Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB
President of the AIM

Even if the great majority of monks practice stability in their monastery till death, a certain number of founders, reformers and people endowed with a particular charism have often been led to live in situations of migration, though this does not imply any denial of their original vocation. The present article, both historical and spiritual, allows us to appreciate the breadth of this phenomenon without of course making any apologia for gyrovagues, those restless monks who live at others’ expense and their own caprice.

jpMonasticism is no stranger to migration. It became so catching and often problematic for the monks of the Roman Empire that monks finally became suspicious of it. We know well that ‘the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’. ‘There are monks called gyrovagues, who spend their entire lives drifting from region to region, staying as guests for three or four days in different monasteries. Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites’, so wrote St Benedict in his Rule (chapter 1) in the sixth century. In chapter 61 he speaks of monks who visit a monastery and wish to settle there. He gives precious advice to help this transfer succeed:

‘A visiting monk from far away will perhaps present himself and wish to stay as a guest in the monastery. Provided that he is content with the life as he finds it, and does not make excessive demands that upset the monastery, but is simply content with what he finds, he should be received for as long a time as he wishes. He may, indeed, with all humility and love make some reasonable criticisms or observations, which the abbot should prudently consider; it is possible that the Lord guided him to the monastery for this very purpose. If after a while he wishes to remain and bind himself to stability, he should not be refused this wish, especially as there was time enough, while he was a guest, to judge his character. But if during his stay he has been found excessive in his demands or full of faults, he should certainly not be admitted as a member of the community. Instead, he should be politely told to depart, lest his wretched ways contaminate others. If, however, he has shown that he is not the kind of man who deserves to be dismissed, let him, on his request, be received as a member of the community. He should even be urged to stay, so that others may learn from his example, because wherever we may be, we are in the service of the same Lord and doing battle for the same King.... The abbot must, however, take care never to receive into the community a monk from another known monastery, unless the monk’s abbot consents and send a letter of recommendation, since it is written, “Never do to another what you do not want done to yourself.”’

avionThe phenomenon of migration was so frequent in monasteries that St Benedict foresees the need for a vow of stability in the community at the time of definitive commitment (RB 58). Certainly the monks could be sent on a mission here or there, but they belong to the same community all their lives, and it is in this stable belonging that a monk develops a full search for long-term spiritual fruitfulness.

It is important to underline that certain monks choose to migrate to live in a foreign land. This choice is at the origin of a spiritual current called xenitia in Greek. It denotes the condition of one who owns nothing and who can live in every way as if in a foreign land. In fact, practically from the beginning people visited monasteries and sometimes entered them, either to discover important aspects of the spiritual life or to acquire a better life not only on the religious level but sometimes also on the social level. Even if monasteries remain places of austerity where not everyone could live continuously without a vocation, nevertheless they are also places of welcome or care of the sick, hospitality for pilgrims and the work of education. They normally have a recognized place in society, and monks are respected, not to say honoured, by those around them and their fellow citizens throughout Christian antiquity and the Middle Ages.

In the Deserts of Egypt, Palestine or Syria from the Fourth Century

In the deserts of Egypt, Palestine or Syria many foreigners are to be found, Greek, Latin, Ethiopian or people originating in Asia Minor. The majority of monks is constituted by people of humble status, having often fled the city for various reasons, of which one is economic and another social. Many of those becoming monks wanted to escape the demands and requisitions of the imperial power.

The personality of Evagrius, originally from Pontus in present-day Turkey, illustrates the difficulties encountered by certain members of the clergy who had been caught in the wrong and tried to take refuge in the monastic milieu. The deacon Evagrius, of the Church of Constantinople, went out into the desert of Egypt to escape from the evil reputation which was threatening him, and as a monk developed a theological work of the first importance. Another great figure was the Bishop Athanasius who, without being a monk, nevertheless diffused the ideas of this new movement during his exiles in the East, writing the life of St Anthony. In fact, deported to Trier and then to Rome, he was able to speak of his compatriot Anthony. ‘The Life of Anthony’ was very soon translated (twice) into Latin, then Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopian and Arabic. A certain number of sayings show us the fate of one or other high functionary who wanted to escape from a compromised situation at the Court. There is other evidence that evil-doers became integrated into monastic life. The deserts were places visited by all kinds of pilgrims, churchmen and monks in search of progress.

