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The incorporation of the lay-brothers and their place in the Order

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Doodle of a lay-brother in a thirteenth-century Beaulieu manuscript
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Doodle of a lay-brother in a 13th century Beaulieu manuscript

The Cistercians were renowned for their commitment to manual work and their insistence on self-sufficiency. They intended to live from the fruits of their own labour in isolated spots, ‘far from the haunts of men’. In c. 1115, some twenty years after the foundation of Cîteaux, the Cistercians realised that to achieve this ideal they needed help: the monks could not themselves tend the livestock, cultivate the land, manage outlying properties and participate in a full liturgical day at the abbey. It was therefore decided to introduce a community of lay-brothers (or conversi), men who would be primarily responsible for managing the land and animals, yet would take vows of obedience to the abbot and observe the rules of the Cistercian Order. The incorporation of lay-brothers was not a Cistercian invention, but the White Monks were the first to draw up comprehensive legislation for their organisation [the Usus Conversorum] and to make the lay-brothers an integral part of the community.

Nevertheless, the lay-brotherhood formed their own separate community within the abbey. It was thus stipulated that no lay-brother should ever take the monastic habit but, following the words of I Corinthians 7:20, Every one should remain in the state in which he was called.(1) The lay-brotherhood was not seen as a stepping stone to the monastic life, but as a separate vocation. Each Cistercian abbey, therefore, consisted of two distinct, yet complementary communities living in communion.

They enacted a definition to receive, with their bishop's permission, bearded lay-brothers, and to treat them as themselves in life and death - except that they might not become monks
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Both the monks and lay-brothers worked and prayed, but whereas the monks’ day centred on the celebration of the Canonical Hours in the church, the lay-brothers’ time was structured around the workplace and most of their Offices were celebrated here. Furthermore, while the monks spent much of their time reading and meditating on the Word of God (lectio divina) the lay-brothers were generally illiterate and were not, in any case, to read from books.(2) An anecdote recounted by Jocelin of Furness tells of a lay-brother of Melrose who was influenced by the devil to learn to read, but ultimately realised the errors of his ways and repented of his sin.(3)

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