About the life of Saint Benedict
“Listen carefully, my son, to the Master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true king, Christ the Lord.” (the Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue, verses 1-3) Thus begins the Rule of St. Benedict.
Many are those whose deeds and personalities have merged to shape what we think of as Western, or European, civilization. Certainly, larger-than-life characters such as Caesar Augustus, Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, Napoleon, and the Medici can be called to mind without much effort. But it can also be said that, influential as they were, these giants presided over the agonies of the developing world. Perhaps it is for this reason that their names have retained their glamor. Wealth and power are, as ever, formidably attractive.
The same holds true for figures within the Church: Savanarola, Torquemada, Rodrigo Borgia and others captivate our imaginations and allow us to gloat over the tragedies and mistakes of the past.
But what of our civilization’s true glories? Its serenities? Again, certain names spring to mind: St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, certainly; Teresa of Avila for another. But predating these Saints by many, many centuries was one man whose simple genius remains undimmed to this day: his name was Benedict of Nursia. Not only was he considered the father of Western monks, but he has been called the Co-Patron of Europe, along with Sts. Cyril and Methodius. This for the simple reason that, through the influence of his spiritual sons and daughters, Western civilization was nurtured and largely preserved. In fact much of Europe’s Christian roots were planted directly or indirectly through the work of the Benedictines, the black monks of legend who named a religious order after their muse.
Biographical certainties are sketchy concerning St. Benedict. What is known is that he was born in the Umbrian town of Nursia, near Spoleto, Italy, in the waning years of the Roman Empire, c. AD 480. (St. Francis of Assisi would emerge from this same region some 700 years later). In his mid-to-late teens, accompanied by a nurse – as would have been customary for a son of the lesser nobility – he journeyed to Rome to complete his studies in rhetoric and law. However, according to our principal source, the “Dialogues” of Pope St. Gregory the Great, written ca. AD 593, he gave over “his books and, forsaking his father’s house and wealth, with his mind only to serve God, he sought for some place where he might achieve his holy purpose; and in this wisdom he departed, instructed with learned ignorance and furnished with unlearned wisdom.”Benedict thus turned his back on the world, and a life that promised a measure of success in business or government. Still with his nurse he left Rome and joined what can only be termed a small community of like-minded seekers in a village some 40 miles away, at the foot of Mount Affile.
It is possible that his move was also prompted by a political and religious climate in Rome not altogether agreeable to one of his sensibilities. The Acacian Schism, the first in a long string of doctrinal disputes between the Eastern and Western Churches which would eventually culminate in a permanent split, was tearing the empire apart; factions of the anti-pope Laurentius were waging a violent and bloody campaign against the forces of the newly elected Pope Symmachus. The Church was thus plunged into a second schism that failed to heal until the death of Symmachus and subsequent election of Pope Hormisdas in AD 514. Temporal supremacy in those floundering days of the Empire was in the hands of the Arian ruler, Theodoric, a Goth.
At Affile Benedict’s life would have been one of prayer, silence and much study of both holy scripture and histories of church fathers, especially the writings of John Cassian. One could suppose that, had he remained there, his career in the Church would have been radically different. However, after a period of several years a miracle was unexpectly granted him, and whether he feared that he would be venerated as a Saint, or for some other reason, he departed.
The nature of this miracle and the effect it had on others was immediate and profound, as can be seen in the account handed down by St. Gregory. Apparently, Benedict’s nurse had borrowed an earthenware sieve and, after using it, had left it casually on a table. It was subsequently knocked off and broke in two. The nurse was devastated over her carelessness and Benedict, seeking to comfort her, picked up the shards and began to pray; by the time he rose from his knees, the object was once again whole. There was not a mark on it.
This incident caused Benedict to become so admired, (in fact, the sieve was promptly displayed in the porch of the village church), that he may have been practically forced into the next phase of his life. He left Affile, but this time he journeyed alone, making his way to the solitude of Subiaco and an existence in which, according to St. Gregory, for God’s sake, he deliberately chose the hardships of life and the weariness of labor. It was this radical blending of holiness and hard work that was to become his great legacy.
