A solitary monk arose in the middle of the night. It was time to pray Vigils, one of the seven times of prayer that make up the Liturgy of the Hours. As he looked out the window of his room, he saw the dark sky fill suddenly with a bright light. In the midst of this light, he beheld a vision of the entire world.
Who was this visionary monk? It was St. Benedict (c. 480-547), known as “the father of Western monasticism” and named by Pope Paul VI as co-patron of Europe. This celebrated abbot was famous for miracles attributed to his prayer. But perhaps his greatest legacy is the rule he wrote for monasteries, which has inspired countless religious vocations and the founding of new religious orders up to our own day.
Benedict’s vision is recounted in Book Two of the “Dialogues” of Pope St. Gregory the Great — the only source of firsthand knowledge we have about the life of the saint. St. Gregory reigned as pope in the late sixth century (590-604), and before his elevation to the See of Rome, he himself was a monk, perhaps in the then-nascent monastic tradition established by Benedict.
The Pope explained the meaning of Benedict’s vision by saying that the saint’s soul was so focused on God alone it was allowed to see the world as its Creator sees it. The episode suggests the ability Benedict displayed throughout his life to discern the dynamic interplay between the spiritual world and the material universe.
Stability in a Crumbling World
In the “Dialogues,” Gregory tells us that Benedict was born in Nursia, a town in what is now central Italy, to wealthy Christian noble parents. When he was a young man, his parents sent him to Rome to receive a classical education.
Soon after his arrival there, however, Benedict apparently abandoned his studies. He was disillusioned by the moral corruption he found in the city, which paralleled its physical decay. The Western Roman Empire collapsed during Benedict’s life, leading to perpetual political volatility and military conflict throughout the Italian peninsula.
Unable to find stability in his rapidly changing society, Benedict soon left Rome for the surrounding countryside to live the life of a hermit. He eventually settled in a cave near what is now known as Subiaco. Although his purpose in leaving the city was to enter into the solitude of the wilderness, people soon learned of his holiness and came to him, either to seek his counsel or to lead a religious life under his direction.
Bad Disciples, Good Disciples
According to St. Gregory, a nearby group of monks eventually persuaded Benedict to serve as their abbot. He reluctantly accepted. But after the first passion of their attraction to his virtues wore off, some chafed under the disciplinary demands of his teachings.
Before long, the monks grew so resistant to Benedict’s direction that they actually sought to take his life. One day they secretly added poison to his drink. But when Benedict went to bless it, the cup broke. He immediately knew of the monks’ intentions and left them for good.
To this day, the incident provides an element commonly found in the saint’s iconography. Some depictions show him holding a cup from which a serpent is rising — a symbol of the poison and the wickedness of the monks who sought to kill him.
After this no doubt discouraging experience in monastic leadership, Benedict established a series of 12 small monasteries in and around Subiaco. Both prayer and manual labor were essential to their life together; ora et labora (“pray and work”) became the Benedictine motto. In time, Subiaco grew into a great center of Christian devotion and learning. Although the men who came to live under Benedict’s rule were not perfect, as Gregory’s stories illustrate, they were at least willing to strive to grow in virtue with the aid of God’s grace and their abbot’s teaching.
Arrival at Monte Cassino
After these monasteries were well established, St. Benedict eventually withdrew with a group of monks to the place where he would spend the rest of his life: Monte Cassino. He founded this, arguably his most famous monastery, on a mountain southeast of Rome.
On the mountaintop where he sought to establish his new community stood a temple of Apollo, which seemed to have attracted the devotion of many living nearby. According to Gregory, Benedict soon went about knocking over the temple and building a church in its place. However, he did not give his attention wholly to bricks and stones. Benedict also cared for the souls of those living around Monte Cassino, preaching the Gospel to them and bringing them to faith in Christ.
At some point during his life at Monte Cassino, we are told, St. Benedict was joined by his sister, St. Scholastica, who lived the religious life in a convent at the bottom of the mountain. Gregory recounts a touching story about a visit St. Benedict once paid to this sister.
The two spoke about spiritual matters for many hours. When Benedict rose to return to his monastery, Scholastica asked him to stay. But he refused, thinking it would not be seemly for a monk to remain in the company of a nun so late in the evening — even if they were siblings. So Scholastica appealed to a higher authority.
She bowed her head in prayer. A great storm soon erupted, replete with thunder and lightning.
The monk, seeing what had happened, asked his sister, “God forgive you, what have you done?” But he recognized that the heaven-sent storm did indeed prevent his departure. So he spent the rest of the night in Scholastica’s company, continuing to talk with her about God and the life of faith.
Although Gregory recalls various incidents like this in the life of Benedict, he tells his readers that the best way to learn about the saintly monk is through his Rule. “The holy man,” Gregory observed, “could not otherwise teach, than he himself lived.”
Looking at his Rule from this perspective, we can indeed learn much about the saint. Many of its 73 chapters deal with seemingly mundane matters, such as the care of the tools of the monastery, the sleeping arrangement of the monks, and the reception of guests. But in these and other concerns, we see how attuned Benedict was to the presence of God in all the ordinary events of everyday life, and how much he desired the monks under his care to discern God’s presence constantly — just as he himself did.
We also learn from the Rule that St. Benedict was a man of moderation. The monastic tradition up to his time, especially in the East, had often been characterized by great spiritual athletes. While he praised these forbears, St. Benedict humbly spoke of the way of life he laid out as a “little rule that we have written for beginners.”
Fifteen hundred years later, the legacy of St. Benedict lives on in thousands of Religious around the world following his Rule and seeking to emulate his example. In the Benedictine way, they have found a life of moderation that seems achievable, yet one in which the power of the Holy Spirit can be touched at every moment.
Sean Gallagher writes from Indiana.