|Monasticism in Britain|
Monastic communities, both of men and women, have played an important role in the history of Britain. In a society which presented few options or opportunities, this way of life offered many attractions. What the life lacked in glamor, it more than made up for in serenity and stability. The monastic life offered social mobility for some, and a refuge for others. The monasteries provided the opportunity for education, freedom from some of the economic uncertainties of the times, and, often, a career path that could lead to a very high station in life.
Monastic communities trace their origin to the early centuries of the Christian era. Some early Christians fled to the Egyptian deserts to live alone (monos) with God. These Desert Fathers greatly influenced the development of monasticism, both Eastern and Western. At the heart of the monastic impulse is the rejection of the world, and the recreation of paradise. The Desert Fathers were, at first, solitaries (ermetical). Later hermits gathered into small communities and shared some aspects of life together (cenobitical). This tension is often reflected in the history of monasticism.
The founding of Western Monasticism is attributed to St. Benedict of Nursia (c.480)-c.547). Benedict did not originate monasticism in the West, but he regularized it, altering something here and adding a bit there to provide a more balanced and moderate style of monasticism. His "Little Rule for Beginners" required a vow of stability which unites a monk for life to the particular monastery in which his vows are made (an extremely important new development). Benedict also stressed the cenobitic life under the authority of an Abbot and Rule. Those that follow the Rule of St. Benedict are called Benedictines. Manual labor and prayer comprised the focus of monastic life and is reflected in the Benedictine motto, "Ora et Labora." Manual labor was later interpreted to include academic labor.
Benedict's Rule was brought to Britain in 597, by St. Augustine, who had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great (both of whom were Benedictines) to preach to and convert the Saxons, who had taken over control of the island, by this time. The Benedictine observance co-existed with other observances of Celtic origin for some 50 years, but, in the end, prevailed at the Synod of Whitby in AD 664, thanks to St. Wilfred of York, St. Benedict Biscop and others.
Over the next 900 or so years, the Benedictines and all other monastic orders, would go through various vicissitudes which came to an abrupt end, around 1540, with the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII.
For descriptions of the major orders which flourished in Britain before Henry's reforming axe fell, please click on the appropriate link in the frame to the right.
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