An exploration of Monastic and Masonic Orders

Beato Angelico, Church of San Marco, Firenze

1. Introduction

In this paper three dimensions of the similarities
between monastic and masonic orders will be explored, concentrating on the Rule
of Benedict. But first a word on history of Free-masonry in general. This paper
definitely avoids seeking the sources of our Craft, however honourable such an
effort might be. One feels duly warned by Daniel Ligou in his “Dictionnaire
de la Franc-Maçonnerie”, where he cites the work of Bro.
Bernardin in his “Précis
Historique  du Grand Orient de
Bro. Bernardin has studied
236 authors on the history of Free-Masonry and finds 38 different explanations,
ranging from the Tower of Babel and the Flood to ancient India, the Tower of
Killwinning or Atlantis with a majority finding for ancient Greece, ancient Rome
or the cathedral builders of the roman or renaissance period. It seems best not
to add to this list.

In the second place it is advisable, especially for
non-english, to be prudent with remarks about origins of the Craft. Being a
Dutchman, it can not be my aim to challenge the introductory remarks made by the
editors of the Lodge Quatuor Coronati in introducing a translated article in the
second issue of the Proceedings by a German Br. Cramer on the sources of
Free-masonry as “too visionary and impracticable for Englishmen and
possibly for Germans also”.

It is also wise to heed the words in the Introduction
of Gould’s History of Free-masonry: “Much of the early history of
Free-masonry is so interspersed with fable and romance, that, however anxious we
may be to deal tenderly with long-cherished legends and traditions, some at
least, of these familiar superstitions – unless we choose to violate every canon
of historical criticism – must be allowed to pass quietly into oblivion”.
One could not agree more.


The real, underlying, personal reason for undertaking
this research is that I am inspired by masonic life as well as by monastic life
and the Rule of Benedict, having the privilege to sometimes work with one of the
advocates of that Rule, the Dutch professor Dr. Will Derkse. From time to time
seeking the tranquillity of a monastery in my Burgundy and on the other hand
working in Dutch and French lodges makes me not only nomadic between two
countries, but also between two disciplines. The concept of frontiers or
boundaries, as a form of curtailment, is therefore growing anathema to me. More
and more I seem to perceive frontiers as an invitation for communication.


In the Transactions of the Lodge Quatuor Coronati 1,
Br. Woodward reminds us of “the suggestions made at various times of a
Knightly, a Benedictine or a Monastic” origin. I tried to find the earlier
material on which Br. Woodward could have based this statement but did not
succeed.  However, I would like to
share with you the material which did prove to exist in an accessible way.


This paper deals very briefly and mainly in an
introductory sense with monastic orders in general and gives some insights in
Benedict and his Rule.  Then the
three dimensions of the similarities between monastic and masonic orders will be
analysed. Firstly the similarities of the Rule and the Ritual will be addressed.
Secondly some material will be presented on lodges founded in 
monasteries. Thirdly a very modest paragraph will mention sign-language.
Trying to prevent the word conclusion, the paper will end with some


2. Monastic orders

Christian monasticism as we came to know it, was born
in Africa and the Middle-East. In the 3rd and 4th centuries the phenomenon came
to Europe, from what we now call Egypt and Syria. The first Rule of monasticism
we know about is the one of Pacôme written about 320 AD What can be considered
the Rule of Augustine dates form 390 AD.

The origins of monasticism lie in the desert and in
asceticism. In his introduction to a recent Dutch translation of the Rule of
Augustine, Professor Fens reminds us that probably the most strict monastery on
earth, La Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble, is still called the desert.


Monasteries were centres of civilisation, far from
peopled by backward monks who were busy burning books and heretics. On the
contrary, monasteries were organizing schools, agricultural development,
administration of justice (Klosterhaft) and the development of science. The
innovation of religion started in monasteries: Erasmus and Luther were monks. It
is significant that the Church tolerated the monasteries in such a way that
monasticism did not disengage itself from the Church. Escaping from the world to
follow, to imitate the strict words of Christ was and still is one of the
fundaments of monasticism. It can be considered a protest against the
secularisation of Christendom, according to the German theologian Bonhoeffer.
Monasticism was not only a protest, it was gradually becoming an alibi for
Christianity, because monasteries were keeping the grace alive “on the
fringe of the church”. It was the special performance of the few, that
enabled the mass (no pun intended), to go on with their daily business.