Jerome, Martin and Cassian

The effervescent Jerome, Roman as he was, founded two monasteries at Bethlehem, one for monks, the other for nuns, with the collaboration of the noble Paula. These monasteries took in many personalities of the East and the West.

Martin was born in Pannonia (the present-day Hungary) and became a monk in the presence of Hilary, bishop of Poitiers. When Hilary was exiled to the East Martin went off to visit his family in the Danube region, Pannonia, and on the way converted some brigands, of whom one decided to follow him. When Hilary was brought back to Poitiers Martin, after several attempts at Rome and on the island of Gallinara, returned to Poitiers and established a hermitage not far from the town, at Ligugé. He became Bishop of Tours, preached Christ in the countryside and went to several European centres such as Trier. He could witness to his experience at the imperial court.

The unusual itinerary of John Cassian should be underlined. Originating in European Scythia (in present-day Roumania) or Georgia, he became a monk in Bethlehem, then for 15 years in Egypt. Moving from there to Provence he founded the monastery of St Victor at Marseilles. At the request

of Bishop Castor of Apt and the monks of Provence, he taught the wisdom of the Egyptian solitaries in those great works which are the Institutions and the Conferences, sources of a great development for Latin monachism.

Celtic and English Monks

These migrations often had missionary aims. Monks were sent to proclaim the gospel, notably by founding new communities. The Celtic monks of the fifth to seventh centuries particularly illustrate this field. Numerous monks from the south of England, notably Cornwall, were obliged to flee before the invasions of Scots and Saxons. They went to Armorica, present-day Brittany, and into the region of the Loire. They asked the monks to support them spiritually and to join them in their exile. From this were born the great Breton centres whose names are still evocative. These monks were remarkable for their zeal for discoveries and adventures; this need became a sort of migratory asceticism, but some of their initiatives failed to survive.

Roman monks sent by Pope Gregory the Great under the command of Augustine re-evangelised the south, centre and east of England, with Canterbury as their centre. The ‘island of saints’ became one of the most prosperous Christian places during the seventh and eighth centuries. After this period Saxon monks left for Germany and Frisia, the greatest names being Willibrord and Boniface. We cannot omit mention of the great Columban who, after some thirty years of stability in his Irish monastery of Cluam-Inis, asked to leave to live the great adventure of the apostolate. He finally settled in France and founded a monastery near Luxeuil and then two more nearby. But the Irish monks were expelled by the king after some years, while the French monks of the community stayed behind. The Irish monks were taken to Nantes to be repatriated in their own land, but their boat did not get far and was wrecked on the coast. So the monks set off on a long peregrination and set up near the Rhine. Expelled once more, they crossed the Alps and arrived at Milan. Columban set up at Bobbio in Lombardy. Such monasteries kept the mark of ‘pilgrims for Christ’.

St Benedict of Aniane

The reform of St Benedict of Aniane produced a number of movements. It was intended to remedy the decadence in the eighth century of the Frankish monasteries and of the Church in general. Power had become the principal interest of prelates, both of politicians and even of simple monks. The lay lord who had allowed the foundation of a monastery had power over it and its territory, and enjoyed a certain number of privileges, such as to appoint the abbot. In addition, some monasteries were devastated by the Arab invasions in the south of France. In addition, the property belonged no longer to the monastery as a whole, but to the superior. Hence this could be a secular person without much regard for the regular life. There followed decadence and laxity, and the monks were diverted from their primary aims and left to themselves. Benedict of Aniane, who was going to reform monasticism during the eighth century, travelled extensively.

The Goth Witiza was born in the south of France at Maguelone. He served at the royal Court. Having survived a bad accident during a campaign in Italy he consecrated himself to the Lord by a vow and entered the monastery of Saint-Seine in Burgundy. However, after some years he found that the monastery did not correspond to his ideal, and at the death of the abbot who had received him he left and founded a monastery on his family property at Aniane. When this succeeded, with the agreement of the king he visited some of the Frankish monasteries and sent groups of monks to restore these and found others. In this way he reformed 26 monasteries under the Rule of St Benedict. Taking the name of Benedict (he is called ‘a second Benedict’) he set out at Inden near Aix-la-Chapelle to build as model monastery. It must be admitted that Benedict spent most of his life as abbot travelling, and he set many monks of the Frankish Empire on the road. He died prematurely, without finishing his work, but his influence definitively marked medieval monasticism, which thanks to him became Benedictine.

