which he feared and rejected, feeling uncomfortable when addressed to him in such a manner. Since being called “father” (abbot) or “lord” (abbot) is not in any way an honorific, but a burden that entails precarious responsibilities. In his own words: “there is only one father, the Heavenly Father, for that reason and taking into account our common origin and human condition, we are all brothers and companions in servitude”.

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[* Cuadernos Monásticos 70-71 (1984) 381-391]


ernard of Clairvaux O.Cist., (1090- †20 August 1153) wrote the guide “On consideration” for Pope Eugene III, an outline of the Rule for the Knights Templar, and summarised the duties of bishops, but he did not write a manual for abbots, although numerous times he referred to them and their obligations in his writings. Piecing together these references we will acquire an imposing picture on the foundation of abbots according to St. Bernard. His teachings ingeniously complement those of St. Benedict and also evinces a positive perspective of the first generations of cistercians, at a time when the role and office of the abbot underwent considerable reforms (for example in Cluny) or where totally abolished (among the Carthusians), which offers a extraordinary and contemporary interpretation, not only to the Cistercians of the 20th century, but “mutatis mutandis” to all those who discharge authority, over their jurisdiction and prudent exercise.

Bernard distinguished the abbots as vicars of Christ and the apostles. So he addressed them with titles such as: His Holiness, His Greatness, Reverend, Powerful, etc. However such titles were a bête noire to him which he feared and rejected, feeling uncomfortable when addressed to him in such a manner. Since being called “father” (abbot) or “lord” (abbot) is not in any way an honorific, but a burden that entails precarious responsibilities. In his own words: “there is only one father, the Heavenly Father, for that reason and taking into account our common origin and human condition, we are all brothers and companions in servitude”.

That being so the abbot is not so much a father but an equal, a self-sacrificing brother, a faithful co-worker, a partner. He must be, of course, imbued with affection like a father, but he should not aspire to the prerogatives of a patriarch, since his function is not one of domination but of encouragement, for example providing support and strength to his brothers. And this taking into account that the monks are, in general, good people, who do not need the tutelage of a father, while he, the abbot, can not do without their support.

St. Bernard hoped that a future abbot would have spent a sufficient period of time in the Order, acquiring abundant virtues and merit, and if he did not have them, he would have to procure them expeditiously. A candidate guilty of serious transgression should not be excluded as such, but should be allowed to spend some time in healthy penance, allowing him to recompose his conscience before accepting the care of others. Bernard also warned that young people chosen for office tend to evade regular discipline more than discharging what actually corresponds to their new responsibilities. Then, before accepting the abbatial position, the candidate should review his past and be sure of his present strength, and especially his knowledge and experience in the management of the spiritual life of others. Since a shepherd in charge of the welfare of his flock should be healthier and stronger than his sheep, it would be shameful if he were inferior to his monks in virtue. He should be a comfort for everyone, and should not seek solace in others.

This examination of conscience should reveal a sequence of specific gifts that indicate his will and competence to fulfil his role according to God’s will.

Bernard made a general list of prerequisites: personal holiness, humility, altruism, zeal and discretion. On one occasion he spoke of even more detailed qualifications: a candidate must be imbued with a spirit of compunction that will lead him to fight habits that are routinely entrenched. Zeal or fervour will give you a cheerful aspect, since our God is a God of mercy. As an expert in fasting, vigils and mortifications, you must know the proper food for the body. As a man of prayer, what is the necessary complement of diet, he will remain averse to the senses and thus be more pleasing in the eyes of God. Sated with such food and drink, it will become intrinsic to rest in contemplation and the vision of God. Finally, his fervour, prudence and firmness must be based on love, which he must receive from Love itself, God. (In practical terms it is a good choice if approved by the good and rejected by the wicked).

The above implies that the future efficiency of the candidate depends on how he manages to keep his own soul in good order.

That he must be a good guardian of himself is clear from the very nature of his function, since he is responsible for the salvation of all those entrusted to him and must render an account to God for them. If he is deficient in any way, he will not be able to contribute what he owes to those in his charge and he would also greatly displease God. Therefore he must be able to control himself, in order to know how to treat and guide others since everything that is allowed is not always the most profitable.

He must take care that he has been chosen by his brothers, not to take care of himself, but to be their guide, and he must fight hard to emulate those in his charge, making their virtues his own and fulfilling in advance that he ordain his people.

From this it can be deduced that the abbatial office does not confer a privileged “status” to the person chosen by the brothers, since he is not an abbot he will not dress in splendid clothes or use layers of luxury, nor will he surround himself with a court of subjects. There is no reason for you to change your bed of straw for another with ornaments or mattresses of colours and imported coverages, nor will your office require special ornaments – goblets or candlesticks of gold or silver – or different cloths, since the election of an abbot does not inaugurate them as lords of castles or princes of territories, but custodians of monasteries and shepherds of souls.

Accordingly, the abbot is not placed above his monks, but at the head of them. He never ceases to be a monk, since he has also made his vows as such. The truth is that the vocation makes the monk, while the abbot is only “product” of necessity. Since he remains a monk, the abbot continues with his vow of obedience. The greater your position, the greater your need for humility. If he were his own master would be subject to a fool. He will be able to preside, command and expect obedience from his monks only if he is, in turn, obedient. Therefore, it would be abhorrent that he himself fails to do what he commands others or demands obedience from his monks while disobeying his own superiors. Refusing obedience to his superiors, not getting along with his peers or not being willing to serve the least of the needs of his monks would invalidate his prelature accordingly.

Above all the abbot must obey the Rule of St. Benedict; he is not above or outside, but under that Rule. This means that he cannot follow his own will, nor manipulate the Rule at will in order to achieve his own desires.

You should not play with the Rule but follow it and fulfil it in all its details. Fulfilling his mandates, he will also obey the traditions of the Fathers and submit to the authority of the local bishop.

Last but not least, he must take care of his role within his vocation as a monk, respecting the wishes of his brothers gathered in Chapter and observing the laws of his Order.

Regarding the obedience that the monks owe to their abbot, Bernard stressed that the brothers do not promise blind obedience, but obedience as specified in the Rule. The monk makes his profession before the abbot, but not at his will, and his vow of stability does not imply a blind subjection to the abbot. Of course the abbot will be obeyed in everything, but only in the context of the monastic profession, and the work of the abbot is to pave and not hinder such compliance.

Consequently, he should not disapprove of what the monk promised in his vows nor demand more than promised.

The monastic profession is very similar to a contract that involves mutual obligations: the monk makes a vow of obedience to the abbot as specified in the Rule, the abbot promises to faithfully care for his professed and both agree to fulfil this common pact with firm resolve.


Consequently, the office of abbot is of service. As St. Bernard expressed it: domination is forbidden, what is necessary is the ministry, such is the teaching of the apostles. The abbot is simply another Joseph who takes the place of the Bridegroom; although called father he is only an administrator, a distributor (of justice), a guardian, who displays the affection and not the power of a father. He must not dominate his sheep but keep the wolves from the flock and take them to safe pastures. He must stop the wolves, not dominate his sheep despotically. He has been charged with nourishing, not oppressing his flock. For this reason he will try not to overwhelm or subjugate his monks, but, rather, to submit himself to the exhausting task of guiding them to their salvation.

He is not “superior” in the literal sense of the word but the “superior in charge of his well-being”, for example; responsible for cultivating their virtues and eradicating their vices. Then, he must provide rather than preside, he must stimulate rather than oppress his monks, on the road to perfection.

Immediately after his election the abbot receives the vow of obedience from his monks, in other words, he assumes the care of his brothers. As their pastor, he should not seek his own welfare or honours in the world, nor administer his monks according to his own preferences or the selfish inclinations of those, but strive to please God and serve their souls. Consequently, he must nourish them with the mind, the word and by action, that is, with prayers, with healthy exhortations and by good examples. His administration will include the services of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, that is, work, prayer and sacrifice. Denying himself, he will be everything to everyone, offering himself generously to the deficient as well as to the advantaged. He will praise and congratulate, forgive the repentant, raise the lazy, repress the reckless, comfort the weak and help all to persevere on the path that leads to salvation.

Since this responsibility includes the duty to instruct his monks on how to advance and persevere on the path of salvation, he will have to be instructed to be prudent in these matters, since his office will be sterile if he, the abbot, did not have such knowledge. Of course he will not present his own teachings which would make him guilty of pride, but he will speak with words of Divine Eloquence, with virtue and spiritual life.

But even so, this knowledge is insufficient: it would be rather an obstacle if it were not sustained by a virtuous life; a good example, the ability to observe oneself, and the ability to learn from oneself and others. Because an abbot must fulfil what he preaches, he must know and act, he must teach by example. His teaching will be effective, if it is transmitted not only with words but with acts, his own rather than those of others, and if he remains aware that the fact of possessing this knowledge is not the fruit of his own work but a gift from God. Aware of this, he will see himself, not as a teacher, but as a prophet who teaches how to exterminate vices, as an evangelist who nurtures and teaches with word and example and, above all, with prayer.

Being the guardian of the city, the abbot must be a strong man and, if necessary, a good fighter. He will have to strengthen his defences to avoid any damage or malfunction, and will have to expel intruders.

He has the duty to be the watchful custodian of his monks, so that before the temptations of the devil they keep their strength, do not lose courage, and are not defeated. If he is a strong man, he will expertly detect the deceptions of the devil and will quickly repel his attacks.

In the execution of his responsibilities he must also administer discipline, correct manners, foresee deficiencies and deal with all kinds of transgressions. However, he must never act as a mere administrator of discipline but must see himself as a doctor who prepares a remedy, rather than someone who applies a sanction, to his sick herd. He is a doctor, not a gentleman; a father, not a judge; a comforter, not an avenger. Using the rod  against the wolves, he will direct his sheep with his crozier [staff]: stimulating more than forcing, in order to lead the wayward and order the rebel. Reserve the blows for the wolves.

Consequently, he will proceed with the loving care of a mother and, like a father, he will act without severity, indignation or contempt both in his manner of speaking and in his countenance.

Avoiding all kinds of deception, he should be careful and guided only by affection. His mercy shall prevail over his justice. In this way his discipline will be paternal, not tyrannical: he will use kindness, he will abolish severity and punishment, he will offer instead the tenderness of his heart. According to the needs of the individual, he will approach the suffering brother with simplicity and love, with gentleness, salutary reprimands, private reprimands, public exhortations or disapprovals, and with that even more effective: his own prayers and the prayers of his community. Remembering that a friend’s rebuke is better than the kiss of an enemy, his words should have the nuance of a worried friend or a prudent father who does not want to increase the burden of his suffering son.

If in spite of such efforts the guilty remains obstinate, it will be necessary to use far stronger remedies: harsh words and even corporal punishment, because nothing will be so hard that it does not yield to something harder than it. If this had no effect, the abbot would not have no other course but to expel the culprit, because one rotten apple could contaminate your entire community.

To promote the welfare of his brothers, the abbot must also attend to the temporal affairs and goods of the monastery; He has the obligation to ensure its conservation and maintenance, and to preserve, protect and increase its possessions. But in the fulfilment of such tasks the abbot must not fall into pettiness or lose himself in trifles. Under no pretext should he allow himself an attachment to money, since the person who counts his money every day or asks for continuous justification of trifles, will fall prey to the fever of suspicion.

Of course, an abbot does not need money so he must treat it as if he did not have it, and spend it, not according to his fantasies, but in meeting the real needs. Money, which is not good or bad in itself, is reprehensible if it is misused, accumulated or squandered without meaning. Then, far from honouring Christ, he would create addicts surrendered Mammon.

The abbot should, therefore, be concerned about important matters and so, by handling the temporary affairs of the monastery, he will always place the welfare of souls above any other occupation. While striving to repair buildings and improve the monastery’s possessions, he will devote most of his time to moral reforms, and leave the details of temporary administration to his associates.

These associates or assistants should preferably be elderly people, not so much in years as in personality, that is, brothers who love the abbot and are well tested in their religious life. The more they help you, the greater your benefit will be. If they are good people, they will benefit more than anyone, but if they are not, it will be he who loses the most, since good people, stained by evil, are always dangerous.

In his wisdom, Saint Bernard wished the abbot to work on everything with advisors, as ordered by the Rule of Saint Benedict. The abbot had to listen to the opinions of his brothers before making a decision, because once an operation started, it would sometimes be difficult to belatedly undo it. Nor should he hesitate to renounce a decision he had taken on his own, if the brothers meeting in Council had reservations about it.

According to this, Bernard allowed his brothers to direct him and admitted, without reservations, that he had overly trusted his own criteria. He was convinced that all would consent to decisions taken through such consultations and that the authority of the abbot, which according to the Rule should always prevail, would not only be sustained but strengthened in that process.

This shows that the abbatial office has its risks and dangers. According to Bernard, a higher-level occupation is not automatically a risk-free occupation. Just as it is true that there are some ranks and places of honour within the Church, these do not justify any rejoicing in their achievement, but rather they must be a source of fear, given the danger of pride and the possibility of failure, which would lead to the failure of many.

The traps of the trade

Bernard described the “deplorable behaviour” of some abbots in great detail: some assume a solemn aspect, but act with levity; others display great authority, but their stability is precarious. Others have a splendid manner of preaching, but works slothfully, they converse a lot and proffer little. They constantly defend their dignity, yet do not worry about their own sanctity. They think only of power and do not fear God. They are permissive with themselves, but punish others with great severity. In their arbitrariness they order one thing first and then its opposite. They argue expertly in palaces and courts, but they have little regard for the laws of God. They act like princes of castles and forget that they are parents of monks. They appear as the Husband, but they are mere guardians. They are greedy for money, but they stop making profit on what is really appertains to them. They present themselves with gold and bubbles yet steal from the poor what belongs to them. They emptied the purses of their subjects, but have not emptied them of their vices. They rationale the pontifical insignia for themselves, and forget that St. Benedict gave his monks the twelve degrees of humility. They expect obedience from their monks, but are not willing to obey their bishop; They even seek to be exempted from this, through an expensive gift. They are more interested in power than in justice, and with independence move outside of the watchful eye of the Supreme Shepherd, and in this way prove that they are not monks because they refuse to be one who is obligated by obedience.

Some abbots excuse their lack of action by explaining that they are new to the trade and therefore lack experience. Bernard condemned this false humility by reminding such abbots that his is a ministry of generosity. An abbot is a debtor. Discarding sterile fears and false humility, you must give, give immediately and give without reservations.

Needless to say, it is important that an abbot knows how to deal with flatterers, because if he listens to them he will be more disappointed with himself than with those who do so. You must avoid them because they are superficial, insincere and overlapping detractors of the truth; their flattery could deceive you, their praise will not make you a better person nor his reproaches condemn you.

Nevertheless, they do not seek out the person but his possessions; They give words and extract gifts. Although they cleverly intend to make petitions of a general nature, yet always look for something well defined for their own benefit. And although they offer honey and oil with sweetness, they are poisonous and deadly, they should be treated like scorpions: without fearing their heads but taking care of the stingers of their tail. (An abbot should not tolerate even a well-meaning compliment, but ask his monks to judge his actions).

Considering such experiences, Bernard had to consider what attitude a monk should take with an abbot unworthy of such an office: should he stay in the monastery and be consumed by bitterness and malice, or should he seek peace elsewhere, for example, being transferred to another monastery and thus break your vow of stability? Bernard articulates in response the general principle that the monk must obey not “simpliciter”, but as specified in the Rule and by his profession. As a result, when an abbot orders “vice Dei” anything pleasing to God must be taken even from the unworthy superiors as God must be obeyed, because of Him from whom emanates all authority and power a monk in this condition should stay in his monastery and follow the mandate of the Gospel when he refers to the scribes and Pharisees: what they tell you to do but do not imitate their actions, or do what they say but not what they do, but if there is conflict, if an abbot orders something bad or omits something good, then the safest and best thing is not to offend God, obeying such orders disobeys God and subverts the correct order, leaving aside the supreme good to fulfil something unworthy or inferior. Finally the really sinful things or injurious acts cannot be legitimately ordered, therefore not fulfilling them does not violate the law of obedience.

The issue of choosing abbots for a limited time was not originated in the twelfth century; It is a more modern occurrence. But a large number of abbots, among them Cistercians, resigned their office in Bernard’s time for various reasons. Some reasons were apparently valid and important: to retire to the “desert,” to seek a life of greater poverty, to prepare for death. Others wanted to join Clairvaux under their charismatic leader, or driven by the fervour of the crusade had felt the need to move to the Holy Land. Others were also promoted to ecclesiastical office, the episcopate or the cardinalate. Finally some, overwhelmed by the magnitude of their responsibilities, did not feel capable of the responsibility. Bernard saw these incidents as an escape of their duties that would lead to serious consequences. He saw this as a cruel desertion of his brothers, as a rejection of burdens and responsibilities, and a preference for their own interests at the expense of what had been entrusted to them. A vineyard without a keeper will be exposed to wild beasts. A renunciate abbot is like a tree uprooted, with his exposed roots will not produce fruit, and if he has made a hasty decision it will adversely affect him for the rest of his life, since he may have yielded to the devil who tends to suggest something today and something different in the morning. To renounce is, moreover, an act of disobedience, since the thought of submitting to another master is simply false humility. Even the renunciation of his office to prepare better for his death is nothing more than an abandonment of his duty. The abbot who abandons his function also damages his Order, devastates his monastery and sets a harmful precedent for others. Therefore he must remain with his chosen “Wife”, his monastery and his brothers, there he will find what he really needs: peace and serenity of spirit.

In accordance with the above, Bernard insisted that the function of abbot only ceased upon his death or dismissal, in case he was not beneficial or profitable in the performance of his office.

Bernard measured the duty term of an abbot not in years but in the utility that he could lend to his brothers, a surprisingly modern day boy’s belief that he shared with the first Cistercians.

In spite of their misgivings, the abbots renounced their office and Bernard did not stop advising them on how old superiors should return to be disciples. He advised them to lead a simple life among their brothers, to be obedient to young and old as ordered by the Rule, and to treat everyone with humility and kindness, not expecting honours or preferences in consideration of their former state but to remain even more humble than any of the brothers.

From these reflections and thoughts, San Bernardo came to the conclusion that the office of abbot, although sublime, is not simple. The patrimony of an abbot is not glory or wealth, as some may think, but the cross of Christ and a host of obligations.

An abbot must work more than others and, in human terms, be satisfied with much less than others. Furthermore, he will never be able to complete all his projects, but he must leave achievements to his successors. If the magnitude of his duties discourages him, he will find strength in the certainty that he is working in the vineyard of the Lord, continuing the works of the prophets and the apostles and always being assisted by divine grace. You should also always think about the reward and blessings that await you. Since abbots and shepherds are friends of the Husband or to quote Saint Bernard, as he corrected himself: “No, I said too little, they are sponsi amicissimi”.


As previous investigations have shown, the statements of Saint Bernard in regard to the abbots are truly of a broad nature. The Abbot of Clairvaux spoke not only about the qualities, duties and responsibilities of the abbots, but also about their burdens and temptations as well as their resources and rewards. As he always had to work on real situations, his ideas are eminently practical. Bernard did not love pure abstraction, rather in his discourses he showed how to live. And he stressed that the abbatial office is of service and ministry, and a task totally dedicated to the care and healing of souls, through word, example and prayer.

Obviously, Bernard did not pioneer new teachings: Saint Benedict had already exhorted that the abbot of a monastery should not be an independent hierarch but a “representative” of Christ at the service of his brothers. As Christ must be a good shepherd, a doctor who helps to recover health, a faithful administrator of the appurtenances of God.

Avoiding all oppressiveness or imposition, should not seek the reward of “praeesse” but the joys of “prodesse”, for example, help your brothers to advance along the path of salvation of the Gospel.

With his genius Bernard showed how the image of an abbot delineated by Saint Benedict, should be understood in all its aspects and dimensions. In this way he provided a much-needed lesson not only to his contemporaries, but also to the moral strength of his teachings to all the monks of the twentieth century.

Translation from Spanish to English by: Fr. Ugo-Maria Ginex ESB – Eremo Santa Maria, Cantuariensis.


Now the opening sentence is not only practical, but penetratingly strong as a disapproval and condemnation of an opposite attitude, that is, vice consisting of owning something of their own, conforms to, one can only conclude, from the title of the chapter.


Full academic article with footnotes available on Academia.

The two chapters RB 33 and 34: “Monks and Private Ownership” and “Distribution of Goods According to Need,” they are part of the administrative section of the RB, in which, as soon as it is started, the second part is inserted in the so-called “penitential code” (RB 43 & RB 46). Both chapters 33 and 34 refer to the demands of renunciation and detachment from material things that is necessary for all followers of Christ; they become more radical when they are integrated into the monastic experience.

Apparently the two chapters deal with very concrete observations and have characteristics of the spirit and culture of the time. Someone might think, if they had not already done so, that those two chapters which intimidate our modern sensibilities could be excluded from it. Rule without prejudice to its content. This is a misconception and one that I would like to demonstrate.


Chapter 33 begins quite abruptly. It does not like many other chapters, present a word of Scripture or of monastic wisdom as a principle from which practical aspects are detached.

Now the opening sentence is not only practical, but penetratingly strong as a disapproval and condemnation of an opposite attitude, that is, vice consisting of owning something of their own, conforms to, one can only conclude, from the title of the chapter.

This radical detachment, proper to the monastic life, will depend on the performance of the abbot, who is responsible for deciding what the monk may or may not retain for their own personal use. The doctrine is not new, but derives, as is well known, from the principle common to all the monastic tradition that tried to live, in a faithful way, the way of life of the primitive apostolic community of Jerusalem.

It is true that the text of the RB is not presented with the usual moderation that is characteristic of St. Benedict, but reveals an injudicious severity, which does not reappear in any other part of the Rule. Here, at the very genesis of the text an austere force of a disciplinary rule that admits no exception is already quite evident. This peremptory severity appears three more times within the same sentence, and with repetitions that reinforce it: especially as, vice must be rooted out of the monastery, no one dares to give or receive anything without the abbot’s order, nor to have anything at all of his own, nothing at all, no book, no tablets, no stylus, nothing at all.

Commenting on this chapter, observes Adalbert de Vogüé OSB., that Saint Benedict is shown here not only as severe, but altogether impulsive, with an impetuosity that is not found in his predecessors, such as Pachomius, Basil, Cassian, the Master and Augustine.  It is also wholly clear that the basic motivation of this radical renunciation seems to be based exclusively on the renunciation made by the monk at his profession (especially since monks may not have the free disposal even of their own bodies and wills. v. 4) without taking into account the expropriation in view of the fraternal union with the brothers, in imitation of the life of the apostolic community: All things should be the common possession of all, as it is written, so that no one presumes to call anything his own (33.6). This text appears in this chapter, followed by the recommendation to wait for everything necessary from the monastery’s father (33.5).

Through this detachment the primitive community of Jerusalem tried to realise and live the mystery of union and fraternal communion between the brothers and with the Lord Jesus Christ himself, that which we call, koinonia: the multitude of those who had believed had only one heart and one soul, furthermore : they were assiduous in the teaching of the apostles, in fraternal communion (κοινωνία), in the breaking of bread and in their prayers. All those who had embraced the faith met and put everything in common: they sold their properties and goods and divided them among all, according to the needs of each one.

It is thus understood why the whole monastic tradition prior to Benedict, was so demanding with regard to the necessary renunciation and detachment of things for personal use which could be an object of greed for other monks. He is, therefore, to avoid any “particular property.” Thus the vice of appropriating something without having received the express permission of the abbot was called (vitium peculiaritatis).

