Saint Benedict

St. Benedict

The founder of western monasticism, St. Benedict, was born in 480 at Nursia, Italy.  It is not clear if his family was of nobility, but they had the means to send him to Rome for classical studies.

About age 20 and distraught over the behavior of some of his classmates, Benedict left Rome in the company of his housekeeper abandoning family, home and inheritance.  The two settled in a town of Enfide about 40 miles from Rome and two miles from Subiaco.

It was at Enfide that Benedict worked his first miracle.  It seems that his housekeeper borrowed a sieve (or wheat-sifter) and that fell and broke in two pieces.  The housekeeper was deeply upset because the borrowed implement was now broken.  Benedict quietly took the two pieces and gave himself over to prayer.  At the end of his prayer the sieve was whole without indication where the break had been.  When news of the miracle spread, Benedict quietly slipped away from his housekeeper and sought a place of solitude.

On his way to Subiaco, Benedict encountered the monk Romanus who gave him the monastic habit.  On certain days, Romanus provided him with food that he lowered to Benedict’s cave with a long rope with a small bell attached to it.  Of this St. Gregory writes:  “The ancient enemy of mankind grew envious of the kindness shown by the older monk in supplying Benedict with food, and one day, as the bread was being lowered, he threw a stone at the bell and broke it.  Yet in spite of this, Romanus kept on with his faithful service.”[1]

During these three years of solitude, Benedict matured “both in mind and character, in knowledge of himself and of his fellow-man.”[2]  While initially mistaken to be a wild animal by some shepherds, through their contact with him, many of them were converted to a life of holiness.  He became known to the people in the surrounding area and as Gregory puts it, “and great numbers visited his cave, supplying him with the food he needed and receiving from his lips in return spiritual food for their souls.”[3]

The abbot died at a monastery in the locality and the monks turned to Benedict asking him to be their abbot.  Benedict, realizing that his way of life would not match theirs, tried to discourage them in their request.  They were persistent and so he acquiesced.  What Benedict realized from the outset eventually became apparent with the monks trying to poison him.  As St. Gregory shares, “As he made the sign of the Cross over it with his hand, the pitcher was shattered even though it was well beyond his reach at the time.  It broke at his blessing as if he had struck it with a stone.  Then he realized it had contained a deadly drink which could not bear the sign of life.  Still calm and undisturbed, he rose at once and after gathering the community together addressed them.  ‘May almighty God have mercy on you,’ he said.  ‘Why did you conspire to do this?  Did I not tell you at the outset that my way of life would never harmonize with yours?  Go and find yourselves an abbot to your liking.  It is impossible for me to stay here any longer.’  Then he went back to the wildness he loved.”[4]

As Benedict’s holiness of life became more and more known, men gathered around him to imitate his was of life and dedicate themselves to God.  At Subiaco, Benedict would eventually establish twelve monasteries, with an abbot and twelve monks in each, with himself overseeing them all.

It was at Subiaco that two pious noblemen brought him their sons to be schooled in the service of God.  The names of the boys were Maurus and Placid.  It is related that once while Benedict was in his cell,  he was instantly aware that young Placid, who had gone to get water at the lake, had fallen in and was carried by the current out about a stone’s throw.  He called quickly to Maurus who ran out to carry out Benedict’s command.  When he reached the water’s edge he did not stop running, but continued to run over the surface of the water just as if it were dry ground until he reached Placid and grasping him by the hair, rushed back with him to shore.  It was only when he was once again on dry land that he realized he had run over the surface of the water.

As St. Gregory relates, “Overcome with fear and amazement at a deed he (Maurus) would never have thought possible, he returned to his abbot and told him what had taken place.  The holy man would not take any personal credit for the deed but attributed it to the obedience of his disciple.  Maurus on the contrary claimed that it was due entirely to his abbot’s command…While they were carrying on this friendly contest of humility, the question was settled by the boy who had been rescued.  ‘When I was being drawn out of the water,’ he told them, ‘I saw the abbot’s cloak over my head; he is the one I thought was bringing me to shore.’” [5]

Envy and jealousy was just as rampant in Benedict’s day as in our own.  Due to this, a priest in a neighboring church set out to undermine Benedict’s work.  However, Benedict’s reputation for holiness continued to grow as did the number of those gathering around him to lead the monastic life.  The priest himself longed to enjoy a same reputation but was not of the mind to live a similar way of life.  Unable to thwart Benedict, he decided to give Benedict a poisoned loaf of bread under the guise of friendship.  Benedict, however, was instantly aware of the poison it contained and gave it to a raven to dispose of where it would bring harm to no one.  About three hours later the raven returned to Benedict who fed it as he normally did each day.

Unable to destroy Benedict, the priest tried instead to destroy the community by sending “seven depraved women into the garden of Benedict’s monastery.  There they joined hands and danced together for some time within the sight of his followers, in an attempt to lead them into sin.” [6]

Realizing that the priest’s hatred for him was at the root of this last action, Benedict made up his mind to leave with a few monks to begin afresh.  Before leaving he took care to reorganize the monasteries he had founded.

Hardly had Benedict quit that district when the priest was crushed to death while standing on the balcony of his house when it collapsed.  Maurus, who had remained behind, quickly sent a messenger with the news and the suggestion that Benedict return since the priest was dead.  Benedict was saddened at the news, even more so that one of his disciples should rejoice at it. 

At Monte Cassino Benedict founded his new monastery, but not without difficulties.  There at Monte Cassino, was a temple to Apollo at which some people still worshiped as did their ancestors.  Benedict destroyed the temple and cut down their sacred groves.  In place of this, he erected a chapel that he dedicated to St. Martin and at the spot where the altar of Apollo stood, he constructed a chapel in honor of St. John the Baptist.  Gradually he won over the people of that area over to the worship of the true God.

Miracles attributed to Benedict at Monte Cassino include:  the restoring of life and health to a young monk who had been crushed by a falling wall, knowledge of things that happened when individuals were not in his presence, driving out of an evil spirit, the ability to foresee the future, and restoring life to a man’s son.

It was likely at Monte Casino that St. Benedict wrote his Rule.  That it has endured for 1500 years is clear indication of its value for living the Gospel values in a concrete form.  While it is generally agreed that Benedict reworked the existing Rule of the Master, it is important to note both what he left out and what he added. 

Benedict made his Rule humane, bearing in mind the weaknesses of humanity and yet cognizant of the need to present a higher ideal.  And perhaps most importantly, he gives the abbot discretion in different matters shows that he knew he could not legislate for everything that would or could happen; and yet reminds the abbot that while the final decision is his to make, he also needs to take counsel with the community so that all possible angles of a situation may be brought to light.

For Prayers to St. Benedict, please follow this link:

What we know about St. Benedict is gleaned from his Rule and from Book II of the Dialogs of St. Gregory the Great; you can access the Dialogs by following this link:  http://www.osb.org/gen/greg/tocalt.html

[1] Life and Miracles of St. Benedict (Book Two of the Dialogues) by Pope St. Gregory the Great, translated by Odo J. Zimmermann, OSB and Benedict R. Avery OSB, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, Pg. 5.
[2] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Benedict of Nursia (http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benedict_of_Nursia)
[3] Life and Miracles of St. Benedict, page 7.
[4] Life and Miracles of St. Benedict, pages 10-11.
[5] Ibid, pages 21-22.
[6] Ibid, page 24.