The Order of Cluny

What Benedict of Aniane did not succeed in doing was done by Cluny during the long abbacy of its first superiors. Their life was highly enterprising and active, always on the road. Bernon, the first of them, had been monk of Saint-Martin d’Autun. He was sent into the Jura Mountains to restore Baume-les-Messieurs, north of Lons-le-Saulnier, then himself founded a monastery at Gigny on his family land. He directed several other monasteries in Berry and Bresse. He received the charge of being superior at Cluny, but was unable to remain there long. At his death in 927 he bequeathed his various monasteries to his nephew Guy and his favourite disciple Odo, to whom fell Cluny, Déols and Massay.

Odo was a canon of Tours, but became monk at Baume, of which Bernon was abbot. When he became superior of Cluny he undertook many travels in his zeal to spread the monastic reform. Thus he took over Romainmotier, then several other monasteries in Burgundy, Aquitaine and in Central France. He was also summoned to Italy.

His successor, Mayeul, came originally from Provence. Archdeacon of Mâcon, he became a monk of Cluny in order to escape being made a bishop. Elected abbot, he intervened in Italy, and also in Ravenna. He reformed, among other monasteries, Lerins, Marmoutier, Saint-Germain d’Auxerre, Saint-Maur des Fossés. He died at Saint-Denis in France.

The next abbot, Odilo, is known also for his work in favour of peace and prayer for the dead. He was a zealous organiser of the Cluny network. Under his abbacy the number of houses dependent on Cluny rose from 37 to 65.

Under the abbacy of Saint Hugh, the development was still more marked. The prestige of the abbey gave the abbot a political and diplomatic role with the great ones of this world. St Hugh made a success of this task and often went to Italy, notably to settle the conflicts between Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII.

Hence the network of Cluny was extremely diverse; it included a work supporting people and was also notable in the strategic places of the kingdom and in making great centres on pilgrimage routes. The four zones of Cluniac expansion are the basins of the Rhone and the Saone around Cluny itself, the diagonal strip of land from Limousin to the Pyrenees, in order to accompany the crusade against the Arab advance from Sapin, and the Ile-de-France in order to concentrate the forces of the kingdom around Paris and the Capetian monarchy. This means that the Order of Cluny was the first to take notice of the movements of population and to go with them. Cluny and the monastic Orders which followed Cluny would play a foundational role in the construction of a society where many abuses were mitigated by the beneficial effects of monasteries and priories. Many monks were themselves migrants and pilgrims for the needs of these developments.

The Cistercian Order

The monastic orders were also about to develop from a central structure. This was the case with Citeaux, with some remarkable adaptations. Robert of Molesme (1024-1111), the first founder of Citeaux, was at first a Benedictine and prior of Montier-la-Celle (near Troyes), then prior of Saint-Ayoul de Provins. He remained for some time abbot of Saint-Michel de Tonnerre, but at the request of the Pope himself took over the direction of a little group of hermits in the forest near the monastery. Finally he founded with them the monastery of Molesme, where the way of life was particularly austere. Nevertheless, with the arrival of many postulants and the reception of donations, the monastery grew richer, the observance softened and worldliness penetrated the abbey. So the abbot and a few monks decided on a new foundation. A score of them set up near Dijon on the land of Citeaux in 1098. At that time Robert was 76 years old! Nevertheless the Pope asked Robert to return to Molesme and take over the leadership of the monastery again, which he successfully did for 13 years until his death. Alberic, prior of Citeaux, then became abbot of the new foundation.

The development of the Order, all over Europe and well beyond, with the structure set up by Stephen Harding, is impressive. It is well known that the nineteen houses in 1119 increased to 343 abbeys, 65 of them founded by Bernard, in 1163. In the thirteenth century it increased to 694. To these the granges must be added (an average of twelve per monastery), with a few conversi in each. These granges also shaped the countryside and the paths which criss-crossed to each. At this flourishing epoch several Orders came into being in the same spirit of diffusion and unity. They participated actively in the dance of regional and national cultural exchanges in the towns, along the roads and in places of solitude.

