But what did monks DO all day? The holy routines of medieval monasticism


monks_singing_medieval hymn

What did monks do all day? Columba Stewart tells us in his marvelous little book Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition (Orbis, 1998):

The Work of God

At the center of the Benedictine life was the daily round of liturgy called by Benedict the “Work of God” (opus dei). The Rule specified eight such ‘offices’ per day. The first, very early in the morning, was “a comparatively long service of psalms and readings called Vigils.” Then came Lauds [“lawds”] followed almost immediately by four other brief offices during the day—Prime, Terce ["terse"], Sext, None [rhymes with "bone"], an evening office (Vespers) and a brief bedtime office (Compline ["COMP'-lin"]). All told, this amounted to nearly four hours per day spent in communal prayer, during which the monks would work their way through all of the psalms once each week.[1]

Important to the monastic life was the slow, meditative reading of scripture, called the lectio divina. Medievals read out loud, always (though often “sotto voce,” to avoid disturbing others). They read slowly, meditatively, reciting and absorbing the biblical texts. In all their reading, “the focus was conversion of heart rather than intellectual curiosity, though mind and heart obviously have to work together in the project of monastic living.”[2]

This was also a time to memorize, as there were not many printed texts of Scripture available. Monks and nuns did not have personal Bibles, but they did have the special memorization techniques and prodigious memories of medieval readers. It was also done in the group setting, “so that seeing one another they could encourage one another.” The aim was always to increase each brother’s awareness of God’s presence. Says Stewart, “a 14th-century Benedictine urged his readers to remember each evening’s common reading so that throughout the night, whether desiring sleep or prayer, they would have something to ruminate lest the devil find them at loose ends.”[3]

Benedictines and Learning

The stereotype of Benedictines as scholars bent on preserving and fostering learning is, says Stewart, “only partly accurate.” His monks did raise and educate children within the monastery, since some brothers joined very young. And “after his day intellectual work became increasingly prominent in monasteries.” Some of this was pragmatic, “Benedictines had to be taught how to read and what to read.” Many newcomers were illiterate, and “even the literate required guidance in biblical, spiritual and theological subjects.” This meant schooling in Latin grammar, in particular.

There was some ambivalence in Benedict, as in his sources, toward learning—especially pre-Christian classical literature. “Jerome’s nightmare in which he was accused before the judgement seat of God of being a Ciceronian rather than a Christian is the most vivid example of a tension found in many other monastic texts. None the less, the copying of manuscripts and the composition of original works of theology, biblical commentary or natural science developed naturally from B’s emphasis on lectio.”[4]

But “whatever form monastic writing of the Middle Ages took, whether discourse . . . poetic and dramatic . . . or visionary . . . it tended to stay close to the Bible and the liturgy, and to be concerned primarily with growth in the spiritual life.” (43) And in fact, as we have seen, “monastic theologians were often uneasy with the rise of the Schools [and the Scholastic theologians] in major cities during the 12th century. That different kind of theological exploration, more analytical and speculative, shifted the centre of gravity of Latin theology from lectio divina to academic disputation.” (43))

Personal Prayer

Of course reading was supplemented by personal prayer. Benedict made room for this in the monastery’s “oratory” (the main room where the Divine Office was sung together), either just after the Office or at other times. He insisted that “such prayer should be quiet (lest it disturb others), tearful and focused. (RB 52.4).” (47)

Benedict also “mentions that his monks will pray for another, for those undertaking community tasks, for those in trouble, [and] for and with guests.” In short, “personal prayer and common prayer were different moments in the one great experience of communion with God. In his twelfth degree of humility (RB 7.62-6), B describes someone who has completely internalized the virtue of awareness of God. As if already standing before the judgment seat of God, such a person constantly says in the heart the prayer of the tax collector from Luke 18:13: ‘Lord, I am a sinner, not worthy to look up to heaven’”[5] If you know the Eastern ‘Jesus prayer,’ you’ll immediately recognize the similarity: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Prayer was one important place that the passion necessary to spiritual mastery could be fostered. Benedict consistently linked prayer to weeping and tears—just like the compunction taught by Gregory the Great. The more you prayed, the more you became aware of your sins and the sins of others. You wept in sorrow for both, and you also wept tears of joy for Christ’s tremendous gift of forgiveness. “A monastic Christian,” writes Stewart, “is like the Prodigal Son at the festive meal, keenly aware of failure and irresponsibility, overwhelmed by a love that not only receives back but celebrates the return.”[6]

Benedict was not alone in this emphasis. Stewart notes that tears “pervade the early monastic literature. One great monk was said to have wept off his eyelashes. Tears were often described as the bread of the monastic life.”[7]


[1] Stewart, 32.

[2] Stewart, 39.

[3] Stewart, 37-8

[4] Stewart, 42.

[5] Stewart, 48.

[6] Stewart, 49.

[7] Stewart, 49.

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One response to “But what did monks DO all day? The holy routines of medieval monasticism

  1. Great overview of monastic life. I might note that Medieval monks also taught the people practical domestic skills in farming and animal husbandry. This helped hold civilization together during extraordinarily trying times. Have a great weekend. God bless!

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