The Most Complete List of Benedictine Mystics
Whether consecrated religious, lay oblates or monks and hermits, each of these men and women offers a portrait of sanctity that is reflected in their deep-rooted mystical spirituality. Though many of them are lauded in New Age communities, what attracts people to them is their holy way of encountering God – with such intimacy and a supernatural union that far supersedes any sort of human connection available to us.
St. Aibert of Crespin
Born in present-day Belgium, Aibert worked in the fields as a boy while his father served as a knight. At a young age, he was drawn to an eremitical life, as he chose to fast on bread or simple fruits. One day while in the fields, Aibert heard the beautiful lamentation regarding St. Theobald (also a Benedictine mystic) as a wandering minstrel passed him. From that moment onward, Aibert was compelled to live as a hermit and chose to live with his mentor, John, in the woods near Crespin Abbey. Both men lived strictly on uncooked, raw herbs and sometimes bread.
Eventually, Aibert became a Benedictine monk, was ordained a priest, and lived and served at Crespin Abbey for twenty-five years. After that stint, he was granted permission to resume living as a hermit. St. Aibert was most known for his devotion to the Rosary, as he would recite 150 Hail Marys every day. He celebrated two Masses daily, as well – one for the living, and one for the dead. The laity sought him for his spiritual advice and healing. He died in 1140, and his feast day is April 7.
Another twelfth-century mystic and monk, St. Aimo lived in the Benedictine monastery in Savigny, Normandy. Most of his religious life was spent as a lay brother caring for two monks who had leprosy. When his superiors suspected he, too, contracted the disease, they forced him to live in solitary confinement in order to prevent the spread of leprosy throughout the monastic community. Aimo said nothing, though he did not have leprosy. He used his time in exile as an opportunity to grow in humility and contemplation. At some point, his superiors realized he didn’t have leprosy, and they permitted him to be ordained a priest. He is most known for his unsurpassed charity and compassion for the sick.
St. Anselm of Canterbury
A well-known archbishop, Doctor of the Church, and theologian, Anselm was incredibly gifted intellectually and spiritually. He is considered to be the founder of Scholasticism and, through his numerous writings, had the ability to wed a very deep mystical spirituality with the tenets of Catholicism that countered many heresies of his day. For his work, he was twice exiled under two different English kings, but his legacy has remained so powerful as to influence many great saints, such as St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas. He is known as a mystical saint, because he experienced some visions in his lifetime, most notably when he was just a boy. That vision included seeing God near his home, and God asked Anselm his name and mission in life, then sharing bread with him. His feast day is April 21.
Abbot Louis de Blois
Also known as the mystical writer Blosius, he was born to a wealthy family who was closely aligned with Flemish royalty at the time. Blois was well educated and at the age of fourteen, he took the Benedictine habit and became the abbot of Liessies Abbey in 1530. He is most known for his incredible literary works on spirituality, all of which have been translated into English and reprinted numerous times. His most popular mystical writings include A Book of Spiritual Instruction, Comfort for the Faint Hearted, and The Sanctuary of the Faithful Soul.
Fr. John Chapman
John was a British convert to Catholicism and became a Benedictine priest at the age of twenty five. He served as Abbot of the Downside Abbey for four years until his death in 1933. John was well known as a fascinating and brilliant person, multi-talented in several facets of life, including social conversation, as a pianist, as a theologian, and spiritual director. He even wrote of his mystical theology in his Spiritual Letters, which are considered a timeless classic that many continue to read today for its wisdom.
St. Frances of Rome
Frances was born into an aristocratic Italian family, but she was drawn to an ascetic life as a young girl. As early as eleven years old, Frances purportedly wanted to become a nun, but her parents forced her to marry a wealthy Italian commander. They had a happy marriage, and her husband encouraged her works of charity, such as visiting the poor and sick of their community.
