Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Romuald, Abbot and Confessor, Founder of the Order of Camaldoli
Saint Romuald, of the family of the dukes of Ravenna, called Honesti, was born in that capital about the year 956. Being brought up in the maxims of the world, in softness and the love of pleasures, he grew every day more and more enslaved to his passions; yet he often made a resolution of undertaking something remarkable for the honour of God; and when he went a hunting, if he found an agreeable solitary place in the woods, he would stop in it to pray, and would cry out: “How happy were the ancient hermits, who had such habitations! With what tranquillity could they serve God, free from the tumult of the world!” His father, whose name was Sergius, a worldly man, agreed to decide a dispute he had with a relation about an estate by a duel. Romuald was shocked at the criminal design; but by threats of being disinherited if he refused, was engaged by his father to be present as a spectator: Sergius slew his adversary. Romuald, then twenty years of age, struck with horror at the crime that had been perpetrated, though he had concurred in it no further than by his presence, thought himself, however, obliged to expiate it by a severe course of penance for forty days in the neighbouring Benedictine monastery of Classis, within four miles of Ravenna. He performed great austerities, and prayed and wept almost without intermission. His compunction and fervour made all these exercises seem easy and sweet to him: and the young nobleman became every day more and more penetrated with the fear and love of God. The good example which he saw, and the discourses of a pious lay-brother, who waited on him, concerning eternity and the contempt of the world, wrought so powerfully upon him, that he petitioned in full chapter to be admitted as a penitent to the religious habit. After some demurs, through their apprehensions of his father’s resentment, whose next heir the saint was, his request was granted. He passed seven years in this house in so great fervour and austerity, that his example became odious to certain tepid monks, who could not bear such a continual reproach of their sloth. They were more exasperated when his fervour prompted him to reprove their conduct, insomuch, that some of the most abandoned formed a design upon his life, the execution of which he prevented by leaving that monastery with the abbot’s consent, and returning into the neighbourhood of Venice, where he put himself under the direction of Marinus, a holy hermit, who there led an austere ascetic life. Under this master, Romuald made great progress in every virtue belonging to a religious state of life.
Peter Urseoli was then doge of Venice. He had been unjustly raised to that dignity two years before by a faction which had assassinated his predecessor Peter Candiano; in which conspiracy he is said by some to have been an accomplice: though this is denied by the best Venetian historians. This murder, however, paved the way for his advancement to the sovereignty, which the stings of his conscience would not suffer him quietly to enjoy. This put him upon consulting Saint Guarinus, a holy abbot of Catalonia, then at Venice, about what he was to do to be saved. The advice of Saint Marinus and Saint Romuald was also desired. These three unanimously agreed in proposing a monastic state, as affording the best opportunities for expiating his crimes. Urseoli acquiesced, and, under pretence of joining with his family at their villa, where he had ordered a great entertainment, set out privately with Saint Guarinus, Saint Romuald, and John Gradenigo, a Venitian nobleman of singular piety, and his son-in-law, John Moresini, for Saint Guarinus’s monastery of Saint Michael of Cusan, in that part of Catalonia which was then subject to France. Here Urseoli and Gradenigo made their monastic profession; Marinus and Romuald, leaving them under the conduct of Guarinus, retired into a desert near Cusan, and there led an eremitical life. Many flocked to them, and Romuald being made superior, first practised himself what he taught others, joining rigorous fasts, solitude, and continual prayer, with hard manual labour. He had an extraordinary ardour for prayer, which he exceedingly recommended to his disciples, in whom he could not bear to see the least sloth or tepidity with regard to the discharge of this duty; saying, they had better recite one psalm with fervour, than a hundred with less devotion. His own fasts and mortifications were extremely rigorous, but he was more indulgent to others, and in particular to Urseoli, who had exchanged his monastery for Saint Romuald’s desert, where he lived under his conduct; who, persevering in his penitential state, made a most holy end, and is honoured in Venice as a saint, with an office, on the 14th of January: and in the Roman Martyrology, published by Benedict XIV, on the 10th of that month.
