For God's sake he deliberately chose the hardships of life and the weariness of labor." So wrote Pope Gregory I about Benedict of Nursia. Benedict, it seems, was born into a well-to-do family in sixth century Italy. At a young age, appalled at the degeneracy of Rome, he renounced wealth, the love of women, the bustle of the city and the promise of power in order to seek God. He took with him only the servant who had nursed him as a child. Later, he left even her behind when he sought to escape the notoriety of a miracle he had worked.
Benedict settled in a cave below a monastery in the mountains. For three years, he remained in this place, praying, meditating and maturing in thought. The monks brought him food at set times. When their abbot died, they pleaded with Benedict to take his place. Benedict hesitated. He knew these monks did not live as he would like. He would not be a good match for them. But their pleas prevailed over his hesitation. Soon both sides regretted the new arrangement. The lukewarm monks tried to poison Benedict. He went back to his cave.
His saintly character and miracles attracted followers. Eventually Benedict opened several small monasteries in the valley and wrote his rule for monastic life. This rule, as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, "...holds the first place among monastic legislative codes, and was by far the most important factor in the organization and spread of monasticism in the West."
Benedict's rule saw work as a means to godliness. It emphasized prayer and practicing God's presence, provided a simple form of government and called on the monks to live with as few goods as possible.
The rule, while recognizing the importance of love for God, seemed to expect salvation through self-denial and pious practices more than through Christ, although at one point Benedict pointed the monks to the ultimate goal of sharing in the sufferings of Christ. "But as we advance in the religious life and faith, we shall run the way of God's commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that, never departing from His guidance, and persevering in the monastery in His doctrine till death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be co-heirs with Him of His kingdom."
Near the end of his life, Benedict had a vision in which he saw God's glory. The whole world seemed to be gathered under a beam of heavenly light.
Benedict also foresaw his own death. Six days before he died, he ordered his tomb opened. After that, he fell into a shaking fever and became weak. Then, "...upon the sixth day, he commanded his monks to carry him into the oratory, where he did arm himself, receiving the body and blood of our Savior Christ; and having his weak body held up between the hands of his disciples, he stood with his own hands lifted up to heaven; and as he was in that manner praying, he gave up the ghost." Tradition says that he died at Monte Cassino on this day, March 21, 547. However, the dates of his life remain unclear.
Pope Gregory I's life overlapped Benedict's. He admired the monastic founder and helped to spread the Benedictine movement through Europe. It became an essential feature of the Middle Ages. In 1965 Pope Paul VI proclaimed Benedict the patron saint of Europe.
- Ford, Hugh Edmund. "St. Benedict of Nursia." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- Order of St. Benedict. "Saint Benedict of Nursia." http://www.osb.org/gen/bendct.html
- Verheyen, Rev. Boniface, translator. The Holy Rule of St. Benedict. http://www.kansasmonks.org/RuleOfStBenedict.html
Last updated June, 2007