Monastic lexicon


An abbey (abbatia) is a community of monks governed by an abbot (abbas). It is a relatively recent term: we don’t find it until after the 9th century. Before that it is a matter only of “monasteries” (house where monks live). Its usage spread in order to distinguish usual monasteries having an abbot at their head, from monasteries that were still insufficiently developed and were governed by only a prior.


In the Gospel, Christ calls his Father « Abba » (Mark 14 :36). In Aramaic (the language of Christ), this Semitic term takes on a nuance of intimacy and familiarity. Echoing this word of Christ, Saint Paul speaks of the cry of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the Christian. Like Jesus, they are impelled by the filial Spirit to invoke God under the title of Father: “Abba.” In this line comes the name of “Abbot,” the abbot being the representative of Christ-God in the monastery. It is God that the monk obeys when he submits to his abbot. This is the dignity of monastic obedience. We must remember here what Saint Benedict says about the abbot in the second chapter of his Rule: “The abbot holds the place of Christ in the monastery.” The head of the monastery is called “abbot” in this capacity of representing Christ, the only Master. He carries this title because he speaks in the name of Christ to the men who are gathered around him. Saint Benedict strongly insists on this: the first duty of the abbot is to instill in his monks the teaching of Jesus, to recall Jesus to them by his word and his example. The abbot is elected by his brothers, either for an undetermined time, which now must end at the age of 75, or for a period of 6 years, which is renewable.


This room in which one stores books, was called in the Middle Ages: “library” (the word now used in French for a bookstore). The library of Cîteaux, which dates from the beginning of printing, was one of the first to be built. It was constructed before 1509, the year it was completed, in order to gather together a large number of works scattered throughout the whole abbey. It has on the first floor a cloister gallery onto which open the cells of the copyists, and on the second floor the “library” proper, to which one gains access by an enclosed spiral staircase.


It first designated the room in the monastery where the monks gathered each morning to hear a chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict – and thus its name – and a commentary by the abbot. After the church, it was one of the most important places of the monastery, where novices made their request for admission with the goal of future profession. Profession would later be made in the church, after the reading of the Gospel. But it was in the chapter room that lay brothers made their profession. There assemblies of monks were held for deliberations concerning important matters of the community and for elections of the abbots. From the meeting of monks in the chapter room for these important matters came the name “conventual chapter,” from the Latin conventus for meeting. It is a second meaning of the word. In this line, the “general chapter,” instituted by Stephen Harding, is the meeting of all the abbots in the chapter room of Cîteaux to discuss the affairs of the Order. They gathered each year. Today, in light of the large number of abbeys and especially their distribution all around the world, it is held once every 5 years in the Order of Cîteaux and once every three years in the OCSO.

Charter of Charity

Writing attributed to Saint Stephen Harding who made the unity of the Order’s monasteries a reality by grouping them into a single family, based on the relations of mother-houses and daughter-houses, and to the institution of the General Chapter that each year gathered together all the abbots of the Order. It is a just mean between the complete independence of each monastery and the centralization practiced then by Cluny.
The Charter of Charity belongs to the first Cistercian texts, principally with the accounts of the foundation called “exordes”: the “Little Exordium” and the “Cistercian Exordium.”


From the Latin claustrum: enclosure, the word first designated the enclosure of the monastery, in which, according to the Rule of Saint Benedict, is found whatever is of interest for the life of the community. Ultimately, tradition reserved the term “cloister” for the enclosed space around which all the principal rooms of the monastery are arranged, with access by a gallery along the sides. You can easily see the relation between the atrium of Roman houses and the cloister of monasteries. The first monastic cloisters appeared in Syria in the 5th century and were made of wood. Around 800, cloisters began to be built of stone. But the first cloister of Cîteaux was of wood. In the Cistercian abbeys of the Middle Ages, the principal places of the monastery, the church, the chapter room, the refectory, the kitchen, the warming room, the novitiate, the storage room, all opened onto the cloister, a place of silence, prayer and reading. The dormitory was on the second floor. Because of this arrangement, the cloister was thus the heart of the monastery. This word has also become synonymous with monastery in such French expressions as “to go into the cloister” for “to enter a monastery (as a monk or nun).”

Lay brothers

Religious, they made vows and were members of the community. They especially devoted themselves to work, sometimes serving as intermediaries between the community and the exterior world. They could live in “granges,” near-by farming establishments, on which the monastery depended. Their part in the prayer services was reduced to allow more time for manual work. For this reason they did not have the right to the title of “monks.” Their responsibilities were focused on the material, but they were sustained by a life in common, regular prayer and by obedience.


The “Définitoire” is both the gathered group of definitors and the place where they gathered. These definitors, numbering about 25, were the Abbot of Cîteaux and the first 4 Fathers: the abbots of La Ferté, Pontigny, Clairvaux and Morimont, plus 4 definitors elected in each line of filiation. These prepared the questions for the General Chapter, marked out the boundaries of the issues, defined issues, and proposed solutions for them. They did not live permanently at Cîteaux. From them comes the name Définitoire given to the building which still stands in the old Cîteaux. This building was begun under the abbacy of Dom Jean Petit and was completed before 1699. Planned to receive the novitiate, which was then common to several abbeys, as well as to house the definitors, it is a long building, about 80 by 16 meters. On the ground floor is a beautiful vaulted hall and another smaller room, doubtless the novitiate chapel. On the second floor the new dormitory in separate cells. This is a building with specific uses that could exist only in the principal abbey of the Order.