Monasticism, as such, was not his invention, nor was it a particularly novel concept, even in Benedict’s time. In fact, although the ascetic tradition on which the movement was founded can be traced directly back to the teachings of the New Testament, primitive examples may be found dating from the second century BC, antedating the the advent of Christianity by several centuries, at least. There are also parallels to be found in early Buddhist and Hindu writings, and it is known that there was considerable contact between India and Alexandria, which was at that time the principal commercial and intellectual center in the Mediterranean, if not the Western world. Hindu merchants had long formed a permanent and prosperous colony. Also, we know from his writings that Clement of Alexandria was familiar with Buddhism; the Brahmans are mentioned by Hippolytus of Rome. In our own time, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and excavations at Khirbet Qumran have raised considerable speculation about the supposed “monastic” character of the Essenes. The Therapeutae, near Alexandria, in Egypt, were another group whose espousal of the contemplative life has sparked interest for nearly 2,000 years, as has the movement inspired by Pythagoras. However, what really distinguishes the Christian monastic movement from other, earlier traditions, is the practice of withdrawal from society, which itself had roots in both the practices of Jesus and in second and third century political realities.
Of particular importance to the movement is, and always has been, the tradition of virginity and celibacy; in this respect, Christian monasticism is firmly grounded in the example of Jesus (Matt. 19:12) and in the exhortations of St. Paul. The writings of such early Church Fathers as Ignatius, Clement of Rome, Tertullian, and Origin give ample testimony as to this aspect of asceticism. In fact, much of what we know about the origins of early Christian monasticism is derived from the considerable body of literature which these and many other Christian writers produced and which has been preserved in various states and translations down through the millenia. From St. Basil, Evagrius of Pontus and John Cassian we can glean early attempts to instruct their brethren in modes of spiritual discipline; moreover, Cassian’s “Institutes”, which were written in Latin in Southern Gaul, testify as much to the adaptation of Egyptian monasticism to the Western Church as it does to the original movement. And, of course, his “Collations”, or “Conferences”, have been used for table reading and study in monasteries up to the present day.
The phenomenal growth of monasticism in the early years, as well as the evolution of many of the movement’s physical characteristics, was very possibly spurred on by the turbulence of the political arena. For this first flowering of organized Christian asceticism coincided with the last of the great Roman persecutions of Christians to take place in Egypt. Carried out under the emperors Decius in AD 240 and Diocletian in AD 304, they were devastatingly severe; many hundreds, if not thousands, fled from the cities to avoid martyrdom. Undoubtedly, some among their number would have formed the nuclei of what would quickly evolve into loosely-organized communities, and the hardships they encountered could have contributed to the ascetic practices they were already adopting.
The eventual cessation of the persecutions has also been cited as a factor in the early growth of the movement. Monks came to replace the martyr as the hero of the newly triumphal Church. They were seen, much like Jesus himself, to lay down their lives for God.
Among the massive contributions of St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria and head of the Church in Egypt for nearly fifty years, was his “Life of St. Antony,” a work monumental in its influence. His subject, St. Antony of Egypt, who is commonly considered the father of eremetical monasticism, regarded his vocation as a call to the perfect fulfillment of Gospel teachings; indeed, if we are to even attempt to understand this ideal, we must start at the same juncture. For what is a monastic if not one who seeks to fulfill the evangelical counsels?
As a young man of about twenty, Antony happened to hear in Church the words, “si vis perfectus esse, vade, vende, quae habes, et da pauperibus et habebis thesaurum in caelo; et veni, sequere me. ¹ (If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” ² (Matt. 19:21). Certain that the summons had been directed to him personally, he proceeded to obey, and after first entrusting his sister to the care of religious women, he went out into the desert. Within a short space of time, disciples, drawn by his holiness and example, began to congregate around him.
It should be emphasized, however, that long before Antony, in fact from the earliest days of Christianity, the ascetic impulse had been vigorously alive in the Church. Both men and women lived their lives according to scriptural example in Christian ghettos or, at least, within close proximity to each other. But if Antony was not the first Christian ascetic, he was for all intents and purposes the first Christian monk. The movement he inspired transformed the ascetic into a solitary; it set him apart from his fellow Christians and enabled him to be seen as one living in a state distinctly removed from the mainstream of society.
What followed transformed a barren quarter of the Middle East into an ocean of pious humanity. By the year AD 394, it was reported that there were nearly as many monks living in the Egyptian desert as there were citizens in the cities. Communities of 7,000 and 10,000 existed in Nitria and Arsinoe; 7,000 men and women were supposedly living at Tabenna in the Nile valley. While it is probable that such numbers were in some cases grossly exaggerated, it cannot be denied that there was a major social phenomena taking place.