Decadence and Reform

After this, monasticism saw periods of decadence, which certainly did not encourage stability, especially in the Mediterranean area: in Spain, for example, the monastic population was almost wholly given over to gyrovagues. Numerous reforms attempted to promote centralisation, for example at the fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The bull Benedictina of the Cistercian Pope Benedict XII (1336) divided the Benedictine Order into 36 provinces, including a President and visitors, but the lack of any structure of authority led to a collapse of these efforts. An attempt at theological formation was more successful. The reformed Congregations, especially Santa Justina of Padua, saw stability in terms of the Congregation rather than the monastery, which occasioned some movements. In the same way, the Maurist Benedictines in the 17th and 18th centuries made the profession of stability to the Congregation, and could therefore be sent to different monasteries.

The Congregations were spread over a fairly vast area, which required numerous moves. In addition the learned Maurists travelled to consult libraries. Their accounts are extremely enriching, for they describe with plenty of detail the monasteries they visited and the adventures of their migrations.

The French Revolution and Monastic Exiles

On 28th October 1789 the French constitutive Assembly decreed that the making of vows of religion was suspended in monasteries, and the monks dispersed, either hiding or attempting to find the solution in informal groupings. Some religious emigrated into neighbouring countries. 24 monks of La Trappe, under the leadership of Dom de Lestrange, installed themselves in the Charterhouse of Valsainte in Switzerland, but they were obliged to flee before the advance of the revolutionary armies and left for a long pilgrimage which took them to Austria, Poland and Germany, from where they sent some of their number to England and North America. The story of their pilgrimage is a fine witness to the capacity of monks to keep their vocation even as exiles.

Renaissance of the 19th Century

The nineteenth century saw a group of initiatives which are often interconnected, and which encouraged the monks to develop the monastic way of life in various places in Europe. In France Solesmes and La Pierre-qui-Vire head up the movement. If the restoration of Solesmes occasioned the birth of a Congregation which would spread without frontiers because of the anti-religious laws, the monastery of La Pierre-qui-Vire is attached to the reform of the Cassinese Congregation spearheaded by the abbey of Subiaco. Today it is the most widespread of all the Benedictine Congregations. The restoration of Beuron at the instigation of the brothers Wolter is to some extent related to that of Solesmes in its beginnings, as are the two other initiatives of German Congregations, those of Bavaria and of Sankt Ottilien, which would resolutely become missionary in Africa and Asia. Combining with the Belgian Congregation, it would be at the origin of a movement which would spread during the 20th century.

In Belgium no less, the monastery of Termonde, which restored that of Afflighem and founded the monastery of Steenbrugge, is also linked to the reform of Subiaco. Then come Maredsous, Saint-André of Bruges and Mont-César of Louvain, linked to the abbey of Beuron. These three monasteries soon formed a new Congregation with links to the Brazilian Congregation, which was then in difficulties. England received monks taking refuge from France since the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. They formed the basis of the English Congregation. These few hints are the basis of several developments in the 20th century and opened the way to those who would embark on new foundations in the developing continents, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

As becomes evident, contrary to the received opinion, monasteries do not turn in on themselves, locked in unceasing prayer and contempt for their contemporaries. On the contrary, they are places bubbling with life, which serve as a basis for constant activity consonant with monastic life but very necessary for the proclamation of the gospel. Founders themselves are often people of wide experience who have already travelled on varied paths. It is notable that difficult situations which imperil monasteries, like exile or persecution, are often the occasion for new projects in new places.

It is well known that monasteries are also places of welcome. They receive guests, who by definition are birds of passage, searching for human fulfilment, searching for God, in a word, pilgrims. Monastic structures have always played an important part in the response to poverty and sickness, social insecurity and the instability of population, especially during periods of disturbance, war, famine and other needs. Finally, internal relationships within the monastic milieu make communities places of exchange and enrichment, which sometimes allow the elaboration of new cultures through new foundations in unexpected territories, or an openness of both sides linked to the needs of the monasteries. In all this, monasteries have always been at the heart of human migration. The vow of stability which attaches monks and nuns to a single commitment does not prevent successful migrations in which the migrant is self-dependent.

