The Catholic Defender: Saint Benedict
Benedict was born into Roman nobility in Nursia, central Italy, roughly 100 miles northeast of Rome. His father was a prefect for the Western Roman Empire, which had fallen to the barbarians a decade prior to his birth. He had a twin sister named Scholastica, who also became a saint. As a youth, Benedict was sent to Rome for studies. However, he quickly became disillusioned by the prevalent immorality and disorder, particularly among his classmates.
Benedict is the twin brother of St. Scholastic.
At the age of twenty, to find peace in his soul and avoid the traps that had ensnared many of his peers, he moved to the countryside of the town of Affile, about forty miles from Rome. Accompanying him was his nurse who cared for him like a mother. They moved in with some virtuous men in the Church of Saint Peter. While there, his nurse accidentally broke a dish used to sift wheat and was distraught. Witnessing this, Benedict miraculously mended the dish and returned it to her. News of this miracle spread quickly, and Benedict became the talk of the town.
As we honor this important figure in Church and world history, reflect on his humble beginnings. He witnessed the immoralities of his day and fled from those temptations to embrace a life of holiness. At that time, it would have been difficult for him to comprehend the influence he would have had on all of Europe and, in fact, upon the whole world for many centuries to come.
Reflect on the fact that God also calls you to flee from sin and embrace a life of holiness. When that happens, God can do great things through you in ways you may never comprehend. Follow the example of Saint Benedict and commit yourself to holy daily living, and leave it up to God to use you as He wills.
Saint Benedict (AD 480-547) is a patron saint of students, as well as one of the patron saints of Europe. He has had an immense influence on our educational practice, and he had much to do with the shape of Western culture.
In 530, he founded the great Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, situated on a hilltop between Rome and Naples. There, Benedict developed the practical and spiritual guidelines for monastic life, which is now known as the Benedictine Rule.
The “Rule” consists of seventy-three short chapters that address both the spiritual and administrative aspects of a healthy monastery. The Rule lays out guidelines for monastic living, particularly in areas of stability, conversion of life, obedience, prayer, work, community life, hospitality, and humility.
The Rule takes into consideration the fact that most monks governed under the Rule did not engage in extreme penances or other radical charisms. Instead, the Rule fosters a balanced community life in which individual monks can discover a daily rhythm of prayer, work, and study conducive to a deeper and personal calling to holiness.
Upon arriving at Monte Cassino, Benedict found a temple built to the Roman god Apollo. He destroyed it, built two chapels in its place, and then constructed a monastery nearby. Before this, most monasteries consisted of loosely associated hermits living independently but also somewhat communally.
Having seen the failure of this form of monasticism in Subiaco, Benedict adopted a new approach. Instead of several smaller monasteries, he built one large monastery where numerous monks could live. He wrote a rule, later known as “The Rule of Saint Benedict,” that guided his newly established monastery at Monte Cassino and eventually became the normative rule for Western monasticism for the next 1,500 years. Hence, Saint Benedict is often referred to as the “Father of Western Monasticism.”
In the fifth century, the young Benedict was sent to Rome to finish his education with a nurse/housekeeper. The subject that dominated a young man's study then was rhetoric -- the art of persuasive speaking. A successful speaker was not one who had the best argument or conveyed the truth, but one who used rhythm, eloquence, and technique to convince.
The power of the voice without foundation in the heart was the goal of the student's education. And that philosophy was reflected in the lives of the students as well. They had everything -- education, wealth, youth -- and they spent all of it in the pursuit of pleasure, not truth. Benedict watched in horror as vice unraveled the lives and ethics of his companions.
Afraid for his soul, Benedict fled Rome, gave up his inheritance and lived in a small village with his nurse. When God called him beyond this quiet life to an even deeper solitude, he went to the mountains of Subiaco. Although becoming a hermit was not his purpose in leaving, there he lived as a hermit under the direction of another hermit, Romanus.
Through your intercession may we be delivered from temptation, spiritual oppression, physical ills, and disease. Protect us from drug and alcohol abuse, impurity and immorality, objectionable companions, and negative attitudes.
Benedict envisioned a balanced life of prayer and work as the ideal. Monastics would spend time in prayer so as to discover why they're working, and would spend time in work so that good order and harmony would prevail in the monastery.
It is unfortunate that no contemporary biography was written of a man who has exercised the greatest influence on monasticism in the West. Benedict is well recognized in the later Dialogues of Saint Gregory, but these are sketches to illustrate miraculous elements of his career.
