Academic journal article Magistra

A Feature in Benedictine Life: An 1896 Essay on the Enclosure of Nuns

Academic journal article Magistra

A Feature in Benedictine Life: An 1896 Essay on the Enclosure of Nuns

Article excerpt

Author Unknown

St. Benedict's, Rome

Miriam O'Hare, a librarian at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, turned up the following essay in the form of a small pamphlet. The front cover said only "A Feature in Benedictine Life" and "St. Benedict's, Rome, 1896." On the back was the line "Printed at the Vatican Press " and inside was an imprimatur from "Fr. Joannes Neri, O.P., S.P.A., Mag. Socius and Fr. Cassetta, Patriarcha Antiochenus, Vicesgerens. " The contents is a tract defending non-enclosed monastic life for women, based on the illustrious history of noted Benedictines.

In the nineteenth century, Benedictine women in mission countries, primarily in North America and Australia, were struggling to maintain their status as "authentic" Benedictines in places where the enclosed contemplative life was not welcome because of the overwhelming need for apostolic activity.

The unknown author of this essay was clearly trying to affirm the authenticity of a non-enclosed monastic life for women, or at least a less strict definition of enclosure. Who might have written it may be the subject for further exploration. The person is probably a religious (a student monk, a scholar or canonist in an academic or administrative position?) most likely English, judging from the language, sources, and comments such as "our own sweet St. Editha. "

With this question yet unexplored, it is sufficient for now to publish it in its simple entirety. Slight changes in punctuation and in the form of the scant footnotes have been made for readability, but otherwise the text is reproduced unchanged.


In the Rule of St. Benedict we frequently find passages which leave no doubt that the great Patriarch contemplated the absence of his monks from "the cloister" at times; and in his life we find examples in practice.

Not to speak of the chapter on the Instruments of Good Works which enjoins duties incompatible with never leaving the monastery, we find that the 12th degree of humility prescribes rules for the comportment of those in via; in the 50th chapter St. Benedict tells us how the Divine Office is to be performed by those on a journey, whilst in the next chapter he takes it for granted that the monks may occasionally be absent from the monastery for some time, and a few chapters further on he legislates on the clothes to be worn by them on such occasions and devotes the whole of chapter 67 to the brothers in via directis, and orders that "semper ad orationem ultimam Operis Dei commemoratio omnium absentium fiat" So that after every division of the Divine Office we are reminded that some of the community may be absent. That he highly valued and desired for his spiritual children the virtues fostered by seclusion we have many proofs, and for this reason the monk's principal work to which nothing can be preferred is the Divine Office.

In the life of St. Benedict by St. Gregory the Great we find a large proportion of examples relating to and illustrating the active apostolate of the first sons of the Saint and the principle asserted itself more and more strongly as time went on and resulted in the conversion and even civilization of the great part of Europe.

The Rule of St. Benedict was written ostensibly for men but it is believed to have been even during his life adopted by women, first amongst whom was his own sister, St. Scholastica. The story of the last colloquy gives us a practical application of the general principle of enclosure, and strangely enough the holy Patriarch implies that it bound him more strongly than his sister "What is this you say, sister? By no means can I stay out of my monastery."

The question indeed remains as to whether St. Scholastica was a nun, but however that may be we see that some of the holiest and most remarkable daughters of St. Benedict in the early centuries of the Order never seemed to feel themselves bound to strict enclosure. …

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