Oblate Journey: Who are the Camaldolese?

In my previous blog entry on my journey into Benedictine Camaldolese spirituality I shared a brief history of St. Benedict and the early Benedictine monastic movement. Here I wish to briefly discuss the Camaldolese movement within Benedictinism.

The Benedictine movement spread rapidly across western Europe during the early Middle Ages, bringing not only the Gospel but stability and learning to a region decimated by the barbarian invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries. And yet, as with any movement, the original vision and ardor of the Benedictine movement was in need of reformation and renewal. There was a flourishing of such renewal movements during the 10th to the 12th centuries. One of the first was the reform of the monastery at Cluny, emphasized centralization among the previously autonomous Benedictine monasteries and a stricter adherence to the Rule of St. Benedict. One of the later reforms was the rise of the Cistercians, who we know through the monastery of New Clairvaux in Vina.

The Camaldolese reform of the Benedictine movement began with Romuald of Ravenna (c. 952-1027). As a young man Romuald had a personal crisis after witnessing his father murder a relative which led him to join the Benedictine monastery of St. Apollinaris in La Classe. Although the monastery had recently been a part of the Cluniac reform, the monks themselves seemed to Romuald to be impervious to reformation themselves. He left La Classe and formed a simple monastic community with a wise and spiritual monk named Marino. This master/disciple arrangement was patterned after the Eastern Christian monastic patterns.

In time Romuald himself became the master and attracted a number of disciples, which in time included the erstwhile Doge of Venice, Peter Orseolo I. With this band of brothers Romuald established numerous monasteries Italy and as far afield as the French Pyrenees. One of the last of these monastic communities was in Camaldoli in the Tuscan hills. It is from Camaldoli that the order gets its name.

The communities Romuald founded were marked by commitment to Benedictine life and vows, as well as a simplicity of life. By some accounts Romuald was considered strict in his monastic observance, yet the stories we have of his life also show a pastoral soul filled with kindness and humor.

At the heart of the Camaldolese reform was the balance of both communal life and solitude. St. Benedict had focused his Rule on communal life, rather than on the solitary spirituality of hermits. While Benedict recognized that some are called to pursue holiness as solitaries, he often witnessed the spiritually immature and the extremists engage in eremitical life to the detriment of all.

Romuald envisioned a group of monks composed first of a monastic community along the lines of that envisioned in the Rule. This community under Romuald’s reform would be particularly attendant to hospitality to pilgrims and care of the sick. Outside of the cloister, yet in proximity, would be small homes for the hermits pursuing interior prayer and solitude. The two parts of the Camaldolese life, community and solitude, are thus joined together and are mutually supportive. Community and solitude are the first two aspects of what the Camaldolese call the triplex bonum, the “threefold advantage” that is at the heart of their vision.

The third aspect of of the triplex bonum, witness, stems from Romuald’s connection with the young Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III and his cousin, the monk Bruno-Boniface of Querfurt. Both were taken with Romualdian reform and spirituality. As Romuald always had a passion for starting new monastic communities, Otto convinced Romuald to send five Brothers to the frontier in Poland where they shared their faith with the pagan tribes. They all died martyr’s deaths. Bruno-Boniface wrote of their lives and deaths in The Life of the Five Hermit Brothers, which is one of the central texts of early Camaldolese spirituality.

While perhaps small in comparison to other Benedictine congregations, the Camaldolese have developed a rich spiritual life grounded in the Benedictine vision and pursuing the Threefold Advantage around the globe. Beyond Italy and Poland they have communities in places such as Brazil, and India. On the West Coast the Camaldolese founded New Camaldoli and have two other monastic houses, the “urban monastery,” Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, and the Monastery of the Risen Christ outside of San Luis Obispo.

Camaldolese Oblates seek to live as followers of Jesus Christ grounded in the balanced spirituality of the Rule of St. Benedict and lived out in their own pursuit of the Triplex Bonum as appropriate to their own lives and situations.