Saint Romuald (+June 19, 1025/27) was a tenth-century monk, who founded the strict Camaldolese Order, named after the benefactor, Maldoli. Impressed by the saint’s way of life, he donated the land on which they built their first monastery (hence, campo-maldoli). But Romuauld only arrived at the ‘narrow path’ after a dissolute youth as a nobleman of the even more dissolute ‘dark ages’ of the tenth-century (according to the perhaps even stricter Peter Damien, who wrote his biography fifteen years after his death). After seeing his father kill someone in a duel, Romuauld renounced the world, and sought spiritual perfection ‘alone with God’, thereby reviving western hermeticism, that strange, solitary life of a hermit. Such was his reputation that he was deputed by the Church to the reform of monasteries, but many monks resisted his call to deepen their discipline and asceticism and be more faithful to their own rules. Alas, prophets are rejected, perhaps especially so, even by their own kith and kin.
Romuald was known as a saint, and his striking personality, the fruit of a life of deep, constant prayer and asceticism, marked the direction and history of Western monasticism forever. The future Pope Gregory XVI (elected 1831, +1846) was a Camaldolese monk, continuing to live as such within the external splendour of the papal apartments, sleeping on a board, rising at 4 a.m., and remaining sparse in his meals, which, according to papal custom until quite recent history, he ate alone. Gregory the monk-Pope is known for his intransigence to the ‘modern world’, summed up in his enigmatic reply when he was show the newly-invented railway: chemin de fer, chemin d’enfer – the ‘road of iron’, the railway, is the road to hell, perhaps for all that it signifies of the restlessness of the modern world, the loss of place and permanence, of local goods locally made, of families rooted to the earth. We might now replace ‘railway’ with ‘automobile’ and ‘airplane’, and wonder with the holy Pontiff whether he had a point.
The Rule of Saint Romuald emphasizes remaining still, within oneself, living and breathing by the Psalms, allowing their words to penetrate our inmost being.
As the saint put it a millennium ago, in words that are still fresh:
Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it.
If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, take every opportunity you can to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind. And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more
We could use a few more men in the Church with the same noble, fierce and courageous, yet calm and peaceful, spirit of Saint Romuald, and may he intercede for all of us in these, our own ‘dark ages’.
(An addendum: There was a town in Quebec, right across the river from the capital, named after the saint, but in 2002 it was amalgamated into the larger city of Levi. Ah, well. There is still a majestic church named after Romuald, worth the ferry ride across.)