Classical Thought for Contemporary Culture

The Illuminating Light

The Illuminating Light

How Turning To The Monastics Can Help Our Schools Create & Preserve Culture

By Christopher Perrin

From the Summer 2017 Issue. 

Most of you know that we have inherited a very rich educational tradition from those who preceded us. We know that in one sense, education is the transmission of culture—the transmission of the soul of society from one generation to another, as G. K. Chesterton put it. But many readers may not be aware that an important part of our educational culture comes to us through the monastic tradition. How important? In fact, if we remove monastic education from the wider western culture, we must also remove our universities and hospitals; we must remove much of the classical liberal arts curriculum, we must remove Aristotle himself, and Cicero, and much of what we have of Vergil and Horace.

In some ways, monastic culture is western culture. The monasteries and monastery schools gave rise to our universities and copied and transmitted not just the Scriptures and Christian authors (like Augustine and Basil), but also the great pagan writers who wrote much that is true and good. They developed and extended the agricultural arts and advanced astronomy (Halley of “Halley’s Comet” was a monk); they were at the forefront of many inventions and developments in architecture (witness cathedrals) and medicine. Western monasteries were not just arks preserving a past culture, they were husbandmen creating culture. Much of what we call “Christendom” we owe to the work of monks.

How did they accomplish so much? One chief means was simply proliferation: over the centuries thousands of monasteries were founded. That is, monastic culture became so much a part of western culture because there were so very many monasteries. By about 1350 AD, there were approximately 37,000 monasteries throughout Europe and the lands surrounding the Mediterranean.


The story of what led these monks to forsake more conventional ways of living and bind together in monasteries is a fascinating one. Some monks, like St. Anthony (251 - 356 AD), feeling that the privileged church was growing fat and comfortable, fled to the desert in search of solitude and prayer. Pachomius (292 - 348 AD) followed Anthony to the desert, but created communities of monks called cenobitic monks who lived “in common”. While the early desert hermits sought solitude and prayer, the great majority of monks are cenobitic monks who seek a common life together, praying, working, learning, and serving. The word “monk” derives from the Greek work monos meaning “alone,” but monks almost always live in community, though their lives include a rhythm of solitude and fellowship. John Cassian (360 - 425 AD) started cenobitic monasteries in what is now France, and wrote a rule called Conferences. And there was an energetic and austere group of monks who lived on columns, the stylites, among whom St. Simeon (390 - 459 AD) is perhaps the most famous.

But there is no doubt that the most influential monastic leader was St. Benedict (480 - 548 AD), often called the “father of western monasticism” and the patron saint of Europe. Having grown disillusioned with the corruption and debauchery of life in Rome where he was a student, Benedict went to pray in a cave in nearby Subiaco. He stayed there for three years until a band of monks prevailed upon him to become their abbot. This first experiment in leadership did not go so well (themonks rejected his leadership because they couldn’t abide his standard of piety and devotion), but within his lifetime Benedict started twelve monasteries, including the mother abbey of the Benedictine order at Monte Casino in southern Italy where he wrote the Rule of St. Benedict (influenced by both the example of St. Anthony and the Conferences of St. Cassian), one of the most influential texts of all time.

Benedict could not have imagined the way his twelve monasteries would proliferate and spread. As the old Roman society crumbled, the old Roman families increasingly sent their sons to Benedictine monasteries to be educated. Convents, too, were started in large numbers. And many monasteries grew to be cultural centers of agriculture, commerce, invention, and education. Some became so successful and large as to resemble large business estates with vast fields for agriculture and livestock. In time, some of these monasteries came under the influence of rich nobles and princes who donated land and wealth but in turn wanted to control the monasteries by retaining the right to appoint the abbot (usually to a relative).

Such aristocratic control led to various reform efforts, embodied in the rise of the Cluniac (909 AD) and Cistercian (1094 AD) orders which sought to return Benedictine monasticism to more simple and strictly-observant patterns. St. Bernard of Clairvaux became the most notable Cistercian abbot and monastery founder, starting 338 monasteries in his lifetime.

Monastic culture is western culture. Much of what we call Christendom we owe to the work of monks.

Later, in the high Middle Ages, both the Franciscan (1210 AD) and the Dominican (1215 AD) orders were started as preaching and mendicant orders. Famous Franciscans include St. Francis, Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham while famous Dominicans include St. Dominic, St. Thomas Aquinas and Fra Angelico.

Meanwhile, the Jesuit order, a teaching order, was formed in 1540 by Ignatius Loyola, largely as a response to the Protestant Reformation. The Jesuits started almost 800 schools and colleges. And the Trappist order was founded in 1664 AD as a means of returning (once again) to a more strict adherence to the Rule of St. Benedict. Founded in La Trappe, France, there are now over 170 Trappist monasteries worldwide.

