Our Ancient Founder
of Ravenna & Klostar
Teacher of Hesychasm
The Romualdians were established through the efforts of the Italian monk Saint Romuald (ca. 950– ca. 1025/27). His reform sought to renew and integrate the eremitical tradition of monastic life with that of the coenobium.
In his youth Romuald became acquainted with the three major schools of western monastic tradition. The monastery where he entered the Order, Sant’ Apollinare in Classe was a traditional Benedictine community under the influence of the Cluniac reforms. Romuald chose to be under a spiritual master, Marinus, who followed a much harsher ascetic and solitary lifestyle that was originally of Irish eremitical origins. Some years later, Marinus and Romuald settled near the Abbey of Sant Miguel de Cuxa, where Abbot Guarinus was also beginning reforms but was building mainly upon the Iberian Christian tradition. Later drawing on his various early experiences, Romuald was able to establish his own monastic pattern, though he himself never thought of it as a separate unit, seeing it as a full part of the Benedictine tradition.
Around 1012 Romuald founded the Sacred Hermitage of Camaldoli in the Tuscan hills. There monks lived in individual cells, but also observed the common life, worshiping daily in the church and breaking bread in the dining hall. Here the distinctive white habit first appears; at Camaldoli are first found in combination the two cenobite and hermit branches that are afterwards so marked a feature of the order.note 1
At the turn of the first millennium a.d., an amazing set of factors came together to form within the Christian monastic ambit a reform movement known as Romualdian. Centered on the life and ministry of a quasi-itinerant hermit named Romuald of Ravenna (c. 952-1027), this reform was a precursor to the great Gregorian Reform enacted during the latter part of the eleventh century. The Romualdian movement helped the monastic world and the Church as a whole prepare for the important work of this ecclesiastical reform. This is the world in which Romualdian hermits enacted their monastic reform work and conducted Church reforms both on the local church level and on the institutional plane. This is the arena in which two reform-minded hermit monks, Saint Romuald of Ravenna and Blessed Peter Damian of Fonte Avellana, became intimately involved with the political forces of the Empire: Romuald with his young admirer Emperor Otto III, and later with Henry II (who becomes the spiritual patron of Oblates); Peter Damian with various ecclesiastical and temporal powers connected with imperial politics and interests.
Saint “Romuald was born c. 952 in Byzantine Ravenna to noble parents, the aristocratic Onesti family, his father Count Sergius degli Onesti and his Byzantine mother Traversara Traversari, daughter of Teodoro Traversari, son of Paolo I Traversari. Subsequent to a personal crisis occasioned by witnessing his father kill a relative over a land dispute, Romuald became a monk at the nearby Benedictine Abbey of St. Apollinaris in Classe, an abbey recently introduced to the Cluniac reform. However, seemingly immune to reform sensibilities at the time, Classe’s monks struck the fervent young monk as hopelessly stuck in their ways and unreformable. After three or four years of life with Romuald, the abbot and monks of Classe were evidently only too willing to allow him to live outside the abbey in an Eastern model of abba/disciple relationship of solitary life with a rustic Irish hermit named Marino. The two of them later became involved with the Duca of Venice [i.e., chief magistrate], Peter Orséolo I, through whom they met Abbot Guarinus of St. Michel of Cuixá Abbey in the south of France, near the Pyrenees. Abbot Guarinus was returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. At his invitation, all of them (including Duke Peter Orséolo and two other companions, John Gradenigo and John Morosini) left Venice by night and hurried to Cuixá where the Duke became a monk of the Abbey, while Romuald and companions began to live an eremitical life together in the nearby woods. There they read scripture and monastic literature. Romuald found himself becoming a spiritual mentor whose wisdom derived from an intense life of prayer and solitude.
