951 – c. 1025
Optional Memorial: Liturgical Color: White
It is easy today to slip down a technological hole into a cave piled high with televisions, video games, and the toys of virtual reality. Many technological “monks” disappear from meaningful contact with society, and instead marinate, perpetually, in the blue glow of their screens. Retreating from sustained contact with everyday life has always been attractive for a very small number of people. These people are called monks. But a religious monk’s motivation is not isolation for isolation’s sake, or comfort, or enjoyment, or flight from overwhelming adult responsibilities. Today’s technological monks separate themselves from society for different reasons than a religious monk does. Religious monks were not, and are not, merely recluses with antisocial or introverted personalities. They don’t seek dungeons and dragons, sci-fi universes , or fake digital battlefields. Although they may have an innate disposition toward the interior life, religious monks do not enter a monastery primarily to flee, or hide from, something. They run toward someone—God. A monastery is not a cave. It is an oasis. Monks seek a Christ-centered community where mortification and self discipline are easier to practice, where a chapel and the Sacraments are always available, and where spiritual direction, Church approval, and the reinforcement of fellow monks assure the community that they are doing the will of God.
Since the time of Saint Benedict in the sixth century, there had essentially been only one monastic Order in the Latin Rite Church, the Benedictines. Benedictine monasteries shone like stars in a constellation, dotting Europe from east to west and north to south. Each monastery and school was like a vertebra in the the intellectual and spiritual skeleton of Europe. Over the centuries, however, and inevitably, the Benedictines atrophied, cracked from dryness, and needed that new wine be poured into their old wineskins. The saint who reformed Benedictine life and who founded the Cistercian Order was Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. But he was not born until 1090. It was today’s saint, Romuald, much lesser known, who cleared the path for Saint Bernard and the reform of monasticism, which ensured its survival in the middle ages.
Saint Romuald was born in the middle of the tenth century in northern Italy. After his father killed a relative in a duel, Romuald entered a local monastery for a few weeks of penance. But the weeks turned into months and the months into years. He stayed. Unfortunately, the monks were as lukewarm as old bathwater, and Saint Romuald told them as much. He had to leave. He put himself under the tutelage of a wise hermit, then traveled to Spain to live as a hermit himself on the grounds of a Benedictine monastery. He subsequently spent about thirty years walking the length and breadth of Italy. He had acquired a great reputation as an ascetic and master of prayer. So he founded, or reformed, various monasteries which sought his assistance.
Finally, in 1012, he settled down in Tuscany and established a reformed branch of the Benedictines. The Order was named after the man who granted Saint Romuald the beautiful land on which he first built. The donor’s name was Moldolus and the new community was thus called the Camaldolese Order. The Order still exists in several countries and continues to attract those few men and women inclined to the radical isolation, prayer, asceticism, and deep hunger for God, which only a hermit’s life can satisfy.
Saint Romuald planted the seed of his Order in the Benedictine garden. But Camaldolese monks emphasize solitude more than their monastic cousins. In a typical Benedictine monastery, every monk has his oar in the water pulling the monastery’s school, or orchard, or farm, forward. The Camaldolese tradition is more hermit based (eremetical) while allowing some community based (cenobitic) life. Camaldolese monks generally live in individual structures but pray the Mass and Liturgy of the Hours together daily in the Church. They live simplicity, penance, and contemplation more intensely due to their total focus on these goals to the exclusion of all outside apostolates. Unlike technological monks, the Camaldolese choose to live without phones, the internet, or television. With this intense focus on solitude and prayer, Camaldolese monks perpetuate, in their narrow, unique, and faithful way, the vision of their pioneering founder.
Saint Romuald, by your intense example of prayer, penance, and solitude, assist all the faithful to put God above all things, to conquer themselves before any other mountain, and so come to know themselves, and their Maker, more deeply.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
IN 976, Sergius, a nobleman of Ravenna, quarrelled with a relative about an estate, and slew him in a duel. His son Romuald, horrified at his father’s crime, entered the Benedictine monastery at Classe, to do a forty days’ penance for him. This penance ended in his own vocation to religion. After three years at Classe, Romuald went to live as a hermit near Venice, where he was joined by Peter Urseolus, Duke of Venice, and together they led a most austere life in the midst of assaults from the evil spirits. St. Romuald founded many monasteries, the chief of which was that at Camaldoli, a wild desert place, where he built a church, which he surrounded with a number of separate cells for the solitaries who lived under his rule. His disciples were hence called Camaldolese. He is said to have seen here a vision of a mystic ladder, and his white-clothed monks ascending by it to heaven. Among his first disciples were Sts. Adalbert and Boniface, apostles of Russia, and Sts. John and Benedict of Poland, martyrs for the faith. He was an intimate friend of the Emperor St. Henry, and was reverenced and consulted by many great men of his time. He once passed seven years in solitude and complete silence.
In his youth St. Romuald was much troubled by temptations of the flesh. To escape them he had recourse to hunting, and in the woods first conceived his love for solitude. His father’s sin, as we have seen, first prompted him to undertake a forty days’ penance in the monastery, which he forthwith made his home. Some bad example of his fellow monks induced him to leave them and adopt the solitary mode of life. The penance of Urseolus, who had obtained his power wrongfully, brought him his first disciple; the temptations of the devil compelled him to his severe life; and finally the persecutions of others were the occasion of his settlement at Camaldoli, and the foundation of his Order. He died, as he had foretold twenty years before, alone, in his monastery of Val Castro, on the 19th of June, 1027.
Reflection.—St. Romuald’s life teaches us that, if we only follow the impulse of the Holy Spirit, we shall easily find good everywhere, even on the most unlikely occasions. Our own sins, the sins of others, their ill will against us, or our own mistakes and misfortunes, are equally capable of leading us, with softened hearts, to the feet of God’s mercy and love.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.