Liturgical Spirituality

Several basic questions must be posed before one can determine the nature of liturgical spirituality of the Canons Regular. Who are they and how are they different from monks are the first two to come to mind. An essential aspect to the identity of the Canons Regular is that they are clerical in nature, unlike Benedictines who may be clerics, but the clerical state is not essential to their vocation. The spirit of the Order is essentially sacerdotal; it is the only one among the ancient Orders which was so constituted that its members were destined normally for the priesthood. Their aim is the perfect fulfillment of the Church’s great duty of praise in its liturgical service, and the complete exercise of the sacerdotal ministry.”(1) Thus the connection of the Order with the sacerdotal state has deeply affected its self-awareness through time. As the Church has renewed its sense of the priesthood, so has the canonical Order.

Again, this contrasts with Benedictine monachism, insofar as the Rule of St. Benedict does not make such clerical specifications with regard to its adherents. Furthermore, Benedict’s Rule is a very detailed description of how his monks are to live, whereas the Rule of St. Augustine describes general tenets of common life. Due to its generality, the Rule of Augustine has been supplemented extensively through history by extensive constitutions heavily influenced by the Benedictines. Indeed the structures of the regular canons are largely monastic and reflect the same variations along congregational lines as the Benedictines. But for the canons, the guiding principle of their life is the common life, the Vita Apostolica of the Acts of the Apostles. Before all else, live together in harmony, being of one mind and one heart on the way to God. For is it not precisely for this reason that you have come to live together? (2)

Historically, the canons were originally clerics grouped around the local bishop and acted as a kind of priests’ council, and who also carried out the cathedral liturgy. The phenomenon is ancient and can be claimed to be the oldest form of clerical religious life in the West. Early on, canons were distinguished from vagantes , priests attached to a private church with no determined relationship to the bishop. Eventually canons became groups of clergy living a monastic life according to local statutes next to cathedrals and collegiate churches. The lack of a vow of poverty caused abuses to creep in from the beginning, as this undermined the common life. Canons with private means often sought private dwellings away from their community. The Gregorian Reform moved to correct this through the promotion of the Rule of St. Augustine. This rule would come to supplant the rules hitherto in use in canonical foundations such as that of St. Chrodegang of Metz (8th Century) and the Institutio Canonicorum, the Rule of Aachen, (9th Century). Neither of these rules had imposed poverty or common property on their adherents, though they were definitely monastic in emphasis.

Melchisedek offers sacrifice to the LORD foreshadowing Christ’s offering of the Holy Eucharist. Devotion to Melchisedek was part of canonical spirituality.

The promotion of Augustine’s Rule marked a watershed moment for the canonical communities, and its acceptance spread quickly. Communities which did not accept the Rule became what we now know as communities of secular canons, and those that did became regular canons, or Augustinian canons. The first signs of this adoption are to be found mostly in France, about the time of Pope Urban II (1088-99); by the second quarter of the 12th century the rule seems to have been almost universally adopted by the order.”(3) It is important to bear in mind the essential continuity of the canonical ideal of clerics living in common according to certain statutes or a rule in a semi-monastic or monastic structure. The adoption of Augustine’s rule did not constitute the formation of a new order or way of life, but the reform of an ancient one. It can be deduced that on the one hand there was the reform of a pre-existing religious institute and in no way the foundation of a new Order as some try to maintain; the rule of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) was by no means rejected but merely corrected. (4) The Lateran Synod of 1059 marked the practical beginning of this reform. Up until this synod, the canonical ideal admitted of considerable variation, but whether they lived a full or only partial common life, all converged in the essential liturgical tasks of the Church.

The tendency toward the adoption of monastic customs and liturgical requirements was strengthened by the Gregorian Reform. The canons would throughout history follow a parallel course to that of the monks, even in their methods of reform. Consequently, they also underwent the same historical hardships. The canonical houses were still more independent than the monks, especially during the Middle Ages, frustrating reform attempts. Yet the two forms of life did not differ greatly during that period, and both exhibited strong tendencies toward the contemplative monastic life, as well as toward the active life of the cura animarum.

Unlike the monks of St. Benedict, the Canons Regular attend to their duties to the Divine Office primarily as clerics, secondarily as a response to their rule of life. Further, the canons carry out their service to the choir as a service to God in unison with the Church Universal, as well as being a service performed on behalf of the People of God. As clerics, they stood in the choir and the sanctuary as official representatives of the Church before God and in prayer for the people. In reference to his own Congregation of Windesheim’s observance of the choral Office, Thomas a Kempis says that “There they that take leisure in God pray for them that toil.” (5) This is in contrast to the monks whose primary concentration was on prayer for themselves and their community. It could be said that while the monastic cloister turned in on itself spiritually, the canonical cloister turned outwards. This cannot, however, be interpreted to mean that the canons were always active in the apostolate, for it is simply untrue. It does indicate that their focus was different than that of their Benedictine monastic brethren.

