Kylemore Abbey, Republic of Ireland
The Benedictine monastic way has produced some of the greatest achievements in all of history. Thomas Woods, author of How the Catholic Church built Western Civilization, said,
"The monks played a critical role in the development of Western civilization...This historical fact comes as less of a surprise when we recall Christ's words: 'Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven, and all these things shall be added unto you.' That, stated simply, is the history of the monks."1Much of the following is taken from Woods' excellent book:
The Benedictines enshrined work as a means to glorify God, the Benedictines preserved ancient texts. Virtually every ancient text that survived to the eighth century has survived to today.
The Benedictines were pioneers in all forms of agriculture. A modern expert noted that "every Benedictine monastery was an agricultural college for the whole region in which it was located."2
Benedictine monks developed Sweden's commerce in corn, Ireland's salmon fisheries, and Para, Italy's cheese making. "Please pass the Parmesan cheese. Thank you monks."
It was the Benedictines who first improved cattle breeding by other than random means. But it is a monk of another order — the Augustinians' — Gregor Johann Mendel (1822 - 1884) who is known to all biology students as the father of the modern science of genetics.
The Benedictines fostered the production of great wine. In 1531 Benedictine monks in the Abbey of Saint Hilaire near Carcassonne, in southern France produced sparkling wine (champagne is a sparkling wine).
Although Dom Perignon (late 1600s) of Saint Peter's Abbey, Hautvilliers-on-the-Marne, did not invent champagne, his deserved fame as the father of champagne comes from the fact that Dom Perignon did develop many of the modern techniques used in the effective production of champagne, including the use of wire to hold the cork in place. Pop!
The Benedictine band made technological advancements in architecture and buildings. They expanded the use of water power and directed spring waters to Paris.
A Benedictine monk made the first modern clock in about 996 AD.
About 1200 AD a Benedictine monk built and tested a glider that went 600 feet.
The English Benedictines developed advanced furnaces for the production of metals — specifically the extraction of iron from ore. Within in the last 20 years an archeometallurgist discovered that the slag (a byproduct of smelting) from an early 1500s English Benedictine smelting furnace showed a level of technological sophistication that was not achieved until much later by other inventors.
An English king's short-sighted suppression of the English monasteries stopped the work of talented Benedictines who now appear to have been on the verge of the techniques that sparked the advances of the industrial age 200 years later.
Cardinal Newman would have understood why such Benedictine abilities and effective endeavors passed without notice at the time only to be recognized recently in the light of better 20-20 hindsight:
St. Benedict found the world, physical and social, in ruins, and his mission was to restore it in the way, not of science, but of nature, not as if setting about to do it, not professing to do it by any set time or by any rare specific or by any series of strokes, but so quietly, patiently, gradually, that often, till the work was done, it was not known to be doing. It was a restoration, rather than a visitation, correction, or conversion. The new world which he helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully deciphered and copied and re-copied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one that 'contended or cried out,' or drew attention to what was going on; but by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning, and a city. Roads and bridges connected it with other abbeys and cities, which had similarly grown up; and what the haughty Alaric or fierce Attila had broken to pieces, these patient meditative men had brought together and made to live again. (Mission of St. Benedict, §9; reprint, p. 67) quoted in Butler, Cuthbert. Benedictine Monachism. London: Longmans, Green &, 1924, page 319-320.While some people think of monasteries as being shut away from the world, that view gives a too narrow view of how monastic life affects and enhances the wider community. Benedictine monasteries were places of beauty and learning, as focus on God often is.
"These monasteries too, presented pictures of a cultured society engaged in the pursuit of art, literature, and science, while at the same time they exemplified in themselves the benefits which civilization brought into every detail of daily life. If the "Pax Romana" had been a blessing in an earlier age, the "Pax Benedictina" brought with it even greater happiness, for now both supernatural and natural benefits were simultaneously put in reach of everyone alike."3When it came to using modern means of communication virtually no one surpassed the Benedictine monks — I am speaking of those like Abbot Fredegise at Saint Martin’s Abbey (early 800s AD) who helped develop the Carolingian minuscule — a better form of writing. Before the monks put there hooded heads to task, Europe had many forms of scripts such as
ALLCAPITALLETTERSANDNOPUNCTUATIONAfter the work of Abbot Fredegise, Europe and its future had a form of writing with lower case letters, spaces between the words, and punctuation. These advancements led to easy reading and writing — and widespread learning — which helped build the new civilization.
During centuries of upheaval, barbarian invasions, and cultural collapse, perhaps the most under recognized achievement of the Benedictine monks was that they existed at all and were able to maintain monastic houses as islands above the worldly wash. Amid chaos, they were places of prayer, work, and reading. Those three Benedictine characteristics helped build the greatest civilization ever known.
By the 1500s the Benedictines had given the Church 24 popes, 200 cardinals, 7,000 archbishops, 15,000 bishops, 1,500 canonized saints, 20 emperors, 10 empresses, 47 kings, and 50 queens.
At its pinnacle, Benedictine Europe had 37,000 Benedictine monasteries. Many cities of today trace their origins to such monastic houses.
All these Benedictine accomplishments should be seen as secondary to the greater accomplishment of spreading the good news of life to a "chaotic and pagan Europe."4
St. Benedict — the first Benedictine — is also known for another accomplishment — compiling his famous Rule in about 530 AD. Other than the Bible, the Rule of St. Benedict has been called the most important book in the development of European civilization.
This Rule for monks, sisters and nuns guides many people seeking to dwell with God. That was the goal to which St. Benedict aspired. All else was secondary.
For St. Benedict who lived in a time of cultural chaos and wars, he was guided by a simple charge:
"prefer nothing to the love of Christ"All the accomplishments flowed from that truth about the human condition. The Benedictines' accomplishments have earned them the right to be heard by anyone wanting to live in the "real world" — it is the one the Benedictines help build.
On July 5, 2010 I updated this blog by adding the Newman quote. It was too good to leave out.
Picture is Kylemore Abbey by Jule_Berlin and is used subject to license.
At Jule_Berlin's Flickr page there is the following description of this most beautiful abbey:
Kylemore Abbey (Irish: Mainistir na Coille Móire) is a Benedictine nunnery founded in 1920 on the grounds of Kylemore Castle, in Connemara, County Galway, Republic of Ireland. The abbey was founded when Benedictine Nuns fled Belgium in World War I.1. Woods, Jr. Thomas E. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Grand Rapids: Regnery, Inc., 2005. P. 60.
Originally called Kylemore Castle, it was built between 1863 and 1868 as a private home for the family of Mitchell Henry, a wealthy politician from Manchester, England who was also MP for Galway County from 1871 to 1885. After the death of his wife Margaret in 1875, Mitchell did not spend much time there. He and his wife are both buried in the small mausoleum near the church in the grounds of the abbey. Notable features of the abbey are the neo-Gothic church (built between 1877 and 1881), a miniature replica of Norwich Cathedral, made from local green Connemara marble, and the Victorian walled garden.
The abbey houses a secondary girls' boarding school, Kylemore Abbey International Girls' School. The house and gardens are open to the public.
The name Kylemore originates from the Irish words Coill Mór – meaning Great Wood.
2. Id. P. 29.
3. "The Benedictines" by Dom Bruno Hicks, (1878-1954)
4. Dom David Knowles, "The Benedictines," A Digest for Moderns, Second Edition, page 50 in chapter 6. Forward by Marion R. Bowman, O.S.B. Abbot of Saint Leo Abbey, The Abbey Press, Saint Leo, Florida, 1962
Online version (but this online version omits chapters 5 and 6, the last two chapters).