We will see now in the next chapter (RB 34), without denying anything already established, that the relation of the monk with material things that he needs will be placed on another level, both in the human and spiritual aspect.



Chapter 34: If everyone should likewise receive what is necessary, as de Vogüé points out, he shows total independence from the RM, where we find absolutely nothing homogeneous.

On the other hand, invariably when RB considers the relationship of the monk to his brothers, Augustine’s dependence also becomes transparently apparent here. At the beginning of his Rule, Augustine quotes the two texts of the Acts of the Apostles mentioned above: Acts 4:32 and Acts 4:35.

The second text expressly mentions the method in which the distribution should be made. Not simply according to the same amount, but according to what one needs.

In the Benedictine Rule, the same text of Acts 4:35 is placed at the beginning of the chapter (as opposed to RB 33), as a fundamental principle, from which the various definitive applications proceed and the entire chapter becomes somewhat of a commentary on the said text. On the other hand, St. Benedict proceeds similarly in many other chapters.


According to de Vogüé, it becomes self-evident in several ways: 

  1. in the title: RB “si omnes aequaliter” corresponds to “non aequaliter” of Augustine, Rule 6.5-7.
  2. “Infirmitates”: RB 2,4 corresponds to Augustine, Rule 5,13
  3. “Qui minus indiget”: corresponds to Augustine, Rule 9,63 “quanto minus indigent’’ 
  4. “humilietur-extollatur” of RB 34,4 corresponds to Augustine, Rule 6,20 “si divites illic humiliantur”; 6.24 “nec extollantur” … , etc. 

It should be noted, however, that Augustine refers here to the brothers who were rich in the century and who showed humility by joining the poor brothers: “They should not, however, be proud of the goods they brought for their common life, nor be proud of their riches, for having shared them with the monastery.” 

The phrase of RB 34,4: who needs more, humble himself for his weakness and does not take pride because of mercy does not find correlation in the Rule of Augustine. Adalbert de Vogüé OSB points out that in the Augustinian Rule one does not find an exhortation that exactly corresponds to RB 34,4. Augustine does not preoccupy himself with the distribution of the necessary, but with the relationships between the rich and poor. Augustine’s argument aims to separate both the poor and the rich from feelings of pride and envy, cultivating humility, howbeit not because they were receiving anything other than to live with one another.

The RB, on the other hand, considers the nature of people, stronger or weaker, as the criterion for a greater or lesser need for goods. Thus, the one who receives less (because he is stronger) has the internal dictate not to be sad and to give thanks to God. And to the one who receives the most (because he is weaker) it is his duty not to take pride in himself for having received more, but rather to humble himself for his frailty. It is verified that, in an absolutely original way, Benedict establishes what could be called an equality of proportion:   

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The initial inequality, a consequence of the unequal distribution of goods (which could be the cause of envy and murmuring) is in some way compensated by the corresponding demand that each of them assume an interior attitude that will demand the perfect understanding of impartial reasoning, that is, the true reason of receiving less or more. And, as a subsequence, will also demand a personal and convinced acceptance of said reason, manifested by the respective attitudes (both internal and external). Being the following: “avoid sadness” (envy, etc.) and “give thanks to God” (for the gifts received that have strengthened them) or, in the alternative form, from one who received the most, toward an attitudes of “Not being proud” (for having received more) and to “humble themselves” (recognising their own weaknesses before God and his brothers).

Thus in this double relation, the RB finds the equality that seemed broken before and which is now at one’s disposal again, to an extent that without constraint the brothers are also willing to participate personally in the distribution of the necessary goods with each one. And with that participation, an expression of inner commitment, which is necessary to restore equality and peace among the brothers. For this reason RB 34,5 says: In this way all the members will be at peace, and there is therefore no reason that could cause or arouse gossip. At this point, as in the previous chapter, some of Benedict’s severity is also manifested: first of all, that the evil of murmuring does not appear in any word or attitude, whatever the cause. If anyone was surprised, let him be subdued to a more severe punishment.


We cannot help but admire this formula of verses 3-4, which is so beautiful and at the same time so wise and down-to-earth, where it is proposed so as to achieve the union and communion of the brothers through an equality of proportion between “to have and to be,” as we explained above. It is natural and, being driven by curiosity, that we try to perceive what Benedict’s possible source of this “inspiration” is.

In the first place, we re-read the main and well-known commentators of the RB. Nothing is found in them, apart from the appropriate but already known observations on the chapter. In relation to the monastic sources, a much broader and more complex field, what is particularly interesting is what de Vogüé says about this, as an indisputable authority on the subject. Having clearly stated that RB 34 depends on the Rule of Augustine, Vogüé affirms that no exhortation corresponding exactly to RB 34.4 is found in the Augustinian Rule.

He then clearly states that in this, the Benedictine Rule is relatively original (sic), therefore, not content with exhorting “the one who needs less,” adds a symmetrical exhortation addressed to “the one who needs more.”

This new exhortation is in line with those general attitudes recommended by Augustine, to the rich monks and referring to the graces that are granted to them. But there is no special recommendation for humility in Augustine, addressed to those who receive more than the others. Thus, concluding on this point the Augustinian Rule, Benedict really simplified it, omitting the causes and circumstances that would justify inequality.

It should be noted that Benedict’s formulation being at least “relatively original” as de Vogüé says, for having added something that is not found in Augustine’s Rule, becomes even more original because he is not looking for reasons to justify inequality.

What Benedict really does in his original formulation of verse 4 is to justify equality. This is: by requiring the participation of all the brothers with their inner feelings and convictions, Benedict, in fact, demonstrates that he managed to reestablish the necessary equality by saying: In this way all the members will be at peace. (v. 5). In my estimation, this is a totally authentic formula of Benedict, as an effective modus vivendi to prevent the diverse distribution of goods among the brothers and thus becoming an occasion of envy and murmuring due to apparent injustices.


I find it important to recognise that the “peace” mentioned as the final fruit of this community process cannot be any “pacification” of spirits, by some exhortation or merely having a “pious” record. When we talk about the peace of a Christian community, it is, in my estimation, a Peace with a majuscule “P”, that is, of a Messianic Peace, fruit of the redeeming work of Christ who, after his resurrection, insists on giving, His Peace, to all his disciples. This peace is the fruit of true charity, of that love that Christ came to bring mankind. For this reason, true justice among men can not be established only by what is quantitatively just, but by what is just according to love, which discovers other demands and values.

According to this vision, it can be said that Benedict is not only “simplifying” Augustine, but creating something entirely new, the fruit of an intuition, it seems, totally his and original.

Likewise, the rigorous prohibition of murmuring, here as in other chapters of the RB, it is not solely to avoid the consequences originating from slander, complaints and unjust recriminations of the brothers. For the Fathers, as for ancient monasticism, murmuring within a Christian community will always be a repetition of the events of the Exodus. In them, the People of God, not knowing how to recognise the testimonies of God’s love in their history, cannot accept the trials and purifications of their faith. He is scandalised by situations of suffering and difficulty, he reveals himself against God and against his designs of life and salvation and rejects them with his murmuring. In the Gospels too murmuring is the consequence of the scandal that rejects Christ and departs from him.

Although under “justifiable” appearances, this is something extremely serious that concerns the basis of the religious experience of faith, hope and charity. It is precisely the attitude that rejects and impedes Peace and communion with God and with brothers and sisters. Only in this way can the rigor of Saint Benedict and the other monastic Fathers be understood.


To prove the Augustinian dependence on chapter 34 and, at the same time, its quite unique nature with regard to the execution method of teaching of Acts 4:34 (and 2,45): it was distributed to each according to his need, The question remains whether Benedict would have received from some unknown source, biblical or patristic, some inspiration for his original formulation: to try to establish equality and unity among the brothers through the aforementioned equality of proportion.

We all know how often the BR uses the words of the Apostle Paul. We can list 103 citations, either direct, or by allusion. And these can be certain or possible. In many places where the relations between the monks are considered, especially in the chapters that manifest later redaction or correction, quotes from the Apostle are found as models or ideal norms of the practice of charity or of the application of zeal demanded of monks from each other.

A text that appears especially outstanding in illuminating the formula of unity of RB 34,3-4, is found in 2 Cor. 8:14, where the whole context of the chapter reveals the same intention to arouse, to intensify the zeal, the request of love, so that the generosity of charity can be exercised with the needy brothers of the Church of Jerusalem. It is, as is known, the work so valued by the Apostle Saint Paul, the collection to be carried out in several newly founded churches in Macedonia and Achaea, to help the impoverished brothers of the Church of Jerusalem.

To better understand the text it is appropriate to proceed, to an initial rapid analysis of it.  We are going to do this by following the comment of Fr. Ernest Bernard Allo OP.

At the beginning of chapter 8 the Apostle praises the great and generous charity of the communities of Macedonia and presents them as a model to the brothers of Corinth. It even emphasises the fact that the brothers have shown themselves so solicitous and generous in this good work just when they were afflicted by great hardships and difficulties, possibly as a consequence of persecutions motivated by their fidelity to the Christian faith. It is possible to imagine many types of suffering, without excluding the material lack of goods.  Fr. Allo says that both the Philippians and the Thessalonians, without having known such difficulties before becoming Christians, now felt the weight of true poverty.  Many assumptions can be made, but the fact that is certain is that “those good Christians had suffered a great impoverishment and meanwhile lived not only with great spiritual joy, but had given proof of an exalted generosity in the service of the brothers.” Nothing better than remembering the same text (2 Cor. 8: 1-6):

Brothers, we want you to know, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—  and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you.

Let us first point out that in this text the Apostle deliberately emphasises expressions that express charity, generosity, solicitude, zeal and fervour.  

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Then, in verses 6-12 the Apostle communicates that he sends Titus so that he can bring this good work to a happy end in the community of Corinth, already begun, to a happy conclusion in the community at Corinth. In view of the beautiful example of the other churches, Saint Paul can now also praise the Cor. for their spiritual qualities and for the great generosity of their charity, hoping that, for that very reason, they can now make it overflow in this opus.  The commentators do not fail to point out in these phrases the finesse and tact with which the Apostle, praising and extolling the virtues of His correspondents, gently leads them to not be able to refuse to contribute (and generously) in this holy work of the collect . Thus, Fr. Allo in his commentary to the present text says:

Ces grands enfants de Corinthe ont, plus que tous les autres, besoin de quelques éloges pour se mettre à faire le bien… Il s’adresse à leur légitime amour-propre: si en peut leur reconnaître tant de qualités, qu’ils n’aillent pas les démentir en faisant voir que la générosité u est pas du nombre.

The Apostle offers another reason for this encouragement: if, in fact, as expected, they proceed with generosity, this will be a way of verifying, for the brothers of the ancient Churches, the authenticity and zeal of their charity.

And as if to finish, he still proposes a new stimulus capable, by itself, of breaking down all the barriers. In a single phrase, extremely simple and profound, it places you before the very example of the immense charity of Christ our Saviour; You know, in fact, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who, being rich, became poor for you in order to enrich you with your poverty. Finally, after much stimulation; In verses 13 and 14 the Apostle arrives at some practical determinations about the way of realising the collect.

First, an observation of prudence is not to bring aid to others at the cost of great sorrow, as it says, but that it maintains the level of equality.

The term used here, ίσότης, according to Fr. Allo, belongs to Hellenistic philosophy and is found, for example, in Philo who wrote a treatise: Περι ισότητος (On Equality or Equity). The Apostle does not clarify, but in the next verse (14), in explaining the deeper and ecclesial sense of the help they were giving to the poor of Jerusalem, he also reveals to them the true meaning of the “equality” that is then achieved.

And here we find a literary form by which the Apostle expresses the equality between two elements, through his relations with two others, that is, an equality between two relationships (v. 14). The text says: At this moment, your abundance supplies your shortage, so that the abundance of them may come one day to supply your shortage.

Schematically we have:  

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And the Apostle ends such a beautiful formulation by saying: Thus there will be equality (γένηται ίσότης), exactly as I said also at the beginning, in verse 13: “according to one (norm of) equality.”

And to conclude, he bases this strange equality, fruit of a change of values with the quotation from a well-known text of Exod. 16:18:

As it is written: “those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.”

As Fr. Allo says, this text of Exod. 16:18 recalled by the Apostle is for him a symbolic revelation of that intention of Providence that the “communion of saints” seeks to achieve in a way and according to a measure that is unknown.

But, visibly, this communion recommended by the Apostle, must be sought and established through a certain norm of “equality”, that is, by means of an “equitable” distribution of the possessed goods, as far as possible, as he says, not because of the imposition of precepts, but because of the sensitivity of love that, in perceiving the extreme need of other brothers, opens up in concrete gestures of generosity.

The text of Exod. 16:18 refers to the episode in which the people of God, in the desert, for the first time encounter manna. The Lord then orders that it be collected, in the morning, according to the number of people in each tent. And finally, the author then says that there was equality among all, for he who had gathered much had no more and he who had gathered little had no less.

As you can see, this image describes the gesture of collecting the manna in order to reveal the existence of a principle of equality and union among the Israelites. This will be remembered by Saint Paul as the prefigurement of that perfect equality and communion that should exist among all Christians. It is obviously an application in a figurative sense. The manna, gift of God to his hungry people, must be collected in such a way that it does not cause differences between some who would get a lot and others who would hardly pick up a little. Some commentators acknowledge a miraculous action of God in realising such “equality” after the unequal harvest of manna. Other authors point out that the same text, in verses 16-17, already declared in what way it would be possible to obtain such equality among all.


We try to gather some reasons that may suggest such dependence or, at least, a great approximation both in the form and in the general content.

As we have already seen, the literary form of RB 34,4 which we have called an “equality of proportion” is not found in the Rule of Augustine, the main source of this chapter. Neither, it seems, has been found until today in another monastic text before RB.

1. The literary form used in 2 Cor. 8:14, although not identical to RB, clearly presents a very characteristic element, namely: the relation of proportionality. This is verified when two different elements are compared to each other, not by direct comparison, but in the measure in which the relationship between them is similar to the relationship of two other elements to each other:

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Both in 2 Cor. 8:14 and in RB 34,3-4 we find exactly this literary form, which establishes a comparison between the four elements and, moreover, the affirmation that between the two relations compared. There is an equality.

Now, this figure is quite rare as a literary form and we find it in the two texts of RB 34 and 2 Cor. 8:14 precisely to emphasise the existence of a unit, or equity, to be realised among the various related elements, since merely quantitative equality is inadvisable.

Thus, in 2 Cor. 8:14, in view of the great disparity between the economic situation of the Church of Corinth and that of Jerusalem, it is recommended that the present generosity of the collection of the brothers of Corinth, helping the brothers of Jerusalem in situation of penury, make them, later, with their most perfect spiritual condition (or with thanksgiving and prayers, see 2 Cor. 9:11-15) can supply the deficiency of the Church recently converted to the Gospel. And as the Apostle emphasises, making an inclusion, in v. 13 and at the end of v. 14: there will be equality (by equity)(έζ ίσότητος – γένηται ίσότης).

Now, in RB 34,3-4, rejecting a purely quantitative equality, Benedict presents the necessary form of equality (equity) that must be established, proposing that the brothers, receiving more or less the goods they need, participate with his inner attitude of truth, generosity and recognition, in the diverse distribution of them.

Finally, our holy Legislator can conclude: and thus all the members of the community will be at peace (that is, within a unity of order, justice or equity), in which there is no reason for complaints, recriminations or murmuring .

It should be noted that the existence of this final statement about the unity (equity) or peace made, in both texts, suggests the low probability of a simple coincidence.

2. Another reason can still be invoked to justify the approximation of these two texts. And this reason is especially relevant to show that the principle by which equality between brothers is realised, in the two texts (RB 34 and 2 Cor. 8: 2-15) is exactly the same. This fundamental principle is formulated in RB 34 shortly after the beginning of the chapter: As it is written, it was distributed to each according to his need. We find it in 260 8: 12-15, on the contrary, at the end of the text (v.15): As it is written: He who had gathered much (manna) did not have more; the one who had collected little, did not suffer shortage.

Apparently, the second text does not seem to coincide with the first. However, if we continue reading the same verse in the Exod text. 16:18 we will find the following words that are added to the previous ones: each one had collected what he could eat, which correspond, we can say, in a general sense, to the words of Acts 4:35: as any had need.

The text of Exod. 16:18 is presented by the Apostle as an example of this unity (equity) that must always be established among Christians. Reading the full text of this divine order (v. 16-17) will allow us to better understand the final verse (v.18):

This is what the Lord commands them: each one to collect from him (that is, from manna) what he needs to eat, one gomor per person. Each one will take according to the number of people who are in your store. And the children of Israel did so; and they picked some more, others less.

For this reason we can conclude, in verse 18, that despite having collected some more and others less, finally no one, in fact, had more than another since each one only collected what he needed according to the number of people in his store. There was then an equality. For this reason the text can conclude (v. 18): But when they measured it with an gomór, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered (that is: as much as each of them needed).

It can be added that this same text of Exod. 16:18 (cited by 2 Cor. 8:15) was understood to be by early Christians as a biblical type of a future and true holy community, gathered in the faith and love of Christ , as described in Acts 2: 44-45. A rather interesting example of this approach, already in use among the Pachomian monks, is the presence of Exod. 16:18 in the Book or Testament of Orsisius, one of the successors of Pachomius. He remembers this text (Exod. 16:18) just as a biblical example of the necessary detachment from material goods, so that everyone, receiving according to their own need, can form that equality that will be the foundation of koinonia, of the communion that should be reign among the Pachomian monks, as reigned in the apostolic community of Jerusalem.

In this way, it would not be inconceivable to at least admit the possibility that someone reading Orsysius’s Book (already translated by Jerome in the fifth century) would have noticed an approximation between the text of Exod. 16:18 and of 2 Cor. 8:15 as a typological basis for the ideal of communion (koinonia) within the Apostolic Church of Jerusalem, by way of unity and Pachomian monastic communion. It would therefore be further conceivable that Benedict was that reader, and that he also had knowledge of the beautiful formula of 2 Cor. 8:14, there used to substantiate the fellowship among the churches, also applying it to the desired “equality” for his community of monks.

3. Beyond the aforementioned reasons, one can still refer to another, less demonstrative motive, true, but also quite significant in its more global vision of chapter 34. Since we mention the intimate relationship between chapters RB 33 and RB 34 in that both mutually complete each-other.  It would now be opportune to note how much these chapters also differ from each other, to the point that they seem to come from a spiritual viewpoint of the author and seem almost completely antithetical.  RB 33 reveals, as we saw, is given prominence in general by the commentators, a severity and a rigourism which is quite strange in the RB.  The same literary style of the chapter, dealing with matters that are so important to the monastic doctrine, it seems to have run away from the way of thinking so common within the RB and so proper to Saint Benedict, to draw practical consequences from a text of the Scripture, as a fundamental principle that, as an orientation and criterion of the life of the monk, should be assimilated by all.  RB 33 gives us the impression that it was written not only in light of a recently painful and difficult experience and still under very strong and vivid emotions.  The words reveal an impetuosity of language by someone who accentuates with radical expressions, repeated prohibitions and of absolute character, with adjectives and adverbs, which in no way should exist in the monastery: the vice of private property.

RB 34, on the other hand, presents a totally opposite style. From the beginning, with the text of Acts 4:35 on the expropriation and the common use of the goods within an apostolic community, expressing the principle from which the doctrine and the practical applications of the chapter derive.  The “climate” that remains constant is that which comes from the living sentiment of Christ’s charity, lived by the brothers in the community: There are no prohibitions nor categorical affirmations. The chapter is a continuous exhortation for a true and attentive charity that for that reason does not “accept people” but takes into account the weaknesses of the brothers.

The distribution of the necessary things should never be an occasion of envy, discord and murmuring. Sadness is not even admitted, as a sign of resentment. In order for there really to be peace among the brothers and all possible reasons for disagreement to be withdrawn, Saint Benedict “invents” the admirable procedure in which all the brothers participate personally in this distribution of the goods. Everyone should commit themselves in their hearts to be generous with their brothers, knowing how to accept less so that others can receive more, being humble and grateful.

Now, the whole context of 2 Cor. 8: 1-15; 9: 1-15 is a continuous exhortation to a charity that is ever more solicitous and ardent for the brothers among themselves and with special zeal and generosity towards the poorest.  It is in this context that we find not only the aforementioned similarity of the “relation of proportion” that equality (equity) can make — so similar to that of RB 34,4 — , but also other words of the Apostle transcribed in other chapters of RB.

a. Thus, v. 7: Each one gives as he has disposed in his heart, not reluctantly or by force. for God loves the one who gives with joy, he is in RB 5,16: And the disciples should willingly lend it (obedience), for God loves a cheerful giver.

b. Although not literally, the text of verse 6: know that who sows miserably. meanwhile he will also harvest; and whoever sows with largess, with largeness will also reap is found, it can be said, as a backdrop of RB 49, “On the observance of Lent.” In verses 5-8 the monk’s own attitude for this Lenten season is described: Let us add, therefore, in these days, something to the habitual task of our servitude; prayers … and so offer each one to God, spontaneously. with joy of the Holy Spirit, something beyond the measure established for himself; and with joy of spiritual yearning, wait for Holy Easter.

Note that the expressions “to add,”  “to offer” (2 times), “beyond the established measure” effectively give the idea of a generosity capable of expressing itself for these gestures: giving more than necessary, increasing, to add, proffering, [multiplying], etc.

Likewise, the mention of joy (2 times) is insisted, not only as a feeling, but as an experience that springs from faith – hope – charity and the strength of the Spirit.

c. Note that RB 49.6 also presents another condition for the authenticity of the generosity of the offering; Let it be done “spontaneously.” The same expression is used in 2 Corinthians 8: 4 when describing the generosity of the Macedonians: I testify that, according to their possibilities and above them, with all spontaneity and with lively insistence, they asked us the grace to participate.

d. Equally in 2 Cor. 8:2 one reads: for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.


After our long reflection on RB 34 in light of all the spiritual climate present in 2 Cor. 8:1-15 it is possible that it is not yet evident to all the proof of the possibility of being the Apostle’s text the literary source of the original formulation of RB 34,3-4. Let us add something else, then.

The primary dependence of the Rule of Augustine is undeniable and this fact is a carrier of great significance for the understanding of the BR, as we know. Generally it is certain that the texts where the concern for fraternal charity appears, for the meaning of the life of the monk in the construction of the community, in the work, in the various trades, in the fraternal relationship, etc., are fruit of a knowledge of the works of Pacomio, Basilio and Agustín. Sometimes they also reveal a more mature experience of the author of the RB and, therefore, a later writing.

Significant, at this point, are the works of D. André Borias, in his many published articles. By the literary analysis of the text one can arrive at a certainty that the same chapter or a part of it expresses a writing clearly dependent on another monastic source and, therefore, more independent of RM.