Romuald, in the beginning of his conversion and retreat from the world, was molested with various temptations. The devil sometimes directly solicited him to vice; at other times he represented to him what he had forsaken, and that he had left it to ungrateful relations. He would sometimes suggest that what he did could not be agreeable to God; at other times, that his labours and difficulties were too heavy for man to bear. These and the like attempts of the devil he defeated by watching and prayer, in which he passed the whole night; and the devil strove in vain to divert him from this holy exercise by shaking his whole cell, and threatening to bury him in the ruins. Five years of grievous interior conflicts and buffetings of the enemy, wrought in him a great purity of heart, and prepared him for most extraordinary heavenly communications. The conversion of Count Oliver, or Oliban, lord of that territory, added to his spiritual joy. That count, from a voluptuous worldling, and profligate liver, became a sincere penitent, and embraced the order of Saint Benedict. He carried great treasures with him to Mount Cassino, but left his estate to his son. The example of Romuald had also such an influence on Sergius, his father, that, to make atonement for his past sins and enormities, he had entered the monastery of Saint Severus, near Ravenna; but after some time spent there, he yielded so far to the devil’s temptations, as to meditate a return into the world. This was a sore affliction to our saint, and determined him to return to Italy, to dissuade his father from leaving his monastery. But the inhabitants of the country where he lived, had such an opinion of his sanctity, that they were resolved not to let him go. They therefore formed a brutish extravagant design to kill him, that they might keep at least his body among them, imagining it would be their protection and safeguard on perilous occasions. The saint being informed of their design, had recourse to David’s stratagem, and feigned himself mad, upon which the people, losing their high opinion of him, guarded him no longer. Being thus at liberty to execute his design, he set out on his journey to Ravenna, through the south of France. He arrived there in 994, and made use of all the authority his superiority in religion gave him over his father; and by his exhortations, tears, and prayers, brought him to such an extraordinary degree of compunction and sorrow, as to prevail with him to lay aside all thoughts of leaving his monastery, where he spent the remainder of his days in great fervour, and died with the reputation of sanctity.
Romuald, having acquitted himself of his duty towards his father, retired into the marsh of Classis, and lived in a cell, remote from all mankind. The devil pursued him here with his former malice; he sometimes overwhelmed his imagination with melancholy, and once scourged him cruelly in his cell. Romuald at length cried out: “Sweetest Jesus, dearest Jesus, why hast thou forsaken me? hast thou entirely delivered me over to my enemies?” At that sweet name the wicked spirits betook themselves to flight, and such an excess of divine sweetness and compunction filled the breast of Romuald, that he melted into tears, and his heart seemed quite dissolved. He sometimes insulted his spiritual enemies, and cried out: “Are all your forces spent? have you no more engines against a poor despicable servant of God?” Not long after, the monks of Classis chose Romuald for their abbot. The emperor Otho III., who was then at Ravenna, made use of his authority to engage the saint to accept the charge, and went in person to visit him in his cell, where he passed the night lying on the saint’s poor bed. But nothing could make Romuald consent, till a synod of bishops then assembled at Ravenna, compelled him to it by threats of excommunication. The saint’s inflexible zeal for the punctual observance of monastic discipline, soon made these monks repent of their choice, which they manifested by their irregular and mutinous behaviour. The saint being of a mild disposition, bore with it for some time, in hopes of bringing them to a right sense of their duty. At length, finding all his endeavours to reform them ineffectual, he came to a resolution of leaving them, and went to the emperor, then besieging Tivoli, to acquaint him of it; whom, when he could not prevail upon to accept of his resignation, the saint in the presence of the archbishop of Ravenna, threw down his crosier at his feet. This interview proved very happy for Tivoli; for the emperor, though he had condemned that city to plunder, the inhabitants having rebelled and killed duke Matholin, their governor, spared it at the intercession of Saint Romuald. Otho having also, contrary to his solemn promise upon oath, put one Crescentius, a Roman senator, to death, who had been the leader in the rebellion of Tivoli, and made his widow his concubine; he not only performed a severe public penance enjoined him by the saint, as his confessor, but promised, by Saint Romuald’s advice, to abdicate his crown and retire into a convent during life; but this he did not live to perform. The saint’s remonstrances had a like salutary effect on Thamn, the emperor’s favourite, prime minister and accomplice in the treachery before mentioned, who, with several other courtiers, received the religious habit at the hands of Saint Romuald, and spent the remainder of his days in retirement and penance. It was a very edifying sight to behold several young princes and noblemen, who a little before had been remarkable for their splendid appearance and sumptuous living, now leading an obscure, solitary, penitential life in humility, penance, fasting, cold, and labour. They prayed, sung psalms, and worked. They all had their several employments: some spun, others knit, others tilled the ground, gaining their poor livelihood by the sweat of their brow. Saint Boniface surpassed all the rest in fervour and mortification. He was the emperor’s near relation, and so dear to him, that he never called him by any other name than, My soul! He excelled in music, and in all the liberal arts and sciences, and after having spent many years under the discipline of Saint Romuald, was ordained bishop, and commissioned by the pope to preach to the infidels of Russia, whose king he converted by his miracles, but was beheaded by the king’s brothers, who were themselves afterwards converted on seeing the miracles wrought on occasion of the martyr’s death. Several other monks of Saint Romuald’s monastery met with the same cruel treatment in Sclavonia, whither they were sent by the pope to preach the gospel.
