Updated: Apr 15, 2020
For over one thousand years monasticism (the practice of taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to one’s spiritual superior) held a key role in the development of theology and practice in the Church. From the fourth and fifth centuries, monks and nuns were an accepted part of society. Monasticism was the cradle in which laus perennis, perpetual prayer, was birthed. Some of the key figures from this tradition are:
Alexander Akimetes and the Sleepless Ones
Born in Asia Minor and educated in Constantinople, Alexander became an officer in the Roman army. Challenged by Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler from Matthew 19:21, Akimetes sold his possessions and retreated from court life to the desert. Tradition states that he set fire to a pagan temple after seven years of solitude. Upon arrest and imprisonment Alexander converted the prison governor and his household, and promptly returned to his abode in the desert. Shortly thereafter he had the misfortune to fall in with a group of robbers. His evangelistic zeal, however, could not be contained and he converted these outcasts into devoted followers of Jesus. This group became the core of his band of monks.
Around 400 AD, he returned to Constantinople with 300–400 monks, where he established laus perennis to fulfill Paul’s exhortation to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Driven from Constantinople, the monks established the monastery at Gormon, at the mouth of the Black Sea. This became the founding monastery of the order of the Acoemetae (literally, the sleepless ones). Alexander died here in 430 AD, but the influence of the Acoemetae continued. The houses were divided into six choirs rotating throughout the day, each new choir relieving the one before, to create uninterrupted prayer and worship twenty-four hours a day.
John, the second abbot of the Acoemetae, founded another monastery on the eastern shore of the Bosphorus, referred to in many ancient documents as the “great monastery” and motherhouse of the Acoemetae. The library here was recognized for its greatness throughout the Byzantine Empire and indeed was consulted by several Popes. The third abbot established a monastery in the capital under the royal consul, Studius, who dedicated the new monastery to John the Baptist. Studion became a renowned center of learning and piety, the most important monastery in Constantinople. Studion continued until 1453 when the Turks captured Constantinople.
The lasting impact of the Acoematae has been their worship and their contribution to church liturgy. The monasteries, numbering into the hundreds and sometimes thousands, were organized into national groups of Latins, Greeks, Syrians and Egyptians, and then into choirs. In addition to laus perennis, which passed into the Western Church with St. Maurice of Agaune, they developed the divine office of the literal carrying out of Psalm 119:164, “Seven times a day I praise You, because of Your righteous judgments.” This became an integral part of the Benedictine rule of the seven hours of prayer—Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.
Around 522 AD, Abbot Ambrosius brought attention to a small monastery founded in Switzerland. Legend has it that around 286 AD, a Theban Legion under the command of Maurice de Valois was sent to suppress a rebellion by Gauls in the north of the empire. On their way to Gaul, the Coptic Christians were encamped at Agaunum (present day Switzerland) where they were ordered to sacrifice to Roman gods and to the Emperor in petition for victory. Maurice and his Theban Legion refused. The Roman Emperor, Maximian, ordered a “decimation” of the legion of seven thousand: one in every ten men was killed. When Maurice and his men continued their refusal, a second decimation was ordered, followed by another and another. The entire seven thousand Egyptian Christians were eventually martyred.
Although the veracity of the story has been called into question, the legend of the martyrs at Agaunum spread far and wide. Between 515–521 AD, Sigismund, King of Burgundy, lavishly endowed the monastery established at the site of the martyrdom to ensure its success. In 522 AD, the abbot at St. Maurice’s instituted laus perennis after the tradition of the Acoemetae. Choirs of monks would sing in rotation, with one choir relieving the previous choir, continuing day and night. This practice went on until around 900 AD, impacting monasteries all over France and Switzerland.
Comgall and Bangor
The Mappa Mundi, the most celebrated of all medieval maps, contains reference to a place on the edge of the known world: Bangor, Ireland. Why was this small, out of the way place, now a dormant coastal town fifteen miles from Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, so important in medieval times?
Patrick and Vallis Angelorum
Monasticism in Britain and Ireland developed along similar lines to those of the Desert Fathers of the East. St. Patrick’s mother was a close relative of Martin of Tours, a contemporary of St. Antony, the father of monasticism. It is no surprise that the same type of asceticism which accompanied the monastic lifestyle in Egypt was also found in Ireland.
In 433 AD, just as the Roman Empire was starting to crumble, St. Patrick returned to Ireland (having been enslaved on the island previously) with a view to preaching the Christian message to the Irish. He was followed by a number of other ascetics—Finnian, Brigid and Ciaran, all of whom established monastic centers throughout the island. While Christianity in much of the empire had been founded upon bishops overseeing cities and urban centers, Ireland had never been conquered and had no urban centers. The fall of the empire therefore had little impact on it, making it relatively easy for monasteries to become the center of influence in Irish society.
According to the 12th century Anglo-Norman Monk Jocelin, Patrick came to rest in a valley on the shores of the Belfast Lough on one of his many journeys. Here, he and his comrades beheld a vision of heaven. Jocelin states, “they held the valley filled with heavenly light, and with a multitude of heaven, they heard, as chanted forth from the voice of angels, the psalmody of the celestial choir.” The place became known as the Vallis Angelorum or the Vale of Angels. The famed Bangor Monastery would begin its life here approximately one hundred years later; from this spot, heaven’s song would reach into Europe.
