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St Benedict |
He wrote the rules that worked

St Benedict is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 165, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The hermit Benedict resisted running monasteries, and some monks tried to kill him, but his formula became the basis of all western monasticism

St Benedict - He wrote the rules that worked

St Benedict - He wrote the rules that worked
One of the earliest extant images of Benedict, painted perhaps a century after his death, is found in the catacombs of St. Hermes in Rome. Already evident is the monastic garb of hood and scapular (long vest), which is typical to this day.

Benedict of Nursia, like many a serious young Christian, wondered how he could best follow Jesus Christ. Around the year 500, in fact, this earnest seeker grew so weary of the immorality and laziness of his fellow students in Rome that he betook himself, at about the age of twenty, to a cave in the rugged hills east of the city.

There he lived alone, in near-secrecy, for three years, and out of this hermit experience emerged the basis for the Rule of St. Benedict, a discipline for monks that would revolutionize European education, agriculture and much more. Among the hundreds of thousands who would embrace the Benedictine rule would be twenty emperors and empresses, thirty kings and queens, and upwards of twenty clerics who would later become popes.

Benedict–the name means “blessed” in Latin–was probably born about 480 in Nursia, a small town some one hundred miles northwest of Rome. Little is known of his background and early life. Almost the sole source of information about him is a biographical sketch known as the Dialogues and traditionally attributed to Gregory I (the Great), who was pope from 590 to 604. Gregory cites the authority of abbots who had known the monastic master, and focuses primarily on his miracles.

Authorship of the Dialogues has been questioned, however, on grounds of style, theology and content. Some scholars contend that they may have been written in another time and place, and possibly by a different Gregory. In any event, most people agree that Benedict can be best understood through his Rule, a regimen that blends firmness, flexibility and the infusion of prayer into all aspects of daily life.

According to the Dialogues, the precocious student was sent by his well-to-do family to study at Rome, taking along his old nurse as servant. When his disillusionment with the decadence he encountered there caused him to abandon the academic path, the pair went to live in Enfide, a village about forty miles east of the city, probably today’s Affile.

Here, Benedict formed some sort of association with “a company of virtuous men,” and performed the first of many miracles ascribed to him. It was a modest, homely miracle. He simply restored to its original condition a borrowed earthenware grain sifter, which his servant had broken. This apparently was sufficient to attract unwelcome local fame, however, which prompted him to flee farther east, to a cliff overlooking an artificial lake. (Nero, the notorious Roman emperor, had owned a villa nearby.)

There he lived secretly in a cave ten feet deep for three years. His food was delivered by Romanus, a monk from a monastery perched higher on the same mountain, and some friendly shepherds helped as well. Lust ferociously afflicted the hermit Benedict, and he dealt with it by rolling naked in nettles and bramble bushes. But by using the sign of the cross, he was eventually able to banish temptation, writes biographer Gregory, when the tempter took the form of a blackbird and flew away from him.

Benedict later taught that the life of a hermit or anchorite can be adequately managed only by individuals of great spiritual maturity. He particularly disliked a species of holy hobos, called gyrovagues, who wandered about begging from others while practicing no real discipline. Even more detestable were Sarabaites, a species of monk who lived in groups of two or three, with neither experience nor a rule to guide them. Whatever these rudderless fellows liked, they called holy, he complained, and what they disliked, they forbade.

Benedict believed passionately in discipline. He thought that hard physical work under careful supervision should be required of every monk, an outlandish conviction for a man of high birth in a time when such labor was chiefly equated with slavery and serfdom.

His convictions on the dangers of idleness may well have been drawn from his experience at Enfide. When their abbot died, residents of the nearby monastery pleaded with hermit Benedict to become their leader, and he eventually yielded. The venture degenerated into an emotional quagmire, probably because the monks found the discipline imposed by their new abbot too strict. Some of them tried to kill him, Gregory reports, but the cup of poisoned wine broke when Benedict blessed his meal with the sign of the cross. So he quietly returned to his cave.

But word spread of his character and his miracles, and other monks kept begging him for leadership. Over time, he established twelve monasteries in the vicinity of Enfide, each consisting of a dozen members headed by a superior. He himself headed another one. Five centuries earlier, of course, a far more illustrious teacher had chosen twelve as an optimum number for spiritual instruction.