Benedict was born into a distinguished family in central Italy, studied at Rome, and early in life was drawn to monasticism. At first he became a hermit, leaving a depressing world—pagan armies on the march, the Church torn by schism, people suffering from war, morality at a low ebb.
He soon realized that he could not live a hidden life in a small town any better than in a large city, so he withdrew to a cave high in the mountains for three years. Some monks chose Benedict as their leader for a while, but found his strictness not to their taste. Still the shift from hermit to community life had begun for him. He had an idea of gathering various families of monks into one “Grand Monastery” to give them the benefit of unity, fraternity, and permanent worship in one house. Finally he began to build what was to become one of the most famous monasteries in the world—Monte Cassino, commanding three narrow valleys running toward the mountains north of Naples.
The Rule that gradually developed prescribed a life of liturgical prayer, study, manual labor, and living together in community under a common abbot. Benedictine asceticism is known for its moderation, and Benedictine charity has always shown concern for the people in the surrounding countryside. In the course of the Middle Ages, all monasticism in the West was gradually brought under the Rule of St. Benedict.
After fewer than ten years at Monte Cassino, Benedict died, but his influence on the Church and all of Europe was just beginning. Monasteries across Europe, guided by the Rule of Saint Benedict, developed into important centers for education, medicine, culture, and social development. From these monasteries, universities were born.
The monasteries helped to preserve ancient texts, stabilize communities, influence nobility, and draw many to Christ. Their liturgies flourished and influenced the wider Church, making many of these monasteries the central teachers of prayer and worship. For these reasons, many have referred to Saint Benedict as not only the father of monasticism, but also the father of modern Europe, given the influence that monasteries using his Rule have had on Europe and the world as a whole. For this reason, Pope Paul VI declared Saint Benedict the Patron Saint of Europe in 1964.
Today the Benedictine family is represented by two branches: the Benedictine Federation encompassing the men and women of the Order of St. Benedict; and the Cistercians, men and women of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance.
The Church has been blessed through Benedictine devotion to the liturgy, not only in its actual celebration with rich and proper ceremony in the great abbeys, but also through the scholarly studies of many of its members. Liturgy is sometimes confused with guitars or choirs, Latin or Bach. We should be grateful to those who both preserve and adapt the genuine tradition of worship in the Church.
Benedict wasn’t interested in the praise of men; he sought only holiness. Leaving his nurse behind, he moved closer to the town of Subiaco and took up residence in a cave. Nearby, he met a holy monk, Romanus, whom Benedict consulted for spiritual advice. At Romanus’ encouragement, Benedict took on the monastic habit and lived in the cave for the next three years as a hermit.
Romanus visited him frequently, bringing him food as needed. As a hermit, Benedict prayerfully sought to root out all sin in his life, especially the three temptations common to most men: “the temptation of self-affirmation and the desire to put oneself at the center, the temptation of sensuality and, lastly, the temptation of anger and revenge” (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, April 9, 2008).
Hearken continually within thine heart, O son, giving attentive ear to the precepts of thy master. Understand with willing mind and effectually fulfill thy holy father’s admonition; that thou mayest return, by the labor of obedience, to Him from Whom, by the idleness of disobedience, thou hadst withdrawn. To this end I now address a word of exhortation to thee, whosoever thou art, who, renouncing thine own will and taking up the bright and all-conquering weapons of obedience, dost enter upon the service of thy true king, Christ the Lord. ~From the Prologue of the Rule of Saint Benedict
c. 480–c. 547
Patron Saint of Europe, monks and religious orders, architects, dying people, cave explorers, schoolchildren, agricultural workers, civil engineers, and coppersmiths
Invoked against erysipelas, fever, gallstones, inflammatory diseases, kidney disease, nettle rash, poison, temptations, and witchcraft
Canonized by Pope Honorius III in 1220
Declared Patron Saint of Europe by Pope Paul VI in 1964
Liturgical Color: White
Saint Benedict, you witnessed the moral corruption in Rome at an early age and fled to the wilderness to seek out God’s will. Through your prayerful obedience to God’s will, inestimable good fruit has been borne. Please pray for me, that I will always seek out God’s will in my life, leaving behind the many temptations to sin that I encounter, so that God can use me in ways known only to Him. Saint Benedict, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.