Bangor’s founder, Comgall, was born in Antrim in 517 AD. Originally a soldier, he soon took monastic vows and was educated for his new life. He is next seen in the Irish annals as a hermit on Lough Erne. However, his rule was so severe that seven of his fellow monks died and he was persuaded to leave and establish a house at Bangor (or Beannchar, from the Irish Horned Curve, probably in reference to the bay) in the famed Vale of the Angels. The earliest Irish annals give 558 as the date of Bangor’s commencement.
Bangor Mor and Perpetual Psalmody
At Bangor, Comgall instituted a rigid monastic rule of incessant prayer and fasting. Far from turning people away, this ascetic rule attracted thousands. When Comgall died in 602, the annals report that three thousand monks looked to him for guidance. Bangor Mor, named “the great Bangor” to distinguish it from its British contemporaries, became the greatest monastic school in Ulster as well as one of the three leading lights of Celtic Christianity. The others were Iona, the great missionary center founded by Colomba, and Bangor on the Dee, in Wales, founded by Dinooth; the ancient Welsh Triads also confirm the “Perpetual Harmonies” at this great house.
Throughout the sixth century, Bangor became famous for its choral psalmody. “It was this music which was carried to the Continent by the Bangor Missionaries in the following century” (Hamilton, Rector of Bangor Abbey). Divine services of the seven hours of prayer were carried out throughout Bangor’s existence. However the monks went further and carried out the practice of laus perennis. In the twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux spoke of Comgall and Bangor, stating, “the solemnization of divine offices was kept up by companies, who relieved each other in succession, so that not for one moment day and night was there an intermission of their devotions.” This continuous singing was antiphonal in nature, based on the call and response reminiscent of Patrick’s vision, but also practiced by St. Martin’s houses in Gaul. Many of these psalms and hymns were later written down in the Antiphonary of Bangor which came to reside in Colombanus’ monastery at Bobbio, Italy.
The Bangor Missionaries
The ascetic life of prayer and fasting was the attraction of Bangor. However, as time progressed, Bangor also became a famed seat of learning and education. There was a saying in Europe at the time that if a man knew Greek he was bound to be an Irishman, largely due to the influence of Bangor. The monastery further became a missions-sending community. Even to this day missionary societies are based in the town. Bangor monks appear throughout medieval literature as a force for good.
In 580 AD, a Bangor monk named Mirin took Christianity to Paisley, where he died “full of miracles and holiness.” In 590, the fiery Colombanus, one of Comgall’s leaders, set out from Bangor with twelve other brothers, including Gall who planted monasteries throughout Switzerland. In Burgundy he established a severe monastic rule at Luxeil which mirrored that of Bangor. From there he went to Bobbio in Italy and established the house which became one of the largest and finest monasteries in Europe. Colombanus died in 615, but by 700 AD, one hundred additional monasteries had been planted throughout France, Germany and Switzerland. Other famed missionary monks who went out from Bangor include Molua, Findchua and Luanus.
The End of Greatness
The greatness of Bangor came to a close in 824 with raids from the marauding Vikings; in one raid alone, nine hundred monks were slaughtered. Although the twelfth century saw a resurrection of the fire of Comgall initiated by Malachy (a close friend of Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote The Life of St. Malachy), it unfortunately never had the same impact as the early Celtic firebrands who held back the tide of darkness and societal collapse by bringing God to a broken generation.
In the ninth and tenth century, Viking raiders and settlers were forging a violent new way of life in Europe. Feudalism was taking root and the monastic way of life was shaken—not only by the physical attacks as Bangor experienced, but subsequent to the raids, many houses were subject to the whims of local chieftains. In reaction to this movement, reform came about in several ways, one arguably being the most crucial reforming movement in the Western Church: the Cluniac order.
In 910, William the Pious, Duke of Aquitaine, founded the monastery at Cluny under the auspices of Abbot Berno, instituting a stricter form of the Benedictine rule. William endowed the abbey with resources from his entire domain, but more importantly gave the abbey freedom in two regards. Due to the financial endowment, the abbey was committed to increased prayer and perpetual praise, or laus perennis. Its autonomy from secular leadership was also important as the abbey was directly accountable to the church in Rome.
The second abbot, Odo, took over in 926. According to C.H. Lawrence, he was “a living embodiment of the Benedictine ideal.” His reforming zeal meant that the influence of the monastery at Cluny expanded widely during his leadership. Known for its independence, hospitality and alms giving, Cluny significantly departed from the Benedictine rule, removing manual labor from a monk’s day and replacing it with increased prayer. The number of monastic houses which looked to Cluny as their motherhouse increased greatly during this period, and the influence of the house spread all over Europe.
Cluny reached the zenith of its power and influence in the twelfth century; it commanded 314 monasteries all over Europe, second only to Rome in terms of importance in the Christian world. It became a seat of learning, training no less than four popes. The fast-growing community at Cluny necessitated a great need for buildings. In 1089, the abbey at Cluny began construction under Hugh, the sixth abbot. It was finished by 1132 and was considered to be one of the wonders of the Middle Ages. More than 555 feet in length, it was the largest building in Europe until St. Peter’s Basilica was built in Rome during the sixteenth century. Consisting of five naves, a narthex (or ante-church), several towers and the conventual buildings, it covered an area of twenty-five acres. However, even before these great building projects, it is interesting to note that the decline in spirituality led to the ultimate demise of Cluny’s influence.