In an article on RB 72.7 “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.,” a recommendation that we found several times in the canes of San Pablo, D. Borias concludes that several previous or contemporary monastic rules to RB use the same recommendations of the Apostle, but modifying and reducing in part their thought Casiano, in his two Conferences of Abbot Joseph (Conf. 16 on friendship and Conf. 17 on fidelity to promises) it also refers, more than once, to the texts of Saint Paul … But, in this case, as D. Borias says verbatim: “this text (of Cassian) reveals to us worries and an absolutely strange spiritual vision & RB. And the same author then concludes his investigation with a statement that seems to us of exceptional importance:

It was definitely in St. Paul itself that St. Benedict certainly sought what he wanted. This rapid investigation clearly shows us the essential importance that St. Benedict confers to charity in the midst of his community and the originality of his own attitude. It also verifies Benedict’s personal knowledge of the moral doctrine of St. Paul and the fidelity with which he follows it. However, far from passively copying the text of the Apostle, he knows how to give his teacher’s teaching a new formulation and a personal expression. This example finally allows to modulate certain general and peremptory assertions. Saint Benedict is not content with collecting and filtering the previous monastic tradition. He knows, according to need, to return with security and discernment to the source of this tradition that continues to be Scripture, and to remember that the monastic life, like all Christian life, must be animated by the double commandment of charity.

In light of these words which we set in front of the results of the investigation of D. Borias, I think we can also affirm that at the end of our reflection we will be able to verify the same truth regarding the possibility of the originality of St. Benedict in the formulation of the characteristic “principle of equality.” 

Instead of simply accepting the Augustinian formulas, already known to him, he felt the need to better define the root of the problem posed by the unequal distribution of goods, advised by Acts 4:35. And knowing all the depth of the text of 2 Cor. 8: 1-15, where the generosity of charity, animated by the example of Christ, is capable of perfect union and equality between the brothers of the two Churches, he then discovered the ideal formula he needed for his own monastic rule .

How many treasures of doctrine and theological conclusions could still be discovered in reflecting on such a simple and ordinary event as is the distribution of the necessary objects to the brothers, in the light of the ecclesial formula of the Apostle of the Gentiles!


Recension: The Community and Abbot in the Rule of Saint Benedict

ADALBERT DE VOGÜÉ, La communauté et l’Abbé dans la Règle de saint Benoît; Desclée de Brouwer, 1961.

It would seem anachronistic to present D. de V.’s book, fifty seven years after its publication, in addition to which, we have had the subject dissected and addressed in several prestigious journals in international circulation. Valid as a justification by the fact of having been found virginally intact in some library, or with its pages only half cut and pasted in some other …

D. de V., in his dense introduction, saves us half of the work, when he realises that his purpose is none other than to meditate on the meaning of the relations that mediate between the Abbot and his monks, and of the society that is formed with them (p.11) “Theology of the abbacy and the particular station of the Abbot,” he states sometime later (p.14). The examination of the nucleus aspect, so to speak, of the Rule of Saint Benedict, converged on the axis of evangelical obedience, could not be done without the critical study of the extensive literature that preceded on the same subject. It is here ‘in the first place, where we begin to perceive by what prudent modesty and natural defect of perspective that the author could neither grasp nor manifest. The criticism of the commentators that precede it – and in particular the most modern ones – is of an exceptional objectivity, precisely because the informing criterion of which it consists by filling the hiatus introduced between the Rule and its sources, and it is this aspect, this objectivity in addition to exceptional we would say that it is really “raw”, which places us in front of a brave and faithful book, without ever falling into polemical tone. D. de V . wrote:

St. Benedict

“The spirit with which we approach the RB is by no means the same as our predecessors did … An intense filial piety is the common denominator of all these modern works, mostly the work of Benedictine monks. But the cult that is thus paid to St. Benedict is not without its drawbacks in terms of the exact interpretation of his thought. Often, in fact, veneration leads to magnify its historical role and the scope of its rule. There has been a real inflation here, extremely detrimental to the interpretation of the RB; it is exalted systematically, at the expense of everything that proceeded to it; an innovative intention is lent to its author; it is placed in opposition to all previous legislators or theorists.” (p.15).

Consistent with this severely critical attitude, D. de V. does not hesitate to analyse —  or, more accurately, to question — the notes of the “founder” and the “Roman”, traditionally attributed — and we would almost write “totemically” – to the Patriarch. But, above all, as a methodical patrologist, his review of traditional commentaries — without excepting the most illustrious, some of which inspire him the denomination of “historical novels” — tends to save the disconnection “introduced” between the RB and his sources, which, in his opinion, obeys the desire to “bring the Patriarch closer to us.”  “The Benedictine monasticism of our times,”  D. de V. states, “seeks to justify itself in this way. It is believed that Saint Benedict can be attributed the tendencies that have in fact prevailed. For our part, our preoccupation to edify (in the noblest sense of the term), which could be that of Abbot Paul Delatte OSB, Fr. Alban Butler, Abbot Ildefons Herwegen OSB, must remain alien to the comment we undertake to express. There is no intent on our part, like those great abbots, to extract from the Rule what seems to best suit the possibilities and needs of a contemporary monastery.  And even less, write a “mirror of abbots!” (P.19).

In the same way, driven by the historical rigour of D. de V., we will see other “certainties” disappear.  Thus, for example, that Saint Benedict gave his monastery a “family appearance”  which was missing from the Egyptian monastery, “faithful heir — in this sense —  of Saint Basil.” “This feature, in our opinion, does not characterise the Benedictine community more than that of Pacomio … The ideal of monasticism — continues D. de V. — has not evolved towards a more complete cenobitism, but is still dominated, as in the past, by an eremitical aspiration. It is the misery of men, and care to ensure the minimum of honesty, which have led to the development of common life.” (p. 26)

One could resist the persuasion of D. de V. — a risk, of course, to ignore his erudition, not share their conclusions on these aspects; but no one could fail to recognise, serenely, without obfuscation, that he had seldom heard a language so loyally addicted to the truth without partisanship.

At this point of the question it could be believed that we are in the presence of another iconoclast, and that, following the same method, D. de V. will turn, after the figures, the concepts. None of that. His exegesis of the holy Rule is very far from the spirit of novelty.  Boasting of erudition, it is at the same time boast of fidelity to the “per ducatum Evangelii;”  and if we discover some new approach, it is also situated in the line of fidelity to the “nova et vetera.” Commenting on the two Gospel texts (Luke 10:16 and John 6:38) in which Saint Benedict refers the monastic obedience to Jesus Christ, which sometimes makes the Abbot the  example of the Lord, D. de V. writes this comment evenly and beautiful (which we transcribe by way of example — or indication if you prefer — of that fidelity):

“The first (Luke 10:16) presents Christ as the one who is obeyed. In this perspective, it is the Abbot. His mission is to transmit the divine word, to speak in the name of Christ who sent it. We find here the abbot who was conceived as a ‘vicarious’ authority, as a ‘doctoral’ charisma, as a hierarchical authority … .” 

“The second text (John 6:38) presents Jesus Christ as one who imitates obedience.  In this perspective, Jesus Christ is no longer the one who orders, but the one who obeys: the command word no longer being asked for, but an example of obedience … .” (p. 266)

Was it the critical apparatus or was D. de V.’s stance in front of his predecessors on the subject, so daring in the first approach, which muffled the resonance that this book deserved? Or perhaps it is one of those books written before their time, and intended for future generations? Perhaps his mission consisted in destroying the prisms through which we had habitually become accustomed to “think,” in prefabricated terms, the holy Rule, paving the way for its rediscovery. Opposing the “inflation” which he denounces and highlighting the dependence upon the RB with respect to the RM and its predecessors, far from undermining the merit of the Patriarch and the value of the holy Rule, it is restored in all its authenticity. “Fructus enim lucis est in omni bonitote, et justitia, et veritate  .”

Sollemnitas Sancti Tomás de Villanueva MMXVIII September.
Eremitarum Santa Maria,
Ordo Eremitae Sancti Brunónis


In the communities in which this wisdom and this practice occur, a bond is knotted between young and old, making possible the holy paradosis [παράδοσις], that is, the living tradition, the transmission of the spiritual experience, which is the reason for the continuity of the monasteries.  Conversely, where young people, follow their seemingly characteristic tendencies, despising, dismissing and agitating the spiritual inheritance, and the elderly, in turn, shutting themselves up in petty harshness and stagnant repetition, the life-giving tradition is broken or not even formed. Therefore, the encounter or conflict of generations can occur – something that was already experienced in ancient monasticism – and depending on what happens, either one or the other will be the cause of life or death for the entire community.  The problem, which seems so characteristic of our time, however had already been captured and lived by the early monks.  Neither the so-called “youth of today” nor the “old” lack a very elucidating background of the monastic centres of the past.  Looking into the past corroborates and relativises that which worries us today.

CuadMon 30 (1974) 447-480 – By Dom Mauro Matthei, OSB and Dom Enrique Contreras, OSB – Paraphrased Translation by: Dom Ugo-Maria Ginex ESB

Meeting in the Temple

When the infant Jesus was presented in the Temple and raised in the arms of old Simeon, who moved stammered his Nunc dimittis, the nature and the role of youth and mature age in God’s plan were revealed in the fullness of light. Hypapante (Ὑπαπάντη), that is to say, “Encounter” which the Eastern’s call the salvific encounter contained in and reproduced by the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, popularly known as Candelaria.  In fact, not only does the he encounter takes place between the Old and the New Covenant, between the expectation and the fulfilment, between the divinity offered and the humanity received, but also – by antonomasia – between the young and the old, between the vigor and wisdom. In the early light of that Candelaria that mutual exchange took place, that sacred trade between the generations that will be and is the secret of the vitality of families and Christian communities throughout the centuries: the silent delivery of the child answered the jubilant hymn and prophecy of the elderly; the poor and youthful offering of the Virgin echoed the praise of the widow. Jesus and Simeon, Mary and Anna the daughter of Phanuel, represent in advance, between admiration and joy, all driven by the Spirit which makes the encounter between men possible, that sacred reciprocity secular wisdom of the monks, condensed in the Rule of St. Benedict (RB), summed up in the sentence: “venerate the elders, love the younger.”[1]

The two passages of the RB in which these recommendation appears are those of Benedict, in contrast to the Rule of the Master (RM), his model, which does not contain them, as noted by Adalbert de Vogüé o.s.b., (1924-2011†).  It gives the impression that this issue is particularly dear to the editor of the RB, and also the passages which emphasise the importance of the opinion of the young before the elderly,[2] are characteristic and peculiar to them. If you innovate with respect toward young people, Benedict follows the oldest tradition in the description of the role of the elders: these are the model that young people should imitate (7:55); to them they must submit in obedience (71:4); they must be treated with deference (63: 10-17); they are the comforters par excellence (27:2-3) and the guardians of the chastity of the young (22:7), and as gatekeepers (66:1) and master of novices (58:6) their mission being the welcoming of guests and postulants.

In respecting and cultivating these values monasticism finds its human balance and at the same time builds a guarantee for its continuity throughout time. This generational harmony depends mainly on two factors: the knowledge of the role that falls within the family or the community at each age and the implementation of the peculiar virtues of both the young and old, which nullify or soften the defects, equally characteristic and destructive of the relationship between both.

In the communities in which this wisdom and this practice occur, a bond is knotted between young and old, making possible the holy paradosis [παράδοσις], that is, the living tradition, the transmission of the spiritual experience, which is the reason for the continuity of the monasteries.  Conversely, where young people, follow their seemingly characteristic tendencies, despising, dismissing and agitating the spiritual inheritance, and the elderly, in turn, shutting themselves up in petty harshness and stagnant repetition, the life-giving tradition is broken or not even formed. Therefore, the encounter or conflict of generations can occur – something that was already experienced in ancient monasticism – and depending on what happens, either one or the other will be the cause of life or death for the entire community.  The problem, which seems so characteristic of our time, however had already been captured and lived by the early monks.  Neither the so-called “youth of today” nor the “old” lack a very elucidating background of the monastic centres of the past.  Looking into the past corroborates and relativises that which worries us today.

How the aged monks viewed the young

In an ingenious parable Isaiah of Gaza draws the parallel between the process of winemaking and youthful age, which reveals the tone of common opinion held by the desert fathers of this period: 

“In the beginning, the wine ferments; It is the image of youth. This is agitated until it reaches the age when it stabilises. It does not become wine if a fermenting substance is not added in a prudent measure; it is also impossible for youth to progress with their own will if they do not receive from their parents the ferment that drives them on their way toward God, until God gives them the grace and they see for themselves.  The wine is kept in the cellar until it is decanted; equally without recollection, mortification and all kinds of work, it is impossible for youth to reach their stability. If the wine is left with residues, it becomes vinegar; likewise youth, if it does not share with others the same holy way of life and the same asceticism, loses the form received from its spiritual Fathers. The wine jars are covered with earth to avoid losing their flavour; equally if youth do not learn humility in everything, their efforts will be in vain.”[3]

In the same line abbot Matoes prompts when he says: “When I was young I used to say to myself: ‘Someday I will do great things’; but now that I’m old I do not see anything good in me.’[4]  Therefore there is often an excessive impulse in the young. On that account the characteristic most defective in the young monk seems to be pride, or, if you prefer, a great confidence in their own strength.  There is a lively effervescence in him with an illusion that often dominates his healthy realism.

Very typical in this sense is an episode that happened to a monk from a monastery near Pachomius. It is not expressly stated that he was young, but all circumstances make him assume.  The fact is that the monk in question came to claim the post of economist, which his superior however, did not think he was competent.  As he could not persuade the young man of the inconvenience of the appointment, being weak he lied, claiming that it was Pachomius who had advised against it.   It was like pouring fuel onto the fire, because the scorned monk grabbed his arm, exclaiming his full of anger: “Well, we go to Pachomius and he will have to tell us why he has said these things against me.”  We can already imagine what feelings the poor superior presented himself with the inflamed junior to Pachomius.  He was on scaffolding, with the brothers building a wall for the monastery, and naturally he was surprised when the young man, in a fury, snapped at him: “Come down, liar and tell me of what my faults consist.”  Pachomius was unable to say a word, so the candidate for economist said:  “Your mouth is closed and there is no apology. Who forces you to lie, above all you, who pretends to be clear-sighted, when in reality your mind is obscured?” Thus rebuked, he responded at last, without understanding anything of what the other had purported: “Forgive me, I have sinned against you, and perhaps you have never committed a fault?”  At this answer the brother finally calmed down.  Pachomius descended from the scaffolding, approached the saddened superior of the brother and intrigued asked him: “What’s up?”. The superior, “in tears and with a broken heart,” confessed that he had abused his name to defend himself against the young man’s pretensions and, embarrassed, he asked a thousand apologies.  Pachomius, who did not lack a sense of humor, said: “Listen to me, give him that position.  If you help a man who is going through a bad time, you allow him to return to the true path, because the love of God consists of suffering for one another.” Returned home the rebellious brother was invested by the superior with the desired position.  A few days later the new economist broke down in tears and, returning to Pachomius, embraced him and said haltingly: “Truly, man of God, you are greater than what is said, because I have seen how you conquered evil through good (Romans 12:21). The Lord knows that if that day you had insulted me instead of being patient and merciful, I would have apostatised from the monastic life and would have distanced myself from God.  You are blessed, man of God, because thanks to you I live.”[5]

In other circumstances living in excess which is pride, is manifested in the initiative to seek a spiritual father to one’s own measure, as that young man who told a famous old man: “Father, I would like to find an old man who conforms to my will and die with him.”  The old man replied thoughtfully: “That is a good idea, Monsignor.  And if you find an old man in accordance to your taste, are you going to live with him?”  The young man, very sure of himself, said: “Yes, of course, as long as it is one according to my will.”  The old man then said: “It will not be for him to follow your will and not you his and thereby be happy?”[6]

At other times the impulsive young man, as soon as he has taken the habit, already believed himself to living in a state of solitude, like one who, enclosing himself in his recent seclusion and wearing his hood, said: “I am an anchorite.” The elders, having heard this new proclamation, threw him out of the compound and forced him to go from cell to cell humiliating himself and saying: “Forgive me, Fathers, because I am not an anchorite, but a debutante.”[7]  Faced with these attempts to be a soldier in monastic life under their own banners, the Fathers were quite categorical: “If you see a young man who by his own will ascends to heaven, grab him by the foot and throw him down, this will do him good.”[8]  This was true even if the young man was miracle worker: “The abbot Anthony heard of a young monk who had performed a miracle.  Some elder reported the incident to Anthony.  He only replied: ‘In my opinion this young man looks like a ship loaded with goods, but I do not know if he will reach the port.’[9]  In fact, later we learn that the young monk sinned and died without being able to give satisfaction.

That excessive youthful self-consciousness, coupled with false modesty, also manifests itself with a difficulty which is often experienced by the novice in opening up to his spiritual elders, when this is precisely the most effective remedy against pride.  “The devil, subtle enemy – says Cassian – will not be able to deceive the young man with his devices, unless he manages to hide his thoughts, either out of arrogance or due to shame.  Because they say that it is a clear and evident sign that a thought comes from the devil when we blush when we reveal it to the elder.”[10]

There are two other features that seem typical of young monks of all ages: a certain disdain for the “old” and a strong desire to change everything.  A young monk named Hiero, a native of Alexandria, “a boy with outstanding garments, cultured ways, endowed with a clear mind and also pure mores,” relates the Lausiac History that even the famous Evagrius Ponticus thought mattered little, going so far as to say that those who followed his teachings “were unbelievers,” because according to him “you should have no other teacher but Christ.”  Palladius adds that arrogance led this scion of monasticism to even misconstrue words of the Scriptures.[11]

As for the revolutionary impulses, there is the funny story in the Apophthegmata about a certain novice who wanted to renounce the world and pestered the elder so much to directed him with successive projects of spare parts for doors, ceilings and protections against hypothetical lions, that in the end the elder desperate, said: “Oh, I want the whole monastery to collapse on me and for the lion to eat me, to be free of this.”[12]  Against these tendencies, at the same time disdainful and disturbing, the Pachomian Rules clearly warn young people: “Those who disregard the precepts of the elders and the rules of the monastery, which have been established according to God’s command, and who pay little heed to the warnings of the elders, will be punished according to the established ways until corrected.”[13]

The novice monk also maintains, along with the idealism of his early years, a certain attachment to the mundane that is manifested, for example, having a taste for eye-catching clothes;[14] a certain pretentious style;[15] the desire to chat and laugh endlessly;[16] in his gluttony;[17] in a lack of control over life or the body,[18] especially in regard to one’s self-restraint.[19]

Other manifestations of youthful imperfections are restlessness and instability, evil against which the most seasoned teachers in the wilderness were forced to fight continuously. Proof of this is the observation by abbot Isaiah: “A novice who goes from monastery to monastery looks like an animal that jumps from one place to another for fear of being reined in.”[20]

Finally, there is also a tendency among young people to be prone to disorder and indiscipline in liturgical matters.  The Rule of Paul and Stephen mentions the case of presumptuous youths who overtake the elders during psalmody, inmatura festinatione, spoiling the divine office by inordinatam audaciam, which should be recited cum timore, wisely and not insipienter.  The same Rule observes that such youthful antics cause magnas commotiones in the oratory.[21]

The defects consigned among the young monks are not lacking among the nuns of the same age either. In the anonymous “Exhortation to a Virgin,” which was published conjointly with the “Life of Saint Syncletica of Alexandria,” it is necessary to insist that “it is not good for a young woman to live with another young woman, because they do nothing in earnest; one will disobey the other and the other will despise the other. On the other hand, it is healthy for a young woman to be under the authority of an older woman. The old woman, in fact, will not give in to the whims of the young woman. Damn the virgin that is not under the direction of a Mother, as it would be like a ship without a pilot.”[22]

Weighing-up this sufficiently realistic picture of the defects of youth, the ancient monastic sources are far from ignoring the virtues that are most often found in young age. Standing out as an exemplar of radiant youthful sanctity, the famous “Life of Dositheus,” young man, ex-military “delicate and pleasant-looking,”  stands out after only five years, for his filial and complete obedience and “for surrendering his own free will.”  Exceeded the virtues of the most venerable elders.[23]  In the West the role of Dositheus is also played by a young man in the military, Martin of Tours: “He was ten years old when, in spite of his relatives, he sought refuge in a church and asked to become a catechumen … At the age of twelve he wanted to live in the desert.”[24]

Dositheus and Martín embody that lack of self-interest and unrestricted commitment to others that is so often found among young people. This self-surrender is manifested in the helpfulness and obedience that led both to total self-forgetfulness.  For example, in the case of the young Theodore of Ennaton, who, by baking bread for all the brothers who came, towards the end relegated the work to himself.[25]  This spirit of diakonia is manifested above all in the service of the sick, an eminently youthful virtue, sometimes carried to the extremes by the young man who drank the water with which he had washed the wounds of his old man.[26]  But it is also put to the test in the event where the service has to be surrender to difficult elders: this happened to a certain young man who lived with an old drunkard. Every day the product of both their work was invested in drink for the old man, while the young man only received a bread at sunset. “He worked like this for three years, without the boy saying anything.” In the end the patience of the young man turns the old man from his bad habit.[27]  Another young man showing equal perseverance in the service of an old man who lived in concubinage: the three ended up saving themselves, the woman to the status of nun.[28]

As for the surrender that is manifested by obedience, there are many emulators of Dositheus, especially in Pachomius’s monastery.[29] Contiguous to obedience is the ability, also praised among young people, to leave everything suddenly, even violently to pursue an ideal, like that young man who, to escape temptations which prevented him from becoming a monk, stripped literally of everything, running naked to the monastery.  Later when it came to the topic regarding “renunciation” the elders pointed to this young man saying: “Ask that brother.”[30]

Curiously enough, there are also observations regarding a special ability to pray, a certain enthusiasm for prayer among young people: “Abbot Isidore said: When I was young and sat in my cell, I did not measure my prayer; night as well as day for me was prayer time.”[31]

It is Saint John Chrysostom who finds a most eloquent expressions to describe the advantages of youth over old age in the race toward sanctification: “He who embraces the monastic state at the end of his life spends all his time washing the sins committed in the previous age and in that work consumes all his energy, and even then the many times are not enough for him, but he comes out of this world with many  old wounds as relics.  On the other hand, the one who from an early age went down to the arena, does not have to spend all his time healing his wounds, on the contrary from the beginning he receives the prizes of victory.  One has to content himself with repairing past defeats; the other, however, raises trophies since he embarks on the race and adds victories to victories and, like an Olympic champion who walks from an early age to old age in proclamation after proclamation, that is how one arrives at eternity, his head crowned without exaggeration.”[32]

Mature age as reflected in ancient monastic literature

The congenital defect of old age, according to our sources, appear to be the harsh, a spiritual stagnation, which usually manifests itself in a certain incomprehension by the concerns and problems of the youngest. The experience of young Palladius in this sense is very illustrative: “One day when I addressed Abbot Isidore when I was still in my youth, I asked him for advice on the monastic life. Believing him to be in full effervescence of his age, there was no need for  discussion, but of combats and fatigue of the flesh, in the way of a horse trainer, he led me outside the city walls to a place called the “Solitudes,”  about five miles distant, and there he left me without further ado.”[33] Within the curtness of desert manners, cases like these, of abrupt farewells are not very strange at all.  The difficulty experienced by many elders to adjust, within certain limits, to the temperaments and problems of the young brothers, made Abbot Poemen exclaim: “Many of our Fathers have become very valiant in asceticism, but in finesse, very few.”[34]

This leads us to the problem of lack of discretion and discernment: a very serious defect in certain elderly people, because it makes them incapable of exercising spiritual direction. Furthermore: sometimes that spiritual sclerosis can be the cause of a young person being lost permanently. “Just as not all young people are equally fervent, wise or of good mores,” Cassian observes in his second Conference, “neither are all the elders of the same degree of perfection or of the same exemplary virtue. For this reason what constitutes his true wealth are not precisely his white hair, but the zeal that they have displayed in his youth and the merit of his virtues and works throughout his youth.”  Next, he illustrates with an example the evils that a young man can cause the lack of tact of an old man calloused by life. Having confessed to the one who believed a venerable old man the suffering caused by the sting of the flesh, the old man broke into insults, telling him that he was miserable, unworthy to bear the name of monk. The extreme despair of the young man would have resulted in a real tragedy, had not abbot Apolo, who consoled him and through prayer succeeded in transferring the temptations of the boy to the old man, thus punished with terrible carnal delusions.[35]  In the same place Cassian does not save expressions to condemn “deceptive greyness” and “deceitful longevity.” Furthermore the abbot Sisoes dictates that the fact of being an elder does not exempt one from vices or temptations: “A brother asked him: ‘Does Satan persecute the elders in the same way?’ The old man replied: ‘He pursues them more now, because their time is approaching and he is therefore alarmed.”[36]

Anger, a trouble of the elderly who suffer with arteriosclerosis, seems not to have been lacking among the venerable men of the desert. Notable is the case, reported among the apophthegms of Abbot Gelasius, of an economist who in a fit of rage kicked a young man who had eaten a fish prepared for others.  This case gave cause to many complications among the elders.[37]

The third endemic evil in old age is unfortunately the sadness of the good of others, that is, envy. The spiritual successes of the youngest, the confidence placed in them by the superior or the positions that they reach at a young age can provoke in the ranks of the seniors certain malignant exasperations, which are manifested by significant shrugs, disgusted murmurs and steely observations.