The life of a hermit was popularly viewed as being the summit of holiness; in actual fact considerable perils lay in wait for those inclined to venture on to its slippery inclines. There was no Rule to consult, no infallible teacher existed whose position it was to correct the vanities and delusions of the monk who considered himself to be at one with God; nor in fact was it really possible for many of them to practice two of monasticism’s most important tenets, obedience and humility. Externals in many cases won the day, and more than a few of the Desert Fathers appeared to compete with each other in their austerities. A visible and tangible holiness became its own reward. In his own time Benedict himself would warn against such spiritual self-satisfaction.
A similarly individualistic movement took place in Ireland, reaching its peak in the 6th and 7th centuries. Only in this case it was not primitive asceticism, but rather a flowering of the scholarly and creative. Austerity aside, the flame of Western culture burned more intensely here than anywhere else. At a time when much of Europe still groped in darkness, the brief culture nurtured by the monasteries of Ireland was one of the world’s glories; the later Benedictines would build upon these wonderful foundations of learning.
Following closely the cessation of persecutions and conversion to Christianity of the Roman emperors, steady growth of the Church quickly and inevitably led to what was perceived as a breakdown in discipline. Whereas, formerly, Christians had been identified as a minority group often at odds with the state, they now became in some cases the state itself. Under the Emperor Constantine, for example, few non-Christians could hope for advancement in imperial service. He himself took an active role in ecclesiastical affairs, and his household showered the Church with such favors as buildings and endowments. This massive injection of secular values into the sacred heralded the birth of the Church Triumphant, and it did not take long for ascetics to seek outlets that would contrast with what they perceived as mediocre Christianity. Thus would monasticism gradually evolve into a potent platform for social and religious reform.
But in Benedict’s time such was far from the case. Through gross excesses and laxity the movement had been weakened considerably. An individual was needed who was strong and wise enough to adapt and discipline the monastic impulse and mold it to fit a crumbling empire crying out for the examples, teachings and spiritual consolations that a rational and orderly religious movement could provide.
There were, of course, many long-established monasteries to be found throughout Italy and Southern Gaul at the time of Benedict’s departure from Affile, and had been since the days of Sts. Athanasius and Jerome. These were inhabited by monks of every conceivable kind, from the nondescript to the disreputable, and from the solitary to the cenobitic. By chance, a small cenobium happened to be located on the summit of the mountain on which Benedict sought a solitude for himself. A monk by the name of Romanus came upon and interrogated the youthful aspirant. Whether or not he initially urged the younger man to continue his search for God within the confines of the existing monastery is not known. That he must have been impressed with what he saw and heard is certain, however, for we are told that Romanus dressed the youth in a melota (a plain sheepskin garment that had become the traditional robe of the Eastern monks), and conducted him to an isolated and almost impenetrable cave on the side of the promontory.
It was there that Benedict lived as a hermit, subdued the flesh, prayed and emptied himself, and sanctified his person in anticipation of the spiritual entrance of God. He lived in the cave for three years, fed daily by Romanus, who would lower a loaf of bread by cord from the clifftop monastery above.
Benedict’s solitude cannot have been absolute, for as time passed his reputation for sanctity grew and he seems to have gained a great local following. Indeed, he was eventually invited by another monastery to assume the office of abbot. After some urging, he reluctantly accepted, but warned that they would find his austerities too extreme for them. Sure enough, not long afterwards, in an attempt to rid themselves of their new superior, they offered him a poisoned goblet of wine. Tradition holds that it miraculously shattered as he made the Sign of the Cross over the vessel prior to raising it to his lips.
An interesting side note to this is that the remains of this monastery, Vicovaro, are still in existence. Unlike grander and more pretentious foundations, it had been literally carved into the rock, and consisted of a series of small caves, each measuring about six feet by four, with a height of eight feet; in each cell had been cut a window for light and ventilation. There were also two larger grottoes, for the church and refectory.
After leaving Vicovaro, Benedict returned to his solitude at Subiaco. However, so great was his renown that disciples soon began to seek him out. It did not take long before there were a total of twelve monasteries in the valley, each consisting of a superior and twelve men under the general supervision of the Saint.
A pattern of life soon began to develop at Subiaco: that of a laborious existance designed to be at the same time useful to man and pleasing to God.