Saint Romuald built many other monasteries, and continued three years at one he founded near Parenzo, one year in the community to settle it, and two in a neighbouring cell. Here he laboured some time under a spiritual dryness, not being able to shed one tear; but he ceased not to continue his devotions with greater fervour. At last being in his cell, at those words of the psalmist; I will give thee understanding, and will instruct thee, he was suddenly visited by God with an extraordinary light and spirit of compunction, which from that time never left him. By a supernatural light, the fruit of prayer, he understood the holy scriptures, and wrote an exposition of the psalms full of admirable unction. He often foretold things to come, and gave directions full of heavenly wisdom to all who came to consult him, especially to his religious who frequently came to ask his advice how to advance in virtue, and how to resist temptations; he always sent them back to their cells full of an extraordinary cheerfulness. Through his continual weeping he thought others had a like gift, and often said to his monks: “Do not weep too much; for it prejudices the sight and the head.” It was his desire, whenever he could conveniently avoid it, not to say mass before a number of people, because he could not refrain from tears in offering that august sacrifice. The contemplation of the Divinity often transported him out of himself; melting in tears, and burning with love, he would cry out: “Dear Jesus! my dear Jesus! my unspeakable desire! my joy! joy of the angels! sweetness of the saints!” and the like, which he was heard to speak with a jubilation which cannot be expressed. To propagate the honour of God, he resolved, by the advice of the bishop of Pola and others, to exchange his remote desert, for one where he could better advance his holy institute. The bishop of Parenzo forbade any boat to carry him off, desiring earnestly to detain him; but the bishop of Pola sent one to fetch him. He miraculously calmed a storm at sea, and landed safe at Capreola. Coming to Bifurcum, he found the monks’ cells too magnificent, and would lodge in none but that of one Peter, a man of extraordinary austerity, who never would live in a cell larger than four cubits. This Peter admired the saint’s spirit of compunction, and said, that when he recited the psalms alternately with him, the holy man used to go out thirty times in a night as if for some necessity, but he saw it was to abandon himself a few moments to spiritual consolation, with which he overflowed at prayer, or to sighs and tears which he was not able to contain. Romuald sent to the counts of the province of Marino, to beg a little ground whereon to build a monastery. They hearing Romuald’s name, offered him with joy whatever mountains, woods, or fields he would choose among them. He found the valley of Castro most proper. Exceeding great was the fruit of the blessed man’s endeavours, and many put themselves with great fervour under his direction. Sinners, who did not forsake the world entirely, were by him in great multitudes moved to penance, and to distribute great part of their possessions liberally among the poor. The holy man seemed in the midst of them as a seraph incarnate, burning with heavenly ardours of divine love, and inflaming those who heard him speak. If he travelled, he rode or walked at a distance behind his brethren, reciting psalms, and watering his cheeks almost without ceasing with tears that flowed in great abundance.