A number of different models for the ascetic life developed between the fourth and ninth centuries. Anthony of Egypt (251—356) disposed of his wealth to live alone in the desert. Others grouped loosely to form communities. In this eremitic (hermit-like) style, members might meet for the Eucharist on Saturdays and Sundays, and some more often for prayer and discussion. But otherwise, each lived as he felt independently led by the Holy Spirit.

Pachomius (290—346) inaugurated in Egypt the first cenobitic (community) model, with members bound to each other and to an abbot and following a common daily schedule of worship and work. (Pachomius himself would reputedly have remained a hermit, had not a commanding vision delivered by an angel prompted him otherwise.) His degree of coordinated monastic administration would not emerge in western Europe for more than a century.

In the east, Pachomius influenced Basil the Great (ca.330—379), who established monastic communities in Cappadocia, and composed a rule to govern them. Basilian ideas and methods also influenced monasticism generally. Still other pioneers included Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Martin of Tours, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine. Benedict seems, in his researches, to have explored the writings of them all. He must also have known of a contemporary, Caesarius of Arles, who created a rule for nuns that still endures.

An overarching influence was the Rule of the Master, an anonymous guide produced several decades before Benedict wrote his own Rule. He clearly drew extensively upon this document, particularly in his prologue and the first seven of his seventy-three chapters. Still another model of primary importance was likely the work of John Cassian in southern Gaul.

John Cassian was born to a wealthy family in about 360, possibly near the Black Sea, and received a good classical education. Seeking spiritual wisdom, he journeyed in his youth to the Holy Land and settled in Bethlehem, where he shared a cell with an Egyptian monk named Pinufius. This old man enthralled Cassian and his boyhood friend Germanus with a tale about fleeing from his monastery in the Nile Delta to preserve his humility, and how fellow monks tracked him down and dragged him back to assume the position of abbot. Pinufius’s stories filled Cassian and Germanus with a thirst for desert monasticism.

So Cassian spent a decade in Egypt, moving among its spiritual loners, when the eremitic form of asceticism was at its zenith. He was not so captivated by the popular accounts of monks as miracle workers, or otherworldly warriors in frequent combat with the powers of evil. The best of the desert fathers, he concluded, were wise and balanced models of holiness and piety. Self-denial should not be embraced for its own sake; rather, self-sacrificial offerings to God were rungs on the ladder leading to perfect charity–that is, to love.

Like Benedict later, Cassian endorsed the eremitic ideal but insisted that such a life was not for everyone: “If we go into the desert with our faults still hidden within us,” he writes, “they no longer hurt others, but our love of them remains.” Upon leaving Egypt, he migrated, via Constantinople and Rome, to the port of Marseilles in southern Gaul, where he was appalled by the attitude and practices he observed in local monasteries.

He was horrified by the spectacle of a young Gallic monk openly defying the commands of a superior. The conduct of the daily offices struck him as anarchic, and much of the monks’ behavior as “sloppy and indecorous.” Some lazy fellows, he noted, actually went back to bed after matins, the night office sung not long after midnight. And these people, who had supposedly renounced the world, often cherished lavish wardrobes and kept their jewelry under lock and key.

Therefore, Cassian himself founded two monasteries at Marseilles, for men and women respectively, and to guide them he wrote the two important works for which he is chiefly remembered: Conferences and Institutes. Orderliness was his watchword, as it would be with Benedict. By the time of his death in 435, Cassian had created a pilgrim’s spiritual road map for the entire Latin-speaking world.

All these things Benedict eagerly absorbed. His own Rule was actually written at Montecassino, the monastery he established between Rome and Naples. Here he remained until his death, around 550. His beloved sister Scholastica, identified by some authorities as his twin, often visited him there, and nearby she founded a community of nuns. As for Benedict’s Rule, it is not available in anything resembling an original edition, but many later copies were preserved. Passed down through medieval Latin into modern languages, its principles are more guideline than detailed regulation.

In general, the Rule of St. Benedict avoids the exceedingly strict asceticism of some eastern monasticism in favor of a via media (middle way). Although Benedict as reformer sanctioned what now seem severe corrections for miscreants, his fundamental message is clearly couched in compassion. Its first challenge: “Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from one who loves you; welcome it and faithfully put it into practice.”

The Benedictine vows were threefold–to stay in the monastery for life (stabilitas), to adapt to the way of life without grumbling (conversatio morum) and personal poverty. Remarkably to the twentieth-first-century view, he did not require a vow of chastity. It was assumed.

His recommended chastisements for misbehavior included reproof, shunning, scourging and expulsion. The abbot, elected by the members of the community, was to be chosen for his capacity to act as a loving father, and was to receive no special favors. Precedence otherwise depends solely on the length of time a monk has given himself to God.