The history of monasticism is a long, varied story, central to the history and development of western civilization and parts of the east. Some would say that the monasteries survived many centuries of the dark ages but the truth is, the monasteries illuminated the path out of the dark ages. Thanks to them, the period of darkness in which the light of learning and culture diminished was limited to about 550 AD to 800 AD in continental Europe. and from 800 AD on (with the arrival of Alcuin at Charlemagne’s court and the start of the Carolingian Renaissance) Europe grew increasingly brighter. The Middle Ages were not so dark as some think, and the rapid rise of monasteries was a chief reason why. G.K. Chesterton thought of the Middle Ages as an ideal that was abandoned:

I have only taken this as the first and most evident case of the general truth: that the great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived (which must mean over-lived), but by not being lived enough. Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout. The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.

For Chesterton, it is the church that is the shining bridge between classical civilization and the best of what we enjoy now; it is the shining bridge that lead us out of the Dark Ages.


While we could examine some non-Benedictine monastic traditions, I will restrict the rest of this study to the Benedictines simply because of the longstanding and extensive influence this order has had.

There are four primary ideals represented by Benedictine monasticism which can inform the way we learn, teach, and govern our schools. 

• Harmony of the active and contemplative life
• Harmony of the communal dwelling and village
• Harmony of prayer,
service and work
• Liturgical or doxological orientation for all activity

Liturgical and Harmonious Practices

Our schools and homeschools (and American life in general) are not very harmonious, and certainly not very liturgical. The monastic life and the Rule of St. Benedict represent a life of well-ordered space, time, and language. This was achieved by Benedict’s masterful and practical insight into a life that was a wise blend of both contemplation and action, of solitude and community, of listening and speaking, of silence and prayer. The harmony of life that Benedict achieved echoes Scripture and makes all of life a kind of ongoing liturgical worship. That he could create a practical means of doing this was his special gift and brilliance. Given the remarkable success of this rule and life, we would be wise to study it for the purpose of renewing classical Christian education today. What follows is a listing of some harmonious and liturgical practices that Benedictine monks follow to this day, along with some questions and suggestions of what we might learn from them.

Work, Study and Prayer: Ora et Labora (et Stude)

How might our schools and home schools benefit from a thoughtful blend of prayer, work, and study? Could we more intentionally weave prayer and worship throughout the day, perhaps even praying through the psalms as the monks do? Could we create our own “prayer books” or use existing ones from various church traditions? Could we embody our ideals and practices in ways that resemble monastic life? Could we place a garden in the center of our school? Could we set aside times of contemplation while walking in nature? Could students be assigned various chores or maintenance duties at a school or homeschool?

Deep Contemplation of Scripture and Literature

The Benedictine monks, even after completing their formal education, study about three hours a day in a quiet environment, either in a scriptorium or in their cells. They keep silent during meals while another monk reads Scripture or some edifying literature. While all the monks study Scripture, they also copy and read a great variety of literature, including those classical pagan writers that contain much that was true and virtuous. The monks memorize the psalms (all of them) after about two years of chanting and praying through the entire psalter throughout each week. Monks who are engaged in copying the Scriptures (which was a very important task before the invention of the printing press) engage with Scripture just by their careful and beautiful copy work. They also practice the slow reading and contemplation of Scripture by means of *lectio divina* (divine reading), a method that involves several readings of a passage, often with different questions or themes in mind (lectio), followed by a period of thinking, contemplating, and synthesizing (meditation). The monk then engages in a period of prayerful response (oratio), before quieting himself and listening (contemplatio).

The monks also often keep their own book of collected “flowers,” called a florilegium. The flowers they gather are of the figurative kind: excerpts from beautiful passages they have read or heard. These gathered flowers are pressed into the book of their hearts, by memory, where they permanently reside, helping cultivate the soul of the monk.

How might our schools and home schools benefit from creating space for students to quietly and deeply contemplate? Could we insert contemplation into our weeks, days, and lessons—even if just 5%-10% of the time? What if we tried to begin every lesson with a brief contemplation time that lasted five minutes? What if during lunchtime we read great literature to our students—even if occasionally? Could we issue beautiful florilegia—commonplace books—to our students? What if we asked students to gather their own “flowers” in their books and recited from memory a passage every week or two? What if teachers kept such books, too? Could we employ the lectio divina method of reading Scripture once a week in our Bible instruction?