The saint had always burnt with an ardent desire of martyrdom, which was much increased by the glorious crowns of some of his disciples, especially of Saint Boniface. At last, not able to contain the ardour of his charity and desire to give his life for his Redeemer, he obtained the pope’s license, and set out to preach the gospel in Hungary, in which mission some of his disciples accompanied him. He had procured two of them to be consecrated archbishops by the pope, declining himself the episcopal dignity; but a violent illness which seized him on his entering Hungary, and returned as often as he attempted to proceed on his intended design, was a plain indication of the will of God in this matter; so he returned home with seven of his associates. The rest, with the two archbishops, went forward, and preached the faith under the holy king, Saint Stephen, suffering much for Christ, but none obtained the crown of martyrdom. Romuald in his return built some monasteries in Germany, and laboured to reform others; but this drew on him many persecutions. Yet all, even the great ones of the world, trembled in his presence. He refused to accept either water or wood, without paying for it, from Raynerius, marquis of Tuscia, because that prince had married the wife of a relation whom he had killed. Raynerius, though a sovereign, used to say, that neither the emperor, nor any mortal on earth, could strike him with so much awe as Romuald’s presence did. So powerful was the impression which the Holy Ghost, dwelling in his breast, made on the most haughty sinners. Hearing that a certain Venetian had by simony obtained the abbey of Classis, he hastened thither. The unworthy abbot strove to kill him, to preserve his unjust dignity. He often met with the like plots and assaults from several of his own disciples, which procured him the repeated merit, though not the crown, of martyrdom. The pope having called him to Rome, he wrought there several miracles, built some monasteries in its neighbourhood, and converted innumerable souls to God. Returning from Rome, he made a long stay at Mount Sitria. A young nobleman addicted to impurity, being exasperated at the saint’s severe remonstrances, had the impudence to accuse him of a scandalous crime. The monks, by a surprising levity, believed the calumny, enjoined him a most severe penance, forbade him to say mass, and excommunicated him. He bore all with patience and in silence, as if really he had been guilty, and refrained from going to the altar for six months. In the seventh month, he was admonished by God to obey no longer so unjust and irregular a sentence pronounced without any authority and without grounds. He accordingly said mass again, and with such raptures of devotion, as obliged him to continue long absorpt in ecstasy. He passed seven years in Sitria, in his cell in strict silence, but his example did the office of his tongue and moved many to penance. In his old age, instead of relaxing, he increased his austerities and fasts. He had three hair-shirts which he now and then changed. He never would admit of the least thing to give a savour to the herbs or meal-gruel on which he supported himself. If any thing was brought him better dressed, he, for the greater self-denial, applied it to his nostrils, and said: “O gluttony, gluttony, thou shalt never taste this: perpetual war is declared against thee.” His disciples also were remarkable for their austere lives, went always barefoot, and looked excessive pale with continual fasting. No other drink was known among them but water, except in sickness. Saint Romuald wrought in this place many miraculous cures of the sick. At last, having settled his disciples here in a monastery which he had built for them, he departed for Bifurcum.
The holy emperor Saint Henry II who had succeeded Otho III. coming into Italy, and being desirous to see the saint, sent an honourable embassy to him to induce him to come to court. At the earnest request of his disciples he complied, but not without great reluctance on his side. The emperor received him with the greatest marks of honour and esteem, and rising out of his chair, said to him: “I wish my soul was like yours.” The saint observed a strict silence the whole time the interview lasted, to the great astonishment of the court. The emperor being convinced that this did not proceed from pride or disdain, but from humility and a desire of being despised, was so far from being offended at it, that it occasioned his conceiving a higher esteem and veneration for him. The next day he received from him wholesome advice in his closet. The German noblemen showed him the greatest respect as he passed through the court, and plucked the very hairs out of his garments for relics, at which he was so much grieved, that he would have immediately gone back if he had not been stopped. The emperor gave him a monastery on Mount Amiatus.