Subiaco prospered and today continues to be the home of Benedictine monks. Benedict himself went on to found Monte Cassino where, in all probability, he composed his Rule. While there is controversy about the scope, sources and origins of this work, its importance is underscored by the intensity with which it has been scrutinized. In fact, the attention it has been given has in some cases been parallel with but not, of course, equal to that given the Gospels. It should be understood that Benedict did not write it for clerics; nor was it his intention to found a world-wide order. His Rule was meant to be for the governance of the domestic life of lay individuals who wanted to live in the fullest possible way the path that led to God. In other words, it was penned for those whose desire was to live in a radical imitation of Christ. It is possible that he was also influenced by memories of the first vague “community” near Affile, as well as by the unhappy monks of Vicovaro, for his Rule certainly contains measures that could be interpretted as being highly corrective in character.
In any case, his Rule lays down no specific tasks for his organization, unlike later orders which specifically dedicated themselves to such charisms as preaching, teaching, combatting heresies, emancipating slaves or nursing the sick. Indeed, his admonitions were simply a ladder provided to aid a man in his search for God. For Benedict, a monastery was nothing more or less than:
“a school for the Lord’s service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen” (RB, Prologue, verses 45-50).
Benedict had the revolutionary idea that work was a necessary instrument of virtue almost on a par with prayer, and often indistinguishable from it. To him it was the natural condition of man, and he envisioned a state of life in which the physical components of work, prayer and reading were in all ways equal. He warned against outward expressions of piety and excessive mortification, especially when they were found to be, as is most often the case, an end in themselves. His was a voice of moderation and reason; his Rule is, indeed, a document about how a man can live with God in an imperfect world.
The final chapter is endearing and sensible. In it Benedict declares:
“The reason we have written this rule is that, by observing it in monasteries, we can show that we have some degree of virtue and the beginnings of monastic life. But for anyone hastening on to the perfection of monastic life, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which will lead him to the very heights of perfection. What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life? What book of the holy catholic Fathers does not resoundly summon us along the true way to reach the Creator? …For observant and obedient monks, all these are nothing less than tools for the cultivation of virtues; but as for us, they make us blush for shame at being so slothful, so unobservant, so negligent. Are you hastening towards your heavenly home? Then with Christ’s help, keep this little rule that we have written for beginners. After that, you can set out for the loftier summits of the teachings and virtues we mentioned above, and under God’s protection you will reach them. Amen.” (RB, ch. 73, verses 1-9)
Benedict’s life ended with an occasion of fitting tenderness. According to tradition, he had one sister, a twin, by the name of Scholastica. Although little is actually known of her life, it is thought on good authority that she, too, had from an early age consecrated herself to God. Whether her life was lived as a solitary, at home with a family or in community with other nuns is lost to us. St Gregory tells us that Scholastica used to visit her brother once a year and that their meetings would take place in an outbuilding near the gates of Monte Cassino. During their final visit, as it was drawing to a close, she expressed the desire that he not leave her so soon, that they should talk until morning “of the joys of the Heavenly life.” Benedict quickly declined, insisting that he could not for any reason remain for a night outside his monastery. Upon his refusal, she is said to have joined her hands together and, putting them on the table in front of her, reclined her head over them in prayer to God. When she once again raised her head, there was immediately such a violent thunder storm that neither the Abbot nor his monks were able to venture forth. To him she said, “I asked thee and you would not listen. I asked God and he heard me.” And so, as she had willed, they spent the entire night together in prayer and holy conversation. She died not many days after this meeting.
Brother and sister both died about the year AD 547, and were interred in the same tomb at Monte Cassino.
¹ Scripture quotation from NOVUM TESTAMENTUM LATINE (Nestle-Aland edition), Deutche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart.
² English translation of Matthew 19:21 from NEW AMERICAN BIBLE, Catholic Book Publishing Co., New York.
All quotations from the Rule of St. Benedict are from RB 1980, Timothy Fry, ed., The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.
BENEDICT OF NORCIA, Anselm Grun, OSB, BMH Publications
BENEDICT OF NURSIA, Patrick O’Donovan, Wm. Collins & Sons & Co.
THE BENEDICTINE WAY, Wulstan Mork, OSB, St. Bede’s Publications
THE LIFE OF ST. BENEDICT (Book II, DIALOGUES), St. Gregory the Great, commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB, St. Bede’s Publications
READING SAINT BENEDICT; REFLECTIONS ON THE RULE, Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB, Cistercian Publications
RB 1980, Timothy Fry, OSB, editor, The Liturgical Press
ST. BENEDICT, Justin McCann, OSB, Sheed & Ward
ST. BENEDICT, THE RULE FOR BEGINNERS, Julian Stead, OSB, NYC Press