When the blessed Roman for the sanctity of his life began to attract many vocations to his Abbey at Condat, “the Enemy of the Christian name, under the pretext of giving him advice, threw the dart of his old envy. He persuaded one of the elders, who was burning with misgivings, to say: ‘Long time ago, holy abbot, I am meditating to suggest to your charity certain healthy things that have to do with your salvation and with your way of governing and now that the occasion allows us a particular interview, please allow me to open my healthy thoughts that I have been locked in my heart for a long time. As he was an old man-less than the sanctity of life that simply because of his advanced age, which inspired vain pretensions-the abbot gave him permission to advise him. ‘I feel sorry, dear father, said the senior, to see how you rejoice every day without reason of the enormous number of conversions and that you admit en masse to the cenobitic life to young and old, honest and dishonest, instead of selecting and intelligently separate an elite of proven monks and eliminate from the flock, as degenerate and unworthy beings, all the rest. Then the tormented old man suggested to his abbot a tour of the entire monastery to carry out this discriminatory examination.’ Abbot Roman answers him with a speech that occupies four pages in the edition of Sources chrétiennes “Life of the Fathers of the Jura.”  The old man happily converted.[38]

Additionally, at Pachomius’s monastery there had been a similar vexation of the Elders on the occasion of a spiritual conference entrusted by the holy abbot to young Theodore (the elders left the meeting hall), and following the appointment of Paulus Orosius as abbot of Chenoboskion (the Elders thought he was a beardless novice for such a position).[39]

When the young Dositeo died, his abbot dismissed him saying: “Take your place close to the Holy Trinity and pray for us,” there were also very similar reactions to those at the Carmel of Lisieux a few days before the death of St. Theresa: “Some brethren began to get angry and said: ‘What has she done? What has been your practice to merit hearing those words?’ …  They were outraged by the response sent by the old man to the young man who had only been in the monastery for five years, because they did not know his deeds.”[40]

For all these reasons there are texts denoting a marked skepticism toward late vocations, for example, the so-called “Common Rule” of Visigothic Spain: “Many elderly novices often come to the monastery and we recognise that many of them promise the most for their forced weakness that for religious purposes …  They have these in themselves the habit of not leaving their old habits and as before they know many things, often entertain themselves in vain parishes; and if they are ever corrected by some spiritual monk, they immediately explode in anger and for long periods of time had attacks of saddened morbidity; and they do not totally discard the evil grudge.  Falling frequently and without moderation in such a vice.”[41]  The same reservation in such cases are found in Chrysostom.[42]

Just as an old man who yields to the characteristic defects of his age can be a test for any family, those men who have devoted a lifetime to the service of God and his brothers, real elders, are the most precious gift a community can long for.

Among the virtues that stand out among the elders of the desert there is first of all one that constitutes the fullness of the old age within the plan of God: it is the capacity, or rather, the gift of spiritual fatherhood. “I have a Father of monks in my diocese,” says the bishop of Tentyris, speaking to St. Athanasius of Pachomius, and since he is a man of God, I wish you to establish him over all the monks of my territory as superior and priest.”[43]  This fatherhood of Pachomius was derived from his acute awareness of being a servant of God: “I am the servant of your Father,”  explains the founder of the cenobitic life to young Theodore.[44]  The long years of Pachomius’s life prior to the reception of his first novices are a continuous preparation for this fatherhood. It reveals itself in many ways, first of all because of the capacity to console, to communicate to the afflicted brother the joy of the Holy Spirit:[45] “The man of God (Pachomius) was careful to go through the monasteries, strengthening those who were afflicted by various temptations.  And he taught them to overcome them by remembering God and gave them all kinds of useful prescriptions for the soul.”[46]  The same thing is verified by Theodore: “The abbot Theodore was established in his office and in all the monasteries the brothers were happy about this news, especially those who knew him from the beginning as a true son of Abbot Pachomius and knew that his word had grace and power to heal a troubled soul.”[47]

The dignity of spiritual doctors who conferred the capacity to console to the Fathers of the desert, however, does not, in their opinion, exempt them from service, a virtue that is especially moving in the elderly. For this reason the sacrament of fraternal diaconia, which is the washing of the feet, occupied an important place in monastic spirituality. According to an anonymous apothegm “washing the feet is a job that according to the custom is fulfilled by the elders of the monastery.”[48]  However, the elders were not satisfied with the repeated fulfilment of this rite of the Last Supper, but they translated it into their daily lives in a thousand ways: “The abbot Isaac once said: When I was young I lived with the abbot Cronios. He never ordered me to do a job, to think that he was old and shaky; but he himself got up and served me and everyone.”[49] “An old man said: Our Fathers used to go to the cells of younger brothers who wanted to live as loners …  And if by chance they found someone sick or tempted, they would take him to church; they poured water (blessed) upon him and prayed for the sick; in that way he healed.”[50] In the First Greek Life of Pachomius there is an impressive passage in which we see Pachomius as servant of the novices even in to their material needs.[51] He himself recommends this practice to Theodore the Alexandrine in an admirable didascalia of the spirit of service that culminates with the words: “Take care of the sick as of yourself. Practice continence and carry the cross more than them, because you have the rank of Father.  Be the first to respect the rules imposed on the brothers, so that they also respect them.”[52]

Finally, among the virtuous elders, a quality that makes them particularly kind to men and similar to God, is healthy indulgence, compassion and comprehension. “It is good to be indulgent with the novices at the beginning,” observes Pachomius, “just as with a newly planted tree with which care is taken and watered until the novice takes root by faith.”[53]

This quality of affectionate patience also shines in the old man who proposed to another who was younger: “Let us live together, brother.” But the boy replied: “Father, I am a sinner, I cannot live with you.”  “Yes, we can,” insisted the old man. This was a very chaste man, who did not tolerate being told that a monk had impure thoughts. The young man then said: “Leave me a week and we will talk again.”  After a week, the old man went to where the brother lived. But he, wishing to know his character, said to him: “Father, I sinned with a woman.”  The old man asked without flinching: “Do you want to repent?” And as the other promised, saying: “Well, then I will carry half of your sin.” The young man replied: “Now I know we can live together.” And they did until death.[54]

Physical age and spiritual age

We must take into account that the texts we have studied make a distinction between a physical and a spiritual age, so that not every old man is aged by virtue, nor is every young man immature. What is without doubt, decisive is, the spiritual age.  By this verification we derives the so-called “law of the oldest,” so emphasised in the RB. In other words, as the entrance to the monastery means the beginning of one’s spiritual age, this entrance is the one that decides your order in the community.[55]  One who entered earlier has precedence over one who entered later, because it is assumed that having lived longer in the monastery the will also have more spiritual experience.  Therefore, one younger physically, but one that entered earlier, precedes someone who is older, to the one that entered after him. “To someone who asks to enter the monastery and wants to live there, Cassian says, …  henceforth he should not care about his age or the number of his years, … he should not be disparaged to submit even to the youngest, convinced of his condition as … an apprentice in Christ’s militia.”[56]

A similar situation was also faced by Basil in his Rules when he made the following warnings to a younger brother in charge of an older one: “A brother in charge of instructing an older one should behave as if he were fulfilling an assignment received from his Master, in fear of incurring the condemnation of the one who said: ‘Cursed is he who negligently executes the work of the Lord,’ and keeps himself from falling, by pride, under the law of the devil.”[57]

In embracing monastic life one is born again, one starts from scratch; so what causes a monk to be called and considered as an elder is the time he has spent in the “school of the service of the Lord,”  that is, his spiritual wealth and not his white hair, even if both things usually come conjointly. Speaking of young Silvano, Abbot Pachomius said: “By age, by asceticism and by science, you are his parents, but because of his deep humility and his purity of conscience he is great.”[58] According to Cassian that which constitutes true wealth is not white hair, but the zeal that has been displayed by the youth and the work that he has done.”[59] A young man capable of speaking wisely is an old man, because spiritual wisdom reveals spiritual age: “Abbot Joseph once said that one day they were sitting with Abbot Poemen, he spoke of Agathon calling him Abbot. Then we told him: ‘If he is so young, why do you call him abbot?’[60] And Poemen answered: ‘Because his mouth causes us to call him abbot.’  These examples teach us to reciprocate the terms “young” and “old” and to value the time a man has spent in the monastery as a possible indication of his spiritual age.

Conflict between the generations and the rupture of tradition

The monastic texts, as we see, do not grant any privilege or preference to any age; but they are unanimous about the disastrous result that occurs when young and old are locked in themselves, stop cultivating their values and peculiar virtues and allow their typical faults to prevail instead, scandalous of course to the opposing party.

Sometimes it seems as though the responsibility of the generational conflict is attributed to the elderly, particularly because of their considered predisposition toward jealousy and envy. One of the most representative cases of this type of confrontation occurred in the Pachomian Thebaïd: “In those days Pachomius called Theodore and said: ‘When the brothers leave the refectory this afternoon, entrust your service to someone else, and come to the where we are gathered for the Sunday catechesis.’  Later, when Theodore came to the catechism, Pachomius said to him: ‘Stand in the midst of the brothers and tell them the word of the Lord.’  It was the place where Pachomius himself used to speak to the community.  Obeying this order Theodore, against his desire, stood up and began to teach according to what the Lord inspired him. Everyone was seated, including Abbot Pachomius, who listened as if he were one of the brothers. However, some of the older monks were irritated by their pride and went to their rooms so as not to hear him; because in terms of human age, the speaker was younger.  “Pachomius did not notice during the conference, but once finished, he spoke and referred to the case with severe reflections, saying that those who had left the room in those circumstances “they made themselves strangers” to the mercies of God. “If they do not regret their outburst of pride, it will be difficult for them to achieve Life.”[61]

The elderly are equally culpable in the case of other defects, “An old man had a proven virtuous disciple.  One day when he was in a bad mood, he placed her at the door.”[62] Another elder had a bad time bringing his novice because of his own fondness for wine.[63]  One who lived near Alexandria, in the so-called “eremitic”  cells, literally guided his young woman to martyrdom, because “he was extremely arbitrary and devoid of patience. He insulted her like a dog every day …, he spat in her face and almost every day he placed her at the door.”[64]  In all these dramas in the wilderness, the conflict did not reach its ultimate consequences thanks to the angelic patience of the young.

But young people were not always so angelic. Our sources do not ignore many cases in which the contest was born in the youth sector: “An old man had a boy as a companion. Seeing him doing a bad deed the old man told him once: ‘Do not do that.’ But the young man did not obey him. The old man did not worry about the thing and did not become judge of the fault.  However, the boy locked the door of the pantry and left the old man without food for three days. Not even then did he say, ‘Where are you? What are you doing outside?’ A neighbour noticed the silent conflict and asked: “What about your young brother who takes so long?” To which the old man responded with a gesture that we can imagine somewhat between magnanimity and resignation: “He will return when he feels like it.”[65] Abbot Poemen, on the other hand, had a younger brother who, with his impertinences, “afflicted and paralysed” him, a very graphic expression to indicate the impediment that the existence of restless and brazen young people can have in a community.[66]

Equally among the consecrated virgins there are usually certain clashes, although not always in circumstances as aggressive as the one narrated in the Lausiac History, in which a novice unjustly defamed was thrown into the river and drowned; for which the informer, took a rope, and hanged herself.[67] Fortunately such melodramas were not common among ancient nuns.

The disappointments suffered by the elders on the part of the younger generation gave rise to more than a pessimistic reflection on the future of monasticism, like that of the old man who observed with a sigh: “The prophets wrote books; our Fathers who came after them studied these writings a lot; Then the successors learned them by heart. At last came this generation that currently exists; she has written all the wisdom on papers and parchments and has left it unused in libraries.”[68] Abbot Poemen, for his part, notes with disenchantment: “After the third generation of Skete and Abba Moses, the brothers do not make more progress.”[69] No less fatalistic is the sentence of an anonymous monk: “The present generation does not care about today, but about tomorrow,”[70] which highlights the absence of evangelical spirit in young people. In the group of elders who one day was meeting with Abbot Ischirion, “making predictions about future generations,” the balance naturally proved favorable to veterans of asceticism: “We have fulfilled the commandments of God.” The question arose about how those who came after them.  The sentence had been unanimous: “Well, they will try to reach half of our works.” As regards the grandchildren and monastic great-grandchildren, Ischirion said: “The men of that generation will not make an effort at all and will be tempted, but those who are approved at that (calamitous) time will be considered greater than us and our Fathers.”[71]

The humour contained in so many of the conflicts that we have narrated should not deceive us about the scope of these clashes. For the one who looks from afar, as happened to the editors of the apothegms and happens to us, every war can seem a story of Lilliput, not to mention that compared to the majesty of God all sin has something small and ridiculous . But finally we end up in an even more serious fact: that the disengagement within a monastery between elders and youngsters can produce the interruption of that flow of life that is the spiritual tradition. The treasure acquired by some through a long life of adoration and service, because of this conflict remains sterile and irretrievably lost for others. The elderly begin to feel complex of bachelors and young people feel orphaned. Pachomius is the most alive conscience he had of this tragedy. In a prayer rapture, as it used to happen while working, he glimpsed the future destructions and sufferings of future generations because of that spiritual discontinuity that we already pointed out. The impact of this vision must have been very great, because when the abbot revealed it to the community “everyone was crying, in great fear. ‘I have conscience’ – said Pachomius finally – ‘that after my death the fate of the brothers will be terrible, if they do not find someone who can console them in the Lord as is necessary, and pluck them from their troubles.’[72] According to this the evil of the conflict and the fraternal rupture could only be corrected by the active presence of spiritual fathers.

Also the disciple of Pachomius, Theodore, was distressed by the fact that “many monks (of the new generations) began to move away from the elder brothers in their way of life.”  This desolation made him fasting, watching, praying and visiting silently at night the graves of the brothers.  He also went to the tomb of Pachomius, praying that the abyss between yesterday and tomorrow would not open even more.[73]

Of the same tenor is the consideration of an anonymous elder: “When I remember the brothers of that time who followed the Lord, I see that they had a fervent spirit and that the word of the Lord was in their mouths. But today, when I think about the warmth of the brothers and the strange words (to their state) that they proffer, I feel like a man exiled in a foreign country, where he does not recognise himself.”[74]

This suffering of the most lucid Fathers of the Thebaid reveals the magnitude of the intergenerational problem hidden behind small quarrels – or that seem to us such -, and the extreme difficulty of maintaining the complementarity of young and old, which is the conditio sine qua non of a living tradition.

The holy koinonìa of young and old

If the generational conflict occurs first of all when the typical defects of each age prevail, the pleasant and constant fraternity between old and young is built on the contrary when both manage to develop their own virtues, in other words, when each one is faithful to the age that the Spirit assigns to him in God’s plan. Hence the fundamental importance that the doctrine of vices and virtues[75] has always had for monasticism. The testimonies of a cordial coexistence between the brothers of very different ages and the practice of reconciliation to overcome the inevitable tensions, are numerous in the ancient monastic literature and show an irresistible charm.

Cassian, after having criticised in a long passage those elders “whose grey hairs serve the enemy to deceive the young,” and the damage they can cause in youth, hastens to exalt in what follows the advantages of the coexistence of the two ages, even when certain faults occur and to illustrate it resorts to nothing less than the example of Samuel and the priest Helí: God wanted the young prophet, “whom he had called to live in his intimacy, was formed by a man who he had offended, for the sole reason that he was an old man … Samuel’s vocation God had reserved for himself; his formation, however, He wanted to entrust to the priest Helí.”[76]

But he is the Father of the anchorites, Saint Anthony the abbot, so happy in his way of dealing with young people, the first to recognise the value of this generational exchange when in his mature age he confesses to his disciples: “It is good to exhort each other in faith and encourage us through exchanges. You as children bring to your Father what you know and I, your elder brother, give you what experience has taught me.”[77] We can say that with this declaration dialogue was instituted in the monasteries.

This dialogue is not made only by words and meetings – amply witnessed both in the Life of Saint Anthony and in that of Saint Pachomius – but, first of all, by mutual patience. We have already met that old man in a bad mood who had thrown his disciple out of the cell, but now we are interested in the continuation of the story: «The disciple sat outside and when later the old man opened the door he found it right there. Then the vice prostrated before him and said: “You are my Father, because your humility and your patience have disarmed my bad character.  Come in, for now you are the elder and the Father and I, the young man and the disciple. By your way of acting you have overcome my old age.”»[78]

It could also happen the other way around: that the old man had to deal with a vicious young man. It is the case of that “great old man,” from whom a young man stole “everything he possessed.” Instead of getting upset, the teacher made the magnanimous reflection: “I think that brother needs those things” and he began to work twice as much to feed the thief. When he was about to die, he called him, kissed his hands and said: “Brother, I thank those hands, since because of them I will now enter the kingdom of heaven.” Also in this case the patience worked the total conversion of the other.[79]

A beautiful example of mutual love, beyond human conflicts, is provided by Abbot Poemen “who lived in Skete with his two brothers; the youngest bothered them until the affliction. Therefore he said to his other brother: ‘This young man paralyses us; get up and leave here.’  And they left. When the young man saw that they were late in coming back, he realised that they had gone far away and began to run quickly behind them shouting. Abbot Poemen said: ‘Let us wait for the brother because he is afflicted.’  When the young man had reached them he prostrated himself before them saying: ‘Where are you going? Are you going to leave me alone?’  The old man said: ‘We’re leaving because you bother us too much.’  The young man said: ‘Yes, yes, let’s go all together where you want.’  The old man, recognising the absence of evil in him, said to his brother: ‘Let’s go back because he did not do those things with full conscience, but the devil made a bad move.’ And the three returned and lived together in the same place.”[80]

As the last example of this mutual patience built not on idyllic daydreams, but on sufferings redeemed by virtue, let us return to the case of that arbitrary and patient old man who lived in the eremitical cells, on the outskirts of Alexandria. “A young brother heard about him and made the following pact with God: ‘Lord, for all the evil I did I will live and persevere with that old man in order to serve him and seek his rest.’ God, seeing the patience and humility of the brother, mistreated daily by the elder, after six years had spent with him, showed him in dreams a fearsome personage carrying a large parchment; half of it was covered in writing, the other was erased. And he said: ‘See that the Master has already reduced your debt by half; fight for the rest. There was another spiritual elder who lived in the neighbourhood and who noticed how the old man got out of control and tormented the young man at all times and how the young man prostrated himself before him and the old man denied reconciliation. Every time the spiritual elder met the young brother he asked him: ‘What’s new, my son? How was your day? Have we made any progress? Have we erased something from the scroll?’  The brother, knowing that the old man was a spiritual man, did not hide anything from him, but responded by saying: ‘Yes, Father, I have suffered a little.’  If, from time to time, a day went by without the old man having insulted him, spit on him or thrown out of the cell, the young man would go to the dusk where the neighbour would tell him, moaning: ‘Woe to me, Father, the day has I’ve been bad, I have not won anything, but I spent it in tranquility. ‘After another ten years the young brother died; and the spiritual elder said: ‘I have seen him, he was with the martyrs, praying with great confidence to God for his old man and saying: Lord, just as you took pity on me through him, also take pity on him in consideration of your mercy and me, your server.’  Forty days later God took the old man to the place of peace.”[81]

As we see in these and other examples, if the monastic life is not free of tensions, peace and reconciliation always have the last word. And not only the last … In this world of wars and painful human conflicts the peace and strength of the Gospel can lead to situations like the following: “Young John of Thebes, disciple of Abbot Amoes, spent twelve years serving that Elder while he was sick. I stayed next to him, sitting on the mat.” Amoes was a dry character and did not pay much attention to the young man’s diligence.  Nevertheless, “when it was time to die and being surrounded by the other elders, he took the young man’s hand and said:”  May God save you, may God save you, may God save you.”  And he entrusted him to the elders saying: “He is an angel, not a man.”[82]

Mutual consideration produces a circuit of life whose benefit is felt not only by those directly affected, but also by neighbours. This is particularly noticeable in the service of the sick, since reciprocity was established more vigorously there: the benevolence and blessing of the elder was answered by the young man’s service. This happened in the case of an old man from Skete who fell ill and suddenly felt a craving for fresh bread. A young brother, “who was a good runner,” decided to make the patient happy by fulfilling his wishes. Running he went to look for the longed for bread in the city. “The elders of the neighbourhood were amazed at the sight of the fresh bread and the young man’s thoughtfulness,” but the patient felt delicate scruples and, dramatising the situation a bit, refused to eat the bread with the argument that “it was the blood of his brother.” But the elderly neighbours insisted that for God’s sake he should eat that bread, which he finally did, to the happiness of the people around and the young man’s reward …[83]

The supernatural camaraderie is also established when both the elder and the young man interpret the signs of God. After Pachomius received in Tabenna the vocation to build and organise a great monastery, he returned to his Father Palamon and told him about the event. “He was sad (at the prospect of separation), because he looked at him as his true son; Pachomius, for his part, tried to persuade him. At last the two went to the place (of the revelation). Having built a hut, that is to say a small hermitage, the old saint said to him: ‘I think that order comes from God. Let’s agree, then, not to live apart from each other in the future, to visit each other, you once and I again.’ And this is how they did it while the true athlete of Christ lived, Palamon.”[84]

Related or similar, based on a common spiritual sensitivity, we find with Abbot Moses and his young brother Zechariah. Among them, the following dialogue took place: «The abbot Moses said to Brother Zechariah: “Tell me what I should do.” Upon hearing those words the other threw himself at his feet saying: “Father, are you the one who is questioning me?” The old man replied: “Believe me, my son, Zachariah, I have seen the Holy Spirit descend upon you; that’s what forces me to ask you that question.” Then Zachariah took off his cap and trampled on it saying: “If one is not trampled like that, he can not be a monk.”»[85]

Also in the nuns of Egypt we have a testimony of the “likeable” relationship, in the true sense of the word, between an abbess (Amma) named Talis and her disciples. It is in the city of Antinopoli where that spiritual mother “had eighty years of asceticism.” But Palladio admires even more is the record fact of the sixty nuns who lived under his motherly direction “loved her in such a way that the monastery was never locked by key, as it happened with other monasteries, as they were kept there by their love for Talis.”[86]

The lived experience of this harmony produced in the ancient monastic literature true directories on the mutual relations between elders and young people, as is chapter 63 of the RB, which has inspired us in the present work. The Rule of Paul and Stephen presents the following didascalía on the subject, which is not only a theoretical statement, but also reflects a certain picture of life: “That the elderly treat the youngest with paternal affection and when there is need of order something do not do it with excited animosity and clamorous shouts, but rather order the necessary things for the common usefulness confidently, with the calm simplicity and the authority that confers a virtuous life, that the younger ones obey the most elderly with sincere subjection and do not respond with anger to anything, or deny with disdainful spirit and negligent ear to the one who commands, but unanimously agree to rush into the realisation of both the spiritual work and the work of the earth.”[87]

To produce this vivifying exchange, the initiative must start with the elders; that’s what all our sources agree on. It is not primarily the veneration of the elders by the young that causes the benevolence and charity of the elders, but the other way around: to the extent that the elders give an example of holy life and doctrine, young people they will feel stimulated to respond with their devotion and devotion. If John the Baptist, according to Luke 1:17, as the new Elijah will convert the heart of the parents to their children, in the prophet Malachi it can be read that the hearts of the children will also turn to their fathers (Malachi 4:6). Veneration (of the young) is a reflection of charity (of the parents), not the other way around.  This is how ancient monastic literature is not so full of complaints about the failures of the youth of its time, as about the absence of holiness, example and doctrine among the elders.  The iuniores diligere must precede so that the seniores venerare can be given.  It is in that ideal order that we are going to deal with the respective themes.