Contemporary Migrations

voyageAfter this long historical survey it is useful to dwell on the experience of our time. Colonisation of some parts of the world by European countries has given these peoples a relationship of which they were unaware. But the determination of the Europeans to dominate the local peoples upset the locals and this system had to be brought to an end. All the same, these memories remained deeply engraved on the memory, and that is why the monasteries of Europe often chose to send their brothers to make foundations in these countries. European languages retained a certain relevance, and good memories of successful relationship were not lacking. This process continued throughout the twentieth century although the monasteries of Europe were in trouble.

The continent of Africa, for example, today includes 24 countries where monastic life is flourishing. In all these countries the monastic life was implanted by the arrival of monks from the northern hemisphere, but we are now more and more witnessing foundations by monks and nuns of the country itself, or founding migrations from south to south between African countries, or even including members from Asia. Certain Congregations like the Tutzing Sisters or the Congregation of Sankt Ottilien are missionary from their very origin, so that it is normal to find them in many countries, but for others the perspective of foundation propels the community into an improbable adventure, a real upheaval.

So, to list the African countries concerned:

• Angola has seen the rise of several monasteries from Portugal and the Tutzing Congregation.

• Benin from France, but also a tentative autochthonous foundation after having received some formation at the abbey of Kubri in Burkina Faso;

• Burkina Faso from the nuns of France and the monks of Morocco.  A new community has been born from a local initiative.

• The Cameroons from England and France.

• The Central African Republic from Italy.

• Chad by Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

• The Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo Kinshasa) from Belgium but also from Benin, Italy and local foundations.

• Eritrea from a local initiative, now attached to the Cistercian Order by the Congregation of Casamari.

• Ghana from the English Subiaco Congregation.

• Guinea Conakry from France and Senegal.

• The Ivory Coast from France.

• Kenya from the Tutzing Congregation, from Tanzania and from a local Congregation ‘Grace and Compassion’.

• Morocco from Algeria.

• Namibia from Tutzing, but also from South Africa and a local initiative.

• Nigeria from Ireland, USA, the Cameroons and a local initiative.

• Rwanda from Belgium, France , Congo-Kinshasa and a local initiative.

• Senegal from France.

• South Africa from Germany (Sankt Ottilien), the Flemish Province of Subiaco and local initiatives.

• Tanzania from Germany and a local Congregation (St Agnes).

• Togo from France, Germany and local initiatives.

• Uganda from the Low Countries, Germany and local initiatives.

• Zambia from Tanzania.

• Zimbabwe from England.

It is clear that the monastic movement came from Europe, but it is beginning to develop from one country of Africa to another, and it is now common for the communities to accept foreigners. Certain monasteries have even appealed to Asiatics to play the part of superior; this is the case at Mambre, where the prior is an Indian.

It would be possible to make a similar list for Latin America, which would show that Latin American monasteries, being the fruit of a longer tradition, are themselves developing and that for some time now there have been many foundations from one region to another. Asia varies more greatly in culture from one country to another, so that migratory movements are perhaps less notable.


First of all, development occurs through movement. Where things become static there is a great risk of a certain unhealthy stagnation.

Certain personalities attract others, and their own charism serves in an original way which gives them a very specific way of life, often engaging in multiple activities in different places.

Migratory movements have their own logic of development. History has its own rules. The movements which run across history affect the life of societies and so of monasteries. Countries for foundations are not chosen at random. Links are created, consciously or unconsciously. We go where destiny takes us, whatever the dangers or uncertainties.

Persecution or insecurity often oblige people to flee, but they often permit a new creation in a land of exile. This occurs in various circumstances, but such an exploit requires men or women of particular determination, often evoked by exceptional circumstances.

The guesthouses of monasteries are places which provide for the needs of migrant populations, whether these be pilgrims, displaced persons or those in search of a better quality of life.

Monasteries must always be alert to an unexpected call from the Lord, and must mobilise their energies ceaselessly to proclaim, wherever they are, the wonders of God and to soothe as far as possible the sorrows of those who are wandering spiritually or physically. This is a fine and wholly evangelical perspective.