(Briefly) Defining Historical Foundations of Religious

This past weekend I went on a discernment retreat at the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará‘s convent. Yes, I slept in a convent. No, it wasn’t silent all weekend. I’ve been going to first Friday (of the month) pizza nights for two years now and have gotten to know some of the sisters very well. They’re a really young order (founded only in the late 1980s) and so full of life. They pretty much shatter every stereotype of religious there is. Well except for being religious and that kinda stuff. But that’s kind of a given, isn’t it? You should really go check out their website. Oh yeah and I’ll be going to Iceland with them in July, so be sure check out my other blog to see what I’m up to then! Anyway, I’ve always been fascinated by religious orders of any time period, and I thought I’d use this opportunity to break religious communities down for y’all (because I’ll definitely be talking about them again).

I think the best way to go through this is chronologically. So, we’ll start with hermits. Hermits are people who went to go live off in the wild starting in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Or at least that’s how they started out. Way back when there were a bunch of John the Baptists running around in the desert, where they would come face to face with their (presumably internal) devils. They are better known as ascetics, or people who abstain from a number of worldly pleasures to focus on spiritual growth. The movement was primarily in Egypt but also existed in Syria, and the big honchos of the ascetics of Late Antiquity are collectively called Desert Fathers (don’t worry, there are also a few Desert Mothers). The idea of being a hermit is that you’re completely alone. Of course, if you’re one of the big honchos, that’s kinda problematic because people find out about you. And then find you. And then want to talk to you. So, if you’re someone like St. Anthony the Great, you instead spend your life teaching others how to be alone (or something to that effect). If you’re really into hermits, there’s a whole website dedicated to them.

The Desert Fathers set the stage for early medieval monasticism. As the numbers of hermits grew, the space required to live successfully alone diminished drastically, so they decided to team up and live in communities. Just kidding. But they did start living together because why not? They all had the same goals, so they may as well help each other out [cue annoying Disney music]. Skipping ahead to the 5th century, we meet one of my all time faves: St. Benedict of Nursia (480-543). I could spend an entire post on him. But I’ll spare y’all this time. Benedict - yes, we’re on a first name basis - started off as a hermit. Eventually, Benedict established Monte Cassino, one of the – if not the - most important monasteries in the history of western monasticism because it is the foundation of western monasticism. With Monte Cassino came a new kind of hermit: the monk. Monks are men who are closed off from the world and live within a community that follows certain rules specific to their order. Nuns are the female counterpart to monks. Monks and nuns – in class I shorthand that to muns (teehee) - both live in monasteries, but nuns’ residences can also be referred to as cloisters or convents (check the glossary for the specific definitions of these). Benedict’s book of rules, the Regula Benedicti (which set the groundwork for future rules), lists everything the monks in the Benedictine order should and shouldn’t do, from how many times a day they should pray to how to treat their clothes. In short, monks and nuns are pretty much hermits that live in a group.

I could go into other big  monastic groups in the middle ages, but then you’d be reading a paper and not a blog post, so I’ll spare you. Instead, I’ll move on to mendicant orders. Mendicant orders, part of a 13th century movement to make the Church and religion more accessible to regular people (i.e. the laity). You’ve probably heard of St. Francis of Assisi (that guy with the animals) and St. Dominic, both of whom founded their own mendicant orders. The men in mendicant orders are friars. They live in poverty and lead ascetic lives like monks and nuns do, but they are not cloistered. Instead, they go around preaching the Gospel to people.

Now, while women such as St. Clare of Assisi (the Poor Clares) founded complementary orders to some of the mendicant orders, the Middle Ages were a little tricky when it came to women religious. So, while sisters like the Poor Clares lived (and still do) in the spirit of the Franciscans, they weren’t true mendicant orders because the Church didn’t allow women to be mendicants. This may sound sexist (and maybe it is), but there was a huge concern for the safety of women walking around unsupervised during the Middle Ages. As a result, women like Clare ended up in their own cloisters, living mostly as nuns.

And that’s where the Servidoras come in. Because things have changed since the Middle Ages (duh). The Servidoras are a modern-day mendicant order. They live in poverty, are ascetics, but also mission all over the world. In their convent they are allowed to communicate with each other except when in the cloisters, which is where their bedrooms are. They also have a contemplative branch within their order, so really they’re everything rolled into one group! (They also have a cool brother order, the Institute of the Incarnate Word, for all you men out there) In any case, women mendicants (sisters) do actually exist. Other examples are the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters and Daughters of Charity, and of course Mother Theresa‘s order, the Missionaries of Charity.

And because I can’t decide which medieval saint to feature, I’ll just post a picture of the holy women I got to spend my weekend with:

Picture of the Servidoras at the Juniorate in D.C.

The Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará at the Juniorate House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Via

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About JavelinWise

B.A. candidate Medieval Studies, Germanic Studies @ University of Maryland, College Park baby medievalist | avid traveler | wannabe polyglot | adorer of cats [Pic: found in Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England; via Sonia Halliday Photographs]
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