“Iuniores diligere”

The root of all appreciation for young people is in fatherhood. To the extent that the seniors are mature men (and not large children, as Cassian says), that is, true fathers, they can also pour pure affection on the younger ones.  Significantly, it is the Vita Pachomii that insists more on the idea of this paternity together with the capacity for friendship. Pachomius was the “father of the monks” by antonomasia, but at the same time the great and unforgettable friend of his disciples.[88]  According to the great Theban abbot, one became the father of others “by age, asceticism and knowledge (of God),”[89] but all this is a gift and prolongation of the fatherhood of God: “I never thought that I was the father of the brothers, because only God is Father,” he said on the same occasion.

From the reading of our sources it seemed to us that this love for young people that springs from the fatherhood of the mature man is expressed mainly in four points: the dedication to the formation of young people, the attitude of service, the appreciation of values and the fact of giving confidence and responsibility.

The first natural channel of paternity is, then, in the tasks of spiritual direction or initiation to the monastic life of young people. “The first request of the elder and the main subject of his teachings-since he is trying to introduce the novice along the path that leads to the highest peaks of perfection-will be that he learns to overcome his will,” observes Cassian book IV (8-9) of the Institutes, where he describes the novitiate.[90] The senior responsible for the novice must not only love him by teaching him, but also by sharing with him his life and his ascetic endeavours. When Pachomius surrenders young Silvano to the  care of the venerable Psenamon, he tells him: “For the love of God, take care of this young man and bare a part in all of the tests with him until he is safe..”[91]

Such love does not exclude the trials and severe reprimands: “The abbot Isaiah said: ‘Nothing more useful to the one who begins the monastic life than insults. The young man who bears the insults is like a tree that is watered every day’.”[92]  The  Rule of St. Augustine, the same, with such a broad and kind spirit, he does not ignore the rigour of this point: “If the reprimands to be directed to the youngest brothers by the demands of the discipline, sometimes you are forced to speak loudly to them, even when you are conscientious of having exceeded the measure, you are not required to ask for forgiveness, unless those who are bound to submit an excess of humility unnerve the authority of (spiritual) direction. But, nevertheless, ask forgiveness from the Master of all, who knows with what benevolent affection you surround even those whom you reject perhaps excessively. It is not among you carnal affections, but of spiritual affection.”[93] The doctor of Hippo could not have spoken more clearly or precisely. So to reprimand is as essential the exercise of fraternal love that Pachomius does not hesitate to let himself be corrected by more young people, thereby giving them a living example. [94] The austere teaching of the spiritual Father thus pervades the soul of the young disciple forever, preparing him so that in his time he will in turn become a spiritual father: “As in the case of purple, the first tincture never passes,” abbot Isaiah declared on the teachings and experiences of the novitiate.[95]

Nothing had to do, then, with sentimentality or the practice of an outpouring of charity in the tasks of spiritual formation of the youngest, as it is noted in a famous sentence by Isidore, priest of the desert: “It is necessary that the young disciples love them as parents who are truly their teachers and fear them as their superiors and do not lose their fear because of love, nor obscure their love out of fear.”[96]

The second channel through which the charity of the elderly flows towards the youngest are fraternal services, which the superiors do not evade, as the evangelical nobleness also obligates. As always, it is Pachomius in whom we most notice this spirit of deferential diakonia towards the brothers, even minors. Having been blessed by his obedience to the commission of God with the arrival of many novices, “it was he who prepared the table at lunchtime, he sowed the vegetables and watered them, he responded when someone knocked on the door and if any of the brothers were sick he personally cared for him and assisted him at night.”  The biographer of Pachomius observes that this somewhat unusual situation occurred because “the novice brothers had not yet reached a willingness to become servants of one another.” From this we can deduce that Pachomius saw no other way of instilling that evangelical disposition than by giving an example himself. But, moreover, the Father of the coenobites gives another reason, revealing his fatherly love towards young people: “The object of your vocation, brothers – he tells them – must be the end of your work: to memorise the psalms, to meditate on your heart the other parts of the Bible, first of all the gospel.  I, on the other hand, by becoming a slave of God and yours, according to the order of God, I find my rest.”[97] Fraternal charity was so embodied within the spirit of service of Pachomius’ being, his usual language being Coptic, he came to study Greek “with ardour,” as his Life says, “in order to be able to animate often” the young Alexandrine Theodore.[98] It is not difficult to find many other examples of this type among the leaders of ancient monasticism.

There is no true charity without appreciation of the brother’s values. Also in this sense the ancient abbots knew how to demonstrate that they possessed it. So the old man to whom Abbot Pastor had come in his youth to consult about three problems – I had forgotten one, but then, remembering him in his house, he had remade the long way to the old man’s cell to reconsider everything – he said full of affection, seeing the zeal of the young shepherd to sort out matters in the rule: “Yes, you are a true shepherd of the flock and your name will be pronounced in all the land of Egypt.”[99]

This mentality to recognise the values of the youngest, thus promoting his desire for holiness, was also demonstrated by the elderly Serapion (while the text in PG 65 has Carion [100]), when he verified that he had indeed done more corporal asceticism than his disciple Zacarias, but had not achieved the measure of his humility and his silence.[101] Macarius of Egypt also had a similar experience with two young men who had looked over his shoulder at first, because they seemed “delicate and formed among riches” and of which only one had a beard, while the other “wanted to have it.” In a long story Macarius narrates his conversion, caused by the luminous example of sanctity that these young people gave him.  Later, both of them died, he used to take his visitors to the cell of the disappeared to declare: “Come and see the sanctuary (martyrion) of these young foreigners.”[102]

Elsewhere we see that Pachomius “cared about the life of the novices in every way and that he was happy when young people progressed in virtue and grew in faith.” The warmth of that fatherly appreciation made them “emulate each other in doing good.”[103] Faced with the excessive hardness of Theodore with his carnal brother Paphnutius, Pachomius gives him a piece of advice typical of his jovial heart: The novice must be respected and appreciated in the same manner as a newly planted tree.[104]

As the fourth aspect of Iuniores diligere we have pointed out the paternal magnanimity that impels us to give confidence to the son, to share responsibilities with him. Pachomius was not unaware that this disposition, at the same time that he expressed his appreciation for the young man, fostered in him a sense of responsibility. When his disciple Theodore was only thirty years old he appointed him superior of none other than Tabennas, his first foundation, retiring himself to Pabau (Faou [105]), a secondary monastery. The biographer of Pachomius expressly observes that he had taken such a step “having recognised (in Theodore) the required spiritual qualities.”  The new abbot reacts with equal magnanimity, since the trust placed in him made him more involved with his father: “Promoted to that rank, he behaved as if not promoted. The word of God had made him pass through the fire and strengthened in view of the meditation of the heavenly things. He put all his zeal in loving God with all his heart, according to his commandment. And progressing himself, edified the brothers, because his word was also full of grace.”[106]

Pachomius had equal generosity with Orsisio, whom he established as his superior in the monastery of Chenoboskion (Schenisit), his second foundation, even though the murmur had immediately risen that he was still a “novice” to receive such dignity. It is not necessary to make explicit that such criticisms came from the ranks of the seniores.  Pachomius, in any case, responds with fine irony: “We must not believe that the kingdom of heaven belongs only to the elders,” and continues seriously: “A brother, no matter how old he may be, if he murmurs against another brother is not old, even more: he has not even laid the foundations of monastic life. God asks nothing of man other than adoration and charity; Now, charity does not harm our neighbour.  I tell you: with the progress that Orsisio has made, he is a golden lamp in the house of the Lord and the word of Scripture will be applied by him: ‘I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.’” (2 Corinthians 11:2) This deep trust, deposited by the eldest in the youngest, made “the abbot Orsysius in the midst of the brothers try to imitate the life of Abbot Pachomius.”[107]

All this wealth of interpersonal relationships naturally presupposes mature personalities, of balanced affectivity. Knowing this, the ancient monks were very sensitive to the danger of a possible emotional imbalance, even more so of unhealthy affections in the relations between seniores and juniores. There was a rule on which much emphasis was placed: the inconvenience of the presence of children of immature age in the monastery. Against the beardless the Desert Fathers had a real precautionary measure. Known is the inability of adolescents to endure long-term reality such as silence, meditation and monastic discipline in general, because this is a discipline for adults.  Their presence, especially when there are several, can spoil the atmosphere and life of a whole monastery.  The damage rises to a point when one of the “elders,” by an influence that is not necessarily abnormal, but that in any case was going to be delirious, stands guard over some of these unsettling youngsters.  The warnings of our texts in this sense are repeated with insistence: “the appearance of women” are not suitable for a serious monastic life.[108] The precise motive of such disgust is almost never indicated, but we could risk some explanations:

  1. The children create a climate of hustle and bustle: “If any of the brothers are caught laughing or playing too much with the children – says a rule of Pachomius – if he has friendships with the younger ones, he will be warned three times to break those ties and remember the monastic discipline and the fear of God.  If he does not amended, he will be corrected as he deserves, with the most severe punishment.”[109]
  1. Children, by demanding attention, care and vigilance, distract the monk from his specific tasks and in this way can become an obstacle to his spiritual progression.[110] That is why the sentence is very absolute: “The Fathers said that it was not God who led children to the desert, but Satan, to ruin those who want to live piously..”[111]
  1. Children can cause disturbances in communities by becoming, without realising it, the cause of many community disasters. Abbot Isaac opined that “four communities of Skete had been deserted by fault of the children.”[112]
  1. The frequent mention of children and adolescents in relation to the theme of the devil suggests perhaps more serious dangers (pederasty). This is stated in an apothegm: “The elders said: ‘More than women, children among monks are the weapons of the devil.”[113]  Another saying states: “Where there is wine and children there is no need for Satan.”[114]  In a more graphic and scathing way, another apothegm is expressed: “The elders said that one day the devil went to knock at the door of a monastery.  A child came out to take care of him.  Seeing him the devil said: ‘Since you are here, I am the other.”[115]

Faced with these texts, at first glance so negative and shocking for our mentality, three clarifications would have to be made: 1. The word paidíon (παιδῐ́ον) with which the Greek original designates young children, also includes adolescents. Their presence could attract to them and their problems the exaggerated affectivity of the elderly, incapacitating them to establish a fruitful connection with the mature disciples who are the iuniores. This is what Abbot Abraham calls a “superfluous struggle.”[116]  2. The prevention of the Desert Fathers against children does not mean that they ignore the evangelical doctrine of spiritual childhood, quite the contrary.[117] 3. So much Pachomius, like the Master, like Benedict and other authors of monastic rules accept the presence of children in the monastery; but they create for them a special regime and discipline that serve to alleviate the inconveniences that the anchorites saw in the cloistered children.[118]

“Seniores venerare”

What immediately comes to mind when listening to the precept of “venerating the elders,” are certain signs of deference, which in all cultures the younger ones pay tribute to older men and women.  In the RB it is chapter 63:10-17 that embodies this attitude under the general motto of Romans 12:10: “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”[119] But also Isaiah of Gaza, so similar to Saint Benedict in matters of monastic courtesy, has numerous precepts about the specific way of honouring the elders.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to impose limits on the scope of the precept to venerate the elderly at the mere level of courtesy. Like the precept of love for the young, that of veneration for the elderly has different channels of expression.

The ancient monks included in their veneration the desire to imitate the virtues seen in the elderly.  Taking someone as a living example is a very deep way of respecting them. When the young Anthony begins his ascetic career, he is inspired above all by the living model of the elders: “An old man lived in the neighbouring village and from his youth he led a solitary life. Anthony saw him and rivalled him in good.”[120] The same source tells us that Anthony, like a bee which searches for nectar in different flowers, was inspired by the different virtues that he saw shine in his models.

So important is this imitation of venerated elders that their virtues become a rule that is not suitable to be exceeded: “The means of easily reaching true discretion,” Cassian teaches, it consists in marching in the footprints of the elders. We do not have the pretentiousness neither to innovate, nor to trust, for whatever, to our own senses; but let us always walk the path that his teachings which his holy life have taught us.”[121] On the contrary, there is nothing that can make the monk fall more easily than contempt of his advice and confidence in his own judgment. This is the wisdom that the Rule of the Master and that of Benedict, following Cassian, summed up in the so-called eighth degree of humilities, for a monk to: “do nothing except what is authorised by the common rule of the monastery, or the example of his seniors.”[122]

There is another degree of humility closely linked to the veneration of the seniores and is the fifth:[123] the opening of the young man to the old man, especially to his spiritual father.  Perhaps there is no recommendation more repeated than this in the primitive monastic literature. Spiritual introversion is always considered a real danger, as well as a lack of love and respect for the greater.[124] In the Life of Pachomius it is related that “none of the brothers stopped confessing to the abbot Theodore in particular his state of soul and each one told him how he was fighting against the enemy.”[125] The solitary and problematic young man, who prefers to devour himself inwardly rather than confide in an older one, and who, due to his internal tension, is difficult to coexist with, generally also lacks a respect for the elderly.

The step that follows the opening of the heart is obedience to the advice of the elders, another form of the seniores venerare. Also this obedience must be understood as wrapped in a reverential feeling. Isaiah of Gaza advises that once the opening to the elders is done “do not listen to other opinions,” but that what the elders say will be done with faith, “and God will give peace.”[126]  In the same line is the anonymous statement: “In the young man who begins to convert, God does not seek anything other than the work of obedience.”[127]

Another very specific aspect of the expression of veneration is the service of the elderly, especially when they are sick, as the RB masterfully expresses in chapter 37:  “Since their lack of strength must always be taken into account, they should certainly not be required to follow the strictness of the rule with regard to food, but should be treated with kindly consideration and allowed to eat before the regular hours.”  Fructuosus of Braga sums up this attitude of reverential service in chapter 23 of his Rule: “Monks who have aged in the monastery with a righteous and godly life should be placed apart in a more spacious cell, with servants chosen by the abbot; and there, when they are weak and decrepit, they have to prepare the food at the time of sext.”[128]  From Pachomius it is said that “in the presence of the elderly and the sick … he was overwhelmed with compassion and cared for their lives in every way.”[129]

The concrete practice of all these forms of veneration is creating in the monasteries an atmosphere of great human gentleness. This is illustrated by the story of that old man from Thebaid who had a very virtuous young disciple. The old man used to instruct his disciple in the evening, teaching him what was useful for his soul. After having made the exhortation, they prayed their prayer together and then sent him to sleep. One day the old man, being tired, fell asleep while talking to his brother.  The young man waited patiently for the old man to wake up to pray together, as was his custom; but the old man slept soundly.  After having waited a long time, the disciple was assaulted by the tempting thought of going to sleep without having received permission; but he controlled himself, resisted the thought and did not retreat. After another hour, he again felt like sleeping, but this time he also remained firm. This happened to him seven times and he was always able to master his thinking. A good part of the night had passed when the old man woke up and found the young disciple sitting next to him. “You’ve stayed here until now without leaving!” He said surprised. “Well, Father, I stayed because you had not given me permission to leave.”  “But why did not you wake me up?” “I did not dare to touch you, for fear of causing you an upset.”  They got up, then, and began to recite the prayers of the Vigil. And when the prayer was over, the old man gave the signal for rest.[130]

When veneration, through a long practice of charity, has reached its fullness, words and even gestures cease, to leave room for an entirely contemplative and mysterious silence, equivalent in the horizontal plane to what happens in the vertical when reaches the prayer of stillness: “Three brothers went to Abbot Anthony.  The first two asked him about his thoughts and the salvation of the soul; but the third was completely silent, without raising any question. After a long time Abbot Anthony told him: “So many times you have come here and you have never asked me any questions!”  The other replied: “One thing is enough for me, Father: SEEING.”»[131]

The transmission of spiritual experience in the communities

The gospel is not only a good news to be announced, a doctrine that must be spread, but also a truth that must be lived (“to do,” as Saint John says). This truth, lived through years, constitutes the spiritual experience and when this experience of God in prayer and in the service of the brothers is lived communally, a wealth accumulates this term can be referred to as the Pauline term depositum. Normally this deposit does not remain inactive, but when it is transmitted to the next generation, it grows and, as it were, it yields interest. The younger generation, having the disposition to receive the spiritual inheritance of the elders, in turn enriches it with their own experience; although in the transmission one can attribute a certain loss in the flow (because there are unique and non-transmissible experiences), that which is lost is recovered from the new contributions of the youngest. This delicate process of life, repeated throughout the ages, is the tradition, the holy paradosis.  It supposes, then, the existence of two poles, one the transmitter and the other a receiver; the latter in turn, to the extent that it currently only receives, will gradually become a transmitter.  If one of the two poles fails and, as it were, short-circuits, the transmission stops. We have already witnessed this in Antiquity through numerous examples with the reasons that cause and the circumstances which can produce such an interruption in this life-giving spiritual current. Now we have to look at what the Fathers teach us regarding the process of keeping the transmission of this heritage alive.

1. The first precaution is the permanent cultivation in monasteries of the constituent values of the monastic life, or, to put it in words of Cassian: “Monasteries are not governed according to the opinion of each of those who renounce the world, but in accordance to the inheritances (successions) and traditions of the elders. (Only) so (the monasteries) remain or are founded to remain.”[132] This basic thought, in our opinion, is formulated by Cassian with regard to the recent founding of a monastery in southern France and precisely because he wants this new foundation to remain, that is, to be stable and serious, he says that “the reason why he believes it necessary exposing what was formerly established by the Fathers and still kept by the servants of God throughout Egypt, is that this new monastery, novice in Christ, be educated from their earliest childhood in the oldest institutions of the first Fathers.”[133]

Very close to the appreciation for these constituent traditions of the elders, we find, at least in Pacomian monasticism, the veneration for the memory of the founder, which, as is known, is considered by the decree Perfectae caritatis as one of the fundamental principles for an appropriate renewal.[134] Of abbot Petronius, the immediate successor of Pachomius, it is said that during his brief term “he governed the brothers with the word of God and in memory of his Father.”[135]

2. To set in motion the process of transmitting the patrimony, because the mere contemplation of these values is not enough, men are needed “instructed in all disciplines of the virtues,”[136] spiritual elders capable of transmitting beneficial precepts.[137] This condition applies especially to the superior of a community: “Nobody is chosen to govern a community, declares Cassian, if before presiding over a community he has not first learnt to obey, what he has to transmit his people and which he has practiced himself the rules of the elderly which he should teach to the youngest (iunioribus tradere).”[138] The same requirement is established with respect to all those who must help the novice towards letting go of his own will:[139] they must have lived in their youth what they later teach in their mature years. With this we have pointed out, then, the poles of transmission: the spiritual elders, the superior and the master of novices.

These two poles keep the process of paradosis alive by two means: the first, always, is that of example; in other words, in their lives they must have embodied the values that are presented to the community as supreme. Where there are elders who have “fatigued for a long time in the exercises of common life (ascesis),” there will also be young people willing to become “men who live true Life.”[140]  With this example, the aforementioned agents of the tradition are not exempt, even in their most advanced age, because when their forces begin to fail, their mere attitude must bear witness. Regarding the most invalid of a community, St. Basil the Great observes the following: “As long as they have strength, showing the activity of their zeal and give an example of all the observance. When their strengths are lacking, they live in such a state of mind that on their faces and in their attitude it appears as though they are convinced to be under the gaze of God and in the presence of the Lord, manifesting in their conduct those properties that the Apostle considers characteristics of charity: ‘Charity is patient and benevolent, it is not envious, it does not act at the wrong time, it does not inflate, it is not scornful, it does not seek its own interests, it is not irritated, it does not think badly, it is not happy about injustice, but rejoices in truth. It supports everything, believes everything, expects everything, suffers everything. Charity will never end’ (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). All this can be realised even with a weak body.”[141]

Second in place only we mentioned as a catalyst the transmission of spiritual doctrine of the elders, superiors and formators of novices. Cassian graphically describes this process through teaching in his Institutions: “The elders who have during their lives witnessed so many falls and so many mistakes in the souls of monks, often talk about these things in their conferences, especially in order so as to instruct the young people. And often, while I listened to them speak and tell of their experiences, I had occasion to recognise in me more than once some feature of what they said in their conversations …  I learned from them, without leaving my silence or giving to anyone news of my affairs, the cause of the vices which tormented me, as well as their effective remedy.”[142]

There is a last point that stands out in this analysis of the transmission poles of tradition, and it is the need to take into account the spiritual age of the receiving agent. Pachomius expressly refers that “is not revealed to the brothers but contributes to faith and to their edification.”[143]

3. As for the conditions of the receiving pole, that is, of the younger generation, our sources emphasise the first and unavoidable disposition of openness: the new converts who come to the monastery to seek God must not impose their way of life, their criteria or their ideas. Ancient monasticism does not admit that community life is built on the impulse of the “youth of today,” nor does it allow that, in view of each new candidate, the entire regime of coexistence and service to God is questioned again. In other words, the receiving pole must practice the 8th grade of humility in the RB, concerning which we have already spoken. The young person must understand that the authentic Gospel does not necessarily identify with the “new” and in contrast with the old on many occasions. “These words are hard.” Is it that old monasticism leaves no initiative to the young man? Do you not value the contribution of youth? Faced with the first question, it can be affirmed that in the perspective of the sources that we consulted, openness and docility were not identified with passivity.[144] The young people we find in ancient monastic literature do not in any way give the impression  of being timid, inhibited or lacking in spontaneity, quite the opposite in fact. Faced with the second question, it would have to be said precisely to make the contribution of youth fruitful and useful, it was considered necessary to purify it of its previous ambiguities and detritus. A spiritual father does not improvise: hence the long preparation in which young people were subjected in view of their future tasks. Those who are the receiving pole today will  have to be tomorrow’s transmitters, as the principle of tradition demands.