The more the profane power and economics influenced
monasticism, the more religious influence waned, including the erosion of
asceticism. The history of monastic orders is littered by examples of the
growing worldly power of the monastery going hand in hand with diminishing
religious authority. The more influential monasteries became in the worldly
sense, the more subject they became to the rules of the worldly power play. Time
and time again this called for reform-movements, that wanted to return to the
simple, ascetic life: Citeaux in reaction to Cluny, Trappists in reaction to


Monasticism is centred about daily rituals, prescribing
the time and content of meals, services to be held, songs to be sung, the hours
spent studying or working. To some this seems a monotonous existence. But in
essence monotony frees the mind, allowing it to wander and wonder. Monotony is a
binding factor in Free-masonry and in monasticism. In Free-masonry it is called
ritual, meaning the same thing.


3. Benedict of Nursia

Born in Nursia (present-day Norcia in Italy) he lived
from 480 – 550. He was born into a well-to-do family of land-owners. What is
known of him comes mostly from one of his monks who later became pope Gregory
(590 – 604). Gregory wrote the Dialogues, a book about the lives of Benedict and
other Saints.

The life of Benedict was a bit of a paradox. After he
set out to lead an ascetic life as a hermit, he was so successful that he
gathered a following (which must be a confusing experience for a hermit, by the
way). The master attracted apprentices every time. He started a monastery, went
away, started again: the famous Monte Cassino which was so horribly destroyed by
the Americans during WW II and which was later restored.

His Rule dates from about 530 AD.

If the rule of Benedict is compared with other monastic
Rules one cannot fail to notice the simplicity and the ease with which he
directs monastic life. Some Rules, for instance the Celtic versions, can be very
strict, and are almost a penal code.

The Rule of Benedict was one of the most written and
read manuscript in the Middle Ages. His was the most influential rule. That may
well be because of the intriguing mélange of strictness and forgiveness.
Benedict gives very detailed instructions for the daily rituals, including which
Psalms to sing at which days. In Chapter 18 however he states that “if this
distribution is displeasing to anyone, he should arrange them otherwise”. A
wise acceptance of differences and changing possibilities.


4. The similarities

In this paragraph some examples will be given of the
Rule, relating them to our Craft. Bear in mind that it is not primarily the
historical or analytical aspects that inspire me but most of al the spiritual
wisdom that speaks through these rules.

1. Listening

The first words of the Rule are: “Listen my son,
to your masters precepts, and incline the ear of your heart.”

Some older Free-masons in Holland remember with some
melancholy the ancient rules in which E.A. were supposed to refrain from talking
in the Lodge. They were supposed to listen to their Master until they were
considered to have made sufficient progress to be passed. The term used in the
original Latin is Ausculta; ausculta means listening with devotion
and concentration. This introduction to the Rule also illustrates the importance
of obedience.

2. The vows

The Rule knows three vows: stabilitas, conversio
and obedientia. Stabilitas means that you have chosen a monastery
and you will remain there. It is a question of loyalty to the 
community, in our case the lodge. People will grow, we each have that
capacity and Benedict is a strong believer in that capacity. But we must grow
where we were planted. Faith and being dependable are qualities that flourish in
the lodge and that make a lodge flourish.

means that in entering the order you must be willing to change fundamentally. It
is like working in an operating theatre. We cannot do that if it is a bit
sterile. Neither can one be a bit pregnant, a bit monk, or a bit Free-mason. We
have our mission and that is all-consuming. In Dutch ritual at closing the
Lodge, we are commanded by our Master to go West and make ourselves known as
Free-masons, meaning of course that we must act as such. 
Our Master does not invite us to be a Mason a little bit, but to
whole-heartedly do our utmost.

The vow of obedientia seems to be the hardest of
all, at least to some. Promising obedience to the Master, as we do, is not an
obedience to a person. In that sense it is not a matter of leadership, but a
form of obedience to the chair, on which one day we ourselves may me sitting. As
we obey our Master we do not do what we are told, but we do what is necessary.

