St Romuald and the Camaldolese Way of Christian Discipleship

St Romuald“What are saints really like? All too often we think of them as heavenly people who did nothing except pray, perform good deeds, and make everyone feel guilty for not living up to their example. While some of the saints did spend all, or most, of their time praying and doing good deeds, the majority were [ordinary] people with all the foibles, eccentricities and charm of [ordinary] people. That’s what makes saints so appealing  –  ordinary people with one extraordinary difference  –  they have been so inflamed with the love of God that their entire lives [have become] a celebration of God’s love and goodness  –  so passionately in love with God while living they are believed to be permanently with God for eternity.” 1

What do we know of St Romuald?  Dom Lino Vigilucci OSB.Cam wrote in his book CAMALDOLI, “The history of Camaldoli begins with the history of Romuald, the two are identified with one another, so much so that, though there are two names, there is really only one event. Familiarity with the one leads to familiarity with the other.” 2  Hence this reflection begins with a consideration of its holy Founder. 3

Romuald was born around the year 952AD into a wealthy noble family at Ravenna in Northern Italy. His father, Duke Sergio, took him to witness a duel at which the duke killed his adversary.  The young Romuald was so horrified by what he saw that it led him to seek entry into the Benedictine abbey of St Appolinare-in-Classe.

After four years he became dissatisfied with the mediocre observance of his brothers, and he received permission to live close by as a hermit, seemingly much to the relief of the remainder of the community.  In 976 he became a disciple of the elderly holy solitary Marino.  Romuald was encouraged to move to Marino’s abbey in France. Here, with three other companions he established a community of hermits in the style of an Eastern lavra. Between 980 and 993 he founded various monasteries and hermitages in the vicinity of his former community in Ravenna.

Romuald became a close friend of the young Emperor Otto III who urged him to accept the office of abbot at  Appolinare-in-Classe in 998, but this lasted just one year as Romuald was defeated by the obduracy of his charges. He set out on a pilgrimage and spent three years in reclusion at Istria, ( modern day Dalmatia).  While here the young Emperor suggested a novel idea of the ‘Triple Good’  –  a combination of monastery, hermitage, and missionary endeavour.  So it was that the Saint permitted some of his brothers to travel on a mission to Poland in 1001.  They were martyred there the following year.

It was at this time Romuald was granted the spiritual gifts of tears, wisdom, healing, prophecy, and mystical prayer.  Then began a remarkable period of founding or reforming many monastic communities and hermitages.  He established a monastery of nuns at Valicastro, while living in the monastery of Holy Mary at Sitria. It was here that he was wrongly accused of sexual misconduct and was for six months imprisoned by his fellow monks.

Romuald’s final foundation, at the age of 71, was at Camaldoli in 1023, ten years after he had established the simple rule*. He died alone just four years later and is buried in the church at Fabriano.

* This is generally taken as the time of the foundation of the Camaldolese Tradition.

What we learn of the Saint.  He was a richly gifted, visionary, charismatic man who is difficult to categorise  –  at once a monk, hermit, ascetic, mystic, reformer, founder, pilgrim, prophet, spiritual master  –  but above all, a loyal friend and ardent lover of God and His Christ.

Romuald was himself a very austere ascetic, strongly influenced by the Rule of St Benedict, always cautioning prudence and moderation.  He was a harsh critic of the abuses of the Church of his day, the lax observances in monasteries, the lack of discipline among hermits, the simony and concubinage of the clergy, and the indifference of the people. Yet for all this his heart was never hardened nor his faith disturbed.  He desired only the conversion and salvation of those he cautioned.

The man was certainly not a grim forbidding or severe puritan.  We are assured he was an approachable, charming, sensitive, gentle and humorous monk, attracting people from all walks of life, guiding many to the reformed monastic and eremitic life.  A remarkably humble person, exemplified in his quiet acceptance of the false accusations and harsh treatment by his brothers very late in his life.

Romuald was a bold innovator, successfully initiating the combination of monastic, eremitic, and missionary life in the one movement of reform which has become a quiet part of the Church for a thousand years. Most importantly he gifted the Church his power of prayer in the simplest form, and a simple rule that has been the foundation of life for thousands of pilgrims over a millennia.

The Camaldolese Way

Fr Peter-Damian Belisle 4 suggests the following as the influence St Romuald inspired, and continues to inspire …

Smallness:  Instead of founding large monasteries, he chose to establish numerous small and poor communities of monks. The Order that developed from Camaldoli remained few in number throughout its history, continuing to be hidden and humble, in the example of its founder.

The love of Solitude:  This is the outstanding contribution of the Saint’s work of reform  –  he respected the coenobitic life, but always preferred a life in solitude, successfully communicating his love for the solitary way to the men and women who were inspired by his teaching and example.

The mission of Love:  His love of Christ was such that it overflowed irresistibly into works of love.  He sought to gather hermits together under a simple rule lest they be lost to God in their aimless wanderings.  His foundations welcomed travellers, the poor and the sick in the spirit of St Benedict.  As the Order developed and grew, the hermitages themselves were encouraged to offer hospitality and even have pharmacies for the care of the sick.

The Triple Good: From the young Emperor, Romuald received this idea and established the union of the monastic, solitary, and missionary life at Camaldoli, insisting the prior should always be a hermit. (This appears to be the only constitutional regulation Romuald ever made). This unique innovation has been preserved in a Church where most other communities of hermits eventually became coenobite monasteries.

The Privilege of Love:  This paramount gift the Saint bequeathed to those who follow him  –  the desire to live together in the intimacy of Holy Love.  it is the way he himself related to others, and he encouraged it among everyone who came to follow him.

1  Woodeene Koenig-Bricker, ‘365 Saints.’

2  Lino Vigilucci OSB.Cam ‘Camaldoli’ source books.

3  Sources: St Peter-Damian’s ‘Life of Blessed Romuald’, and, St Bruno-Boniface’s ‘Life of the Five Brothers.’