Benedict of Nursia was born around the year 480 in the Umbrian province of Italy. According to his biography, written by Pope Saint Gregory the Great, Benedict was born into a ‘family of high station.’ As a young man he went to Rome to study, but was disgusted by the decadent life of the city. Some seventy years before Benedict’s birth Rome had fallen to the barbarians. By the middle of the fifth century the Huns were ransacking Northern Italy and Rome had been pillaged for a second time. By the time Benedict went to Rome to study at about the turn of the fifth century into the sixth, the old Empire was in tatters. Civilisation had crumbled into chaos and the social disorder was reflected in further conflict within the church and every institution.
Benedict decided to run away from the city. He headed for Subiaco, a wild region just South of Rome, where he lived in a cave for three years. The site overlooked the ruins of Nero’s palace and the remnants of a Roman aqueduct. Looking over the ruins Benedict must have felt like Shelley’s traveller from an antique land who happens across the colossal ruins of the once great and disdainful king Ozymandias. The desert left by the barbarian invasions had spread across the proud Roman Empire, and Benedict’s generation were left to reflect on the remnants and pick up the pieces. By fleeing civilisation Benedict saved it, for it was the monasteries of Benedict which eventually preserved the culture of the ancient world. Someone has said, ‘In a world of fugitives, the one who runs away may be the only one who is heading home.’ So Benedict in heading for the hills was heading for home in the highest sense.
Eventually some other monks heard about Benedict’s holiness and invited him to be their abbot. His holiness must have been more attractive from a distance however, because disgruntled with his high standards, some of the monks tried to poison him. Benedict shook the dust from his feet and went back to Subiaco where he established twelve small monasteries with about twelve monks each. Based on that experiment he left Subiaco in about 529 to establish a monastery on the hilltop of Monte Cassino in Central Italy. He lived there for the rest of his life and gained a great reputation as a holy man. At Monte Cassino he drew from earlier monastic authors to compose a new monastic rule. It is a simple set of guidelines for a community life based around a balance of prayer, work and study. Benedict’s rule is the work of spiritual genius. It has stood the test of time because of Benedict’s deep understanding of human nature. The rule’s practical insights are flexible, moderate and wise. They prepare the ground for a truly simple spirituality to flourish.
Chesterton said, ‘it is a paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.’ Benedict lived in an age of extreme action and reaction, decadence, chaos, war and despair. He saved it by establishing communities based on moderation and communication, chastity, order, peace and prayer. That his little rule has lasted for fifteen hundred years only shows how every age cries out for the unchanging ideals which this gentleman of the Spirit provides. Continue Reading