3. The ritual

The Rule gives much attention to
what we would call the ritual: the day is divided into

various parts on the ground of very
specific directions, what when to do, what to sing.

The rhythm in the monastery is determined by the
ritual, just as the rhythm of ritual does in our lodge.

4. The Abbot

As in Lodges the Worshipful Master in monasteries the
Abbot is the supreme authority. An Abbot is chosen from among his brothers,
preferably unanimously.

– He is chosen for his merit of life and wisdom of

– His duty is rather to profit the brothers than to
preside over them.

– He must be learned in the law, that he may have a
treasure of knowledge from which to bring forth new things and old.

– Common sense, prudence and being considerate are
considered important qualities.

Choosing your masters to obey them is a form of ‘obedientia’, the obedience to the Rule. The Rule rules also the chosen, they
too are subject to the law, as are our W.M..

5. The Cellarer

In monastic life as well as in masonic life the
Cellarer is an important functionary. He needs to be a very wise man, sober, not
a great eater himself. He is not to vex the brothers with contemptuous refusal.
He should be as a father to the community and should not be a miser. Benedict
thought of everything, because in Chapter 40 he gives directions for the measure
of drink. He states that “wine is by no means a drink for monks but it is
impossible to persuade monks of this. At least let us agree to drink
sparingly”. In some Lodges this can be sound advice, one would think.

6. The Porter

Monasteries know a functionary who can be compared to
our Tyler. In any case between Master and Tyler there is a specific
relationship, representing respectively the East and the West. This axis forms
one of the fundaments of the way in which the Lodge can be connected to the
world, to the West. Worshipful Master and Tyler represent the opening to the
East and to the West, respectively. In the initiation of a Candidate the Tyler
plays a specific part, checking his credentials, before admitting him to the
Lodge. Porters of the monastery have a similar role. They should be somewhat
older and wiser brothers, able to receive guests and question them about their

7. Those who are absent

Brothers who are absent are commemorated always at the
last prayer. This is very much like the Tylers’ Toast we know in our ritual in
which just before closing the Festive Board, absent brothers are remembered and
we wish them a safe return home.

8. Novices

According to the Rule novices are supposed to be
silent. Very seldom are they permitted to talk.

In Dutch masonic ritual there is the tradition that
before passing and raising, the Candidate presents himself with a speech
explaining what he has learned during the period of being an Entered Apprentice
or a Fellow Craft. Entered Apprentices especially are expected to comment on the
Lodge and its proceedings. This is a peculiar similarity with the Rule because
in Chapter 3 it is stated that every time important business needs to be done,
the Abbot should call together the whole community and state the matter to be
discussed. To these meetings all are invited “because the Lord often
reveals to the younger what is best”. The speech of the Entered Apprentice
is meant to hold up a mirror to the older brothers. It also confirms the fact
that really there are only Apprentices.

9. The good zeal.

The only zeal allowed to monks is the fervour with
which they should anticipate one another in honour, endure one another’s
infirmities (whether in body or in character), always asking themselves what
benefits another. A worthy zeal for any Mason, one would think.

10. Receiving brethren

The ceremony of initiation is reflected in Chapter 58
of the Rule. No one newly come is to be granted an easy entrance. Only if the
newcomer persists in knocking on the gate and he is seen to bear patiently the
harsh treatment and difficulty of admission for four or five days is he to be
admitted as a novice. A senior, the master of novices, is assigned to him to
guide him through his novitiate, a functionary like our Junior Warden who is
responsible for the Entered Apprentices. Just like in our Lodges the Rule
provides for those who, having left, want to be received again.

11. The workshop

The words used by Benedict in this Chapter 4 are the
same as are used in our Craft. The French version of the Rule calls the place
where the monks work : “l’atelier”, which is exactly the same word as
French brothers use in naming the Lodge. In Dutch the name for the Lodge is “werkplaats”, just as it is called in the Rule.

