From Monastery Icons
Few saints have left such a palpable impact on the world as St. Benedict, the monk whose Rule set a standard for the Western monastic tradition. And yet, virtually all that is known about him is contained is the brief account of his life written by Pope Gregory the Great almost fifty years after his death.
St. Gregory records that Benedict was born in Nursia of a distinguished family and was later educated in Rome. Disgusted by the moral squalor of his fellow students he abandoned his studies, gave up his inheritance, and devoted himself to the quest for God. At first this took the form of penitential solitude in a cave at Subiaco. But gradually he attracted the attention of other spiritual seekers.
As disciples continued to seek him out, he agreed to organize them into a group of monasteries, each with its own presiding abbot. He himself assumed the leadership of one of these communities. After some time he established the famous monastery at Monte Cassino, later renowned as the birthplace of the Benedictine order. There, at some point, he wrote his monastic Rule. And there, in time, he died and was buried beside the grave of his beloved sister, Saint Scholastica.
Whereas earlier monastic experiments had stressed rigorous asceticism and often superhuman self-denial, Benedict’s Rule was designed for ordinary human beings. His monks’ discipline was to lie in humility, obedience, a commitment to stability, and an accommodation to the requirements of community life.
Community was, in fact, the key feature of his monastic vision. Benedict stressed the value of community life as a school for holiness, ideally suited to bring individuals to their highest potential. Much depended on the wisdom and holiness of the abbot. He must be stern, yet kind and flexible, adapting his methods to the needs of each monk and the good of all.
Benedict’s balance of work and prayer, his validation of community life, and his regulation of monastic discipline eventually set the pattern for Western monasticism as a whole. In part this was aided by the official sponsorship of church authorities like Pope Gregory—a monk himself, but a significant factor in the Benedictine success was the intrinsic attraction of the Rule itself and its underlying balance, moderation, and humanity.
The Benedictine monasteries represented a vision of health, wholeness, and ecology in a world badly out of kilter. To the extent that world remains our world, the vision of St. Benedict retains its relevance and attraction.
Adapted by Kate Convissor from All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Witnessess for our Timeby Robert Ellsberg, Crossroad Publishing