11th July 2020
"Keeping every rule for the love of Christ."
Feast Day: July 11 (Roman) March 14 (Byzantine) Canonized: 1220
Today the church celebrates the feast day of St Benedict,
one of the most influential of all the Christian saints.
The Rule of St Benedict is followed by thousands of people who are monks,
nuns and oblates (people who try to live according to the Rule as far as their circumstances allow,
not in monasteries but "in the world")
and there is a growing interest in what St Benedict
has to teach to those who would not describe themselves as particularly religious
but who desire to live in a more human and humane way.
Benedict was born into a noble family in Nursia, Italy,
about 480 AD. When he grew up, he studied in Rome.
Then, disgusted with the pagan way of life around him and wanting to pray alone,
Benedict lived for three years in a cave near Subiaco.
During that time, people began to talk about the holiness of the Subiaco hermit
and the community of Vicovaro persuaded him to become its Abbot,
but the first monks who tried to live under Benedict's direction hated his regimen,
so much so they plotted to kill their abbot.
They put poison in a glass of wine and offered it to Benedict.
Before he took it, he blessed it, as was the custom.
According to the story told by Pope Gregory I (Benedict's biographer),
when Benedict made the sign of the cross over the wine glass, it shattered,
and the wine spilled to the floor.
This failed attempt to poison him forced Benedict to return to his solitude.
Again monks sought him out, and before long he had established 12 monasteries
with 12 monks in each.
But the envy of local clergy (one of whom, according to Gregory,
tried to put the poison in a loaf of bread)
so disturbed Benedict that he moved again,
and with some disciples established another monastery,
this time on the mountain above Cassino, about 80 miles south of Rome.
Taking ideas from a number of earlier monastic writings
(and likely from his own experience),
Benedict wrote a Rule for his monks,
one that is today praised for its balanced approach to monastic life.
Besides the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience,
it stressed communal living, physical labour, common meals,
and the avoidance of unnecessary conversation.
In his Rule, Benedict also set up eight times a day for the monks to pray together.
By praying the Psalms, they would praise and honour God.
Prayer would help them live with one another in community.
Benedict knew that this was not always easy and built in flexibility;
he didn't stipulate in what order the Psalms had to be said or sung
as long as all the Psalms were said over the course of a week
and he recognised that those living in a colder climate
would need to wear more clothing than those in a hot climate -
discretion was left to the Abbot.
At the same time, Benedict made allowances for his monks -
for differences of age, capabilities, dispositions, needs, and spiritual stature.
There is a frank allowance for weaknesses and failure,
as well as compassion for the physically weak.
"In drawing up these regulations," he said,
"we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.
His intention was that 'the strong should
have something for which to strive
and the weak nothing from which to shrink as we make our way to God in community'.
It is this combination of compassion and discipline
that made the Rule a model for many later monastic orders
besides the Benedictine,
and one reason why monasticism became such a worthwhile
and workable life for so many over the next centuries,
during which the institution literally shaped the future of Europe.
The "Rule of St. Benedict,"
with 73 short chapters on spiritual and administrative concerns,
is one of the most famous rules in monastic life
and has influenced Western civilization since his death.
The monasteries that followed it kept learning alive in Europe
throughout the centuries of the Dark Ages.
In about 547, Benedict died and the monks buried him next to his twin sister,
Scholastica, (who had also embraced religious life as a nun), at Monte Cassino.
Benedict seems to have lived his life immersed in an atmosphere of prayer
and it was this prayer that made him alive to the specific needs of his neighbours;
a life well lived by this man of God who left such an amazing legacy.