4. The process of transmitting the patrimony is not made between isolated individuals, but requires a favorable vital medium, which is the community. Hence the cultivation of community values (doctrine of vices and virtues) in Pachomius, Basil and Benedict, to mention only the main. But neither the Father of the anchorites, abbot Anthony, is unaware of its priceless value to the community. When the disciples of Pachomius went to visit the great solitary one day, whom they greeted as “light of this world,” he answered them: “I am going to convince you by my reply.  At the beginning, when I became a monk, there was no cenobium to educate the souls of others: each of the monks practiced asceticism individually and in isolation.  It was your Father, who with the inspiration of the Lord, created this beautiful institution.”[145] What Anthony calls “education of souls” is precisely the process of tradition that we are talking about.  The better and more deeply the community lives, the more intense the flow of holy paradosis will be between the generations.


The starting point of our investigation has been the desire to investigate the deep reason of the vitality of certain communities and the spiritual anemia of others, whether they never came to flower or, after fortunate years, have experienced painful ruptures. Such a problem can be addressed from several angles; we have preferred to consult the sources. That is why above all we wanted them to speak for themselves, even if sacrificing the systematisation of thought a bit. More than an elaborated thesis we wished to present themes for reflection. Although many conclusions could be drawn from the revised material, we would like to highlight the following: 

1. The non-intellectual nature of conflicts between young and old is striking. If there are clashes, it is not about doctrinal matters, nor about the general orientation of the monastic or particular life of the different tasks within it. There is no discussion about how to conduct a monastery or to fulfil certain offices within it. In other words: there are no objective divergences; With rare unanimity the sources place the origin of conflicts always from the depths of the human soul, attributing them to the lack of some virtue, to the emergence of some vice. In contrast to the modern tendency of objectifying and externalising all human conflicts, neglecting the psychological subjective aspect of the issue, the ancients emphasise precisely the psychoanalysis, with little interest in the objective “topic” that is discussed in the conflict. His descriptions of interpersonal relationships are radiographs, not photographs; being interested in the “intentions” and not so much the “reasons” and on this basis their judgment falls on the interior of man and not on his external realisations.

2. The monastic sources do not give rise to privilege in any of the ages. Both have their greatness and misery. The word “young” has neither a laudatory or praiseworthy sense, nor does the term “old” which is pejorative and, above all, neither of them has an absolute meaning, since there are old young and young old. The ideal is for the community to be composed of both, because they need each other. So a gerontocracy like a dictatorship in the noviciate can lead to a rapture  of tradition, which usually means the death of the community.

3. It is necessary that the two generations know their typical defects and fight against them in the light of the traditional doctrine and that they know how to take advantage, on the other hand, of the virtues that the tradition discovers in them or that they wish to see developed in them. This in turn requires knowledge and acceptance of the old monastic psychology, later expanded and explored in greater depth by St. Thomas.

4. Above all failures and disappointments we must always bear in mind that the sources confirm that the healthy coexistence of different ages is not only possible, but has also produced the most beautiful fruits in the history of the monks. If with healthy realism they do not disguise the existence of conflicts within a community of consecrated persons, on the other hand they do not stop emphasising the mystery of reconciliation as an always renewing factor of human stagnation. Above all tensions should always prevail the optimism that exudes from the testimonies of the origins.

5. The principle Seniores venerare et iuniores diligere, more than a precept of fraternal courtesy is for us the gateway to a great mystery, that of a mutual appreciation and a mutual distribution that make possible the transmission of the spiritual patrimony, and this, in turn, constitutes the life of the communities and their chance of survival: “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another.  No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.  To their fellow monks they show the pure love as brothers;  to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may He bring us all together to everlasting life.” (RB 72, 4-12).

Las Condes – Los Toldos


The Royal Monastery of Santa María de El Paular

Back here in Madrid they tell me that when the French refugees came into Spain, those who distil the famous nectar which bears the name of the Order, they examined El Paular with a view to establishing their industry there, but pronounced the buildings irreclaimable, and went instead to Tarragona on the Mediterranean. The Alpinistas who loved the old place were in despair; and in still deeper despair when the State, having purchased it, lay supine before the task of restoration.  In bitterness, they proposed that a subscription should be raised for its mortuary stone. On this was to be written “These are the last remains of the ancient Cartuja de Santa Maria del Paular which the Spanish Government took out of private hands in order to have the glory of letting it collapse under State neglect.” 

Ultima Cena
The Last Supper

N.B:  The Monasterio de Santa María de El Paular is a former Carthusian monastery located just northwest of Madrid, in the town of Rascafría, located in the Valley of Lozoya below the Sierra de Guadarrama.

Edited from Chapter IV of:

Byne, Mildred Stapley. Forgotten Shrines of Spain, pp. 117-147. Lippincott, 1926.

Best visited from Madrid, by the Guadarrama service of auto-buses leaving No. 5 calle de García Paredes for Rascafría at eight o’clock every morning [N.B.: Now its ALSA Bus No. 194a Buitrago-Lozoya-Rascafría]. Sociedad Castellana de Automóviles is written large above the door.  The ride takes from five to six hours, and the traveller should provide himself with lunch to eat en route.  From Rascafría to the monastery there is a walk of about a mile, a pleasant mile, with a boy from the garage to carry the valise. Another route, but only for good walkers, would be the steam tram from Cuatro Caminos to Colmenar el Viejo, whence they continue up the beautiful granite-walled Lozoya Valley; and Still another, but it means stiff climbing, Starts out from either Segovia or La Granja (guide necessary) over the Reventón Pass and descends the southern slopes of the Guadarrama Straight into El Paular. This, as said, is for practised mountaineers. The snow-clad Peñalara rises some five thousand feet above both Segovia and Paular, and the Pass is only some twelve hundred feet lower than the peak.

Monasterio de Santa Maria de El Paular
Monasterio de Santa María de El Paular, 28741 Rascafría, Madrid, Spagna.

For motoring there are several good roads out from Madrid as indicated in the Michelin Guide. Returning, one should pass through Manzanares el Real to see the fine old ruin of the Mendoza Castle. All the Guadarrama excursions offer glorious Alpine scenery. 

Knowing my delight in old cloisters certain Madrid friends who spend week-ends tramping or skiing over the Guadarrama Mountains had long been proposing that I walk with them from Colmenar up the valley to the monastery of El Paular.  Lilac time, they said, would be the best for showing off this pride of the Sierra. But pedestrianism appealed more down valley than up, so I decided to go by motor and leave the tramp for the return trip. Nor did the others protest when their projected walking feat dwindled into an ingloriously short Stroll along the level highway that led from Rascafría to the gateway of the Royal Carthusian Monastery of Santa Maria del Paular.


But the trip had taken long enough at that, for we started late; and no halt for lunch, balancing this on our knees as we joStled over the road.  When at last we stopped before the massive arch that marks the official entrance to the monastery the clock was striking four. Delaying a moment to splash dusty faces at the fountain in the outer court we passed under the arch and handed ourselves over to Justa.

Justa, be it known, is the quaint little body who presides over the gate, locking it at nightfall with a very large ancient key and opening it again at dawn to let out the shepherds and flocks that dwell within the farther court. For performing this service she receives gratis the cells and the big dark kitchen that once belonged to the fraile portero. By renting out the former to summer visitors and by cooking in the latter some very savoury dishes for them, she makes enough to support herself and daughter as well as to help four sons weighted down by the too abundant fruits of early matrimony. When it came to settling our bill Justa proved that she merited her pretty name. 

As to events en route to the monastery, never have I taken a trip so devoid of them—of cosas de España. Partly, no doubt, because our own party made up a good proportion of the passengers, and partly because we were too near the capital completely to escape the urban type. Nevertheless, there was unceasing talk, what Alphonse Daudet would have called the “note du Midi;” but in the matter of garrulity Spaniards far outstrip the Provençals. Everyone laughed and was gay; the amusement being provided mostly by two miserably underpaid school-mistresses who were taking a half-dozen urchins to a working-men’s camp in the mountains. “There’s the Madrileña for you!” exclaimed an old man admiringly. “Donde no hay dinero hay alegria.”[Where there is no money there is joy.]

As to the pueblos through which we passed, only La Cabrera, at the foot of a long spiny crest, offered entertainment. 

This was in the form of a wedding.  Bride and groom, arm in arm, were going the rounds from house to house, followed by youths with beribboned guitars and by all the girls and children of the village.  The bride’s artificial wreath of orange blossoms seemed to our modish eyes somewhat incongruous with her black cotton shirtwaist and skirt; but certainly no satin-trained, kid-gloved bride could have looked more radiant.  The thin-nosed priest with whom we chatted for a spell was full of admiration for the groom.  “A true caballero!” he pronounced him.  “The best guitarist of them all, and the best dancer, he himself leading off and calling all the changes in the figures.  That was the way they did it in Aragon!” From which it was not difficult to deduce that the priest was Aragonese. 

All along we were catching glimpses of the pretty Lozoya whose delicious water is brought to Madrid for a distance of about forty-five miles. Its source, La Laguna, lies nearly at the snowy top of Peñalara, eight thousand feet above the sea. The Marques de Santillana, who is not really of that distinguished Mendoza family whose title is rehabilitated in his person, but who is nevertheless an aristocrat and very public-spirited, built a large reservoir out at the Mendoza castle of Manzanares, and wanted to connect it with the Lozoya canal; but as the Manzanares water was declared by chemists to be inferior to the Lozoya, the engineer of the latter protested before the government to such effect that the Marqués had to build his own conduit all the way to the city, thus reducing somewhat the profits of his enterprise; but he really has no reason to complain; the Madrileños, though they say his water is fit only for washing, patronise most generously two other beverages which he has on the market — wine from his vast vineyards and milk from his model dairy. Both are sold from one and the same shop on the stately Castellana, and the sign over the door reads “Santillana’s wine and Cow’s milk.” 

The Lozoya, besides its gift of delicious water to the capital and toothsome trout to the up-lying pueblos, has created a verdant valley that gladdens the eye accustomed to travel through arid Castile — a valley that could support a far more numerous population than that gathered in the few red-roofed villages through which we passed. As far back as 1302 the Segovians discovered its charms and came over the lofty natural wall that separates Old from New Castile and founded five pueblos; since then the number appears to have remained stationary.  Being thus destitute of important towns and their correspondingly important possessions, the valley offered but poor pickings to the French hosts whom Napoleon led in person over the Somosierra Pass.  As the Somosierra road joins the Madrid highway at lead ten miles above the monastery, and as Napoleon was too eager to reach his goal that same day to allow any side-stepping, the rich Cartuja of Paular was left for the moment in peace. 

Battle of Somosierra Pass
Battle of Somosierra Pass, by January Suchodolski, 1860

“A secret nook in a pleasant land” is what nature destined the head of this valley to be, and any such nook was sure to fall to the monks sooner or later.  In this case neither cow, as at Gaudalupe, nor bull, as at Sigena, magnetised by a hidden image, scented it out for them. Royal invitation brought the Carthusians direct, but it must be admitted that one of their number had to keep nagging the royal personage in question in order to bring him to the point of giving the invitation due legal form.  The story is a first edition, as it were, of the Escorial legend.  Enrique II, making war against the French, burned a monastery of that austere and silent order which had been founded by San Bruno in the late eleventh century.  The royal conscience appears to have been more tender over this piece of military destruction than the imperial German conscience of our own time, for it bothered the offender all his life. We who look back on that life might consider the misdeed venial by comparison with others of the same authorship, for those were the days when this same bloodthirsty Enrique II de Castilla (el Bastardo) and his brother Pedro I de Castilla (el Cruel) were filling the land with internecine feuds. Be that as it may, it is the only sin for which the king tried to make reparation; dying, he enjoined upon his son to invite French Carthusians to come and settle in his hunting park at El Paular.  As the deathbed promise was promptly forgotten by Juan I de Castilla, the monks, who somehow got wind of it, sent one of their number from Scala Dei in Gascony to the court of Castile to nag the royal defaulter until the installation of Les Chartreux in Spain should become an accomplished fact. And just in time, too, for death had already marked King John. His successor, Henry the Ailing (El Doliente) was inclined to treat the new-comers handsomely, presenting them with his own hunting lodge and far-reaching pasture lands; while John II, he who held brilliant court in the Alcazar of Segovia, made them masters of the whole of the River Lozoya with exclusive rights to its coveted trout, and certain other benefits besides.  It was in his reign that the building of the monastery church began, and he himself, it is said, chose the architect and ordered the Retablo Mayor.  The royal privilege, dated May 15, 1432 opens as follows: 

The King, Don Enrique my great-grandfather, to whom may God give Holy Paradise, because of the memory of a monastery of the said Order of the Chartreuse which he had to bum during his campaigns in France, commanded, for the acquittal of his conscience, that the King Don Juan, my grandfather, to whom may God give Holy Paradise, should build a monastery in his kingdoms of Castile, complete according to the Order of the Chartreuse. 

This same monarch, it will be recalled, left his hunting lodge of Miraflores near Burgos to the same Carthusian order, but this establishment was quite independent of the group at El Paular. 

From Enrique IV de Castilla (el Impotente), the Guadarrama community received hard cash — eight hundred golden florins for the promise of burial within its walls.  What his successors the Catholic Sovereigns did for it I have not discovered, but their Gran Capitán, Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, gave the monks lands in Granada which he had recently received from the Crown; and as their grandson Charles V retired frequently to El Paular, submitting to all the rigours of the rule, we may presume that he too gave substantial recognition of his esteem.  Certain it is that long before, in 1460, the Carthusians in the Sierra had amassed such vast wealth that they talked of establishing a daughter house, and this project materialised as soon as El Gran Capitán presented the Granada land. There, in the Moorish city that was fast vanishing under Christian hands, the daughter house of Paular was begun in 1516. 

Richer and richer waxed the Order; at a time when the un-cloistered of the kingdom were sunk in abject poverty the cloistered ones were literally lining their homes with gold, as we shall presently see. “But their power was not due to their wealth,” Quadrado artlessly reminds us, “but to their superior virtues and the force of their prayers. To one of the Carthusians of El Paular who prayed unremittingly that the sins of Peter the Cruel” (sins which history shows to have been deep and black as hell) “might be graciously overlooked, that monarch appeared in a vision to express his thanks and to assure the intercessor that his term in purgatory had been made extremely short” (just a mere matter of form, as it were) “and that he was at that very minute enjoying the full delights of Paradise.” On another occasion it was Charles V, Still in the flesh, who benefited. While crossing the Mediterranean to make war on the African Moors a fearful tempest beset him. “They must all perish,” his captain announced. “Perish we shall not,” replied the monarch unperturbed. “At this very minute they are praying for me in La Cartuja del Paular, and their prayers are always answered.” 

What meanwhile were the monks in the silver poplar grove — the pobolar or paular— doing architecturally? Unlike the French orders that had entered Spain long before, they did not bring their own architects.  They accepted a Moor of Segovia, who built them a church of that typical “Catholic Kings Gothic” with which the cities of Avila and Segovia familiarise the traveller — the local granite style with coarsely carved portals and many escutcheons.  To the north of the church they laid out their cloister, which, by the precedent of Saint Gall, should have been to the south; nor does anyone know why they chose the less sheltered side. Around cloister and cells are grouped the usual dependencies — chapter-room, library, refectory, kitchens, pantries, wine vaults, infirmary; back of the convent group, an immense huerta, cattle sheds and mills and other isolated structures.  Between church and road they laid out a commodious guests’ cloister or patio with a fountain in the centre and double-storied apartments overlooking it. This outer patio is approached by a shady road that turns in from the highway, on one side a monumental fountain, on the other a chapel where royal visitors used to stop and pray before entering the monastery proper; now the Gothic chapel is a sheep-pen, and one passes it by without that formality, going straight on through the great Baroque arch to consult Justa on the very practical matter of food and lodgings. 

I have said that we arrived at the end of the afternoon, but in Castile a May afternoon ends in a long greenish twilight. The very moment for the cloister! declared those who had been to Paular before; and to the cloister they led me after but scant inspection of anything else.  Across the guests’ enclosure, through a vaulted passage from which, I believe, opened what was the prior’s residence, and across another court into the narthex of the church; here I wanted to stop and examine a crude but touching Mater Dolorosa above the door, but they said that could wait till tomorrow, soon I followed them through another and longer vaulted passage; suddenly we stepped into the delicious fragrance and almost unearthly quiet of the cloister. 

Well, indeed did it merit their affectionate memory. As we first saw it in the pale green Castilian twilight, with no sound but the whirr of homing sparrows that nest in the gargoyles or of storks flapping up in the belfry, the large lilac-laden quadrangle made an irresistible appeal. To add to its sweet melancholy it is called El Cementerio.  In it each monk dug his own nameless grave, wherefore it is quite fitting that it should contain not one but a whole grove of tall cypresses.  Of what was laid away below ground there is now only one outward and visible sign — the grave of a bishop of Segovia who in 1629 came over the mountain to consecrate the long-building church.  At his feet stands a lofty cross, half Gothic, half Plateresque, under a bright red tiled roof that makes a vivid spot against the sombre cypresses. Still another roofed structure is the central lavatory — that six-sided type that one associates with the Cistercian Order.  All the flower beds are outlined with aged box, and behind the box rise the lilacs that add so much to the May enchantment.  When I say that the cloister covers a fifth of an acre it means many lilacs. Indeed, Paular and the Cartuja at Jerez are the largest cloisters I have ever seen, and large perforce Paular must be not to seem crowded with its central well-house, its canopied cross, its episcopal tomb, and its many cypresses and lilacs.  For its perfume, its colour, its agreeably filled-out composition, it is an exquisite spot.

Closer examination proved the appeal of the cloister to be apart from and greater than its architectural deserts. The Moor of Segovia who planned it must have been a Christian, and his ancestors must have been living some five hundred years under Christian rule; he and they had forgotten the ivory boxes and miniatures and woven silks of Arab Spain.  He designed no Oriental capitals with hidden messages; merely good leaf ornament, good rib vaulting, good traceried openings to the gallery bays — all good though perfunctory late Gothic, Europe as distinct from Asia. 

The ensemble of the Cartuja as it revealed itself next day excelled, like the cloister, in the picturesque rather than the architectonic quality. It was not semi-military like Guadalupe with mediaeval towers standing sentinel to a whole village; nor elegant of line like Poblet; but what it does possess and in this it is unique, is a most domestic air; many chimneys, broken roof lines, many windows, even curtains at some.  One does not have to be told that Paular receives summer visitors.  Indeed some of the tenants in the guest-patio where Justa presides remain summer and winter, (and none of them observe the Carthusian vow of silence). Paular underwent much doing over in the Baroque period but on the outside at least this did not disfigure.  In the outer patio it is pleasant and playful.  Even before the painter gave it the finishing touch it must have looked naïve.  The cloister walk is divided into bays by absurdly massive granite columns, and its beamed ceiling supports a very low second story with very tiny windows. Scale, it will be seen, was happily discarded and the painter emphasised the fact by simulating classic pilasters over the fat columns, painting the walls orange and the casement frame bright green within a blue cartouche. In combination with the red of the sloping roof his colour scheme would make any twentieth-century painter of primitives envious.  The pavement of the gallery is in the same spirit, though I am sure it was never meant to be amusing. It is in fad the characteristic pavement of all Cartujas — grey and brownish river pebbles laid in thick cement, and enlivened by a large cinquefoil pattern in sheeps’ knuckles, blanched very white.  Like the child who prints the title to his drawing, the hermano who laid it spelled out, in knuckle-bones, the word Portería in front of Justa’s door, Hospedería (but he dropped his H) in front of the Stairs leading to the upper chambers, Botico at the pharmacy entrance, and a word that might have been Priorato but is now obliterated at the entrance to the vaulted passage I have mentioned.  In this corner his task appears to have finished, for here, with the knuckles left over, he outlined the date ano de mil 696. 

From this friendly outer patio the silence of Carthusian days has forever departed.  It is in fad a mildly noisy place throughout the day.  Through it pass all the herds of the present owner of Paular on their way to pasture, with their collar-bells tinkling and the shepherd’s dog barking at their heels.  Old Justa has to rise at four to let the first of them out, and, as she loves a clean doorway, she always has to ply her broom after they have passed.  This operation, necessary several times a day, is performed with many a sigh and many a Jesus or Madre de Dios or Ave Purísima.  Then there are the children of the administrador who lives in the rooms under the belfry, and the numerous offspring of the pareja (the two Guardias Civiles) who live in the farther court where the stables are, but who prefer to come and play around Justa’s lodgings; and the occasional automobile parties that come from Madrid to lunch in the patio, and leave papers and fruit-skins strewn about, to her great distress.  Taking it all in all, Justa pays for her rent-free cells and kitchen.  Never lived a more conscientious keeper of the gates, and no cleaner cloister ever presented itself to us moderns who have the curious fancy for invading such antiquated spots. 


According to an old history of El Paular written in Latin, and which José Maria Quadrado consulted when preparing his chapter for Recuerdos y Bellezas de España, the first architect employed by the Carthusians to build their Gothic church was a Moor of Segovia named Abderrhaman; or more accurately speaking, a Mudéjar, seeing that he was a Moor living under Christian rule; and in spite of retaining his Arab name, it would be safe to presume that he had embraced Christianity, in which case (we are still trying to be accurate) he would have been not a Mudéjar but a Morisco. Be that as it may, Abderrhaman Stood high in Christian favour.  He had worked on the royal Alcazar of Segovia, and came thence royally recommended to the monks.  That Moorish workmen in plenty were on the spot is borne out by many little devices peculiar to them; in the cornice running around the cloister, for instance, the granite has been tediously carved into the pointed pattern which Moors obtained in their own buildings by laying bricks with a corner out instead of the end, and projecting course beyond course.  Travellers familiar with Toledo or Zaragoza, to mention only two of the Mudéjar cities of Spain, will recognise the device.  Also, in church, in sacristy, everywhere in fact, there is a profusion of painted and glazed tiles; and until the middle of the eighteenth century there was a typical Mudéjar wooden ceiling over the single nave of the church.  This had been painted, probably, by the same Moors who decorated the celebrated series that perished when the Alcazar was gutted by fire in 1862. 

San Bruno di Colonia

This lamentable fire was caused, they say, by one of the guardians throwing his unextinguished cigarette into a pile of papers; in the case of the Paular church, it was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 which gave the Baroque-obsessed monks the longed-for pretext for ripping out their wooden artesonado, raising the height of the church walls, and ceiling them in with a thin brick and plaster vault — from the outside a wretched botch. No doubt other wooden ceilings originally covered the various dependencies but they met the same fate. If any other feature besides the wooden covering proclaimed that Moors worked on the church it is now lost to sight.  The honest granite walls were smeared inside with plaster and painted with counterfeit Corinthian pilasters; the thin plaster vault serves as a field for gorgeous sun-bursts, garlands, cupids, and what not.  The architectural impression is that of a profane setting — something to be hastily removed after the act is over and the curtain drops.  The air of sanctity is forever gone. 

In the matter of flaring gold altars, however, the church escaped lightly as compared with the sacristies and added chapels.  Only two were set up, these separating the coro of the lay brothers from that of the professed, or sacerdotes, and the two connected by an airy gilt arch on which rests, tip-toe, an equally airy Virgin brilliantly painted and gilt — Una Purísima, as they call these fairy-like creatures, carved or painted.  Is it not of a Carthusian painter of this very convent that they tell the irreverent joke about the naming of his picture? He turned out religious paintings in a flood; the abbot, dropping into his cell, saw a haloed head blocked out on the canvas and asked who was the subject. “Que sé yo?” shrugged the frocked artist (who, we suppose, had special permission to speak). “If it comes out with a beard, San Antón; if not, La Purísima Concepción.”  Looking over the great number of canvases falling to shreds on the humid church wall, and the dull ugliness of most of the saints depicted, one regrets that so many of them grew a beard in the course of the work. The Virgins are often insipid, but the male heads are more often repulsive. 