Romuald left Cuixá to return home and help his father Serge remain in the monastery where he had become a monk a few years previously. From that time onwards, Romuald began his work of founding hermitages and reforming extant monasteries and hermitages. It can be somewhat confusing to try to follow Romuald’s itinerary of monastic reform work, but we can discern several important periods. When Romuald initiated a monastic life with a group of Germans who had been part of the Ottonian court and entourage, Romuald began a close spiritual mentorship of the young Emperor Otto III, who became not only Romuald’s patron but also, we are told, his devoted follower and would-be monk. Forced to become abbot of his former community at Classe by Otto, Romuald dramatically resigned this abbacy after only a little more than one year’s worth of trying to tolerate the Classe monks’ continued obstinacy against reform. It was at the Peréo foundation in swamplands outside Ravenna that Otto’s cousin and former court chaplain, Bruno-Boniface of Querfurt (with Otto’s inspiration and help), promoted the “mission to the East” in the Romualdian movement. Through this missionary response to Boleslas of Poland’s request for monk-missionaries, there could be a “triple good”: a monastery for beginners, a hermitage for the mature life in “golden solitude”, and the possibility for preaching the Gospel to unbelievers and even experiencing martyrdom in the process.
[Afterward] Romuald moved to Istria (Dalmatia), where his family may have owned land, and formed a monastic foundation there where he lived as a spiritual mentor and recluse for three years. During that time, Romuald reportedly developed mystical, contemplative gifts, whereby he enjoyed a profound comprehension of Sacred Scripture, the gift of tears, and prophetic awareness.
This was followed by another period of foundation that included a long stay at the Abbey of St. Mary of Sitria and then another period of foundation travels. Camaldoli in Tuscany proved to be one of his last, if not the last, foundation of Romuald, in 1023. He died in 1027 in a small hermitage near the monastery of Valdicastro. He had lived his life in the ministry of monastic reform. Personally drawn to greater solitude throughout his life, Romuald devoted himself to providing the possibility for solitaries to come into a communal setting under the Rule of St. Benedict (RSB) and a superior, where they could live a life formed by the Rule, accountable to a superior, and juridically approved. Romuald founded many monasteries and hermitages; he also reformed many other already extant houses and absorbed them in his Romualdian reform. All the while, he was an outspoken opponent of simony and monastic laxity. His reform spread when Peter Damian of Fonte Avellana, Romuald’s biographer, embraced and continued the work of the Romualdian reform at Fonte Avellana and among all its foundations and reformed houses.
Romuald was a humble and charismatic monk whose freedom of spirit and purity of heart allowed him to live as a prophetic flame of monastic reform in a world passing through a dark period. As a Benedictine monk, he centered his life on the Word of God and urged his fellow monks always to do likewise. He was a solitary of solitaries, to the point of occasional eccentricity. Above all, he was a mystic and a saint whose life Peter Damian made a paradigm for posterity. The Romualdian reform movement consisted not only in those houses founded, refounded, or reformed by Romuald and his associates, but also those houses that Fonte Avellana founded or reformed under Peter Damian. . . . This reform sought, in effect, to join the former ascetical rigor of the desert monastic tradition to the contemporary Benedictine way of life. Its spirituality combined the regulations of the Rule of St. Benedict with the charismatic and prophetic asceticism contained in the Life of Antony and desert monastic literature—the Apophthegmata, The Lives of the Fathers, and John Cassian’s Conferences. The Romualdian vision wanted to organize the eremitical life by emphasizing greater silence, solitude, and fasting for its hermits and cenobites living under Benedict’s Rule.
Most of the Romualdian foundations were rather small. With the Romualdian accent on greater solitude as its fervent guiding impulse, this tendency did not present the hardship we might presume from our twenty first-century standpoint. Surely, faith and spirituality, as well as strong bonds of fraternal support and love, had to be sound for such a movement to thrive. Giovanni Tabacco has studied this aspect of the Romualdian world and shown how intrinsic to the success of Romuald’s reform were the interpersonal bonds of deep friendship among his followers. These bonds are illustrated by Romuald’s own personal friendships with several of his disciples, as well as relationships among followers at Ravenn, Cuixá, Montecassino, Peréo, Poland, and Fonte Avellana. Not only did these friendships exist, but also they developed a great desire to share their experience of God as a fruit of their shared solitude. The followers of Romuald became known for the great love they manifested among themselves and toward others.