12. Hierarchic structure

The functionaries of both monastic and masonic
organisations can be compared very well:

Worshipful Master



Master of novices        

Weekly Reader         


Entered Apprentices

Professed Monks          
Fellow Craft

Master Mason



In addition to the similarities there are of course
differences, some of which are rather interesting, because they may teach us
something. For instance in Chapter 68 a guideline is given in case a brother is
commanded to do an impossible task. In such cases the brother should accept the
burden in obedience. If the burden exceeds his strength he should speak of this
with his Superior “in a quiet way and at an opportune time”. If the
Superior persists the brother should obey him, out of love for the Superior and
trusting in the help of God. In Chapter 69 brothers are forbidden to defend each
other on any ground. Breaking this rule calls for the most severe punishment. It
seems that Masons could benefit from some of these Rules.


5. Monastic

An interesting dimension of the similarities between
monastic and masonic orders is the existence of monastic lodges. 
Some French sources even indicate a more than spiritually shared
parenthood between the monastic and the masonic orders. However, that seems to
fall short of the warning given in Gould’s “History” or the conclusion
of Brodsky who calls masonic history “un domaine où les passions dominent
la raison”, a domain where passion rules reason.

In the XVIIIth century various Masonic Lodges were
erected in Benedictine monasteries. Now keeping in mind the attitude of official
Roman-Catholic Church towards Freemasonry this seems rather interesting.

The well known Ferrer-Benimeli mentions in his “Archives Secrètes” that in the last 40 years of the XVIIIth century
an impressive number of Free-Masons were active in the Catholic Church either as
monks or as priests. He gives examples from all over Europe, concentrating
however on France and almost never mentioning England in this respect. The study
of Ferrer-Benimeli is important too because of its impressive lists of sources
as well as its lists of clergymen, monks and other functionaries (among whom are
to be found bishops, priors etc.).

This paper cites three examples among over a hundred,
the sources of which can be found outside Ferrer-Benimeli as well.

* On June 24 1778 a Lodge was founded in Fécamp in the
monastery “L’Abbaye Royale de la Très Sainte Trinité”. Out of 29
monks in this monastery 9 got permission of the prieur to join this Lodge. The
Lodge itself was built on the grounds of the monastery. The name of the Lodge
was “La Triple Unité”. Other founding members of the Lodge included a
priest, a taxman, an officer in the army, an engineer and a commissary of the
navy. All founding members were Master Masons, implying that they had been
Masons rather longer. In the years after the foundation other monks join and
some priests.  These masonic
relations were helpful for the monastery during the French revolution. The city
council, one of whom was a Mason as well, refused to execute the laws to
prohibit the monasteries in France. This Lodge is tyled (closed) in 1790,
refounded in 1811, tyled again in 1828, refounded in 1860 and tyled in de war
year of 1940.

* In the monastery at Ferrières-en-Gâtinais the same
thing happened. The Lodge “Sainte-Émilie” is created in 1786 and is
located in the monastery. Four of the eight monks join the Lodge.

* Even in the famous abbaye of Clairvaux a Lodge called “La Vertu” was erected in “L’An de la Vraie Lumière 5785”,
in 1785.

More research is needed here, probably to be done at
least in part in Benedictine monasteries in France.


6. Sign language

Most if not all contemplative monastic orders know a
rule of silence. The Rule of Benedict Chapter 6 states that “the spirit of
silence ought to lead us at times to refrain even from good speech”. There
are various statues from the Middle-Ages and later, showing Benedict making the
sign for silence, by holding his finger to his closed lips.

There is an exception, namely “that speaking and
teaching belong to the master”. One wonders, by the way, 
if this “master” is the same as the one mentioned in the
introduction to the Rule. In any case, this tradition is roughly the same as in
the Craft.

The roots of this rule of silence are to be found in
the Bible. To mention just a few examples among many: Psalm 141,3; Proverbs
X,19; XIII,3; Job IX, 20; Matthews XV, 11.

Rules of silence are known in all old monastic rules,
from Pachomius onward. The rule of silence was never intended to totally ban
speech as a form of communication. Rijnberk says about the rule of silence: “(..) il est bien sûr qu’elle n’a été absolue nulle part”, stating
that it has never been known to be absolute.