Rhythm of Solitude and Community

Benedictine monks have their own cells to which they retire frequently for study, reading, and contemplation, but they dine, work,  and pray together throughout the day, and they are also free to meet around the monastery or in the garden at the center of the monastery. They gather for regular chapter meetings to discuss the workings and rhythms of the monastery and address any concerns or opportunities.

These monks understand that solitude not only can serve to enrich one’s soul, but that it enables us to better bless our peers. Community in turn serves to enrich each individual in ways not possible if one is always alone. The communal experience enables each monk to better use and enjoy his solitude and the right use of his solitude enables him to bless his brothers in community.

Do our schools and homeschools have a harmonized rhythm of solitude blended with community? What would make for such a harmonized blend? Do we give our students any meaningful time to enjoy and study in solitude? Could we create “chapter meetings” for our classes, or other sections in a school? Could school “houses” help achieve this? What if homeschooling communities arranged for “chapter meetings” of some sort in which groups of students met with parents and tutors to discuss how the community was developing? Could we find times when we walked and talked in a beautiful setting? How might we enhance and enrich our “assemblies” which are often a matter of dry logistical concerns, announcements, and a slapped-on song?

Rest or Scholé 

Monks often talk of the “spiritual leisure” they enjoy as part of their calling. Life at a monastery is not rushed and frenetic. Monks work and study, but they also make time for restful study and prayer. They study a clear, but limited curriculum of arts and books, the typical classical curriculum of the liberal arts and great literature, with a decided emphasis on the mastery of grammar.

The early Benedictine monks also spoke of the importance of staying on a prescribed, clearly-set path. They often called this the “king’s highway” (via reggia)—a path that they imagined led straight to the palace of the king (heaven). It permitted no turns or exit ramps. Walking with brothers on a straight path that leads to union with God, following others who had gone before, and with no need to invent or “blaze a trail,” they found monastic life restful and praised it as such.

How might we set a clear path before our students—a path they need not find for themselves nor walk alone? Could we present the classical curriculum with greater clarity and simplicity so as not to complicate and overwhelm our students? Could the classical curriculum be as simple as “the liberal arts and the great books?” Could we eliminate from our speech and attitudes our own frenzy and fatigue? Are we busy about many things, having neglected, like Martha, what is best?

Formation / Habits of Holiness

Monks also know that what they aspire to do is difficult. To find rest requires hard work. All of us are prone to worry, prone either to frenetic activity or a lazy idleness. So woven into the monastic practice is a commitment to self-denial or askesis (from which we derive the words ascetic and asceticism). Benedict understood that habits must be cultivated by regular, disciplined practice, and that monks become what they do every day. Humility, charity, and hospitality must therefore be practiced parts of the routines and traditions of monastic life. Far from waiting for God to move a monk to humility or hospitality, the rhythms of the monastery require it of a monk. With frequent, daily prayer woven into each day, a monk has ample time to ask for it and simply to humble himself before God. Blending contemplative seeking with active service comprised an ascetic life of spiritual formation, one with elements of self-denial but also benevolent charity.

I have already noted the regular liturgies of monastic life—liturgical dining, expressions of hospitality, and the harmonious blend of prayer, study and work. What must be noted here is that these practices are formative; they serve to cultivate soul and character. 

How might we, contemplating monastic practices, enhance the ways we seek to spiritually form our students? Do we require any practices of self-denial, humility, and hospitality? Do we even think deeply about the ways we seek to form students? Could it be that formation in our schools is more important than information? How might we show hospitality in our schools and homeschools? How might we incorporate “school as liturgy” the way the monks made all of life a kind of liturgy? What would “liturgical learning” look like in our schools and homeschools? If the monk woke every morning singing “Open my mouth that I might declare your praise,” how might we open every day of school or homeschool? How might we close the day? How might we open and close a lesson, a lunch, an assembly, or a staff meeting? What if music, singing, and chanting characterized almost every activity in our schools or homeschools?

What if instead of having our “policy manual” serve as the foundational document of our school, we consult The Rule of St. Benedict, adapting it to our modern circumstances?

It is true that schools and homeschools are not, and cannot, be monasteries. We can, however, become like monasteries. Just as every home can resemble a little church, every homeschool can resemble a monastery. We can’t become monks, but we can become like monks in some important respects. In a time in which we have adopted secular models for teaching and learning that have proved ruinous, it may be time to consult this rich liturgical model for teaching and learning, what we can call a neo-monastic model of liturgical learning. This model has never disappeared; it remains with us today and is growing once again. It is not just an option, it is a proven ideal that is becoming an imperative. To recover it is to resume our work on the temple.

3 Contemporary Poets Worth Reading

3 Contemporary Poets Worth Reading

Four Modern Novels (Almost) Everyone Should Read

Four Modern Novels (Almost) Everyone Should Read