The Communion of Saints: St. Benedict of Nursia

The Medal of St. Benedict
The Medal of St. Benedict

Hooray!  We’ve finally reached someone whose name we might recognize – the great St. Benedict of Nursia.  His image and influence are everywhere – from St. Louis Priory School and St. Anselm Parish (run by the Benedictines) to the little cross I use on the altar during Mass, which has a Benedictine medal on it.  He truly is everywhere, and had an incredible impact on the Church.

St. Benedict was born the son of a Roman noble in Nursia, Italy around 480, and shared his life with his sister, Scholastica.  As Benedict grew up, he found himself in the wrong crowd and the wrong group of friends who lived a very indulgent and sinful lifestyle.  Benedict realized the situation and knew he needed to get out of there, so he left his home in Nursia and journeyed into the mountains.

It was on his journeys that he met a man named Romanus, who belonged to a monastery after the style of St. John Cassian.  Romanus taught Benedict his ways, and under his encouragement and support, Benedict became a hermit, living in secrecy and solitude in a cave near Subiaco, Italy.  Romanus continued to guide Benedict by visiting him, counseling him, and bringing him food.  It was a time of incredible self-discovery and spiritual growth for Benedict.

As time went on, Benedict became very well known and well respected by other monks in the area, similar to the way St. Anthony had done in the desert years before.  In fact, when the abbot of a nearby monastery died, a group of monks begged him to take over as abbot.  It didn’t work out great at first – they tried to poison him (which makes you wonder what happened to the first abbot, right?) – but over time, he came to be a better leader, and other monks were attracted to his way of life.  St. Benedict founded several other monasteries, including the great monastery at Monte Cassino, which was destroyed in World War II, rebuilt, and is used to this day.

St. Benedict is most famous for his Rule.  Up to this time, monasteries were somewhat independent, and followed the example of their founder or abbot.  However, St. Benedict chose to establish a rule or order to unite his monasteries under one way of life.  The Rule of St. Benedict was heavily influenced by the writings of St. John Cassian, and I can’t do it justice in just one paragraph, but the order essentially outlines their way of life through the motto “Ora et Labora”, meaning “pray and work”.  Under the Rule, the monks would go to Mass and pray the Divine Office together, do physical labor for spiritual gain, share their resources as a community, and dedicate their lives to study, prayer, and community.  The Rule is incredibly detailed, and is still followed by Benedictine monks all over the world today.

St. Benedict is widely considered to be the founder of modern Western monasticism, and gave rise to the idea of religious orders as they exist today.  Let us all pray through his intercession that we would also grow in holiness and simplicity!  St. Benedict, pray for us!