Benedict's thread through the ages
THE relationship between Benedictine monks and nuns in general is one of family affection, of frank yet harmonious interchange on spiritual and intellectual levels. It is perhaps not too much to claim that wherever monks have realised and witnessed by their lives a high ideal of monastic life, the nuns have attained it by a simpler route, and arrived more speedily at the summit.
It was in England, in the early years of the seventh century, that the Rule saw its first expansion. St Benedict took command. St Hildegard would chart the progress of monastic history under the symbol of light: "the first light of day represents the apostolic teaching; dawn represents the beginning of that way of life which first flourished in the desert; sunrise, however, symbolises the clear wellordered way of my servant Benedict."
Soon English kings and nobles vied with one another in founding and endowing houses for both monks and nuns, and so brought into being such famous nunneries as Barking, Ely, Coldingham, Wimborne,
Wilton, Shaftesbury, Winchester, Ramsey and Minster, built, as a rule, in close proximity to the monks. Their declared purpose was to erect churches worthy of God and solemn liturgical worship.
Within a century, split oak covered with reeds was replaced by walls of polished masonry, leaden roofs, lofty towers and glass windows. In the church built before 700 by Eadburga, daughter of the King of Wessex, the principal altar was covered with cloth of gold surmounted by a cross encrusted with gems. These monasteries and nunneries with their wide human and cultural implications have been described as alternative societies in miniature. Abbesses, who were often of royal blood, attended synods no fewer than five signed the Acts of the Synod of Becanheld in 694 and were frequently decisive in disputes of church and state.
A distinguishing mark of English monastic life was the double monastery with its centralised government under the abbess. The Saxons retained the ancient distinction between church virgins who, after consecration by a bishop, resided in their own homes, and those who lived in community under a superior. The first, known as "nonna", were classed with priests; the second were known as "mynekins", a word derived from the Saxon "munic" because they observed the rule of the monks.
While monks and nuns might profess their obedience to a particular monastic rule in the hands of an abbot or abbess, the virginal consecration, considered of greater importance, was still exclusively reserved to the bishop, the ceremony being attached to the principal festivals of the year.
With the organisation of religious orders within the church, individual consecrations became rarer, yet never died out. Ss Catherine of Siena, Rose of Lima and Gemma Galgani, among the better-known, passed their lives in the houses of parents or friends; less familiar are the "Christian virgins" of China who have played such a prominent part since the sixteenth century in preserving the faith during time of persecution.
The legislation of the Second Vatican Council has given a fresh impetus to the idea of the consecrated virgin living in her own home and devoting her life to the ecclesial community. The wheel is come full circle.
Whereas the pagan Danes levelled the Saxon double monasteries to the ground, so that by the ninth century, after Its period of great glory, the monastic institute had ceased to exist in England, double monasteries have begun once more to flourish in the church. As yet, in spite of the feminist movement, they have not produced a second Hilda of Whitby (d.680) who was not only present at the synod that united Romans and Celts in 664, but trained her monks to become bishops, abbots, and scholars of renown and left an indelible mark on history.
Nevertheless, it was the man from Crediton in Devon, born in the year that Hilda died, who, according to Christopher Dawson, had a deeper influence on the history of Europe than any Englishman who has ever lived. Educated from the age of seven in English monastic schools ( he composed the first Latin grammar for English children), Boniface had become a monk at Nursling in the diocese of Winchester, and from there had gone out in 718 to evangelise the heathens of Saxony, Thuringia and Hesse.
In the process, before the final crown of martyrdom, he was ordained bishop, appointed primate of Germany, founettl bishoprics throughout the Empire, set English monks to rule them, and with Engli.h Benedictine nuns educated his undisciplined flock
Nuns in mission fields are no nineteenth century innovation as is commonly supposed. These Anglo-Saxon nuns who
spoke and wrote Latin fluently, produced exquisite embroidery and illuminated manuscripts, were just as much at home in bakehouse and brewhouse.
They also managed to keep up a lively correspondence with Boniface and his companions. From her abbey of Wimborne, a young nun Lioba related to him by blood sent him a little gift to remind him of her, with a Latin verse for his correction, "to draw tighter the bond of true love for ever".
It is hardly surprising that in 748 Boniface appealed to the abbess of Wimborne to send him help from her community of 250 nuns. Her response was generous and, with amazing courage and adaptability, 30 volunteers set out, speedily transplanted their tradition,
and soon peopled Germany with daughter-houses, under Lioba's leadership. Like Hilda of Whitby before her, Lioba was consulted by men of affairs in church and state.