How have contemplatives changed since the Middle Ages?

How has your lives changed since the middle ages? I am doing a course and one of the questions is about contemplatives and how they have changed.


It would take a book to answer your question, but I can address a few points briefly.

In general, I think monks and nuns of the Medieval period probably had more of a corporate sense of identity; their understanding of themselves was largely determined by their membership in a group. Contemplatives today, at least in the U.S. and Europe, continue to cherish and foster community but are more aware of themselves as individual persons, and more concerned to give expression to an individual calling from God.

So, for example, where as monks in previous centuries slept in dormitories, with just partitions between the beds, most Trappists today have their own cell. This greater concern for individual expression is also reflected in the type of work monks and nuns today take up. Historically, farming was usually integral to the life of a contemplative and is not any longer. Again, the understanding and exercise of authority in the monastery has changed very much since Medieval times. “Blind obedience” is not much encouraged today.

Abbots and Abbesses are held more accountable and expected to listen to and enter into meaningful conversation with their subjects. I have the impression that greater care is taken today to maintain the physical and mental health of monks and nuns, as we have grown to appreciate more the integral relationship between spirit and body. As a young monk I was taught, “We do not have a body, we are a body”.

Vatican Council II introduced many changes into monastic life: the liturgy in the vernacular after centuries of celebrating it only in Latin, a different understanding of enclosure as monks and nuns were encouraged to do studies and to enter into meaningful conversation with the world outside.

Finally, relations between men and women monastics has changed dramatically. We relate more as equals and appreciate more the distinctive contribution made by women to governance of the order.