The stalls, both of the lay brothers’ coro and the priests’, long ago disappeared; they were taken to Madrid about 1887, shortly after the state purchased the monastery, and placed in San Francisco el Grande, and it goes without saying that the immense silver brasero which used to stand before the prior’s seat has followed them.  This, we are told, was a gift to the monastery from one William Godofin (Godolphin), English ambassador to the court of Castile, who lost his title to nobility in England for having turned Catholic, but who received a far grander title from the Spanish monarch, Philip IV; the crime of one land being the virtue of the other.  The two works of art the church still possesses it owes to the defiant qualities of stone and iron—the alabaster retablo mayor and the iron reja which separates the space reserved for the villagers from that of the lay brothers.  The reja, or grille, recalls that made by the same great iron-smith, Fray Francisco de Salamanca, for the church at Guadalupe. 

Of the retablo Baedecker tells us, quoting no doubt some authority who had consulted the convent archives, that “The earliest and largest work of sculpture imported from Italy into Castile (about 1490) is the marble retablo of the Cartuja of El Paular.  This work, executed in Genoa to the order of John II, includes fifty-six groups and thirty-three statuettes.”  Other writers repeat the story, adding that it cost the king eighty-thousand ducats to bring his kingly gift from Genoa to the foot of the Peñalara. 

The eye however does not instantly second the documents.  One is disturbed by suggestions not of some other atelier in Italy than Genoa, but of one in Spain itself. The Paular retable in fad bears very close kinship to the great gilded retable in the Cartuja de Miraflores, near Burgos.  This Carthusian monastery was also a pet of this same John II.  Now the Burgos piece was begun in 1486, presumably in Burgos, by the native son Gil de Siloe, who learnt his art in the vigorous Gothic school created right there in Burgos by the numerous Flemings and Germans who had flocked into Castile as a result of close political and trade relations between Spain and the Lowlands.  This school flourished all through the fifteenth century and even later; it kept a tinge of Gothic long after Genoa and all Italy had passed the climax of the Renaissance.  Now the so-called Ligurian product in Paular has even more than a tinge of the old Gothic style, and it is high time some competent critic thrashed out the matter.  We are bound to suppose that the archives were rightly kept; yet there is something mysterious about this port of Genoa.  At this very moment I am impatiently awaiting a suit ordered long ago, which the Madrid tailor assures me will be of the very best English cloth; but every time I clamour for a fitting he explains that the cloth has not yet left Genoa! 

Numerous chapels, a sacristy and ante-sacristy were added to Abderrhaman’s simple Gothic church; its single apse was swamped under Baroque hexagons and octagons. The sacristies are full of gilded baubles; brocade altar cloths and thick Spanish carpets lie rotting in the damp and dust, a sorry ending for what had aimed to be so fine.  The Baroque purse was bursting; the monks had to erect a tabernaculo behind the High Altar.  This the good Quadrado indignantly labels as a veritable scandal in art.  It consists of two polygonal chambers, barbaric, overloaded, coarse. It seems as if it was reserved for the Carthusians, who had taken the vow of silence, to scream loudest in their art.  How to describe the tortuous forms of heavily gilded carvings and the mosaics of coloured marbles which these two small chambers of the tabernacle contain!  Against each of the eight sides of the larger is set a bumpy gold altar, and in the small space left in the centre rises a lofty baldachin on twisted columns running up into the cupola.  Under the baldachin stands a Grecian tempietto, and this once held an enormous silver custodia which Pons says was as bad as the worst the place contained; further, to provide the precious metal for it a magnificent Gothic custodia was melted down.  What bits of wall were left visible in the octagon and cupola were painted by Palomino, another Baroque painter who like Carducho stood in high favour with monks and monarchs.  Less choked up is the adjacent polygon, but its ornament is even coarser — highly coloured colossal saints and angels of Barclay Street style, poised above shiny altars, all restless, all theatrical, all dripping gold, all giving a portentous idea of the kind and quantity of rubbish that these servants of the lowly Nazarene had accumulated on the eve of their disbandment.  Nor did the seventeenth-century coenobites who so lavishly patronised the gaudy Baroque school have the excuse of the newly rich with whom nowadays we associate unbridled ostentation.  The friars (we forbear referring to their vow of poverty) had been handling wealth, and great wealth, for centuries. 


After the tabernacle, the homely honest kitchens of the monastery are a grateful sight.  Presses, grinding-stones, chopping-blocks, oil-jars, are still in place; the long-handled scoops still protrudes from the baker’s oven.  Maybe even a petrified loaf like the Pompeian is waiting to be drawn out.  This big outer kitchen where all the more menial culinary work was done is separated from the refectory by another with a capacious fire-place to one side and a lofty ventilator in the centre, like that of the canons’ kitchen at Pamplona.  Ventilator and vault offer a neat piece of brickwork to a knowing eye, but the average organ is more interested in focusing the tiny patch of blue visible through the high-up aperture. Stripped bare of every accessory, the pantries opening from it fallen into heaps of debris, this spot brings a pang to a domestic soul.  How much less sacrilegious it would have been to dismantle the vulgar tabernaculo and leave the honest kitchens intact — rows of bright copper pots and pans against the whitewashed walls, glazed earthen jars of savoury herbs on the shelves, blue and white Segovian plates in the tile-lined cupboards, and a thousand and one obsolete culinary devices in their appointed places.  But obviously this could not be!  The looters, it is to be presumed, were the villagers, and these had too much sound sense to take a gilded simpering saint instead of a decent self-respecting saucepan.  To see the old kitchen restored would be a joy to us from whose cramped homes this unit has almost disappeared; but no archaeology saturated restorer would deign to dedicate his lofty talents to such a mean and commonplace rehabilitation. 

The caretaker, who lives in the guests’ patio under the belfry (and who spurned us until we claimed friendship with Don Enrique de Mesa, the poet of El Paular), gave us an insight into the restoring architect’s modus operandi.  It was not until rain was pouring into the gaping church roof, and vaults were falling everywhere that the State could be prevailed upon to reclaim El Paular.  But the architect sent to arrest the imminent disintegration decided that the prime necessity was to hie himself to pleasant Alicante on the Mediterranean and procure a certain stone peculiar to that region, have it carved there for a cornice for the church, and then laboriously hauled on ox-carts to Paular; by which time he had used up the slender appropriation accorded him.  There the work of reclaiming stopped short, and his carved blocks lay for years on the ground. 

Don Enrique de Mesa
Don Enrique de Mesa Rosale

Another government architect now has the matter in hand; some of the blocks are lifted into place; the church has a new shiny lead roof; the belfry steeple, which long ago was struck by lightning and had toppled over into the sacristy, has been dug out of the mess, and the sacristy roof has been ceiled in.  Less necessary we should say was the painting of the cloister vaulting — a bright yellow.  As for the rest, kitchens, refectory, library, and cells, the State does not own them.  From the private purchaser of 1840, after the Disestablishment Act, it acquired only the church and the four vaulted walks of the cloister; and as the descendants of that purchaser have no use for cells or kitchens, these must be left to fall although they are in fact an integral part of the monastic fabric.  “But what can we do?” the Spaniard asks desperately. “So many beautiful architectural monuments to care for would embarrass even a richer state than Spain.”  He is right, no doubt; yet Paular is a case of spoiling the ship for a halfpennyworth of tar.  A very little more money would have bought the cells and kitchens as well, and a little good will would have invited the Carthusians back.  Not to restore them their once vast tracts of land and their feudal lordship, but to concede to them the privilege of going on voiceless if they wished, and manufacturing meanwhile the excellent paper for which they were famous, or the delicious Chartreuse liqueur whose secret they alone possess.  This would have been one way of prolonging the life of a historic monument, and without expense to the state. 

One of our party, Don Manuel, had first come to Paular in 1883 while it was still private property with administrator and farm hands on the premises.  After the church and cloister were bought as a Monumento Nacional, years elapsed before the government appointed a guardian.  When tardily he assumed office all was disorder and litter.  The monks had walked out, leaving their altars spread, lamps trimmed, books on shelves, correspondence and expense-accounts in neatly tied little packets, and but little had been disturbed by the first purchaser.  But during the subsequent period of neglect the wind that came in through gaping roofs sent letters and leaves of old books scurrying through the corridors.  Don Manuel still treasures a yellowed cramped bit of writing he picked out of the lilac branches one spring day — a letter from a monk who had gone to the branch house in Granada to his old companion in Paular, giving him a remedy for colic.  The date is 1690.  “We who have not the good fortune to pass the long summer among the cool healthy pines of El Paular,”  writes the Carthusian from Andalusia, “frequently suffer from dolores cólicos.  We apply the following remedy which, with God’s help, never fails to bring relief — And here begin the boiling of herbs and grinding of coral and other beneficent substances which made up the antique pharmacopoeia. 

Today not a book nor paper can be found.  The farthest corner is denuded and bare. In the monks’ cells the flooring has been torn up and the staircase torn down. Staircase? Yes, for every Carthusian cell was a miniature duplex apartment.  So small indeed that its cubic content could hardly bring more than three thousand dollars a year in New York to-day!  The general living room was walled off so as to form a spacious inglenook around the large open fire, and here the white-robed fraile could read (or doze?) free from draughts, his book shelves handy at each side of the hooded chimney, and a bracket worked in the plaster to hold his candle.  In fact his abode was literally a combination of the cloister and the hearth.  From this same nook a window opened into the lilac cloister, and on its broad blue-tiled ledge the silent occupant could lean and gaze into his future grave.  Over the nook and looking down into the general room through three arched openings was the chamber, its staircase supported on a fine brick arch.  The fraile’s garden was high-walled, thus sparing him the unholy human temptation to bid his neighbour the time o’ day; and each garden had its own water supply brought in stout earthen tubes laid clumsily against the wall.  Those who have visited the so-called cell of Chopin and Georges Sand at Valldemosa will recall this characteristic Carthusian arrangement of maisonette with its own plot of ground.  Not precisely the rigours of the earlier coenobites; we suppose that such amenities as fireplaces and board flooring did not come till the period of relaxation, and we find that precisely because the cell represents relaxation, the weakness of our common flesh, it touches our human sympathies deeper.  Though we are “not by nature of monk’s kin,” our hearts go out to the white-garbed silent individual who was so ruthlessly evicted in 1835 from his comfortable little bachelor home. 

In the early seventeenth century Vicente Carducho, the fashionable classic painter, was employed by the monks of El Paular to paint fifty-six large frescos in the cloister. The subject was the life of Saint Bruno, founder of the Order.  Our friends tell us these were removed by the government to Madrid (and later to Coruña) but that until recently the rich gold frames that held them were still in place.  Though we have not seen the paintings in question, we mention them because of the paragraph Don Antonio Pons dedicates to the matter in his Viaje de España.  Pons had good taste and good sense.  In an age still addicted to a hollow imitation of classic he was old-fashioned enough to announce his preference for earlier and sincerer periods.  In Christian art at lead he wanted what was begotten of Christianity.  Unable to admire the cold academic perfections of Carducho, he flattered the abbot by finding a pretty raison d’être for them.  “A great sacrifice does a man make,” he wrote, “when he gives up his liberty and submits to another’s will; but even a greater sacrifice, one almost beyond human power, when he deprives himself of the society of his kin and determines to live apart and guard a silence little short of perpetual, for he opens his mouth only to sing the praise of the Lord. Such privation appears insupportable and incompatible with human nature.  The Padres Cartuxos of El Paular have found a mitigation of this hard life and one dill within the rigour of their rule, in the sight of pretended human beings; they get recreation for their souls in the lively action of painted scenes.”  Thus was the good Pons kindly to his hods who had strayed into the abhorred realms of modern fresco painting, and non-committal to the painter he could not honestly admire.  Carducho was by no means the word painter of his perfunctory age; and we hope his scenes of the life of Saint Bruno were not repulsive like his Carthusian martyrs which make the cloisters of the Granada monastery unpleasant to pass through; but good or bad, we are glad his decorations are gone from El Paular.  It needs no other colouring than the pale tints of the lilac blossoms, and the rich sad green of cypress and boxwood. 

As further compliment to our friend the previously mentioned poet of Paular, the custodian threw open the gates of the frailes’ huerta or orchard for us.  I fancy that those who do not know the poet might accomplish the same result by transfer of some “coin of the realm.”  Nor would they regret the price.  The huerta is vast — “twice five miles of fertile ground with walls and towers girded round,” but the sheer wall is softened in aspect by a heavy mantle of ivy and bittersweet and clematis.  Its cardinal avenues cross in a rond pont featured with inviting benches in the lee of magnificent elms and oaks; but this is not the best of the huerta; off to the right, beyond fruit orchards and plots bursting with succulent vegetables are the trout-breeding ponds, and across them is the best view to be had of the church, apse-end, but with the ugly bulge of the tabernacle lost; all magnificent against the undulating snow line of the Peñalara, and the picture, with stately storks sailing above to their home on the belfry, is perfectly reflected in the still water.  If the custodian be favourably impressed with his visitors he will let them linger here, which is far more satisfactory than strolling through at his heels; whatever espionage is necessary being done by the blue-smocked peasants who now cultivate the land for other consumers than the white-garbed disciples of Saint Bruno. 

Across the road is another finca—the abbot’s casa de recreo, more delightful in that it is more sylvan, with the little Lozoya scampering musically through it.  This too is private property.  The owner, a Madrid doctor, has not returned to it since the death of his wife and only son some years ago; but Señorita A, who knew them well and had spent many a trout-fishing season there in the master’s happier days, took us over and introduced us to Juana, his housekeeper.  Juana and her husband, kindly and courteous like all their class, invited us to enter at will, and showed us the old mill where the monks made their paper, with the big presses still in place. Paper for the firát edition of “Don Quixote,” they say, was made right there by the monks in the house beyond the stone bridge. 

With another of the party I outstayed the rest at El Paular.  One dawn, a week after they had left on their tramp to Cercedilla, Justa rose and unlocked the gate for us in the bright crisp moonlight of three A.M. and we walked out to Rascafría to catch the four-o’clock mail-cart.  Our adieus were the merest whisper, for the sanctity of the hour and the place forbade speech.  Once out on the road I cast many a glance back at the moon-bathed old pile rising above the long wall of the huerta.  Buried away there in the Guadarramas it had given me generously of that mystic calm which we rightly associate with such retreats.  A thousand pities it could not have been saved out of the wholesale monastic wreckage! 

Back here in Madrid they tell me that when the French refugees came into Spain, those who distil the famous nectar which bears the name of the Order, they examined El Paular with a view to establishing their industry there, but pronounced the buildings irreclaimable, and went instead to Tarragona on the Mediterranean. The Alpinistas who loved the old place were in despair; and in still deeper despair when the State, having purchased it, lay supine before the task of restoration.  In bitterness, they proposed that a subscription should be raised for its mortuary stone. On this was to be written “These are the last remains of the ancient Cartuja de Santa Maria del Paular which the Spanish Government took out of private hands in order to have the glory of letting it collapse under State neglect.” 

As we have seen, the State acted before the moment of utter ruin and has saved, if not a whole monastery, at least a mountain cloister rich in lilac perfume, and cypresses, and immortal green twilight, and peace.  

Restoration and conservation of the monastery

The monastery of Santa María de El Paular has been in the State’s possession since 1876.  In 2014, the convention for the concession of the USUFRUCT which was signed in 1954 for 30 years and renewed in 1984 in favour of the Benedictine Order concluded. The Ministry of Culture is working on a proposal for the definitive integral management that will be presented soon.

Since 1978, its conservation was assumed by the Ministry of Culture, through the IPCE. One of the objectives of the Master Plan developed in 1996 was the restoration and adaptation of the cloister, which was directed by the architect Eduardo Barceló.

Other activities in the monastery within the master plan consisted of the conservation of library, cells, mill and archaeological remains, and restoration of roofs, sacristy, choir stalls, main altarpiece and cover.

The Ministry of Culture is considering the possible involvement of the Community of Madrid for public and museum management of the monastery, since this community has also performed in the same different performances between 1998 and 2007, both in the architectural work and movable heritage, worth around 3 million euros, which have complemented those made by the Ministry.

Seventeen Centuries Of Monastic life.

In 269 a young Egyptian takes the advice that Jesus gives a rich man in the Gospel: “If you want to be perfect, sell everything you have … Then come and follow me” (Matthew 19: 21-22). Antony distributes all his goods to the poor and will live as a hermit in the desert of Thebaid, on the eastern bank of the Nile.

St. Antony retreats into the desert.

In 269 a young Egyptian takes the advice that Jesus gives a rich man in the Gospel: “If you want to be perfect, sell everything you have … Then come and follow me” (Matthew 19: 21-22). Antony distributes all his goods to the poor and will live as a hermit in the desert of Thebaid, on the eastern bank of the Nile.

Athanasius, a bishop of Alexandria, will tell us of his life some time later. It traces the portrait of a solitary recluse, a prayerful prodigy who self-inflicts trials to enable him to resist the temptations of the devil.

St. Anthony incarnates the emergent figure of the hermit in the history of Christianity. He is considered the “father” of the anchorites (from the Greek anakhôrein, “to retire”).

In the partially evangelised East of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, there were already men and women who had chosen to live the radical teachings of the Gospel message, as was the case with “consecrated virgins”, who vowed celibacy and poverty. But these faithful did not leave their communities of origin.

The hermits, on the other hand, are expatriated to dedicate themselves only to God, in isolation and in their despotism. They spread during the second half of the fourth century in Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia and above all in Egypt.

This phenomenon is contemporaneous with the change of status of the Christian in the Roman Empire: persecuted during the first three centuries of our era, they are suddenly tolerated in 313, due to the recognition of the religious freedom granted them by the edict of Milan; and in 337 is legitimised through the conversion of the emperor Constantine.

With the end of the persecutions, the spirituality of martyrdom (from the Greek martus, “witness”) no longer means the apogee of Christian witness. He is replaced by a monastic spirituality which presents the monk’s solitary experience as a martyrdom, no longer of blood but spiritual: a battle against evil and a path of evangelical perfection, that is, based on the gospels.

The legitimisation of the Christian religion has two other consequences: on the one hand, the influence of the imperial hierarchical model on the local Churches, which concentrate power in the hands of the bishops; on the other hand, the relaxation of the piety of the faithful, who cease to feel threatened.

Many Christians fond of their inner freedom and taken by the absolute refusal of this lukewarmness they were forced to lived. Therefore they retire to the desert to live continually in prayer and penance. Saint Anthony would be our role model. His charism will attract pilgrims and disciples until his death, at the age of 105.

Pictorial inspiration

The temptations to which St. Anthony was subjected inspired many artists. One of the most remarkable representations is that of the surrealist Salvador Dali (1904-1989). Held in 1946, after World War II, it reflects the mystical period of the author.

“His” Anthony, naked, wields a cross against a gigantic, a horse standing on its hind legs, symbolising a power that has become insane. Behind, in a scene of nuclear apocalypse, elephants with spider legs carry on the backs the temptations of lust and greed.

The Catholic Church memorialises the abbot and Father of all Monks Saint Anthony on January 17.

Book Review: Sun Dancing – Geoffrey Moorhouse

Sun Dancing: Life in a Medieval Irish Monastery and How Celtic Spirituality Influenced the World

Subject: Monastic and religious life–Middle Ages, Celts, Monastic and religious life, Middle Ages, Civilization, Skellig Michael (Monastery : Ireland).

“As I climbed the path winding up to the ancient constructions near the top of the cliff, I sensed that I was on the threshold of something utterly unique, though I was by no means a stranger to monasteries, which I had visited throughout Europe, and even farther afield at one time and another.  But nothing in my experience had prepared me for this huddle of domes, crouching halfway to heaven in this all but inaccessible place, with an intimidating immensity of space all around, where it was easy to feel that you had reached a limit of this world.  A holy place, to be sure, which would still have been so, even if it had never known the consecrated life of prayer.”  From the Author’s Notes – Sun Dancing Copyright © 1997 Geoffrey Moorhouse. All Rights Reserved

This is a Secular History; and as such must be read with spiritual rationality.

The Hibernian Monks of the Middle Ages are credited with saving Western civilisation.  So what is known of their everyday lives? The spiritual struggles? Their achievements? Or the inconceivable physical travails that they underwent?

Sun Dancing‘s is an insightful chronicle that express an exceptionally powerful regimen of cenobitic life, it elucidates upon one of the most arcane but seminal epoch of the Celtic narrative.

Sun Dancing makes manifest the sedulousness and devotion for God of the Hibernian Monks from 1430 years ago.  Their exemplification in these disciplines are extremely impressive.  It is the Hibernian monks who safeguarded the book of the Bible for us as the Roman Empire fragmented and Europe retrogressed into philistinism and savagery.   It brings to the forefront the history of the cenobites  of Hibernia, the men who created the Book of Kells.  The Irish monks of this period practiced a most uncompromising and rigorous form of self-mortification and self-abnegation in the history of the church perhaps even more so than the Carthusians today.  The practice of “penance” as practiced by the monks in this book is based on the idea that a Christian can partially “atone” for his own sins.  Some christians today would see this as a challenge of the atonement accomplished by Christ on the Cross, claiming that salvation is achieved by ‘sola gratia’ grace alone.  The Penitential of Finnian prescribes penances with a view to correcting sinful tendencies and cultivating the contrary virtue, it shows wide learning and draws on the teaching of St John Cassian on overcoming the eight evil tendencies – gluttony, fornication, covetousness, anger, dejection, accidie (laziness), vainglory and pride”.  Irish asceticism was a copy of the Thebaid.  The daily routine of monastic life was prayer, study, and manual labor.  With regard to food, the rule was most exacting, as was the way of life. The diet of monks living on the North Atlantic islands was somewhat different from that of those who lived on the mainland. Having less arable land available to grow grain, vegetable gardens were an important part of monastic life. Of necessity, fish and the meat and eggs of birds nesting on the islands were staples.  A system for collecting and purifying water in cisterns had been developed. No more than twelve monks and an abbot lived here at any one time. A hermitage is on the South peak.

I found Sun Dancing to be well researched and communicated for both monastic and lay persons alike.  It contains an indelible exemplification inimical to the sin of spiritual pride.  Commencing with the saga of the monks of Sceilig Mhichíl (Skellig Michael) west of the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, in a fictional style, using archival elements leading us to a more concise chapter containing many historical facts.  The year 588 A.D., sees Fionán of Clonard, a monk of the community of Saint Brendan of Clonfert The Navigator, with twelve brother monks, setting off, looking to institute a new community in the desert.  Arriving at Sceilig Mhichíl somewhere between the 6th and 8th century (The first definite reference to monastic activity on the island is a record of the death of “Suibhini of Skelig” dating from the 8th century; however, Saint Fionán is claimed to have founded the monastery in the 6th century); it is a forbidding rock island with an area of 21,9 hectares approx; The topography of Skellig Michael with its iconic twin peaks and valley (Christ´s Saddle) is entirely controlled by bedrock geology.   Irish Monks would live there for the next 600 years.  This book is the amazing story, from a historical point of view and from records of how they lived, and what daily life was like.

Dom. Ugo-Maria

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The Consuetudines of Guigo I

Translation in English from the Latin, Click below.

The Consuetudine of Guigo I, 5th Prior of the Carthusian Order

Guigues du Chastel

Fifth prior of the Grande Chartreuse, legislator of the Carthusian Order and ascetical writer, born at Saint-Romain in Dauphiné in 1083; died 27 July, 1137.

