Sunday, January 3, 2016

Ora et Labora

Few people exemplify the spirit of the Christian Middle Ages better than St. Benedict of Nursia (480-543), the Italian monk who wrote the Rule that bears his name, which influenced the broad monastic movement of the age and became a model for many Christian monastic orders.

Benedict was born of wealthy parents, the twin of St. Scholastica, in Norcia, Umbria, a north central region of Italy. At about the age of 20 he went off to Rome to study. There he was shocked by the dissolute life of his fellow students and also fell deeply in love with an unnamed woman, both experiences that led him to flee the city.

He took his old nanny with him as a servant, and they settled in the town Affile, about 40 miles from Rome. The town is in a valley that leads to a man-made lake associated with an abandoned mansion of Emperor Nero near a spot called Subiaco (from Sublaqueum, or “under the lake”). There Benedict met Romanus of Subiaco, a hermit living in a nearby monastery, to whom he told the reason he had left Rome.

On the advice of the hermit, he moved to a triangular cave by a lake, where he lived in solitude for three years. It was a maturing and deepening experience in which he kept himself apart from the world except for occasional communications with Romanus, who provided him food by lowering a basket from the monastery, which stood atop the cave.

As with earlier hermits, he experienced visions and temptations. Once he was tempted by the appearance of the woman who had beguiled his heart in Rome; in response, he stripped himself and ran out of the cave into a bush to distract himself from the allure with the pain of the brambles on his skin.
St. Benedict of Nursia, from a detail 
by Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455).
Licensed under Public Domain
via Commons

Benedict became known locally as a holy man, and when the abbot of a nearby monastery died, the community asked him to lead them. He didn’t think they would like his ways and they didn’t. Legend has it that they tired of him and tried to poison him, but when he blessed the cup from which he was about to drink, it shattered. Having failed at eliminating Benedict that way, his rival Florentinus tried to seduce his monks with prostitutes, causing Benedict to flee, only to found 12 monasteries of 12 monks each in the Subiaco area.

In 530 he founded what became the renowned Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, where he wrote his famous Rule.

Asceticism and monasticism existed in Judaism, but were not mainstream practice. In Christianity, they were an attempt at a form of saintliness, or setting oneself apart for God. The inspiration came from Jesus’ fast in the desert after his baptism by John the Baptist, as recounted in Luke 4:1-13 and Matthew 4:1-11 and briefly referred to in Mark.

Christian monasticism emerged among the north African hermits known as the Desert Fathers and later under the monastic communities founded or influenced by St. Anthony the Great. The earliest rule of monastic life was written by St. Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea, in the fourth century. This remains the basis for Eastern Orthodox monasticism. Some 40 years before Benedict, the anonymously composed Rule of the Master (Regula Magistri) circulated in Europe.

These two earlier rules are believed to have influenced Benedict, but what Benedict did that was new was to balance advice to abbots on the art of maintaining a community of monks with spiritual wisdom for the members of the community on the Christ-centered life.

Benedict’s overall motto is Ora et Labora (pray and work). He divided the monks’ day into eight hours to pray, eight hours to sleep and eight hours to carry out manual work, sacred reading or works of charity. About half the Rule is devoted to how to be obedient and humble and how to recover from failings; the other half deals with what he calls the work of God (Opus Dei) or the tasks that best exemplify the labor of Christ. The nearby convent where his sister Scholastica went to live, often called the first Benedictine convent, was reputedly the first community after Monte Cassino to adopt his Rule.

You may set up for daily reading selections from the Rule’s 72 short chapters online through a daily reading system from St. John’s Abbey at Collegeville, Minn., at

Benedict did not formally establish an order. The posthumous Order of St. Benedict was and remains informally organized along what we would call a “congregationalist” model. Each monastery is independent of the others, though all have the Rule in common.

Monte Cassino and Benedict himself, and even the cave where he lived, a site of pilgrimage, came to renown in his own time and later. The monastery survived countless wars until the U.S. Air Force mistakenly came close to destroying it completely in air raids on Feb. 15, 1944. It was rebuilt as shown below.

Monte Cassino.
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
Benedict’s rule became the basis for the regulations of many future and more organic orders. The network of monastic communities in Europe that developed thanks to the Rule preserved knowledge, sacred and secular alike, and provided a variety of essential social services in a very turbulent time. Benedict was canonized a saint in 1220 by Pope Honorius III and in 1964 Pope Paul VI named him patron saint of Europe, precisely because of his vast influence on European social culture and faith.

He is also revered as a saint in the Anglican Communion, within which there are active Benedictine communities; one of them included the Benedictine monks who built Westminster Abbey, in London, the traditional coronation site of English kings and queens. The Orthodox tradition also celebrates St. Benedict in its calendar.

Benedict’s life was first retold roughly 20 years after his death in a dialogue-type narrative that is not a historical biography in the modern sense but an early and inspiring memory of the saint. (You may read the full text at The Dialogues of Gregory the Great, Book 2: Life of Benedict.)

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