The Monastery

In this site, we are looking at the apparent dichotomy been 'Inspired Intuition' and 'Material Reality'. In practice these are not two alternatives, but need to be combined in order to achieve intuitively inspired objectives and projects.

The question is how to achieve this ? –  There are potential difficulties that might be summarised as as follows:

 The ‘intuitively inspired’ wish to allow the initial vision to emerge in an organic fashion.  There is a feeling that concrete planning, or clear definition of objects and how to achieve them, will inhibit the natural flow of the project.

The ‘practical materialists’, who are needed to support the project, want to see a firm concrete plan for what is being set out to be achieved, and a clear listing of services offered and outcomes expected. This is particularly so in the field of financial long-term sustainability.

These two aspects are apparently opposed - but both are necessary. So how do we set about achieving a sustainable and creative balance ?

What does not seem to work, is to be a 'halfway house' - where intuition is hidden and dynamic materialism is watered down. What is needed is some format where both apparently contrasting aspects are allowed to flourish and contribute to the whole.

An interesting model here is that of a Benedictine Monastery.

Below is a summary of some of the aspects that would be found in a mediaeval monastery. We use the terms Abbey and Monastery as synonyms for a typical large Benedictine Monastery of the Middle Ages.


What caused the monasteries to come into being ?

In the Middle Ages, Christianity in Europe was all-powerful and influenced the lives of everyone. Within this atmosphere, the church promoted the idea that faith and prayer were the only way to eternal salvation. Not everyone had time for this and therefore some form of ‘Powerhouse of Prayer’ was needed to look after this aspect for the whole community.


the result was the establishment of the Monasteries. They were supported by the populace for the cause mentioned above, but many of those who became monks were genuinely committed to a life of faith and prayer


the prime purpose of the Monastery was to pray for the souls of all. But they became, by the lack of any alternative, the ‘Welfare State’ of the Middle Ages - providing all the services that we would now think of as the responsibility of the state.


The Abbey provided a range of services to its local community. It set up and ran hospices, hospitals, schools and alms houses for the elderly poor. Roads and drains were created and maintained, canals dug, and bursaries provided for bright young monks attending the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

In the monastery, there would be artistic creation such as the decorating and painting of the Abbey Church, creating new carvings, the caring for the books on the extensive library and the copying of sacred texts.


The monastery was traditionally a place of solitude and spirituality. Individual monks had taken a vow of poverty and owned nothing personally. But they had access to everything they needed in the way of clothing, food, accommodation, books and implements – all owned by the Monastery.

Despite the individual poverty of monks, monasteries were often wealthy institutions. Their income came from a number of sources.

Patrons - the underlying source of income was from donations, in cash and kind, made in return for prayers for the eternal soul of the donor.

There would be an initial gift from the founder - in due course others would donate. These gifts could be in the form of land, a farm, goods, such as chalices, altar cloths or fine furniture for the guest house, or more modest sums for ‘letters of indulgence’. Depending upon the size of your contribution, you would purchase the prayers of one monk or the whole Abbey,

Visiting guests, and persons placing their son within the house as part of their education, would give donations.

Estates - As a result of these gifts, Abbeys became immensely wealthy and powerful. Their huge income was wisely invested, not only in the magnificent Monastery buildings, but in land, buildings and farms.

Glastonbury Abbey owned most of the houses in the town, many farms in the surrounding district, an oxen stud farm, apple orchards, cider presses and fish lakes. From these flowed rental incomes and all the food and other resources needed by the Abbey.


The responsibility structure of the Abbey was a combination of dictatorship and democracy. From amongst their number, the monks appointed an Abbot, who was directly responsible to God for the ruling of the Abbey. The Abbot was the ‘Father’ of the monastic community, but also the ultimate authority on all matters.

The choir monks met regularly in the chapterhouse. The meeting started with a reading of a chapter from the Rule of St Benedict - then matters affecting the monks were discussed and consensual decisions made. If unanimity could not be achieved, the Abbot’s decision was final.

The lay brothers and servants of the Monastery had no say in this process although their views were heard and considered.


Novice- A prospective monastic would undergo a period of training and preparation, to determine whether they were called to the religious life.If they were accepted, they would make three vows:

Stability – a commitment of allegiance to the one monastery and its monastic family.

Conversion– a commitment to live in a monastic manner, following the Gospel according to the insights of Saint Benedict. That is to embrace dedication to prayer, celibacy, sharing of material goods in community and a life of simplicity.

Obedience – a commitment to give order to their pursuit of God by working under the guidance of the Abbot.

On the taking of these vows, the novice was appointed as a choir monk.

Stability –this is an interesting vow. It was reasonable for novices to make as the Abbey was seen to be a stable institution, and would certainly be a support for the whole of the monk’s life. All his basic needs would be provided as would facilities for prayer and interesting and fulfilling creative activities.

Choir Monk - There would have been some 50 choir monks, some of whom would be ordained as priests Their first duty was the cycle of prayer in the monastery church, but they would have a balanced life including work in the Abbey grounds, teaching, learning and their own private contemplation.

Officers - From the body of choir monks, in addition to the abbot, the following would be appointed

Sacrist - Second only to the Abbot, in charge of everything holy, including books and relics.

Almoner - Manages alms distributed to the poor.

Chamberlain -In charge of clothing.

Circuitor - In charge of discipline.

Librarian - Manages the books of the monastery.

Novice-master - supervising the novices.

Lay Brothers- Lay Brothers did not take vows as monks and were employed to handle secular matters. Some would be relatively unskilled, working in the farms, gardens, the hospice, infirmary, and kitchens, others would be professionals handling the following tasks:

Cellarer - Providing for the practical needs for daily life.

