The Rule of Benedict
It is almost certain that St. Gregory the Great introduced the Benedictine Rule and observance into the monastery of St. Andrew which he founded on the Coelian Hill at Rome, and also into the six monasteries he founded in Sicily. Thanks to St. Gregory, the Rule was carried to England by St. Augustine and his fellow monks; and also to the Frankish and Lombard monasteries. By devoting the second book of his "Dialogues" to the story of St. Benedict's life and work, Gregory gave a strong impetus to the spread of the Rule. Thus the first stage in the advance of St. Benedict's code across Western Europe is closely bound up with the name of the first monk-pope.
In the seventh century the process continued steadily. Sometimes the Benedictine code existed side by side with an older observance. In England, thanks to St. Wilfrid of York, St. Benedict Biscop, and others, the Benedictine mode of life began to be regarded as the only true type of monasticism.
By the reign of Charlemagne the Benedictine form of monasticism had become the normal type throughout the West with the sole exception of some few Spanish and Irish cloisters. So completely was this the case that even the memory of earlier things had passed away and it could be gravely doubted whether monks of any kind at all had existed before St. Benedict and whether there could be any other monks but Benedictines.
The Rise of Cluny
The essential novelty in the Cluniac system was its centralization. Hitherto every monastery had been a separate family, independent of all the rest. The ideal of Cluny, however, was to set up one great central monastery with dependent houses, numbered even by the hundred, scattered over many lands and forming a vast hierarchy or monastic feudal system under the Abbot of Cluny. The superior of every house was nominated by the Abbot of Cluny, every monk was professed in his name and with his sanction. It was in fact more like an army subject to a general than St. Benedict's scheme of a family with a father to guide it, and for two centuries it dominated the Church in Western Europe with a power second only to that of the papacy itself.
In practice, however, the system had resulted in crushing all initiative out of the superiors of the subordinate monasteries and so, when a renewal of vigor was needed there was no one capable of the effort required and the life was crushed out of the body by its own weight. That this defect was the real cause why the system failed is certain.
Nothing is more remarkable in the history of Benedictine monasticism than its power of revival by the springing up of renewed life from within. Again and again, when reform has been needed, the impetus has been found to come from within the body instead of from outside it.
The reaction against Cluny and the system of centralization took various forms. Early in the eleventh century (1012) came the foundation of the Camaldolese by St. Romuald. St. Romuald sought to combine aspects of both eremetical and communal life. A few years later (1039) St. John Gualbert founded the Order of Vallombrosa which is chiefly important for the institution of "lay brothers," as distinct from the choir monks. Far more important than these was the establishment in 1084 of the Carthusians by St. Bruno, at the Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble, which boasts that it alone of the great orders has never required to be reformed.
In all these reform institutes the tendency was towards a more eremitical and secluded form of life than that followed by the Benedictines, but this was not the case in the greatest of all the foundations of the period; namely, the Cistercians.
Before Saint Bernard died in 1153 he had not only founded the great Abbey of Clairvaux which would become a focal point for all of Christendom, but he personally sent forth men to start sixty-five other houses while his brother abbots started another 235. St. Stephen Handing and the other founders were determined to keep alive the pristine observance of the Rule which they had come to Citeaux to establish. To this purpose they created a Charta Caritatis, a constitution which bound all Cistercian abbots to come to Citeaux annually for a general chapter. It also bound all the houses to a common observance and set up a system of visitation which respected the autonomy of each house but assured its fidelity. The order continued to expand: by 1200 there were over 500 houses; on the eve of the Reformation, the records showed 742.
In 1664 Pope Alexander VII recognized within the Cistercian Order two observances, the Common and the Strict, sometimes called the "abstinents" for their fidelity to Benedict's prohibition of the use of flesh meat in the monastic diet. Among these latter arose Dom Armand Jean de Ranc?, a commendatory abbot who underwent a conversion and brought about in his Abbey of Notre Dame de la Grande Trappe a renewal in the practice of monastic enclosure, silence, and manual labor, expressing a spirit of apartness from all worldliness and a dedication to prayer and penance. By the disposition of Divine Providence his was the one community that escaped complete destruction and dispersion at the hands of the French Revolution.
With the renewal of the Second Vatican Council both orders have written new constitutions which retain the reforming features of Saint Stephen Harding, the general chapter (though no longer annual, usually every three years) and visitations by the superior of the founding abbey.
The Sylvestrines, founded by St. Sylvester de Gozzolini about the middle of the thirteenth century, were organized on a system of perpetual superiors under one head, the Prior of Monte Fano, who ruled the whole congregation as general assisted by a chapter consisting of representatives from each house.
The Olivetans, founded about 1313 by Bernardo Tolomei of Siena, mark the last stage of development. In their case the monks were not professed for any particular monastery, but, like friars, for the congregation in general. The officials of the various houses were chosen by a small committee appointed for this purpose by the general chapter. The abbot-general was visitor of all the monasteries and "superior of superiors," but his power was held for a vary short period only.
The Camaldolese, Vallombrosian, Sylvestrine and Olivetan Congregations joined the Benedictine Confederation of Monastic Congregations after Vatican Council II.
The New Monasticism
Towards the end of the twentieth century, new monastic movements arose. Some of these were featured in and article in Christianity Today magazine (September 2005) entitled "The New Monasticism." The article highlights several urban Christian intentional communities that live out their faith in poor areas, engaging in some form of shared resources, and taking up local community and social justice issues. Several communities are noted including Simple Way of Philadelphia, Camden House in Camden, New Jersey, and Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina.
The Community of Saint Egidio began in 1968 when a group of students gathered in Rome to read the gospel together. In the slums outside the city, they came into contact with poor immigrants. The students got friendly with the immigrants and started helping their children to learn to read and write.
Thirty years later, this group of students has evolved into a lay movement of 15,000 people, two thirds of whom are in Italy, involved in voluntary and unpaid service for peace and reconciliation in cities of more than twenty countries all over the world. They share a certain spirituality and they measure themselves against the Gospel. Though the organization now has a link with the Vatican, its heart is still the small church of St. Egidio in the Roman quarter, Trastevere, where every evening prayers for the Community are held.
Likewise, the men and women of the Monastic Communities of Jerusalem, founded 1975 in Paris, respond to a particular vocation to live in the heart of the cities, in the heart of God. By common prayer and fraternal love, they want to give witness to the Lord. They want to be conformed to Jesus' prayer in the Gospel, and to the example of the first Christian communities of Jerusalem, without leaving the world, but keeping themselves from the spirit of the world.