6 Medieval Religious Orders That Came to the Rescue of the Church
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In the history of the Church, the regular clergy, that is to say the communities that decide to live by a determined rule which dictates their religious practices, have been something like the Ecclesiastical body’s lung.
The Church, although Holy, has had a need for correction in every age. Subordination to temporal powers, worldly corruption of some of its members, and stagnation of piety were some of the problems which the Barque of Peter faced in the medieval period.
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It’s been in these challenges where the religious orders have contributed to revitalize the Church, rejuvenate Her in each phase, reactivate spirituality, dust off Faith, and re-channel Her towards the encounter with her Divine Spouse, Jesus Christ.
To the orders!
1. Order of Saint Benedict
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The Benedictines received their name in honor of Saint Benedict, their founder, who was born in Nursia in 480. His rule proposed a life centered in three principal virtues: taciturnity (i.e. restraint of speech), humility and obedience. The order was characterized by a strict observance of the Divine Office, with a division of the day into seven different times for praising God. In addition, they spent time alternating between handwork – from whence the famous phrase “ora et labora” – and the Lectio Divina or meditation on Sacred Scriptures; and were known -and still are- for the hospitality with which they received their guests.
Thanks to the rule of Saint Benedict, the centuries between his death in 547 and the 12th century were called the “Benedictine centuries.” The order contributed both on the continental and on the insular level, in diverse domains: spiritual, liturgical, artistic, intellectual, administrative, and economic.
2. Order of Cluny
The Cluniacs were founded in 910 by William The Pious, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Macon. At that time, he donated his domain of Cluny – hence the name of the order – to establish a Benedictine monastery, in part to defend monastic patrimony against increasing interference from the laity, who had begun to appropriate and adapt it. His rule was Benedictine, but in accordance with the prescriptions of Benito de Aniane, and informed by the ideas of the great abbots of earlier times. While they replicated the division of daily activity stipulated by Saint Benedict, they spent more time occupied by the liturgical office and prayer. All Cluniac monks were priests, they wore a black habit – for which they received the name of “black monks” – and in their diet they abstained from meat until the 14th century.
Cluniac spirituality was characterized by recollection, which was made through the Divine Office, prayer and silence. The Cluniacs made of the choral office a kind of perpetual prayer. The second element was charitable action, which opened the monastery to the world, with a school where they received and taught students who weren’t destined for the monastic vocation.
The piety of Cluny caused a liturgical renaissance, which contributed to the development of Romanesque art. Equally, their search for independence from civil authority structures caught on beyond the boundaries of the monastery. This spirit became the precursor for clerical reform, influencing the future emancipation of the Church in the face of secular interventions of the Holy Roman-Germanic Empire’s Emperor.
3. Order of Carthusians
The special virtue of this rule, established by Saint Bruno in 1084, was the way in which it synthesized the longing for an eremitic life with monastic stability. The Carthusian monk was a contemplative who lived in solitude, prayed, read, meditated, copied manuscripts and dedicated himself completely to manual chores. His spiritual life was sustained by removing himself from society and renouncing the world, seeking instead silence, introspection and prayer.
Carthusians were assisted by another kind of lay religious called converts who lived alongside them but whose mission was to do the necessary chores for the subsistence of the whole community. The rule of Saint Bruno was very important in the renewal of hermitic life during the 11th and 12th centuries.
4. Cistercian Order
It was founded by St. Robert de Molesme in 1098, who established a monastery in Citeaux, though the principal guidelines of the order were established by Stephen Harding. The Cistercians developed a monastic life centered on a literal following of the rule of Saint Benedict but made a special emphasis on their life in common, from which their daily activities derived. The monk, who dressed a white habit, coexisted with his lay brothers who were in charge of seeing to the community’s material needs.
In their spiritual life, they pursued an austere piety which was reflected in their liturgy and was projected in their churches. Flight from the world, will for extreme poverty, agrarian labor, silence, and penitence were all a part of their proposal of Christian life.
The Cistercian Order brought renewed monastic ardor and spiritual aspirations in search of a complete restoration of cenobitism (communal religious life). The Cistercian monastery was a school for communitarian, practical spirituality. Their success is reflected by their growth to some 700 abbeys towards the end of the 13th century.
5. Order of Friars Preachers
They are popularly known as Dominicans because of their creator, Saint Dominic of Guzman who established the rule in 1215. The originality of the order was their mixture of prayer and preaching, of action and contemplation. Inside the convent, the Dominican taught, meditated and perfected his knowledge through a highly valued intellectual education; outside, he preached in the city and took courses in the university.
Within their daily activities, there was the recitation of the Divine Office, prayer and study. As “mendicants,” friars couldn’t own anything, they lived from charity and donations. Their vows were obedience, poverty and chastity. The spiritual path proposed by Saint Dominic was based on penitence, through rejection of passions and abandon of material goods; a cenobitic regime, which stipulated mutual assistance and communal prayer; and action and service through preaching, spiritual direction and teaching.
6. Order of Friars Minor
The order founded by Saint Francis of Assisi and approved by the Church in 1209 is the most famous order of the Middle Ages. Its members are divided into laity and clergy. Their daily activity revolves around the Convent and its exterior. Inside, the Divine Office is recited by the clergy, and the prayers of each liturgical hour are followed by the laity. Outside the convent, Franciscans offer preaching and works of charity, predominantly in their special attention to the poor.
The Franciscan monk, like the Dominican, professes vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He has no possessions and works for his food or begs for it.
Franciscan spirituality is based on humility, that is to say, on submission of the will to one’s established authorities without struggle or discord. Poverty is at the heart of Saint Francis’ practice, seeking to conquer human reality with complete participation in and submission to divine love. The result is the mystery of love and the joy which flows from poverty and renunciation of material wealth; and the delight of contemplating the beauty of Creation as an expression of God’s beauty.
The birth of the two first mendicant orders was encouraged by the needs of the Church at the time: the problem of heresy and growing urban populations in need of spiritual attention. The Dominicans and Franciscans undertook the evangelization of non-Christian populations in the regions of the Islamic East, st, the Maghreb, Eastern Europe and Mongolian territories. On the other hand, they renewed the sense of confession, which had ceased to be a way of obtaining absolution of sins and had turned into a method of spiritual perfectionism. Finally, they contributed to the development of university centers, working and serving as professors, wise doctors and scholars.
As a complement to this post, we give you an infographic with quotes that inspired these religious orders:
This post originally appeared here for Catholic-Link Spanish, and has been translated into English by Maria Isabel Giraldo.