Is the one that the Rule provides for in Chapter 55: “Two tunics, two cowls, a scapular, a belt.” The scapular was originally clothing for work worn over the shoulders with panels in front and behind that fell to the knees. The cowl is the Roman cucullus, that hooded cape worn as protection in intemperate weather. In the early days of Cîteaux, our founders took up again the habit described in the Rule including its required poverty. Thus, the habit would be of raw undyed wool: in regions where the sheep have white wool, the habit would be an off-white wool; in regions where the wool is brown, in brown cloth, as witnessed by the famous miniature of Saint Waast of Arras where Saint Stephen is wearing a colored cowl (see the illustration above). In 1335 it was decided the cowl must be white and the scapular brown. Later still, in the 17th century, the scapular became black. To differentiate from the Benedictines, the belt holds the scapular to the tunic. Novices wear a white scapular; a cloth, not a leather, belt; and a cloak, in place of the cowl, which is reserved for those who make their final profession. From this comes the expression “to wear the cowl”: to be a novice no longer.


The term
The word “monk” comes from the Greek monakos which means “one,” “alone.” In the beginning it was reserved to designate one who lived alone, withdrawn and separated (anchorite), or in the desert (hermit). Consequently, the first “cenobites” (those who live together in community) did not use this word but preferred “brothers.” Then a deeper meaning of the word appeared. This refers to the interior of the Christian, hermit or cenobite, who must be “one” (monakos) or “unified.” The monk is then one who unifies his life according to a single goal, what Saint Benedict would later define as “seeking God.” His whole life is turned in that single direction. In the 12th century, a Cistercian, Geoffrey d’Auxerre, synthesized these two meanings: “There is no unified community if the monks forming the community are not first unified in their interior.”

Monk and priest
You understand that the calling of the monk is different from that of priest, although both are called to a service of the Church, to an exclusive service of God. The monk is turned toward prayer, the source of God’s gifts. The priest dispenses these gifts more directly, especially in the form of Word and the sacraments. Originally, in the monastic communities of Egypt, there were very few priests. One or two at each Center, and these Centers were made up of several hundred monks. The priest is mostly functional, being the only one qualified to celebrate the Eucharist. In Western monasticism, up until the Second Vatican Council, nearly all the choir monks were, in fact, priests; the lay brothers and non-ordained did not have the title monk. This situation stemmed from an evolution certainly going back to the last centuries of the Middle Ages, but especially dependant on the canonical idea of “clerical religion” applied to the monastic orders. Today, we enter monasteries to be monks. When he judges it a good idea, the abbot asks the bishop to ordain some brothers as priests, in function of the needs of the monastery.

Becoming a monk
Entering monastic life is a process. Someone who desires to embrace monastic life begins with a stay in the guest house; he then comes into contact with the brother charged with the new brothers and, if this brother thinks it good, he is able to spend several days in community, which allows him to become better acquainted with the monastery and the monks. Then, if he persists in his desire, he stays even longer and becomes a postulant. If he continues to find the monastery pleasing and if the Novice master and the Abbot’s Council sees in him the qualities of a novice, he receives the novice habit, which differs form that of the monks. The novitiate lasts two years during which there is no commitment: the novice can leave any day, if he so wishes. If he perseveres, and if the community sees in him the qualities needed to be a monk, if he “truly seeks God” as Saint Benedict requires, the Abbot gives him permission to make vows of obedience and of stability to the community and the place, for 3 years (or for 1 year, renewable 3 times). Then a definitive commitment will be made for life only after 6 months of postulancy, 2 years of novitiate, and 3 years of simple vows, which can be prolonged for up to 6 years.

Continual prayer

In all times Christians have felt themselves called by the demands of the Gospel : to “pray always” (Luke 18: 1 ; 21 : 36) and of Saint Paul: “Pray without ceasing” (I Thess 5: 17 – and also Eph 6: 18). The problem was to reconcile the requirements of everyday life, and especially the necessity of work (as also expressed by Saint Paul), with this demand for continual prayer. After some rather naïve interpretations, spiritual people quickly discovered that repeated prayers stabilize the heart in a state of prayer. Charity abiding in the heart creates there a simple prayer, an orientation of the heart toward God which subsists throughout the day’s activities. This supposes some concentrated periods of prayer in the course of the day: prayers merit the grace of prayer.

Monastic rule

This is normative text, written by a spiritual Master – or attributed to him – in order to make a community. The Rule of Saint Benedict, written in Italy, at Monte Cassino around 540, was inspired by earlier Rules, especially the Rule of the Master and that of Saint Augustine. It also borrowed from the Institutes of Cassian. In this Rule, Saint Benedict was able to bring together deep spirituality with precise rules, tempered with wise discretion. It insists on the role of the abbot, but is able to place value on fraternal charity that binds the community of brothers. There is its genius, which makes it an exceptional document. This is why, recommended by Pope Saint Gregory the Great fifty years later, Benedict’s Rule did not take long to become established as the Rule of Western monks.

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