Cantor – Supervising the music.

Treasurer - Supervising the monastery’s assets, income and expenses.

Guest-master - Caring for the monastery’s guests.

Infirmerer – Caring for the sick and the elderly monks.

Kitchener - In charge of food preparation.

A large monastery, such as Glastonbury Abbey with many farms and properties to manage, would have a substantial body of Lay Brothers – maybe up to 200.


The abbey buildings were extensive. There was the central church and, to the south, a cloister with surrounding buildings for the dormitories and dining rooms of the monks, a ‘reredorter’ for ablutions, rooms for entertaining guests, kitchens, a hospital, a hospice and the all facilities and apparatus needed to run a large organisation. The buildings were magnificent and beautifully decorated with the purpose and intent of being an awe-inspiring tribute to the honour of God.


With the growth in wealth and secular activities, the Abbeys became well-run and successful businesses – but a special sort of business. That was one where the secular activities were run in a highly efficient and well-managed manner – but with an inner sacred spiritual heart provided by the choir monks carrying out their regular daily routine of prayer.

 With this wealth came influence and abbots of the leading monasteries played a significant role in the management of the country and made regular visits to London. Their increasing involvement in secular life, lead to accusations of greed and over-indulgence that eventually led to the dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in the time of the Reformation. The end of this extraordinary era of monastic power.

Is this a useful Model for today ?

Is the pattern of a mediaeval monastery relevant for us today ?

In trying to solve problems of the day, we believe that it is necessary to have:

A balance between ‘spiritual inspiration’ and ‘material competence’

These might be said to be two poles of a spectrum. The difficulty is that individuals at the poles of this spectrum tend to distrust and disrespect individuals at the opposite pole - but both are needed.

What does not work is to try to produce some halfway house where the materialists become more fluid and spiritually inspired, whilst the spiritually inspired abandon some of their inspiration and become more materialist. This only seems to lead to a weakening of the abilities, skills and talents needed from both poles of the spectrum.

There is an interesting metaphor in the mediaeval monastery. At the spiritual heart were the choir monks, supported by the facilities of the Abbey and so able to concentrate upon a life of commitment and prayer. It was this spirituality, at the heart of a thriving enterprise housed in magnificent buildings, that was the energising force that drew the abundance that flowed into the Monastery, and enabled it to deliver a range of useful services to the surrounding community.

For this to work, the Abbey had to be a well-managed, with monks and lay brothers dedicated to the specific secular tasks needed to run this huge organisation.

Maybe there is a way that we can begin to think of contemporary well-run businesses having a spiritual heart.

That indeed is the challenge of the moment – can we see a way in which this model might be applicable today ?  If so what might this be ?

Cause  - The cause today is no longer the Christian imperative.  But now there is a growing awareness of the need for society to do something about the gathering problems of a damaged ecology, and community structures such as education and health services that no longer seem able to handle the demands made upon them.

Effect - How do we effectively respond to the growing pressure of these causes ? The answer is not to set up a Christian monastery. What seems to be needed is an organisation that addresses the problems that deeply concern people today – addresses these problems in an effective and efficient manner - and is accepted by all as being an honest and efficient organisation able to effectively produce solutions to the most intractable problems. An organisation that today has the standing and credibility that was held by the Abbeys at their height.

Purpose - The purpose today is not to set up a welfare state as this already exists. But the purpose would be work with governments and politicians to provide solutions as to how best to enhance the services already been provided and to do this in an effective, economically efficient, and compassionate manner.

 In addition, the organisation would provide teaching in the form of workshops, papers, websites, and conferences.

Services - The organisation would be a centre for interchange and exploration of the key issues of the day.

  • It would provide services as a consulting company in return for fees.
  •  it would provide training courses, workshops, websites and publications.

Income - Those working in the organisation would not be monks, but in our present materialistic paradigm of 2018, would need to be paid for their services. The endeavour would be to run an efficient, practical and economic organisation and to pay people at the going commercial rates, but not in an extravagant fashion. Wherever possible work would be done on a voluntary basis,

The method of generating income would be similar to that of our monastic model and would come from a number of sources.

There would be donations from individuals supporting the objects of the project, income from services provided, and longer term income from buildings, properties, investments and subsidiary activities.


‘Choir monks’– these could be inspired scientists and other professionals able to produce new solutions to current global material problems. They would not be spending a life in prayer but their work would be a form of honouring the spiritual. They would also be recognised by the organisation as being ‘spiritually inspired’.

They would not take vows -  but the vow of stability is interesting.  if the organisation was sufficiently stable, respected, and able to meet the needs of those working within it, then there might be an expectation that these inspired individuals would dedicate their lives to the furthering of this particular venture.

‘Lay brothers’- There would need to be the supporting framework of staff and professionals able to organise the business part of the enterprise, coordinate the delivery of services, and build strong contacts with the conventional world of politicians, business people and funders. There would not be the same expectation of continuity for the general staff.

‘Abbot; - unlike a Monastery, there would not be an all-powerful head of the organisation. Instead the organisation would be run by a group of equals – with a range of complementary skills.  Developing how such a group works together, makes decisions and gets practical results will be a key challenge of such a project.


Theoretically a building is not necessary for the enterprise we are envisioning. But it is interesting that our Monastery model had magnificent buildings that were an inspiration to all those involved. It does look as if a worthwhile and successful modern Monastery needs its own buildings - maybe even a modest university campus !


There is a potential for our envisaged organisation to become world-renowned and powerful. We will have to be careful to see that it remains compassionate, caring an honourable. As with all human enterprises, there will always be a danger for grandiosity and lack of true compassion to arise.