He became a monk of the Grande Chartreuse in 1107, and three years later his brethren elected him Prior.

To Guigues the Carthusian Order in great measure owes its fame, if not its very existence.

When he became prior, only two charterhouses existed, the Grande Chartreuse and the Calabrian house where St. Bruno had died; nine more were founded during his twenty-seven years’ as Prior. These new foundations made it necessary to reduce to writing the traditional customs of the mother-house. Guigues’s  “Consuetudines”, composed in 1127 or 1128, have always remained the basis of all Carthusian legislation.

After the disastrous avalanche of 1132, Guigues rebuilt the Grande Chartreuse on the present site.

A man of considerable learning, endowed with a tenacious memory and the gift of eloquence, Guigues was a great organizer and disciplinarian. He was a close friend of St. Bernard and of Peter the Venerable, both of whom have left accounts of the impression of sanctity which he made upon them. His name is inscribed in certain martyrologies on 27 July, and he is sometimes called “Venerable” or “Blessed”, yet the Bollandists can find “no trace whatever of any ecclesiastical cultus”.

Guigues edited the letters of St. Jerome, but his edition is lost. Of his genuine writings there are still in existence, besides the “Consuetudines,” a “Life of St. Hugh of Grenoble”, whom he had known intimately, written by command of Pope Innocent II after the canonisation of the saint in 1134; “Meditations”, and six letters (P.L., CLIII). These letters are all that remain of a great number, many of them addressed to the most distinguished men of the day. Guigues’s letters to St. Bernard are lost, but some of the saint’s replies are extant.


Taken from the study notes prepared for the Novices by the Ven. Fr. Dom Ugo Ginex ESB in March 1989 and edited by Brother Pablo di San Martin.

God be Praised.

Christian monasticism began in the Egyptian deserts. In Lower Egypt a semi – eremitical monasticism flourished while Upper Egypt saw the growth of a more cenobitic form under the leadership of Pachomius. It is my experience that the literature that witnesses to these forms of monastic life deserves our attention today. In this paper I hope to share something I have tasted or glimpsed. It is not the product of a thorough and organised study; I am in no way an expert. But I do believe that their tradition is ours, and to meet them is to know ourselves better.

Taken from the study notes prepared for the Novices by the Ven. Fr. Dom Ugo Ginex ESB in March 1989 and edited by Brother Pablo di San Martin.

God be Praised.

Christian monasticism began in the Egyptian deserts. In Lower Egypt a semi-eremitical monasticism flourished while Upper Egypt saw the growth of a more cenobitic form under the leadership of Pachomius. It is my experience that the literature that witnesses to these forms of monastic life deserves our attention today. In this paper I hope to share something I have tasted or glimpsed. It is not the product of a thorough and organised study; I am in no way an expert.[1] But I do believe that their tradition is ours, and to meet them is to know ourselves better.

The literature of Pachomian monasticism[2] is quite primitive, by our standards of literary sophistication, and in some ways it is similar to the style of the New Testament, particularly the Synoptic Gospels. This is true not only of the literary style which tends to be associative in its construction, but of its purpose as well, which is to invite the next generation into the experience of those who are writing, the experience of being transformed by the Spirit, by the Gospel. The purpose of the writings is not information but formation and transformation. When we go to these records of the past we go to enter into their experience of the Spirit so we can discover and live more consciously our own experience, for there is but one Spirit.

Pachomian monasticism presents us with perhaps the earliest model, of which we have record, of monks coming together, not around the abba for spiritual formation, but together to seek God in community. In this Pachomius gave concrete expression to a form of monastic life which had gradually been evolving, an expression of the evangelical value of community, where the primary relationships of the monks are with one another. These two models, on the one hand, the monks gathered about the spiritual father and on the other, the monks who have come together to form a community,[3] at this early stage in monastic history had this essential difference: the young monks who grouped themselves about the spiritual father came to learn to be monks, so that having been formed by the abba they could leave him to live as monks on their own. This eventually gave rise to a cenobitic form of monasticism, but one in which each monk’s relationship with the spiritual father was primary. Pachomius, however, took the Jerusalem community of Acts 2 and 4 as the model for community. Those who came to him came not for a time, but they gave the whole of their lives and all that they had to seek God in common, and to love and serve one another, as they saw that these are inextricably bound together for those who seek to live the Gospel.[4] The essential aspect of Pachomian life was κοινωνία [koinonia], unity in love. In this especially, Carthusian monasticism can look to Pachomian monasticism, for we, as they, have come together to seek God in community, and to love and serve one another. The opening chapter of the Rule of St. Augustine emphasizes the goal of unity in love.

  1.  Before all else, beloved, love God and then your neighbor, for these are the chief commandments given to us. (cf. Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-34)
  2. The following are the precepts we order you living in the monastery to observe.
  3. The main purpose for your having come together is to live harmoniously in your house, intent upon God, with one heart and one soul (Acts 4:32).[5]

Pachomius’ great charism was to be the center of a community, to teach monks to love and serve one another; but like most of us he learned through trial and error.

The Coptic Lives[6] report that when his first group of followers joined him, he understood that the will of God for him was to serve the others. So he took the burden of all the practical necessities upon himself and freed the others to study the Scriptures. Pachomius, through the whole of his life, was one to be very patient with the newcomer and there are many examples of how he would not demand something of a young monk, even though it was something quite important, until he could see the monk was ready to meet the demand. His patience in this initial venture lasted something like five years. When he saw that his monks were not maturing as monks he, after a night in prayer, drew up three rules: common prayer, common meals and common work. They refused and he expelled them. The second time young monks joined him, he was more conscious of their spiritual formation and made these demands at once.

From the beginning of their lives together, Pachomius consciously set about teaching the monks to love and serve one another, arid established a community wherein each monk had the responsibility of serving the rest in a specific capacity.[7]  The first member of the Pachomian community, however, was always God. This is everywhere in the writings, and on his deathbed the Life has Pachomius say, “I am going to the Lord who has created us and brought us together.”[8]

The Pachomian monks understood well that their lives were part of a continuing history.  This history began when God first spoke to the human race and one of its members responded; since that moment the dialogue has never stopped. Just as the Word of God was the source of Abraham’s life of faith, the Word of God was the source of their own lives and faith. They express this clearly when, in the Prologue to The Life of Pachomius, they locate monastic life within the whole of salvation history. It is a response to the creative Word of God and results from the fervor of the Church, especially of the martyrs.

True is the Word of God, who made all things, the Word that came to our father Abraham, in order to show him his favour, concerning the sacrifice of God’s only son.  The Lord said, “Truly I will bless you and multiply you as the stars of heaven in multitude;” and again “Because in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”  For this Word, speaking after Moses his servant and the other prophets, appeared as man and as Abraham’s seed, and fulfilled the promise of blessing to all the nations, saying to his disciples, “Go forth and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  And, as the gospel spread throughout the earth by divine assent and with proof of his faithfulness, pagan kings stirred up a great persecution against the Christians everywhere.  Because many martyrs along with Peter, the archbishop of Alexandria, through many and sundry tortures were crowned with a victorious death, the Christian faith gained much ground and was strengthened in every land and every island throughout all the churches.  As a result monasteries started coming into being and places for ascetics who prided themselves in their chastity and the renunciation of their possessions. When monks who were former pagans saw the struggles and the patience of the martyrs, they started a new life.  Of them it was said, “Destitute, afflicted, ill treated, wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”  Thus they found retreats with proper piety and a harder regimen, holding before their eyes day and night not only the crucified Christ, but also the martyrs whom they had seen struggle so much.[9]

The Life also presents Pachomius himself, and therefore the monks who joined him, as part of an ongoing tradition, begun in the Old Testament and continued in the New.

The life of our truly virtuous and most ascetic father Anthony was like that of the great Elijah and Elisha and of John the Baptist.  The most holy archbishop Athanasius gives as much written evidence about him after his death, and at the same time states that the behaviour of our holy father Amoun, the chief abbot of the brothers on Mount Nitria, and of Theodore, his companion, was the same. And we know that, since grace poured from the lips of the Blessed one who blesses all – for he visited the earth, and instead of filling it with grief and sighs, he infused it with an intoxicating spirit – throughout the country from among those who took to monastic life many became admirable fathers, as has already been said, and their names are in the book of the living. In Egypt and in the Thebaid not many had turned to the monastic life up to the time of the persecutions by Diocletian and Maximian, but after that, the bishops led people to God according to the teachings of the apostles and the repentance of the nations yielded a rich harvest. There was a man name Pachomius, born of pagan parents in the Thebaid, who, having received great mercy, became a Christian. He made progress and achieved perfection as a monk. It is necessary to recount his life from childhood on to the glory of God, who calls everyone from everywhere to his wondrous light.[10] 

Because of the primitive style of the Pachomian Literature and its fairly unsystematic development, much of the wisdom it contains is perhaps less accessible to us than it would be if it were arranged in accord with the patterns of our Western logic. Of course, the price of this logic would be the beautiful simplicity that is everywhere in the writings.  When I first read The Life of Pachomius , though I was quite taken with the charm of the work, I wasn’t sure anything relevant or unified would emerge. For this reason I would like to suggest an approach which I believe can be quite helpful in getting closer to the heart of Pachomian monastic life.  If we choose a specific topic, such as common life, ascesis, prayer, leadership, obedience or poverty and read through the Pachomian works in search of what each has to say about, or how it presents or understands whatever is being considered, and do the same for another topic on the above list, very soon we can see how all aspects of their monastic life are complementary and support its single aim solidly and practically.  Also by noticing how the Rules are lived out in incidents related in the Life, we see how the strict or even harsh sounding rules actually were applied in genuinely human and loving ways.[11]  In the remaining section of this paper, in a modified way, I hope to illustrate this method with examples from the Pachomian sources.

In the Life , it says of Pachomius, “When he started reading or reciting God’s words by heart, he did not do it in the fashion of many other people, but he strove to comprehend inside himself each and every thing through humility and gentleness and truth, according to the Lord’s word, ‘Learn from me because I am gentle and humble of heart.'”[12]  This paragraph can be taken as a paradigm of the Pachomian approach to the Scriptures and to prayer.

Pachomius and his monks shared the dynamic concept of the Word of God of the ancient Hebrew.  They believed that it effected what it asserted, and they desired to be transformed by this living Word.  The Word of God, they understood, had been planted in their hearts at baptism; when they read the Scriptures, they read to uncover the Word which had been hidden there.[13]  Pachomius’ way, as shown above, is also the way given in the Scriptures. If the Lord said, “Learn from me because I am gentle and humble of heart,” then Pachomius, even in his approach to the Scriptures and to the Lord, will make every effort to be humble and gentle and true.  Lastly, the paragraph refers to reciting the Scriptures.  Meditation for the Pachomian monk was reciting the Scriptures he had memorised.  The incoming novice committed to memory at least the Psalter and the New Testament.[14]  Pachomius taught the unlettered Copts to read precisely so they could read and memorise the Scriptures.[15]

It is hard to separate the Pachomian concept of Scripture from their concept of prayer, for there was little or no difference.  The one was the other.  Meditation on Scripture actually meant reciting memorised passages not just with the lips and mind, “but with attention of the heart as well.  The monks memorised the Scriptures in pericopes which they called “by hearts.”  (This phrase, “by hearts,” eventually became a technical term so that they will describe their night office as consisting of “six by hearts.”)[16]  Prayer to the Pachomian monk was the continual recitation of Scripture.  His way of fulfilling the New Testament mandate, “Pray always,” was very simply to recite or meditate Scripture all day and all night, if possible.

So when the monk was at work or on his way to the assembly or to his cell at night, he was to meditate on some text from Scripture which, because of his memory, he had always at hand.  There are many precepts in the Rules which explain this. Here are some examples:

When he hears the sound of the trumpet summoning him to the assembly he is to leave his cell immediately, meditating on something from scripture to the very door of the assembly hall. (3)

The one who hands out sweets to the brothers should meditate on something from the Scripture as he does so. (37)

When the assembly is dismissed, all leaving for their cells or for the refectory shall meditate on something from Scripture. (28)

(On leaving the monastery for work) . . . they shall not speak together, but each one shall meditate on something from Scripture. (59)

Perhaps the most developed expression of this is found in The Book of Our Father Horsiesi who is exhorting a community which had lost its fervor to return to the way Pachomius had given them:

Let us cultivate the reading and the learning of the Scripture, and let us always be employed in pondering on them, knowing that it is written: From the fruit of his mouth a man will be filled, and the wages of his labour is returned.  These are the things that lead us to eternal life, which our father Pachomius handed down to us and commanded to be meditated upon perpetually in order that what is written may be completed in us:  These will be the words which I give you today into your hearts and into your minds. . . . Consider with how many testimonies the word of the Lord exhorts us to meditate on the sacred scriptures, that by faith, we may possess what we say. . . . Timothy too, while still a boy was learned in sacred letters so that he arrived at faith of the Lord and Saviour by way of them. . . . (51)

The Word of God in the Scriptures is given so that we may uncover the Word God has spoken in our hearts in baptism. Prayer or reciting the words of Sacred Scriptures is the way to the Word in our heart. Likewise, ascesis was seen in its relation to what God has already done in baptism, for all the fruits of the Spirit are given to us in this sacrament.[17].  Ascesis is the cultivation of these fruits; ascesis is a means to uncovering the Word in our hearts.  In his Catechesis Concerning a Spiteful Monk, Pachomius writes:

My son, flee concupiscence.  It beclouds the Spirit and prevents it from getting to know the secrets of God.  It makes you foreign to the language of the Spirit and prevents you from carrying the cross of Christ.  It does not permit the heart to be attentive to honouring God.

It is precisely in the fight against concupiscence, or anything which distracts the attention of the heart from God, that ascesis has its place.  Thus ascesis is always an act of love which has its source in God’s love.

Perhaps here we can examine a few of the Pachomian statements on the asceticism of silence.  In speaking of prayer we already mentioned one (see rule 59 above).  There are others:

Those at work shall speak of nothing secular; they shall either meditate on holy things, or for that matter, keep silence. (60)

As for the bakery: no one may speak during the evening kneading, nor in the morning, those who are busy with the baking or with the boards; but they shall recite together until they have finished.  If they need anything they shall not speak, but shall rap sensibly. (ll6)

While they are sitting at home they are not permitted to engage in secular talk; but if the housemaster has taught something from Scripture they ought, on the other hand, to ruminate on it among themselves, relating what they have heard, or what they can remember. (122)

It is true that not every rule that mentions silence explicitly orients the silence to the Word of God, but most do; it is quite evident that in Pachomian life the ascesis of silence was seen as a main support for meditation on the Scriptures.

The Pachomian understanding of leadership was, in part, that the leader was the one whose responsibility it was to be watchful or vigilant for the spiritual wellbeing of all. Horsiesus addresses the superiors:

All those to whom the care of the brothers has been entrusted will prepare themselves for the coming of the Saviour and his dreadful tribune.  For if to give a report for one’s self is full of danger and fear, how much more painful it will be to answer for the fault of another and to fall into the hands of the living God.

We also have a God given responsibility, the training of the brothers. (10, passim)

Or, looking at it the other way round, Pachomius’ understanding of the superior’s role can also be seen in his advice to the Spiteful Monk:

If you cannot get along alone, join another who is working according to the Gospel of Christ, and you will make progress with him.  Either listen [i.e., to the Word of God], or submit to one who listens, or be strong and be called Elias, or obey the strong and be called Eliseus: for obeying Elias Eliseus received a double portion of Elias’ spirit.

In short the advice is, if you can’t hear the Word of the Lord spoken in the Scripture yourself, go and find a man who can, and then listen to him. The other side of the coin, then, is that one who is a leader has the responsibility of hearing the Word of God for those who have submitted themselves to him.

There is a story by which I hope to tie these elements together.  It is rendered in different translations dating from different periods.  Each edition reflects the viewpoint of its own time, as they altered texts freely in those days to assert what they wanted to say.  Taken together these texts are quite interesting because they show how the aspects of monastic life I have already mentioned, scripture, prayer, ascesis and leadership, serve one another and form a whole.  They also vividly depict evolving concepts of the rule and obedience, and show how it is part of human nature to become alienated in the course of time from its original inspiration.  The original understanding was that obeying the rule was an act of love and that God dwells in the heart of one who loves.  This concept was so pure that it was rapidly lost.[18]

The monks are making bread and chatting as they work, instead of reciting the Scriptures.  Pachomius learns of it and blames Theodore, the monk in charge at the time, severely reprimanding him.  If the monks chat and do not recite the Scriptures, Theodore is responsible and Theodore must do penance.  This is the earliest account.  In the second version, Pachomius still “blames Theodore but asks him why he did not see that the “brothers respect the rule, since the rule is given them for the good of their souls.  The idea of serving the rule usurps the primary place that reciting the Scriptures had held.  In the third account, Pachomius does not “blame Theodore (by the time of this account he has to respect the authority of his assistant) but tells him to teach the brothers that the rule has been given for the good of their souls and they should obey it.[19]  In the latest version, Pachomius asks Theodore whether the brothers realise that when he (Pachomius) gives them a rule, it is God speaking to them through him.  The rule of silence gradually becomes identified with the will of God and its original purpose, to recite the Scriptures, is no longer mentioned.  On paper, at least, their silence has grown empty.

There are many lessons we can draw from this incident and the differing historic interpretations. There is only one, however, that I want to focus on here. It is the understanding and practical insight that is inherent in the earliest account. In it all the elements, the common work, the ascesis of silence, the role of the leader or superior, Theodore, and his responsibility of watchfulness for all, the recitation of the Scriptures, all of these are seen in their relationship to the end of monastic life, the transformation of the monk, by the Word of God, in Christ. In my judgement, it is this evident comprehension of the unity of our life, which they were able to effectively portray and hand down that makes the legacy of Pachomius valid for us today.


  1. My introduction to Pachomian monasticism came through the tapes of a seminar Father Armand Veilleux, OCSO, gave at Gethsemani Abbey.  The seminar contained three evening lectures to the whole community and six morning lectures given to the seminar participants only.  My notes then will read “tape 1 evening” or “tape 6 morning” according to when the lecture was given.
  2. There are four basic texts in the Pachomian corpus that I refer to.  Unfortunately only one has been published in English to my knowledge.  It is: The life of Pachomius: (vita prima Graeca).  Author:  Apostolos N Athanassakis; Society of Biblical Literature.  Editor:  Missoula, Mont: Published by Scholars Press for the Society of Biblical Literature, ©1975.  There are many extant Lives, from both Coptic and Greek sources.  This first Greek Life or G1, is the only Life available in English.  References to the Coptic Lives in this paper are taken from information that Father Armand Veilleux gives in the seminar and will be noted accordingly. Each paragraph in the Life is numbered and all references to it will be identified in the note or the text by this paragraph number, not the page number.

  3. The other texts of the Pachomian corpus to which I refer, I have seen only in translations that have been made and circulated privately.  There is, however, an edition being prepared by Father Veilleux which I’m currently unable to source, I have though added a link to Father Veilleux’s web page. The texts I cite are:
  4. The Book of Our Father Horsiesi, Sister Mary Charles Walsh, OSB, trans. Horsiesus was a successor to Pachomius after the latter’ s death, and this work is a call to communal conversion during a period of strife and decadence.  Like the Life it is subdivided into numbered sections and my references are to those numbers.

  5. The Rules of St. Pachomius, Dom Amand Boon, ed., Pachomiona latina, Louvain Bureau de la Revue, 1932.  Jerome translated a Greek translation of the Coptic original of the Pachomian Rules into Latin.  The text I use is an English translation of Jerome’s text.  Also extant are fragments of the Coptic Rules. Like the two preceding works each rule is numbered and I cite Jerome’s numeration.

  6. Catechesis Concerning a Spiteful Monk (from Oevres de S. Pachȏme et de ses disciples, Louvain: CSCO l60, Coptic Series No. 24, L. Th. Lefort, translator and editor, 1956).  Written by Pachomius himself, this catechesis was composed not for his own monks but for a monk from outside the community.  The monk was brought to Pachomius because he bore a grudge toward one who “darted a word” at him (tape 6 morning)

  7. 3.  Keating, Thomas, “The Two Streams of Cenobitic Tradition in RSB,” Cistercian Studies XI, 1976:4, pp. 257-68. This article cites the evolution of both forms, complete with appropriate diagrams and mention of Pachomius.

  8. 4.  An example of how much the monks were for one another what the abba was in the semi-eremitical tradition is found in this item from the Rules:  In the morning, in the individual houses, once the prayers have been finished, they shall not return to their own cells, but they shall share among themselves what they have heard the Masters giving out; then they shall go to their cubicles. (19)

  9. 5.  Constitutions of the Nuns of the Sacred Order of Preachers (Polygot Vatican Press, 1930), p. 1.

  10. 6. Tape 2 evening. An altered account of this is in the Life, para. 24-5, 37.

  11. 7. Life, para. 28.

  12. 8. Tape 3 evening.

  13. 9. Para. 1.

  14. 10. Para. 2.

  15. 11. The monks did not eat meat.  Note, however, the following incident from the Life:  There was another brother who was mortally ill and bedridden in a nearby cell.  He requested from the father of the monastery to be fed a small portion of meat — the length of his illness had reduced his body to skin and bones —, and because the meat was not given him, he told one of the brothers, “Support me and take me to our father Pachomius.” When he approached Pachomius, he fell on his face and told him the reason.  Pachomius realised that the man deserved the request, and he sighed.  At meal time Pachomius was served his portion, as were all the other brothers.  He did not eat, but said, “You are respecters of persons.  What has happened to the scripture, ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’?  Do you not see that this man is practically dead?  Why did you not take good care of him at all before he made his request?  And you will say, ‘We neglected him, because that sort of food is not customary among us.  ‘But does the disease not make a difference?  Are not all things pure to those who are pure?  And if you were unable to see without my advice that this would be good, why did you not tell me?” Tears came to his eyes, as he was saying these things. For tears are a mark of sensitivity. And even if tears do not come to a man who is sensitive while something is happening, there is such a thing as inner weeping. When they heard these things they hastened to buy the meat in order to feed the enfeebled man. Then Pachomius himself ate the customary boiled vegetable. (53)

  16. 12.  Para. 9.

  17. 13.  Tape 2 morning.  Horsiesi , para. 49, “… Let us follow the odour of wisdom always hiding her words in our hearts.”

  18. 14.  From the Rules:

  19. No one whosoever shall be in the monastery who . . .does not retain something from Scripture: the minimum is the New Testament and the Psalter. (l40)
    If someone comes to the gate of the monastery wishing to renounce the world and be added to the number of the brothers … he shall remain outside for a few days, at the door, and be taught the Lord’s prayer and as many psalms as he can learn. (49)

  20. 15.  Whoever has come into the monastery uninstructed shall first be taught what he must observe, and when so [in]formed, he has agreed to it all, they shall give him twenty psalms, or two of the Apostle’s epistles, or some other part of scripture.  And if he is illiterate he shall, at the first, third and ninth hours go to the teacher so delegated and stand before him; and shall learn with the greatest of eagerness and gratitude.  Afterwards the fundamentals of syllable, verb, and noun shall be written out for him, and even if unwilling he shall be compelled to read. (139)
  21. No one whosoever shall be in the monastery who does not learn to read. . . . (l40)

  22. 16.  Tape 2 morning.

  23. 17.  Tape 2 evening.
  24. 18.  Father Veilleux makes this statement joining obedience, love and God’s indwelling presence on tape 3, evening.   The bread making incident is related in this connection on the same tape.

19.  Life, para. 89