Benedict’s name and tradition arrived at Saint Vincent with Boniface Wimmer and his eighteen companions. They brought with them the Benedictine way of life from Saint Michael Abbey at Metten in Bavaria and in so doing made Saint Vincent heir to a monastic tradition which stretches back to the venerable abbeys of Monte Cassino and Subiaco in Italy.
Born into comfortable circumstances at Nursia about the year 480, Benedict was sent to Rome for higher education. He left the Eternal City after only a short time, however, disturbed by the loose morals of his fellow students. Benedict established himself as a hermit at Subiaco, and once he was “discovered, monks of a nearby monastery asked him to be their abbot.” His tenure with that community was short-lived, however, since he was much more zealous than they. At one point, his monks tried to poison him. Benedict returned to his hermitage at Subiaco and was joined by a number of disciples. He built twelve monasteries on the hills outside the town, and about the year 529, left the monasteries at Subiaco in the charge of others and set off with several companions for Monte Cassino. It was on those heights that he destroyed a pagan temple, established a community, and wrote his Rule for Monasteries. Benedict died at Monte Cassino sometime after the year 546.
These are the basic facts about Benedict’s life, but one can know a good number of facts about someone without ever really knowing the person. The Benedict who is worth knowing, the author of the Rule and the subject of Book Two of the Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great, was a man of flesh and blood, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith. To get to know Benedict on that deeper personal level is to meet someone whose life continues to inspire people even fourteen hundred years after his death.
Benedict was passionate for God and the things of God, and he knew that human life involves making choices which provide life with its basic orientation. In the Rule, Benedict challenges his monks to make a fundamental choice and to recognize that “the love of Christ must come before all else.” He reinforces this by referring to Christ’s own teaching: “First of all, love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
To indicate that this choice of faith is at the heart of monastic life, Benedict expands on his passion for the things of God in the conclusion to the Rule: “This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: ‘They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other'(Rom 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.’
For Benedict, both Christianity and monastic life call forth what is heroic and what leads to glory. They both involve a lifelong search for God driven by passionate faith.
Benedict’s zeal for God and the things of God was matched by his deep appreciation of the human person. He was humane. Gregory the Great writes of how Benedict worked his first miracle already as a youth because he was “a kind and generous-hearted boy and felt compassion for his nurse in her distress.” The second chapter of the Rule is entitled “What Kind of Man the Abbot Ought to Be.” It might just as well be called “What Kinds of Monks the Abbot Can Expect to Have.” Some monks will be obedient, docile, patient, upright, and perceptive; but Benedict observes that others will be undisciplined, restless, negligent, disdainful, evil, stubborn, arrogant, and disobedient. His care for this last group is remarkable. The great love of the Good Shepherd, who left the ninety-nine on the hillside to go in search of the stray, is evident when Benedict writes about how concerned the abbot ought to be for monks who deserve to be excluded from certain parts of monastic life. The abbot must exercise the utmost care and concern for wayward brothers and he ought use every skill of a wise physician in his treatment of them. Benedict urged the abbot to act with all speed, discernment, and diligence in order not to lose any of the sheep entrusted to him because he has undertaken care of the sick, not tyranny over the healthy. Seldom does Benedict exhort the abbot as ardently as he does when he writes concerning the care which the abbot ought to exercise for these monks who are the most troublesome.
Benedict was thoroughly grounded in tradition. Indeed, because he was rooted in tradition, he was able to do something new. When he received the monastic habit from the monk Romanus, Benedict joined himself to a tradition formed by the Bible, the Catholic Church, and the monastic movement. Much of the Benedictine Rule is made up of quotations from or allusions to the Scriptures, and monks are read the orthodox and Catholic fathers at their common prayer. Benedict relied on The Rule of the Mater and great monastic authors such as Basil, Augustine, and Cassian. Nonetheless, even though monastic life had already flourished in the church for over two hundred years and various monastic rules had already been written, Benedict wrote his own. The new conditions which he found in sixth-century Italy called for a new response. Benedict s appropriation of the Christian monastic tradition obliged him to do something original.
Saint Benedict did great things, but he probably did them very unconsciously. He could hardly have envisioned establishing a tradition that would spread to continents which he never knew existed. At the conclusion to the Rule, he encourages his monks to keep the little rule which he wrote for beginners. Yet through this “little rule” and the passionate faith which it embodies and inspires, Benedict has shaped our civilization and touched our lives.
Kurt J. Belsole, O.S.B.