Benedict of Nursia

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BENEDICT OF NURSIA (c. 480547), Christian saint, monastic founder, and spiritual leader. Best known as the author of the monastic rule still followed by Benedictine and Cistercian monks and nuns. Benedict is looked upon as the father of Western monasticism because of the widespread influence of his rule. Book 2 of the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, written about 593594, is the only source of information on the details of Benedict's life. Although the primary purpose of the Dialogues is moral edification rather than biography in the modern sense, Gregory's work provides facts that conform to the general history of sixth-century central Italy; hence most scholars agree that the core of Gregory's information is basically reliable. His account of Benedict, however, concentrates mainly on miracles and encounters with demons.

Benedict was born in the Umbrian province of Nursia, northeast of Rome, into what the Dialogues describe as "a family of high station." The world of his time was in many ways chaotic. The Roman Empire, already crumbling from within, was overrun by barbarians in the fifth century. In the sixth century Italy was devastated by war, famine, and plunder as Justinian I, the Byzantine emperor, attempted to reclaim control of the area. When Benedict was sent to Rome as a youth to study liberal arts, he was repelled by the immorality of the city; in about 500 he sought solitude, first at Enfide (modern-day Affide) and then at Subiaco, where he lived an eremitical life in a hillside cave. Sustained by the ministrations of a neighboring monk who brought him bread, he spent three years as a hermit but then reluctantly agreed to become the abbot of a nearby community of monks. Tensions between Benedict and the community, however, culminated in an attempt by members of the community to poison him. Benedict returned to Subiaco, where he was pursued by so many disciples that he established twelve small monasteries in the area. Because of the jealous opposition of a local priest, he migrated in about 525 to Casinum, approximately eighty miles south of Rome. Together with a small group of monks Benedict built his famous monastery, Monte Cassino, on the top of that imposing mountain in the central Apennines in place of a pagan shrine that he had destroyed.

The Dialogues portray Benedict in his relations with various personalities, including Totila, king of the Ostrogoths. Once a year he met with his sister Scholastica, who lived near Monte Cassino with a community of nuns. Benedict does not seem to have been ordained a priest. After founding the monastery he spent the rest of his life at Monte Cassino where he wrote the rule for monks, which has diffused his influence throughout the world for more than fourteen centuries. According to tradition, he died on March 21, 547. In about 590, Lombards ransacked the monastery at Monte Cassino and left it abandoned until it was reconstituted under Petronax of Brescia in about 720.

There are two traditions concerning Benedict's relics. One maintains that they were translated to the abbey of Saint-Benoït-sur-Loire in France some time during the seventh century; the feast of the translation of the relics has been celebrated on July 11. According to the other tradition the relics were discovered at Monte Cassino in about 1069 by Abbot Desiderius, the future Pope Victor III. On October 24, 1964, Pope Paul VI declared Benedict the patron saint of Europe.

In Gregory's Dialogues Benedict's life is set out in four successive stages: confrontation with evil, or temptation; spiritual triumph, in which Benedict's virtue is demonstrated; a new situation in which his influence is shown more widely; and finally a fresh confrontation with the power of evil occasioned by this new position of influence. In this way Benedict's life unfolds as a search for God or a pilgrimage in which he finds God through temptations and trials. Benedict, as his name implies, is a man "blessed by God." His life illustrates the pattern set out in the rule itself, which invites the disciple to enter by the narrow gate in order to enjoy the freedom of living in the wide expanse of God. It also illustrates the paradox that fruitfulness emerges out of apparent sterility, that life comes forth from death.

It is the rule rather than the Dialogues that reveals Benedict's religious concerns. Impressive scholarship has been devoted to the question of the originality of the rule; the issue is in many ways of secondary importance. What is significant is that Benedict wisely took what he thought was good from existing rules and practices, evaluated that material in the light of his own experience, and blended the elements to form a balanced, positive, and flexible synthesis. The result is a clear code designed for a cenobitic rather than an eremitic form of monasticism: it combines sound spiritual teaching with pastoral details covering most aspects of community life. As Gregory noted, the rule is "outstanding for discretion." While setting out clear principles, it leaves much to the abbot's discernment.

The basic spiritual values affirmed by the rule are humility and unconditional obedience to God. Liturgical prayer, called the "work of God" in the rule, is to be carried out with a profound sense of God's presence, but that same awareness is also to permeate the whole of a monk's monastic life. A sense of the holiness of God generates a sense of compunction in the monk because of his sinfulness, but that awareness of weakness inspires confident trust in God's loving mercy rather than anxious fear.

Silence should prevail in the monastery so that the monk may be recollected and attentive to the word of God, especially during prayerful reading in which he is formed in accordance with the scriptures and the Christian monastic tradition. The monk's relationship of obedience with God is expressed especially through his relationship with his abbot, who is described in the rule as a sacrament of Christ. The abbot, however, is to reflect not only God's justice but his loving mercy as he "tempers all things so that the strong may have something to strive for and the weak may not recoil in dismay." The monk's relationship with God is also reflected in his relations with the other monks in the community as he shares all things in common, renounces self-will, forgives offences, and shows compassion for the weaknesses of others. Stability in the community provides the monk with his basic asceticism and supports and challenges him as he pursues his commitment to an ongoing conversion of life.

Work, whether manual or intellectual, is also an integral part of Benedict's vision of the monastic life. The rule proposes a set time for work not only because Benedict distrusted idleness but also because he wanted work to be kept in proportion with prayer and holy reading. Work is always situated in a communal context; it is not to degenerate into activism nor to promote self-sufficiency and arrogance. Pursued with an attitude of profound reverence for creation, work is meant to be a humanizing experience in which the monk serves both God and the community.

The rule of Benedict promotes a spirituality that is both broad and simple. Because of its flexibility and adaptability, it is capable of incorporating various local traditions. Whenever and wherever the rule is authentically incarnated in monastic men and women, both as individuals and communities, it results in a life that is biblical, contemplative, rooted in a community life of work and prayer, and productive of holiness and peace.

See Also

Benedictines; Cistercians.


The best critical edition of Gregory's Dialogues in Latin and French translation is edited by Adalbert De Vogüé, Dialogues: Gregoire le Grand, 3 vols. (Paris, 19781980). The rule of Benedict in Latin and French translation with extensive introduction, notes, and bibliography has also been edited by De Vogüé, Le règle de Saint Benoït, 7 vols. (Paris, 19711977). The final volume is available in English translation: The Rule of Saint Benedict, a Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary, translated by John Hasbrouck (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1983). RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English with Notes, edited by Timothy Fry (Collegeville, Minn., 1981), is the best Latin edition of the rule accompanied by an English translation; it also contains excellent essays on specific topics in the rule. A balanced contemporary theology of Benedictine monasticism can be found in Consider Your Call: A Theology of Monastic Life Today, by Daniel Rees and others (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1980).

R. Kevin Seasoltz (1987)