Benedict of Nursia – Father of Western Monasticism


Verse: John 12:35

Quote: “To you, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever you may be, who are renouncing your own will to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King, and are taking up the strong, bright armor of obedience.” (The Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue)

Born into a prosperous family in northern Italy, Benedict (480 – 550) grew up with his twin sister, Scholastica, who later founded a sister order of Benedictines. As a young man, Benedict traveled to Rome seeking education and spiritual development, but all he found was worldliness. Disgusted with the increasing wealth of the church, he soon left town, seeking solitude. Setting out for a remote mountainous region, he told no one but a family servant who insisted on joining him and caring for his needs. So the young man, not yet twenty, trudged north with an old woman. Along the way, the old woman broke a clay jar and then spread the word that Benedict miraculously restored it.

Not wanting to gain fame as a miracle worker, he left the garrulous servant behind and set out alone to live a life of solitude. On his way he met Romanus, a monk in a small monastery who agreed to show him the way of a hermit. The monk supplied him with a warm hooded robe and helped him find a cave overhanging a cliff. Each day for the next three years Romanus brought a portion of his own meal and lowered it by basket from above. Benedict was left entirely alone to his solitary thoughts.

Later, as Benedict ventured out of his cave, shepherds spotted him. News of the hermit sighting quickly spread, and pilgrims made their way to the cave offering food and seeking counsel. Among those who climb the cliffs were a band of monks begging Benedict to become their abbot. He agreed, only to realize that his strict asceticism did not agree with their careless ways. In fact, so repugnant was his discipline that they poison his wine. But as he made the sign of the cross over his glass, it miraculously broke. Forgiving them, he asked: “Why have you plotted this wicked thing against me? Did I not tell you beforehand that my ways would not accord with yours? Go and find an abbot to your taste.” With those words he left and returned to his cave.

Hearing of this fiasco—and miracle—more pilgrims arrived, many wishing to follow him in strict discipline. For Benedict this was an answered prayer. He realized that solitude is not the way of discipleship. In the succeeding years he established monastic houses of twelve monks each.

But troubles were never far away. His success caused animosities with a local priest who, according to Gregory, sent him a gift of poisoned bread and induced lewd women to tempt his monks. Convinced that he must move on, Benedict abandoned his twelve monastic houses and traveled with a small group of disciples to an even more remote area that lay in ruins from the devastation of the marauding Goths, its inhabitants having reverted to paganism. Soon Benedict and his disciples were preaching the wrath of God and tearing down the pagan altars. Again pilgrims arrived, pleading to join the brotherhood and the movement rapidly expands.

In the years that follow, the one-time cave-dweller amassed large tracts of land, villas, and churches, as wealthy benefactors donated their property. His popularity and reputation as a holy man of miracles swelled. Travelers came from great distances just to be in his presence.

More significant than money and land and increasing numbers of disciples was Benedict’s Rule. Having previously borrowed guidelines from other monastic leaders, he determined to write a rule that mirrored his own principles. The Rule, which is still used today, requires that followers relinquish their wills in submission to authority—that being “the strong armor of obedience, to fight under our Lord Christ.” But overall, the rule is judicious in its way of monastic living. The first sentence of the document promises that “we shall ordain nothing severe and nothing burdensome.”

The monk’s daily life is a combination of solitude and community living. Times of prayer and liturgy are balanced with manual labor, study, and communal activities. The Rule of Benedict has continued to serve as the primary monastic guide for some five hundred years.

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