Eventually, Frances founded a community of Benedictine oblates, in which those seeking to live a monastic life could do so without taking religious vows. Frances was also mystical in every sense of what we understand mysticism to be. She experienced visions, ecstasies, revelations of Purgatory and Hell, and had several spiritual gifts of miracles, reading consciences, and knowledge of diabolical activity. She is remembered for her incredible humility, detachment, obedience, and patience. Her feast day is March 9.
St. Hildegard of Bingen
As a child, Hildegard experienced heavenly visions, in which she encountered God through her five senses. She called these her “Shade of the Living Light” visions, but quickly understood that few would not understand them. At the age of forty two, she received a vision in which she was instructed to “write down what you see and hear,” but she hesitated and suffered incredibly interior tribulations over it. She eventually obeyed and received Papal approval that she was seeing and hearing from the Holy Spirit, which brought her great relief.
A brilliant mind, Hildegard was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, visionary, and scientist. She wrote incredibly thorough and insightful treatises in many of these categories, but she is known mystically for her “visionary theology,” which include writings, such as Know the Ways, Book of Life’s Merits, Book of Divine Works, and On God’s Activity. Though much controversy surrounded Hildegard’s spirituality, she was named Doctor of the Church by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Bl. Maria Adeodata Pisani
Maria experienced immense suffering from her early years onward. To begin, her father, a Maltese Baron, was likely an alcoholic, which caused marital problems between him and her mother. Her mother then left the home (in what we would consider a separation) and had her mother-in-law care for Maria, who was of frail health. Maria was also abused by a maid in the household, but she was naturally meek and willingly accepted her sufferings.
Though her mother preferred that she marry, Maria longed to become a nun, and she entered the Benedictine community at St. Peter’s Monastery at the age of twenty one, where she lived happily and served as seamstress, sacristan, porter, teacher, and novice mistress. Her mysticism is recorded in some of her literary works, including The Mystical Garden of the Soul that Loves Jesus and Mary, which include her personal musings and reflections. At times, her spiritual ecstasies were so captivating that she was seen levitating. She is most remembered and beloved for her piety and love of the poor.
A reformer and influential person in the Renaissance of eremitical asceticism, Romuald was trained in three major monastic philosophies: Benedictine, Irish monasticism, and the Iberian rule. Romuald was able to study and integrate these into what became known as St. Romuald’s Rule. One major aspect of his reform included “intellectual stillness and interior passivity in meditation,” practiced in the Byzantine Rite as Hesychasm. A sample from his rule includes, “Empty yourself completely and sit in waiting places.” He is the founder of the Camaldolese spirituality and form of monasticism.
St. Theobald of Provins
Born to French nobility, Theobald (also known as Saint Thibault de Provins) was drawn to hermit figures and saints, such as John the Baptist, Paul the First Hermot, and Anthony the Abbot. From a young age, he denounced a military career and marriage. He actually joined a group of hermits who were mentored by St. Romuald, which led Theobald’s priestly ordination. He joined Romuald’s Camaldolese reform of Benedictine monasticism, and his eremitical life was so compelling that his mother joined him in her final years as a hermit. His feast day is June 30.
It’s important to remember that Christian mysticism differs from other forms of mystical spirituality, mainly in the end goal of contemplating God rather than emptying oneself of all thoughts or emotions. It seems that mysticism naturally emerged in these men and women, many of whom are canonized saints because they sought very austere practices and lifestyles that included voluntary poverty, a life of solitude and reflection, fasting, and intense prayer to God. What we can glean from the Benedictine mystics is the fusion of the depth of their love of God, as well as their understanding of Benedictine theology, both of which were lived through their works of compassion, caring for the poor, and self-abnegation.
Though most of us will never be called to live in a cave as a solitary hermit, we can still practice many of the ancient forms of monasticism. We can study the lives of these incredible men and women, reading their books and meditating on the timeless principles they left us. Their wisdom speaks to us, today and in this modern age because we are in such dire need of quiet that is conducive to contemplating God’s voice in the recesses of our hearts.