Solitude was certainly the mainstay at the heart of the Romualdian reform movement. Intrinsically important as solitude was to Romuald’s own personal spirituality and monastic journey, he was determined to devote his life to helping provide an atmosphere where Christian solitaries might live safely, as well as accountably vis-à-vis Church authorities. Developing a recognized environment where hermits could live together under a superior and the guidance of the Rule of St. Benedict, Romuald of Ravenna was concerned with ensuring autonomy and respectability for the eremitical life. Under Romuald’s leadership, cenobites and hermits could live together, but under a hermit superior, once again stressing the importance of solitude within the ambit of the Romualdian world. The core of that world is essentially always the same: “a small group of solitaries bonded pro privilegio amoris.” This “privilege of love” is founded on loving God intensely and sharing that love through the interpersonal relationships of monastic community. But why solitude, more specifically?
Romualdians followed the fervent example of their charismatic leader and sought deeper solitude in order to speak with God and to challenge evil head-on, much like the ascetics of ancient desert monasticism. This desire to hold conversations with God regularly, to center one’s whole life on the Word of God, and to commune with that Word with tears of compunction and contemplative joy is the Word-centered dialogue of Romualdian spirituality, enjoying a world of solitude that filled a spectrum colored by light moments of captured union, and by deeper hues of temporary periods of gifted contemplation, resting on a profound base of permanent reclusion and communion. The desire to challenge evil openly is clearly illustrated by the Blessed Peter Damian’s Life of Blessed Romuald, as well as many of his later monastic works for the Romualdian movement. It is a return to the voluntary “white” martyrdom of desert monasticism. Solitude became the Romualdian voluntary martyrdom.
One does not miss, however, the constant interplay of action and contemplation in the life of the enigmatic Romuald. His life seems to comprise a series of long itinerant journeys of founding, refounding, and reforming monastic houses, followed by intense periods (sometimes lasting for years) of reclusive solitude. He felt constantly restless to bear fruit. Apostolic concern would also express itself in evangelization (for example, the “mission to the East”) and later Camaldolese concerns for guest ministry and care for the sick, expressed in various sets of early Camaldolese constitutions. The later Camaldolese centuries would add to the experience of the Romualdian decades a distinctly apostolic thrust to Romualdian-Camaldolese spirituality. This would lead to scholarship, education, the arts, hospitals, active Church ministry on the hierarchical level, and missionary work, but the spirituality would continue to remain Benedictine monastic contemplative spirituality.
The Romualdian world centered around two power bases during those decades immediately following Romuald’s death: Fonte Avellana and Camaldoli. This situation lasted several centuries before power and influence began to shift. Four years after Peter Damian’s death (1072), his former friend and correspondent Pope Gregory VII officially constituted Fonte Avellana and all its dependencies as a congregation—the Congregation of the Holy Cross of Fonte Avellana, variously known as Avellaniti, the Avellanita Congregation, and Congregation of the Doves. Camaldoli became the head of what was soon to develop into the powerful and influential Camaldolese Congregation under Pope Paschal II, who established it as an autonomous union of hermitages and monasteries under Camaldoli. The Romualdian Benedictines of the Orthodox era in the Western Church morphed with time into what is known as the Camaldolese Order in the Roman Catholic Church having been approved by Pope Gregory VII, in 1072.
Editor’s note—-By this point in its history, the character of Romualdians as Orthodox Christians under the Rule of St Benedict has been lost to the ever unfolding Great Schism that was initiated in 1054 a.d. and finalized in 1072 by Pope Gregory VII. They are now no longer Romualdians but a configuration established and codified by papal authority and renamed Camaldolese. And, though Peter Damian lived some twenty years into the Great Schism as a cardinal-archbishop, having championed the progression of the Romualdians, he is at least considered as Blessed. Although the modern Church of Rome may be considered having its beginning under Pope Gregory VII in 1072 the politics by 1060 prevents us from calling Blessed Peter Damian, Saint.
Today, with the renewal of Western Orthodoxy –primarily by the Russian Orthodox Church– we see the rebirth of a contemporary Romualdian style Benedictine monasticism by the Stavropegial Orthodox Hermitage of St. John the Divine (under the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia) in the United States.
- based upon the Wikipedia entry, Camaldolese.
- excerpted from Belisle, Peter-Damian. Camaldolese Spirituality: Essential Sources. Bloomingdale, OH: Holy Family Hermitage, 2007, “General Introduction”, pp. 1-15. Herein edited by Rev’d. Father Stavrophoremonk Symeon Najmanje, OCSB-R.