Milpitas Christian Church

St. Benedict (480-547)

Father of Western monasticism

The Gist

  • Not really a “church father” in our broad ecumenical context, but way too important to skip over

    • In 1964, Pope Paul VI made Benedict the patron saint of all Europe
  • Religious reformer and founder of Benedictine monasticism, which massively influenced the** Roman Catholic Church** and all of Europe.

  • Kind of a link between the old-style monasticism of the East with the new order that was developing in the West

Early Western Monasticism

  • From Benedict’s example, the West developed its own form of monasticism which was fairly different from the Eastern model

    • Strong emphasis on missionary work

    • More communal than Eastern monasticism

    • Tended to be at peace with the church hierarchy in the West, performing services for popes, bishops, and other church leaders. In contrast to the Eastern monks were often in conflict with the government-controlled church leaders

Benedict’s Life

  • Most of what we know of Benedict’s life is from the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I

  • 480 - Benedict was born and grew up in Nursia, in the Ostrogothic kingdom of northern Italy

  • Good family, educated in Roman schools

    • Western Europe was going into severe decline, and the city of Rome itself was decaying. Too many wars and mismanagement
  • Age 20, hating the moral decay in Rome itself, Benedict became an ascetic hermit in the Eastern style, living in hills and a cave near the ruins of Nero’s palace. There were other monasteries in that area, and another monk provided him with food and clothing

  • Became respected and famous for his piety and poverty and was invited to become abbott of an existing monastery. He tried to reform it, though, and they didn’t like that, so he returned to his cave

  • Eventually, enough admirers flocked around him that he was able to found 12 small monasteries under his oversight. Wealthy families sent their sons to become monks under him.

  • Unhappy with a local priest, he moved with some disciples south to Monte Cassino, a remote place in the countryside, where he founded a new monastery

    • The place was so remote that the locals were still pagans who worshiped at a sacred grove. Benedict cut down the trees and founded a monastic community there. Most of the locals converted to Christianity at his preaching

    • His sister Scholastica founded a monastery for women nearby

  • 542 - Benedict’s fame grew such that even the Ostrogothic king Totila visited him, but he rebuked the king for being a wicked tyrant

  • Benedict devised a way to organize his community called the Rule of Benedict. Because of its practical nature, it became the standard rule for all of Western monasticism for centuries

  • His reputation was as a wise, saintly father, firm but loving, mature and authoritative. He conducted himself as someone who had found peace in Christ

The restored monastery at Monte Cassino today

The Rule of Benedict

  • Written in 516, it’s the book that orders all Benedictine monasteries. All Benedictine monasteries were intended to be self-governing and not part of an order

  • Very practical, more moderate in its asceticism than what was typical of monks in the east

  • Relatively short and clear, it still managed to provide for the spiritual and material well-being of the monks; a balance of prayer, work, and study

  • Emphasis on stability and obedience

    • Once you joined the monastery, you had one year of probation to try it out before you had to pledge to live there for your whole life

      • you couldn’t go to other monasteries without the permission of your abbott

      • At a time when there was great instability in Europe, with people moving due to wars and all that, this rule insured that monasteries were safe havens that people could trust, because the monks were committed to working together to make the place as safe and useful as possible

    • The abbott must be obeyed instantly and supremely unless the command is impossible. He represents Christ to the community.

      • He appoints all officials and jobs in the monastery

      • The abbott himself is still subject to the Rule and is commanded to behave as a father, not a tyrant, towards the monks

    Oldest copy we have of the Rule of Saint Benedict. It’s written in Latin.

  • Strict but not harsh. Benedict’s Rule was strict enough to shape disciplined men while still being more understanding and achievable than most existing monastic rules

  • Monks prayed 8 times a day:

    No Latin English Practice
    0 vigil eighth hour (2 am)  
    1 martins nightime (3 am) Christ the Savior
    2 lauds early morning (5 am)  
    3 prime first hour of daylight Christ before Pilate
    4 terce third hour (9 am) Holy Spirit
    5 sext noon Crucifixion
    6 nones ninth hour (3 pm)  
    7 vespers sunset evening (6 pm) Glorification of God
    8 compline end of the day (7 pm) Harrowing of Hell
    • This practice eventually became pretty normal for wealthy devout people throughout all of medieval Europe, monks or not

    • The laity who followed these prayers had books called breviaries with Scripture reading, psalms, and prayers. This was how many laity became more familiar with Scripture

  • Monasteries were to be economically self-sufficient

  • Physical labor shared by all, with special consideration given for the very young, very old, and the ill. Everyone depends upon each other

  • No special treatment for the wealthy and noble

  • All property ownership is forbidden, all things held in common

  • Lots of compassion for human weakness and failure, both physical and otherwise, and an emphasis on mutual support and forgiveness

Legacy of Benedictine Monasticism

  • Other monasteries were founded under Benedict’s Rule, crossing political and cultural boundaries. They were not a formal order but were united in practices and ideals

    • Even secular lawmakers in medieval Europe have been influenced by the practical and humble wisdom of the Rule
  • Increasingly, bishops and popes were being influenced by Benedictine monks. Famously, Pope Gregory I “the Great” patronized them and sent the monks out on missionary trips

  • Benedictine monks were known for working very hard:

    • Copying books (thus preserving much knowledge that was being lost by the secular society due to all the wars and other hardships)

    • Teaching children

    • Monasteries became hospitals or hostels/inns

  • Monasteries had a huge economic impact on Europe. They tended to be established on unused land, marginal, or abandoned land. But the hard work of the monks brought these lands back into production, and everyone benefited.

  • European nobility disdained physical labor, but often found joining a monastery to be an attractive and honorable choice. In this way, monasteries acted as examples of humility to the upper classes, because they refused to give special consideration to the wealthy and required physical labor of all

A modern Benedictine monk restoring a medieval book in Italy.