This Wednesday, July 11, is the feast of St. Benedict, who is considered the founder of Western monasticism. The only authentic record of his life comes from the second book of Pope St. Gregory I's "Dialogues." It consists mostly of accounts of the various miracles attributed to St. Benedict during his life.
Benedict was born in Nursia, Italy (now known as Norcia) around the year 480. He was the son of a Roman noble and had a twin sister, St. Scholastica. He went to school in Rome, but once he reached the higher level of studies, he left school, tired of the immorality and corruption that was endemic of the city at the time.
When leaving Rome, his nurse, an old family servant, insisted on accompanying him. They stayed in the small village of Enfide in the Sabine Mountains, about 3040 miles from Rome. It was here that Benedict performed his first miracle when he perfectly restored an earthen wheat sifter that his servant had accidently broken.
Benedict didn't want the attention that soon followed, so he set out to live a life of solitude in the mountains. He took shelter in a cave near a place known as Subiaco where he lived as a hermit for three years. During this time he had very little contact with the outside world except for visits from a monk named Romanus who would bring Benedict portions of his bread.
According to Pope Gregory, the first outsider to find his way to the cave was a priest, who while preparing a special dinner for himself on Easter Sunday heard a voice saying to him: "Thou art preparing thyself a savoury dish while my servant Benedict is afflicted with hunger." The priest immediately set out in search of Benedict, and finally discovered his hiding place. Benedict was astonished, but before he would enter into conversation with his visitor he asked that they might pray together. Then, after they had talked for a time on heavenly things, the priest invited Benedict to eat, telling him that it was Easter Day, on which it is not reasonable to fast. Later Benedict was seen by some shepherds, who at first glance took him for a wild animal because he was clothed in the skins of beasts. It did not occur to them that a human being could live among the barren rocks. From that time on, others made their way up the steep cliff, bringing such small offerings of food as the holy man would accept and receiving from him instruction and advice.
Even though he lived thus sequestered from the world, Benedict, like the Desert Fathers, had to struggle with temptations of the flesh and the devil. One of these struggles is described by Gregory. "On a certain day when he was alone the tempter presented himself. A small dark bird, commonly called a blackbird, began to fly around his face and came so near him that, if he had wished, he could have seized it with his hand. But on his making the sign of the cross, the bird flew away. Then followed a violent temptation of the flesh, such as he had never before experienced. The evil spirit brought before his imagination a woman whom he had formerly seen, and inflamed his heart with such vehement desire at the memory of her that he had very great difficulty in repressing it. He was almost overcome and thought of leaving his solitude. Suddenly, however, with the help of divine grace, he found the strength he needed. Seeing near at hand a thick growth of briars and nettles, he stripped off his habit and cast himself into the midst of them and plunged and tossed about until his whole body was lacerated. Thus, through those bodily wounds, he cured the wounds of his soul." Never again was he troubled in the same way.
There was a community of monks that lived nearby. When their abbot died, they sought out Benedict to replace him. At first he refused, telling them his way of life would be too strict for them to follow, but they persisted and eventually persuaded him to return with them. When his warning proved to be true, the monks plotted to get rid of him by poisoning his wine. When Benedict made the sign of the cross over the wine to bless it, the cup shattered. Benedict left the monastery and returned to his cave.
Disciples now began to gather around Benedict, attracted by his sanctity and by his miraculous powers. At last he found himself in a position to initiate the great work for which God had been preparing him. This was the idea that had slowly been germinating during his years of isolation: to bring together those who wished to share the monastic life, both men of the world who yearned to escape material concerns and the monks who had been living in solitude or in widely scattered communities, to make of them one flock, binding them by fraternal bonds, under one observance, in the permanent worship of God. In short, his scheme was for the establishment in the West of a single great religious order which would end the capricious rule of the various superiors and the vagaries of individual anchorites. Those who agreed to obey Benedict in this enterprise, he settled in twelve monasteries of twelve monks each. Although each monastery had its own prior, Benedict himself exercised general control over all of them from the monastery of St. Clement.
