Lay brother

In the most common usage, lay brothers are those members of Catholic religious orders, particularly of monastic orders, occupied primarily with manual labour 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") and to study. The term is also used of those who are brothers in those religious congregations which haved been established since the Reformation. While taking vows particular to their religious community they have not been ordained by a bishop as deacon or priest. In this regard they are lay persons.

No such distinction existed in early Western monasticism. The majority of St. Benedict's monks were not clerics, and all performed manual labour, 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

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.

Later changes

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. Many religious orders now have equal rights and wear the same habit.

See also



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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Lay brother — Lay Lay, a. [F. lai, L. laicus, Gr. ? of or from the people, lay, from ?, ?, people. Cf. {Laic}.] 1. Of or pertaining to the laity, as distinct from the clergy; as, a lay person; a lay preacher; a lay brother. [1913 Webster] 2. Not educated or… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • lay brother — n. Eccles. a member of a clerical religious order or congregation who is not a priest or a clerical student …   English World dictionary

  • lay brother — noun A layman who is a member of a brotherhood without the intention to become a priest. In feudal days lay brothers were usually uneducated commoners, who did most menial, manual labor while the learned priestly monks held the more spiritual… …   Wiktionary

  • lay brother — (or lay sister) noun a person who has taken the vows of a religious order but is not ordained and is employed in ancillary or manual work …   English new terms dictionary

  • lay brother — /ˈleɪ brʌðə/ (say lay brudhuh) noun a man who has taken religious vows and habit, but is employed chiefly in manual work …   Australian English dictionary

  • lay brother — a man who has taken religious vows and habit but is employed by his order chiefly in manual labor. [1670 80] * * * …   Universalium

  • LAY BROTHER —    a member of a monastery under the three monastic vows, but not in holy orders …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

  • Lay brother — member of a religious order who is not bound to the recitation of the divine office and is occupied in manual work, generally adult converts to the monastic life; also known as conversi …   Medieval glossary

  • lay brother — a man who has taken religious vows and habit but is employed by his order chiefly in manual labor. [1670 80] …   Useful english dictionary

  • Lay-brother Rock — (coord|60|34|S|46|13|W|) is a rock 2 nautical miles (3.7 km) southwest of Despair Rocks and 7 nautical miles (13 km) northwest of Route Point, off the west end of Coronation Island in the South Orkney Islands. Charted and named by DI personnel on …   Wikipedia

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