Because of the different emphases in the Divine Office for the two orders, it is understandable that the offices of the regular canons were somewhat shorter and less onerous than those of the monks. Further, owing to their origins in cathedral and local collegiate churches, as well as the lack of specific liturgical references in Augustine’s rule, the Canons Regular developed no real liturgy of their own as did the more centralized Premonstratensian canons and the Cistercian monks. They developed liturgies according to their regions. Descriptio ritus liturgici canonicorum sit descriptio ritus liturgici diversarum ecclesiarum. (6) Only in a few cases was the liturgy as exacting as in the monastic houses, and those liturgies frequently had their origins locally or were derived from previous canonical liturgies.

Thomas a Kempis

Caroline Walker Bynum in her doctoral dissertation Docere Verbo Et Exemplo, admirably defends her thesis that the function of the Divine Office in the canonical life was that of feeding the Vita Apostolica, which was the central focus of that form of life. Walker Bynum tackles the difference between monks and Canons Regular from the perspective of twelfth-century spirituality, and examines spiritual literature of the two groups rather than foundation charters and customaries. Both the explicit content and implicit assumptions of twelfth-century spiritual literature suggest that monks and regular canons had different conceptions of Christian responsibility: regular canons saw themselves as teachers of their neighbors and brethren “verbo et exemplo”; monks adhered to a conception of themselves as learners and seekers of God that was little different from the basic monastic self-conception of the tenth century (7). Walker Bynum makes it clear that this element of teaching and edification only rarely took the canons from their cloister, but was considered simply a part of their spirituality as clerics. Thomas a Kempis echoes this thought in his sermons to his novices; referring to a canon who lives in his Congregation, he says that “There his toil and edifying life shall not be forgotten, but shall profit as an example for many coming after.”(8)

Another consideration is the solemnity of the liturgical celebrations of the Canons Regular. One reflection of this would be the pursuit of the abbatial rank and dignity for various canonical houses. Canonries had many different titles, but progressively more of the larger houses sought abbatial status, both for the privilege itself, as well as for the solemnity of the pontifical insignia. It has been said of them that although. The liturgical codification at the end of the 12th century remained the norm throughout the Middle Ages the granting of pontificalia to abbots necessitated a more elaborate ceremonial (9). Certainly the liturgical splendor of the larger and more prestigious houses of canons would have rivaled that of the monks.

Less rigorous in the areas of silence, fasting, liturgical prayer and even dress, the canonical life was able to give some of its energies to other spiritualities and trends of the times. One example is the Congregation of Windesheim. Founded in the Low Countries, this congregation was able to harness the forces of the Devotio Moderna of Gerard Groote and to produce such lights as the great Thomas a Kempis. Erasmus of Rotterdam also belonged to this congregation. Room was also found within the canonical context for high scholarship, as seen in the Congregation of St. Victor with writers such as Hugh and Richard of St. Victor, as well as in the modern liturgical scholarship of Pius Parsch, canon regular of the Abbey of Klosterneuburg outside Vienna. Eventually the canons gave birth to other orders and charisms, such as the Dominicans and Trinitarians.

In conclusion, it is clear that the spirituality of the Canons Regular, steeped in the ancient tradition of the canons, was centered around the sacerdotal service of the sanctuary in the solemn celebration of the Mass and the Divine Office. The canons saw themselves as intercessors for the people of God, and their liturgical life flowed from that, as is evident from their adoption of local rites and usages. The emphasis of the canonical life lay on giving good example to one another and to others, for they were clerics and had to live lives appropriate to that state. Though the modern Augustinian canon is frequently overburdened by pastoral responsibilities, the liturgy remains ever central to his concept of his priestly vocation in the Church.

Portrait of Erasmus


1) Catherine S. Durant, “A link between Flemish Mystics and English Martyrs” (New York: Benziger Bros., 1925), XV.

2) St. Augustine of Hippo, “The Rule of St. Augustine”

3) New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967 ed., s. v. “Canons Regular of St. Augustine”

4) Canonicorum Regularium Sodalitates, (Vorau: Canonia Vorau, 1954), 57

5) Thomas a Kempis, “Sermons to the Novices Regular”, trans DomVincent Scully, C.R.L. (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truebner and Co., Ltd., 1907), 9

6) Lucianus Qquaglia, “De Veteribus Consuetudinibus Liturgicis Apud Canonicos Regulares S. Augustini”, Ordo Canonicus (1957): 81-2

7) Caroline Walker Bynum, “Docere Verbo Et Exemplo: an aspect of twelfth-century spirituality” (Missoula: Scholar Press, 1979), 4

8) Thomas a Kempis, “Sermons”, 14

9) Archdale A. King, “Liturgies of the Religious Orders” (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1955), 172