One of Benedict's greatest accomplishments was to break down in his monasteries the ancient prejudice against manual work as something in itself degrading and servile. The Romans had for centuries made slaves of conquered peoples, who performed their menial tasks. Now times were changing. Benedict introduced the novel idea that labor was not only dignified and honorable but conducive to sanctity; it was therefore made compulsory for all who joined the order, nobles and plebeians alike. "He who works prays," became the maxim which expressed the Benedictine attitude.
We do not know how long Benedict remained in the neighborhood of Subiaco, but he stayed long enough certainly to establish his monasteries there on a firm and permanent basis...Having set all things in order, he summoned the monks, or their representatives, from the twelve monasteries, bade them farewell, and withdrew with a few disciples from Subiaco to the more southerly territory of Monte Cassino, a conspicuous elevation where land had been offered him. The town of Cassino, formerly an important place, had been destroyed by the Goths, and the remnant of its inhabitants, left without a priest, were relapsing into paganism; the once-fertile land had fallen out of cultivation. From time to time the inhabitants would climb up through the woods to offer sacrifices in an ancient temple dedicated to Apollo, which stood on the crest of Monte Cassino. Benedict's first work, after a preliminary forty-day fast, was to preach to the people and win them back to the faith. With the help of these converts, he proceeded to overthrow the pagan temple and cut down the sacred grove. He built two oratories or chapels on the site; one he dedicated to St. John the Baptist and the other to St. Martin. Round about these sanctuaries new buildings were erected and older ones remodeled, until there rose, little by little, the tremendous pile which was to become the most famous abbey the world has known. The foundation was laid by Benedict probably about the year 520. Profiting no doubt by his earlier experience, Benedict did not distribute his monks in separate houses, but gathered them together in one great establishment, ruled over by a prior and deans under his own direction. Almost immediately it became necessary to build guest chambers...Not only laymen but dignitaries of the Church, bishops and abbots, came to consult with the founder, whose reputation for sanctity, wisdom, and miracles was spreading.
It was probably during this period that Benedict composed his famous Rule. Although the Rule professes only to lay down a pattern of life for the monks at Monte Cassino, it served as a guide for the monks of the whole Western Empire. It is addressed to all who, renouncing their own will, take upon them "the strong and bright armor of obedience, to fight under our Lord Christ, our true king." It prescribes a diversified routine of liturgical prayer, study, and physical work, in a community under one father.
Far from confining his attention to those who accepted his Rule, Benedict extended his solicitude to the people of the countryside. He cured the sick, relieved the distressed, distributed alms and food to the poor, and is said on more than one occasion to have raised the dead. When Campania suffered from a famine, he gave away all the provisions stored in the abbey, with the exception of five loaves. "You have not enough today," he said to his monks, noticing their dismay, "but tomorrow you will have too much." Benedict's faith had its reward. The next morning a large donation of flour was deposited by unknown hands at the monastery gate. Other stories were told of prophetic powers and of an ability to read men's thoughts. A nobleman he had converted once found him in tears and inquired the cause of his grief. Benedict astounded him by replying that the monastery and everything in it would be delivered to the pagans, and the monks would barely escape with their lives. This prophecy came true some forty years later, when the abbey was wrecked by a new wave of invaders, the pagan Lombards.
He who had foretold so many things was forewarned of his own death, and six days before the end bade his disciples dig a grave. As soon as this was done, Benedict was stricken with a fever, and on the sixth day, while the brethren supported him, he murmured a few words of prayer and died, standing, with hands uplifted towards Heaven. He was buried beside his sister Scholastica, on the site of the altar of Apollo which he had thrown down. The order which Benedict founded has spread over the earth and has left its mark on the education, art, and literature of Europe. Within its cloisters, always marked by an atmosphere of industry and peace, were copied and recopied the great writings of the past, to be cherished and passed on to succeeding generations.BACK TO LIST