“We are about to open a school for God’s service,
in which we hope nothing harsh or oppressive will be directed.”
Few saints have left such a palpable impact on the world as St. Benedict, the monk whose Rule set a standard for the Western monastic tradition. And yet the sources for his biography are limited. Virtually all that is known is contained in a the brief account of his life written by Pope Gregory the Great almost fifty years after his death.
St. Gregory records that Benedict was born in Nursia of a distinguished family and was later educated in Rome. Disgusted by the moral squalor of his fellow students he abandoned his studies, gave up his inheritance, and devoted himself to the quest for God. At first this took the form of penitential solitude in a cave at Subiaco. But gradually he attracted the attention of other spiritual seekers. He was induced, much against his will, to assume the leadership of a nearby monastic community. But apparently the monks bridled under his discipline and even tried to poison his wine. By miraculous means (a typical recourse of the narrative) Benedict foiled the plot and henceforth returned to his preferred solitude.
Still, disciples continued to seek him out. Eventually he agreed to organize them into a group of monasteries, each with its own presiding abbot. He himself assumed the leadership of one of those communities. After some time he established the famous monastery of Monte Cassino, later renowned as the birthplace of the Benedictine order. There, at some point, he wrote his monastic Rule. And there, in time, he died and was buried, beside the grave of his beloved sister, St. Scholastica.
Gregory’s account lays particular emphasis on the fantastic and miraculous, and thus gives little sense of the man behind the Rule. But if there is one personal quality to which the stories bear witness it is Benedict’s extraordinary power to read and discern the souls of others. In this respect Gregory’s portrait is consistent with the Rule itself, which provides ample evidence of Benedict’s rare insight into human nature.
Whereas earlier monastic experiments had stressed rigorous asceticism and often superhuman self-denial, Benedict’s Rule was designed for ordinary human beings. The element of discipline was shifted from externals to the interior, from the flesh to the will. His monks were not to be denied adequate food or sleep; they were in fact counseled to avoid any extraordinary or self-imposed mortifications. Their discipline was to lie in humility, obedience, a commitment to stability, and an accommodation to the requirements of community life.
Community was, in fact, the key feature of his monastic vision. Rather than writing for a collection of individuals competing against each other in their solitary quests for perfection, Benedict stressed the value of community life as a school for holiness. The community for Benedict was ideally suited to bring individuals to their highest potential. Salvation, in effect, was thus a team effort, like the performance of an orchestra under the skilled direction of a conductor.
Much depended in this scheme on the wisdom and holiness of the abbot. He must be stern, yet kind and flexible, adapting his methods to the needs of each monk and the good of all. He was eternally accountable for the salvation of his monks and he must regard them as his sons and brothers.
Benedict’s balance of work and prayer, his validation of community life, and his regulation of monastic discipline eventually set the pattern for Western monasticism as a whole. In part this was aided by the official sponsorship of church authorities like Pope Gregory – a monk himself, who may have had direct experience of Benedict’s Rule. But a significant factor in the Benedictine success was the intrinsic attraction of the Rule itself and its underlying balance, moderation, and humanity.
Apart from its effects on the history of monasticism, Benedictine spirituality had and even wider influence on medieval society. For centuries the Benedictine monasteries presented the challenge of an alternative world, governed by the spirit of Christ. At a time of extreme social hierarchy, they presented an ideal of equality. At a time when manual labor was derided, they affirmed the spiritual value of work. During a time of cultural disintegration, they maintained islands of learning and civilization. In a time when violence was commonplace, they lived by the motto of Peace. The Benedictine monasteries represented a vision of health, wholeness, and ecology in a world badly out of kilter. To the extent that that world remains our world, the vision of St. Benedict retains its relevance and attraction.
See: Gregory the Great, Dialogues, Book II: Saint Benedict, trans. Myra L. Uhlfelder (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1967); Joan Chittster, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad 1993).
This essay is from All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saint, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, by Robert Ellsberg (Winner of the 1998 Christopher Award). Published by The Crossroad Publishing Company and reprinted here for St. Benedict’s parish with the permission of the author.
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