The Camaldolese and Memento Mori

Mysterious hermits

The establishment of the first monasteries in GDL was a rather slow process. The momentum for a more intensive life of monasteries was created by the Catholic reforms launched in the late 16th – first half of the 17th century, with an emergence of an increasing number of Franciscan, Bernardine, Jesuit and Dominican convents. At the same time, monasteries of more rigid rule, advocating medieval monastic life and those adhering to St. Benedict’s regula, were founded. Among them were Benedictine, Cistercian, Carthusian and Camaldolesean monasteries. In 1664, the Camaldolese monastery was established in Pažaislis as an example of medieval monasteries.

The Camaldolese Congregation was founded in the 11th century by St. Romuald. However, monasteries in Poland and Lithuania were started to be established only in the 17th century (when 6 monasteries received foundation, and two more in the 18th century). Members of priory were not involved in any societal pastoral work, did not collect offering and did not take care of their parishes, therefore generous monastic foundations were provided for their maintenance, the amount of which was sufficient to make the monks’ life decent).

In Poland and Lithuania, half of the monasteries received endowments from the rulers, therefore Camaldese monasteries at times are referred to as ‘royal’.

These monasteries followed a harsh ascetic and solitary lifestyle and were known for the observance of rigid rule and advocate of a reclusive way of life. Such a distinctive eremitical pattern of monastic life was unusual in the 17-18th centuries and caused surprise among society members. It also gave rise to various legends about the Camaldolese monks, based on hearsay.

The monks were believed to live unwashed, with their hair uncut and faces unshaven and sleep in coffins. Furthermore, they were said not to talk to each other and upon meeting other members of the friary, seeking to strengthen the reflections on the existential transience of life, to merely utter „memento mori“ (Latin for ‘remember that you will die’). What was the actual life of the Camaldolese monks like?

Were the Camaldolese monks indeed the mute eccentrics who slept in coffins?

There is no denying the fact that the lifestyle of Camaldolese monks was truly oriented toward the examples of early hermit lives. However, it was not as mystical as was often described. All friars lived in separate little houses, in which they habitually used to rest, pray and take their meals. During the great religious Holy Days, about twelve times a year, they would meet for a ceremonial dinner in the dining-room of a monastery. On a daily basis, the monks would gather several times a day for common prayer in church. The first celebration of the Liturgy of the Hour (Lauds) was held before dawn. Unlike the monastic brethren established at a later time, early medieval monastic priories (not restricted to the Camaldolese monks) advocated continuous vigils (wakefulness) and continuous prayers. The uniqueness of such brethren was guaranteed by round-the-clock timetable of religious service – while the others were asleep, the monks were praying for them. However, this did not mean continuous sleep deprivation. Even though the Camaldolese monks had to be ready to rise without delay for early Vigils at about 3 or 4 AM, their Vesper services used to end up earlier; besides, daytime sleep was provided for them in the afternoon. The monks also practiced manual labour.

The spirit of the Camaldolese Rule is summed up in the motto: Ora et labora (Lat. Pray and Labour).

Each house of a monk had a tiny and well-maintained garden, in which vegetables and flowers were grown, fruit-trees were planted and nurtured. All the produce was delivered to the monastic kitchen. In addition to these small individual gardens, the monastery boasted spacious monastery gardens and kitchen gardens, the care and maintenance of which was a shared responsibility of all the monks. The Camaldolese monks also practised joint work on a daily basis – be it manual labour outside or various crafts inside the monastery. Thus, the monks spent a significant part of the time together, either praying or at work. Once a week, a meeting was held, during which faults were confessed. These were usually minor faults such as coming late to prayer or meals, failure to accomplish something, oversleeping, etc. Graver faults were regarded as sins and were confessed to the priest acting as confessor. Such practice was believed to strengthen the bond among the monks, encouraged obedience and pursuit of perfection. In the remaining time, the monks listened to lectures; individual time was also allocated for discourses and discussions. To put it briefly, the Camaldolese monks were far from always being silent. The Rule recommended   moderation in the use of speech, but did not enjoin strict silence, nor prohibit profitable or necessary conversation. It goes without saying that the Monastic Rule forbade being verbose, chatting or satisfying one’s curiosity.  Days were set when no talking was allowed. Talking was also forbidden after Vesper services. It was this specific practice observed by the Camaldolese monasteries that gave rise to mysterious legends about them.

Living by the rhythm of the Monastic Rule

Following the example of eremite hermits, the Camaldolese monks observed continuous fast – twice a week and prior to the Holy Days. During fast days, bread and water was consumed once a day. The Camaldolese monks abstained from meat (this was characteristic of more than one early medieval monastic communities).  However, they were not exposed to famish. Monks with certain medical condition and those above sixty were exempted from strict fasting (bread and water). On other days (not during fast), meals were taken twice a day. In addition to the daily bread, the monks were served soup, fish, cheese, eggs, etc. Such nutrition guaranteed a sufficient amount of calories, needed both for physical labour and survival during severe winters. In their little houses, the monks kept some oil, salt and vinegar for food seasoning.

Every day, except for fast days, the monks were served beer, wine or even stronger drinks. Even though the monastic rule prescribed moderation as part of the daily order, it was not always strictly adhered to …

The Camaldolese monastery functioned as a well-oiled mechanism. It is not by accident that clocks were installed within the Camaldolese monasteries; the ringing of the bells announced short stretches of daily life.

Praying, working, praying, taking meals, working, resting, praying, taking meals, praying – this was a recurrent pattern of every single day.

The duties at the monastery were distributed among all monks.  Apart from the prior, who acted as monastic superior and supervised all the activities, among other major monastic officers were the following: a novice master, a sacristan, cellarer, a cantor, an infirmarian, a librarian (Lat. armarius), a cook, a baker and a porter. Minor monastic jobs included a barber’s, a launderer’s and a forest supervisor’s positions. Every year, the duties and obligations were distributed anew. No monastery was entirely removed from the world, for the obligation of hospitality was an obligation of utmost importance. The monastery therefore had a guest house for the reception of the poor and the pilgrims, with the exception of women. It was only in the mid-18th century that women of noble birth and benefactors of the monastery were allowed to attend religious service several times a year.

Mindaugas Paknys


  1. Face of Pažaislis tower clock, a house of an eremite and sundial (locally made)
  2. Pažaislis reflectorium, the venue in which monks gathered about a dozen times a year for a solemn dinner