The most famous of all his monasteries is that of Camaldoli, near Arezzo, in Tuscany, on the frontiers of the ecclesiastical state, thirty miles east from Florence, founded by him about the year 1009. It lies beyond a mountain, very difficult to pass over, the descent from which on the opposite side is almost a direct precipice looking down upon a pleasant large valley, which then belonged to a lord called Maldoli, who gave it to the saint, and from him it retained the name Camaldoli. In this place Saint Romuald built a monastery, and by the several observances he added to Saint Benedict’s rule, gave birth to that new order called Camaldoli, in which he united the cenobitic and eremitical life. After seeing in a vision his monks mounting up a ladder to heaven all in white, he changed their habit from black to white. The hermitage is two short miles distant from the monastery. It is a mountain quite overshaded by a dark wood of fir-trees. In it are seven clear springs of water. The very sight of this solitude in the midst of the forest helps to fill the mind with compunction, and a love of heavenly contemplation. On entering it, we meet with a chapel of Saint Antony for travellers to pray in before they advance any further. Next are the cells and lodgings for the porters. Somewhat further is the church, which is large, well built, and richly adorned. Over the door is a clock, which strikes so loud that it may be heard all over the desert. On the left side of the church is the cell in which Saint Romuald lived, when he first established these hermits. Their cells, built of stone, have each a little garden walled round. A constant fire is allowed to be kept in every cell on account of the coldness of the air throughout the year: each cell has also a chapel in which they may say mass: they call their superior, major. The whole hermitage is now enclosed with a wall: none are allowed to go out of it; but they may walk in the woods and alleys within the inclosure at discretion. Every thing is sent them from the monastery in the valley: their food is every day brought to each cell; and all are supplied with wood and necessaries that they may have no dissipation or hinderance in their contemplation. Many hours of the day are allotted to particular exercises; and no rain or snow stops any one from meeting in the church to assist at the divine office. They are obliged to strict silence in all public common places; and every where during their Lents, also on Sundays, Holydays, Fridays, and other days of abstinence, and always from complin till prime the next day.
For a severer solitude, Saint Romuald added a third kind of life; that of a recluse. After a holy life in the hermitage, the superior grants leave to any who ask it, and seem called by God, to live for ever shut up in their cells, never speaking to any one but to the superior when he visits them, and to the brother who brings them necessaries. Their prayers and austerities are doubled, and their fasts more severe and more frequent. Saint Romuald condemned himself to this kind of life for several years; and fervent imitators have never since failed in this solitude.
Saint Romuald died in his monastery in the valley of Castro in the marquisate of Ancona. As he was born about the year 956, he must have died seventy years and some months old, not a hundred and twenty as the present copies of his life have it. The day of his death was the 19th of June; but his principal feast is appointed by Clement VIII. on the 7th of February, the day of his translation. His body was found entire and uncorrupt five years after his death, and again in 1466. But his tomb being sacrilegiously opened, and his body stolen in 1480, it fell to dust, in which state it was translated to Fabriano, and there deposited in the great church, all but the remains of one arm, sent to Camaldoli. God has honoured his relics with many miracles. The order of Camaldoli is now divided into five congregations, under so many generals or majors. The life of the hermits is very severe, though something mitigated since the time of Saint Romuald. The Cenobites are more like Benedictines, and perhaps were not directly established by Saint Romuald, says F. Helyot.
If we are not called to practise the extraordinary austerities of many saints, we cannot but confess that we lie under an indespensable necessity of leading mortified lives, both in order to fulfil our obligation of doing penance, and to subdue our passions and keep our senses and interior faculties under due command. The appetites of the body are only to be reduced by universal temperance, and assiduous mortification and watchfulness over all the senses. The interior powers of the soul must be restrained, as the imagination, memory, and understanding: their proneness to distraction, and the itching curiosity of the mind, must be curbed, and their repugnance to attend to spiritual things corrected by habits of recollection, holy meditation, and prayer. Above all, the will must be rendered supple and pliant by frequent self-denial, which must reach and keep in subjection all its most trifling sallies and inclinations. If any of these, how insignificant soever they may seem, are not restrained and vanquished, they will prove sufficient often to disturb the quiet of the mind, and betray one into considerable inconveniencies, faults, and follies. Great weaknesses are sometimes fed by temptations which seem almost of too little moment to deserve notice. And though these infirmities should not arise to any great height, they always fetter the soul, and are an absolute impediment to her progress toward perfection.
- Father Alban Butler. “Saint Romuald, Abbot and Confessor, Founder of the Order of Camaldoli”. , 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 7 February 2013. Web. 1 May 2016. <>