Chapters 9 to 19 of the Rule deal in considerable detail with the regulation of communal prayer and praise. An ordinary day includes seven daily offices of communal worship, spaced through the twenty-four hours. One clause stipulates the Psalms to be sung during different days and seasons. Rule 20 states that prayer in common should be short enough to allow a Benedictine monk to perform at least five hours of work a day.

The Rule seems reasonable and moderate even today, let alone by medieval standards. Much reading is required. Clothing must be plain and cheap but serviceable. Special arrangements are permitted for the elderly and ill, such as the right to eat meat when specifically required for physical health and strength. The quantities of food and wine permitted to the monks appear frugal (for instance, there are only two meals daily) but not punitive. The abbot has the right to make changes when necessary.

Benedict repeatedly urged his monks to “work and pray” while constantly contemplating their death. Everything in their regime is meant to keep them pointed toward God, consumed with the divine presence, and wholly engaged in Opus Dei. Literally this translates as “the work of God,” but for Benedict it had a special meaning. The Opus Dei was worship, specifically the eight daily offices and the Divine Liturgy itself. He wanted these to be at the center and everything else (work, reading, meals, sleep) to be structured so as to put liturgy first. Their Rule was not a full recipe for the achieving of sanctity, its author acknowledged, but he believed it to be an excellent start.

Besides actual monks, tens of thousands of laypeople also follow it. Called oblates, they are affiliated through a signed commitment with a particular monastery, and occasionally join the monks in their daily ritual of prayer. They are also committed to embodying Benedict’s instructions to his followers: “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way: the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of all deceit, never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love.”

He fondly repeated a story told of an ancient sage: “Once upon a time, a disciple asked the elder: ‘Holy One, is there anything I can do to be enlightened?’ The holy one answered: ‘As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.’ ‘Then of what use,’ the surprised disciple asked, ‘are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?’ ‘To make sure,’ the elder said, ‘that you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.’”

Although Benedictines are enjoined as individuals to remain materially poor, their order energetically seeks the resources needed to be helpful in the world. Chapter 53 of the Rule instructs that guests are to be received “as Christ himself,” and this constant hospitality and charity have become famous over fifteen centuries. And since prayer patterns deliberately permit members to perform most types of work, these men and women have exerted a profound impact within society.

The first three hundred years of Benedictine development are difficult to assess, in part because written records from the darkest ages are sparse, and also because many early houses blended several rules. By 650, however, most religious communities in England had adopted or adapted the Rule of St. Benedict. By the eighth century, Benedictine missionaries were spearheading the conversion of pagans in the German heartland. Meanwhile, they were also playing a crucial role in agricultural development.

Unlike most secular landholders, the monks were literate, and could carefully tabulate and record results. They furthermore had the manpower and resources to clear land, drain swamps, and so on. They made improvements, and other farmers followed. “We owe the agricultural restoration of a great part of Europe to the monks,” asserts the nineteenth-century historian Henry Hallam in History of Europe during the Middle Ages (New York, 1900). His French contemporary, Francois Guizot, agrees, in his six-volume General History of Civilization in Europe (New York, 1899): “The Benedictine monks were the agriculturists of Europe.”

There were an estimated thirty-seven-thousand Benedictine monks by the thirteenth century. Nearly all European schooling was long in the hands of monks, primarily Benedictines, as was most aid for the poor. So influential did the order become in education, theology, art and mystical writing that the years 900 to 1200 are sometimes referred to as “the Benedictine centuries.”

True to his principle of staying in one place, Benedict traveled little. In 543 the Ostrogoth king, Totila, visited Montecassino, thereby providing the only certain date in the life of his host. The monk reportedly rebuked the monarch for his wicked deeds: “For nine years you shall reign, and in the tenth you shall leave this mortal life,” he predicted. Alarmed by this, Totila fell to his knees begging forgiveness. (A decade later he died in battle, and his kingdom dissolved.)

Gregory recounts how Benedict, in one vision, found himself admitted to the very presence of God. He also was said to have seen Scholastica’s soul ascending to heaven as a dove, and later learned that she had indeed died at just that time (probably in 543). His own death came soon after, when, fever-racked, the old monk received the Eucharist in the monastery chapel. Then, with his brothers holding him upright, he lifted his arms in prayer, and his soul left him.

This is the end of the St Benedict category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 165, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about St Benedict from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at