The sign language is interesting because of the rich
symbolism. For instance after Evensong the rule of silence was applied. The text
of Psalm 140 (141) introduced the silence of the night. In the first morning
service, singing Psalm 50, permission was granted to speak again, unlocking the
mouth, as it were.

The rule of silence was meant for certain moments and
certain periods. Sign language was not intended as a means of communication,
replacing spoken language. It was simply a means of making one-self understood
whenever really necessary.


But for the periods of silence, whether they were at
table or during the day in the fields, the need for some form of communication
is apparent. So a rather elaborate sign language was developed, with some
interesting roots in Mediterranean lay society.

Most of the signs help in daily life, preparing food,
working the fields, taking care of the sick, repairing buildings or clothing.

In Chapter 38, On the Weekly Reader, Benedict ordains a
total silence at table, no whispering. Only the reader is to be heard. Benedict
understood the necessity of communication while at table and concludes: “If
anything is needed, however,  let it
be asked for by means of some audible sign rather than speech”. Sherlock
mentions an interesting story about Gerald of Wales who visited Canterbury
Cathedral Priory in 1180 AD. The Benedictines of this priory used the sign
language of Cluny. Gerald when sitting down at high table, was astonished by the
fact that the monks did not talk, but communicated with gestures and thus had a
very lifely conversation. He felt “to be seated at a stage play or among
actors and jesters”.

Sign language has a logic all of its own. In the sign
language documented for the monks of Ely to signify the Rule of Benedict itself,
you make the sign for book followed by the sign for Abott. The sign for the
Master of Novices (who can be compared to the Junior Warden) one makes the sing
for the novice followed by the sign for seeing.

Most of the signs are pretty straightforward, with the
obvious signs for drinking eating and sleeping, for instance. Rijnberk therefore
calls these signs “optical onomatopoeia”.


Most monasteries had their own lists of signs, but
custom differed vastly. In Cluny almost 300 signs were known, whereas in the
Portuguese monastery of Alcobaça monks had to make do with 55, and one of the
Trappist monasteries in France using over 450 signs. Although the number of
signs per monastery could differ, the language was more or less the same. It was
universal enough to enable monks from different monasteries to understand one
another, even across national borders.

Some of the signs can be the same as in Lodge. Rijnberk
for instance mentions the Cistercian sign of the martyr, which is like cutting
one’s throat. This sign also means death. Masons all remember being introduced
to the sign of the E.A. promising that they would rather have their throat cut
than betray the secret of our Craft. Obviously this aspect needs far more
research than has been done up to date, but it can prove a challenging route.



cannot but agree wholeheartedly with Reynaud, when he states “Il serai peu
conforme à la vérité d’établir une filiation directe entre la Règle de
saint Benoît et les anciennes Règles du Métier de Maçonnerie (..).
Mais on peut parler d’une évidente parenté
spirituelle”, saying something like:  it
would be little according to truth to establish a direct link between the Rule
of Benedict and masonic rules. But one can talk about a shared spiritual
parenthood. In essence this statement is the same as a later statement of
Neville Barker Cryer when he says “similarities are not sources”.


It behoves us to be prudent in the extreme to avoid
unrealistic speculations about our roots. Up to now the research does not allow
to draw conclusions, at all. Therefore the word consideration suits better what
we can do with the material collected so far. We work on some dimensions i.e.
similarities in the rules of monastic and masonic life, the existence of
monastic lodges, the similarities in sign-language. These may point in certain
directions, but they do not tell us anything about our roots, other than that we
may share a common ancestor, a source of inspiration that guides us through
life, monastic, masonic or profane.


It is important though that Free-masons can lend their
ears to the Benedictines and learn from them. Free-masons can learn from the
dedication needed to do a job, working at a better world. Free-masonry today
also calls for contemplation, being able to consider yourself and so to learn to
know yourself. In the need for a more spiritual Free-masonry the Rule of
Benedict can be an important inspiration, most certainly for those who are
prepared to incline the ear of their heart.


To me in any case the Rule of Benedict and monastic
life as such, both form a fountain of wisdom and inspiration, complementing
masonic practice and in that sense, aiding at working my rough Ashlar.






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