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THE FATHER OF WESTERN MONASTICISM

Father Francis's picture
Saint Benedict

The effect that Saint Benedict has had on our world is tremendous. But facts about his life are limited and most of what we know about him is given to us by Pope Gregory the Great who wrote his biography 50 years after his death.

Born around the year 484 to a noble family in Nursia, he went to study in Rome but found university life permissive and he was repelled by the licentious life of students and professors. He was confused by the false teaching being promoted by some of the lecturers and knew he had to escape from this environment to discover in silence what God wanted him to do. For three years he withdrew to a cave high in the mountains in Subiaco where he met a monk who encouraged him to try the life of a hermit. During this time some men who were also fleeing from the world were attracted to Benedict and wanted to share his way of life.

The shift from a hermit to community life began when Benedict organised his followers into groups of 12 monks. He now wrote a Rule which was to become the most famous and enduring monastic way of life ever written although some found it not to their taste and left. He had the idea of gathering various families of monks into one 'Grand Monastery' to give them the benefit of unity, fraternity and permanent worship in one house. He found the great abbeys of Subiaco and Monte Cassino: he died there at the age of 63 and was buried beside his beloved sister Scholastica. By that time his spiritual influence had reached far beyond national boundaries but now it has dominated Europe and circled the world.

Gregory's account of the life of Benedict stresses the miraculous aspect of his life. It does not give us a picture of the man behind the Rule he wrote, a man who had the exceptional gift of being able to read and discern the souls of others.

Previous forms of monasticism had given great importance to strict asceticism and mortification. Benedict gave a rule that was able to be followed by the ordinary person. Building up the interior person was far more important than external observance. If his monks were to live life to the full they must have the adequate amount of food and sleep. They were to be humble, obedient, lead communal lives and take a vow of stability.

Community was the key feature to his monastic vision. His monks were not to be a collection of individuals competing against each other to be saints. They were brothers in a school of sanctity. It was from this school that each monk could live a spiritual life to the full. The person who played a key role in this school of holiness was the abbot. Much depended on his wisdom and holiness. Although he was to be firm he was to be gentle and kind, and take the needs of each monk into consideration. Each monk was to play his part for the good of the whole. The position of the abbot was not to be taken lightly. For all eternity he was accountable for the spiritual welfare of his brothers and sons. All his monks were to be equal. In matters of importance every monk, even the youngest, was to be consulted.

His Order helped to bring Christianity and civilisation to Western Europe. It is also credited with preserving the Christian traditions through the Middle Ages. Inspired by their founder the Benedictines have always been known for their piety, their liturgical celebrations, their love of learning and their hospitality. His rule still guides millions. He tells us to establish a rhythm for our life in a threefold manner allowing adequate time for prayer, work and recreation. Work he divides into three equal sections of physical, mental and spiritual. In such a way, says Benedict, you will use your time to the very best advantage.

Benedict was able to offer the world an alternative way of life in which the spirit of Christ reigned. The world encouraged people to climb the social ladder but he proposed equality for all his monks. When hard work was frowned upon, Benedict saw work as a gift from God and means of obtaining holiness. While society was crumbling, Benedict was building havens of learning and culture. War was prevalent at the time but Benedict was encouraging his monks to live in peace.

Given the influence that he, and his monks and nuns, have had on the civilisation of Europe it is not surprising that he should be proclaimed 'Patron of Europe' and we ask him, today, to pray for peace and unity among all the nations of Europe.