The impact of Saint Benedict’s life far outweighs what we actually know about his story. Few Christians have had as tremendous an impact on the church as him. In spite of this, we know very little about his actual life. We do know that Benedict was born in the late fifth century in Nursia, a village about eighty-five miles northeast of Rome.
As were many young men of this time, he was sent to Rome for his education. But throughout his time there, he found the city morally debased. He left in response and was drawn to the life of the ascetics. In 529 he founded what would become the most well known monastery in Europe. This new community was located on Monte Cassino, eighty-five miles southeast of Rome. Benedict would spend the rest of his days there.
During his time at Monte Cassino, Benedict wrote what became known as The Rule. This short book of instructions for monastic life soon became popular throughout Western Christianity. Benedict’s instructions not only provided guidance to the monastic movement, but they came at an opportune time. The Roman Empire had finally and fully collapsed in the West just before Benedict’s birth. He came into a world desperately seeking order and stability.
Up until the point, the monastic movement had had a tendency towards the extreme. Tales of fanatical monks living on top of pillars were interesting stories for common Christians but had little influence on their everyday lives. Benedict’s Rule brought balance through a clear understanding of human nature. His instruction quickly spread, and as it did, it set the course for monasteries to contribute to the life of the overall community.
Benedict built on the work of previous monks, incorporating the common vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. What set Benedict’s Rule apart was his addition of stability and order. He taught that the monastic life must be balanced by work and worship, with a set time for each task. Between periods of work, meals, and rest, the monks worshipped seven times a day. Some of these worship services were short, even only twenty minutes where a selection from the Psalms would be read.
While the early desert hermits spent most of their days in prayer, Benedict saw the benefit of physical and mental labor in the spiritual life. He taught that a monastic community should be self-sufficient. The monks must grow and prepare all their food, create their own cloth and clothing, and build their own buildings. As a result, they became quite skilled at these tasks. Anything they produced over and above meeting their own needs was sold and the money used to care for the poor, the sick, and travelers who stopped at the monastery to stay for the night.
The Legacy of Monasticism
Benedict’s Rule brought stability and direction to the monastic movement, which had been characterized by extremism. In doing so, he set the movement on a path where it would be able to make enormous contributions to local communities and to the church as a whole. Throughout the centuries, monks would contribute to theological scholarship. They wrote hymns, some of which are still sung today. Like Jerome, they translated the Bible and other Christian works. They copied thousands upon thousands of manuscripts, preserving the original wording of Scripture. Some monks were missionaries, such as Saint Patrick. Countless monks quietly and diligently served their communities, caring for the sick and the poor. Separated from the church’s formal leadership, they often served as the moral compass for the church that suddenly found itself with power and prestige. While history would prove that the monasteries were not immune to these temptations either, Christians of every tradition owe much to the monastic movement.
In our busyness, we sometimes struggle to incorporate our faith into our day-to-day tasks.