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In the most common usage, lay brothers are those members of Catholic religious orders, particularly of monastic orders, occupied primarily with manual labor and with the secular affairs of a monastery or friary, in contrast to the choir monks of the same monastery who are devoted mainly to the Liturgy of the Hours, or Opus Dei ("The Work of God") as it is called, and to study. These religious while taking vows particular to their order have not been ordained by a bishop as deacon or priest. In this regard they are lay persons, tied only to the religious order by their vows.
Lay brothers' primary purpose is to provide the practical support for running monastery workshops, farms, kitchens and the like, thereby freeing the choir monks to spend more time in prayer and study. However, lay brothers are still monks, so they also devote a significant portion of their day to prayer. Choir monks are still expected to spend a part of their day in manual labor; the distinction being the types of vows taken and the proportions of work, study and formal prayer in their lives.
Lay brothers have been known, in various places and at various times, as fratres conversi, "converse brothers," laici barbati, illiterati, or idiotæ. These last two stem from the fact that in previous centuries, lay brothers were often not well educated, or even literate, and therefore unsuitable for studies leading to life as a choir monk or priest (in some orders, all choir monks are actually also priests). Thus, with skills as carpenters or cooks, but without the ability to read the psalms to be sung during the Divine Office, lay brothers lived and worked in their own section of the monastery grounds, participated in simplified prayer services or attended the prayers of the choir monks, and spent a greater part of their day engaging in their skilled trade or unskilled labor.
With literacy much wider today, most lay brothers can read, but either do not have the inclination or talent to undertake advanced theology studies, or have chosen the lay brother's life for other reasons.
There is some dispute as to the origin of lay brothers. They are first heard of in the 11th century, and are stated by Mabillon to have been first instituted by St. John Gualbert at Vallombrosa, about 1038. The term conversi is first applied to religious of this kind in a biography of that founder, written by Bl. Andrea Strumensis about the end of the 11th century. It seems certain, however, that they were instituted before the founding of Vallombrosa. Among the Camaldolese, St. Peter Damian indicates that servants, who were also religious, were set apart to perform the manual labour at Fonte Avellana, which was founded about the year 1000. Likewise, at the Sacro Eremo at Camaldoli, founded about twenty years later, there were certainly brethren who were distinct from the hermits, and who were devoted entirely to the secular needs of the community.
No such distinction existed in early Western monasticism. The majority of St. Benedict's monks were not clerics, and all performed manual labor, the word conversi being used only to designate those who had received the habit late in life, to distinguish them from the oblati and nutriti. But, by the beginning of the 11th century, the time devoted to study had greatly increased, thus a larger proportion of the monks were in Holy Orders, even though great numbers of illiterate persons had embraced the religious life. At the same time, it was found necessary to regulate the position of the famuli, the hired servants of the monastery, and to include some of these in the monastic family. So in Italy the lay brothers were instituted; and we find similar attempts at organization at the Abbey of St. Benignus at Dijon, under William of Dijon (d. 1031) and Richard of Verdun (d. 1046), while at Hirschau, Abbot William (d. 1091) gave a special rule to the fratres barbati and exteriores.
At Cluny the manual work was relegated mostly to paid servants, but the Carthusians, the Cistercians, the Order of Grandmont, and most subsequent religious orders possessed lay brothers, to whom they committed their secular cares. At Grandmont, indeed, the complete control of the order's property by the lay brothers led to serious disturbances, and finally to the ruin of the order; but the wiser regulations of the Cistercians provided against this danger and have formed the model for the later orders. In England, the "Black Monks" (Benedictines) were reported by some writers to have made but slight use of lay brothers, finding the service of paid attendants more convenient. Thus Father Taunton asserted that, "in those days in English Benedictine monasteries there were no lay brothers." On the contrary, however, they are mentioned in the customaries of the Abbey of St. Augustine at Canterbury and the Abbey of St. Peter at Westminster.
Lay brothers are often pious and hard working persons, usually drawn from the working classes of the community, who, while unable to attain to the degree of learning requisite for Holy Orders, are still drawn to the religious life and are able to contribute to their house or order. They primarily perform domestic or agricultural work, are often skilled in artistic handicrafts, and they sometimes are efficient administrators. For example, the lay brethren of the Cistercians are thought to be a significant source of the order's success in agriculture in modern as well as in medieval times.
Lay brothers are usually distinguished from their brethren by some difference in their habit: for instance, the Cistercian lay brother wears a brown tunic, instead of white, with the black scapular; in choir they wear a large cloak, instead of a cowl; the Vallombrosan lay brothers wore a cap instead of a hood, and their habit was shorter; the English Benedictine lay brothers wear a hood of a different shape from that of the choir monks, and no cowl; a Dominican lay brother wears a black, instead of a white, scapular. In some orders they are required to recite daily the Little Office of Our Lady, but usually their office consists of a certain number of Paters, Aves, and Glorias. Wherever they are found in considerable numbers they possess their own quarters in the monastery; the domus conversorum is still noticeable in many of the ruins of English monasteries.
Lay sisters are to be found in most of the orders of women, and their origin, like that of the lay brothers, is to be found in the necessity at once of providing the choir nuns with more time for the Office and study, and of enabling the unlearned to embrace the religious life. Often, they serve as the "extern sister" of the community: the sister with the task of greeting visitors and handling relations between the cloistered nuns and the outside world.
They, too, are distinguished by their different habit from the choir sisters, and their Office consists of the Little Office of Our Lady or a certain number of Paters, etc. They seem to have been instituted earlier than the lay brothers, being first mentioned in a life of St. Denis written in the 9th century. In the early medieval period we even hear of lay brothers attached to convents of women and of lay sisters attached to monasteries. In each case, of course the two sexes occupied distinct buildings. This curious arrangement has long been abolished.
Among the various teaching orders, the majority of male communities are comprised solely of laymen, and are thus considered lay brothers, in the more general sense of the word. While they are not clergy, unlike those in this category in the monastic life, most are highly trained and professional individuals, not uncommonly having doctoral degrees.
The changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council included the call to all religious orders to re-examine and renew their origins. As a result, most of the distinctions noted above, in terms of dress and spiritual regimen were abolished or mitigated. While some continue to be known as Brothers, all members of a religious order now have equal rights and wear the same habit.
- Christian monasticism
- Macarius of Egypt
- Book of the First Monks
- Order of Watchers: Protestant Hermit community
- Contemplative spirituality in the tradition of the medieval hermit lay brothers who settled on Mount Carmel.