The Italian monk St. Benedict (ca. 480-547) was the founder of the monastic order known as the Benedictines. His "Rule" introduced practicality, order, and emphasis on community into monastic life in the West.
The political and social disorder that accompanied the end of the Roman Empire induced many people to turn away from society. The idea of an isolated ascetic life had developed in the East, particularly in Egypt, where St. Anthony inspired many. Some individual hermits began to form monastic communities, but for the most part the emphasis was still upon the private war between the spirit and the world.
Knowledge of Benedict's life comes from the second book of the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, in which Gregory retells accounts he received directly from four of Benedict's close followers. Benedict was born about 480 in Nursia, 70 miles from Rome, to a distinguished family. He was sent to Rome to pursue his studies, but the vice of the city and of his fellow students impelled Benedict and his nurse to flee to the country.
Dissatisfied in his studies with his nurse, young Benedict left her secretly and disappeared into the wilderness of the Sabine hills. There, in Subiaco, he lived as a hermit in a cave, receiving food from a neighboring monk who lowered bread to him over a cliff. Dressed in wild animal skins, Benedict fought the wars of the soul. Once when tempted by a vision of a woman, he threw himself into a brier patch to subdue his emotions.
"Benedict's soul, like a field cleared of briers, soon yielded a rich harvest of virtues," Gregory related. Others sought his guidance, and the monks of a neighboring monastery whose abbot had died prevailed upon Benedict to take his place. But the strict discipline and obedience demanded by the new abbot so angered the monks that they tried to poison him. Detecting the poison, Benedict "went back to the wilderness he loved, to live alone with himself in the presence of his heavenly Father."
Isolation was not Benedict's lot, however; soon other men gathered around him, and he organized 12 monasteries with 12 monks and an abbot in each. At regular intervals, under Benedict's direction they all gathered in the chapel to chant psalms and pray silently.
About 529 Benedict moved his community to Monte Cassino, a hill 75 miles southeast of Rome. He and his monks demolished an old temple of Apollo on the summit, replacing it with a chapel dedicated to St. Martin, and began construction of monastery buildings.
It is impossible to reconstruct Benedict's daily life at Monte Cassino; his chronicler was concerned only with relating the marvels—such as Benedict's detection of an impostor whom Totila, King of the Ostrogoths, had sent to the monastery in his place, and Benedict's prediction of the destruction of Monte Cassino, an event that actually took place in 589. The date generally given for Benedict's death is March 21, 547. He was buried at Monte Cassino next to his sister, St. Scholastica.
The Rule, written during the years at Monte Cassino, was Benedict's foremost literary achievement; it was also the means by which he exerted such great influence on the history of monasticism, enabling the Benedictines to expand across Europe and dominate the religious life of the Middle Ages. Benedict's purpose was "to erect a school for beginners in the service of the Lord," and he promised his followers, "If then we keep close to our school and the doctrine we learn in it, and preserve in the monastery till death, we shall here share by patience in the Passion of Christ and hereafter deserve to be visited with Him in His kingdom."
Unlike the rigorously ascetic and solitary life that was the model for Eastern monasticism, Benedict's plan involved life in a community in which all members shared. Government was the responsibility of an elected abbot who ruled the monks as a father did his children. The details of daily life were set forward but were not "difficult or grievous." After 8 hours of sleep the monks got up for the night office, which was followed by six other services during the day. The remainder of the day was spent in labor and in study of the Bible and other spiritual books. A novice entered the community only after a probationary period, which tested him for the required virtues of humility and obedience.
Benedict believed that the life of the monk depended on his brothers in the community to which he was bound for life. The monk's daily duties and responsibilities were carefully outlined. He was to leave behind the world and grow to "greater heights of knowledge and virtue" in the seclusion of the monastery.
Benedict changed the monastic movement in the West. The chaotic pattern of isolated individuals or disorderly communities was transformed by a sense of organization and practicality. Men were brought together in communities ruled by discretion and moderation. In subsequent centuries the Rule of Benedict guided communities located over all of Europe.
Further Reading on St. Benedict
Odo John Zimmerman translated the account of St. Gregory in The Fathers of the Church: Saint Gregory the Great, Dialogues, vol. 39 (new trans. 1959). The Rule of St. Benedict may be found in Owen Chadwick, Western Asceticism (1958). Leonard von Matt and Stephen Hilpisch, Saint Benedict (1960; trans. 1961), is a restrained treatment with excellent photographs of the historical sites. Justin McCann, Saint Benedict (1937), and T. F. Lindsay, St. Benedict, His Life and Work (1949), are longer discussions. Herbert B. Workman, The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal (1913; 2d ed. 1927), places Benedict's achievement in context.
Additional Biography Sources
Dean, Eric, St. Benedict for the laity, Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989.
Oury, Guy Marie, St. Benedict, blessed by God, Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1980.